Avoiding the full stop
Beginning with his membership of ‘80s cult collective Lost Jockey and
a sequence of genre-melting albums for the ZTT label, Andrew Poppy has carved out a niche as one of
Britain’s most original and expectation-defying composers. Marking the release of a comprehensive 3CD
set of his ZTT recordings, On Zang Tuum Tumb, David Davies hears about formative influences,
the joys of minimalism and Poppy’s latest project – working with the Estonian Male Voice Choir..
…Check the Pulse…
As a teenager learning the piano, Andrew Poppy
was barely familiar with the established classical canon when he caught a radio broadcast of a Stockhausen
composition one day. In one of those rare perception-shifting moments, he had inadvertently stumbled
upon a challenging new world of music.
AP: I must have been about 15 when I heard some of Stockhausen’s electronic music on the radio. Until then,
the only ‘classical music’ I knew were pieces learnt as part of being taught the piano. My parents had
taken me to a symphony concert at Chatham Town Hall when I was about ten, but that hadn’t really done it
for me either. I remember the spectacle more than the music – all those people playing… But Stockhausen’s
imaginative use of electronic sound was very inspiring. The most important thing is that I was consuming
this and being inspired by it without any knowledge of [pioneering modernists] Schoenberg or Webern.
So began a period of adventurous listening, during which Poppy would resolve upon a pursuit of the
minimalist aesthetic. In time he would fall under the rhythmic sway of Philip Glass and Steve Reich,
although he couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by an encounter with another godfather of modernism –
the eternally bewildering John Cage (he of cranky orchestral works and 4m 33s of silence).
AP: In 1980, the year after I left Goldsmith’s College, I went to a music and dance summer school run
by John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Cage was already some kind of hero for me…[although] I was less
interested in his soundworlds by that time and more interested in pulse-based music. In terms of the
man himself, Cage was a kind of spaced-out perfect gentleman. He knew how to laugh. But what you saw –
and what his legacy is, I think – is the way that he approached every moment of being alive with some
kind of creative initiative. I remember that he did a performance where he pushed a grand piano from
one side of the hall to the other. It was extraordinary, but you had to be there.
However, this encounter – at roughly the point when New Wave was being dashed against
the rocks of electro-pop – shouldn’t imply that Poppy was breathing only the rarefied
air of serious minimalist composition. His love of pop had always been strong, and it
was unthinkable that he wouldn’t attempt to combine these two strands when he began to
write his own music.
AP: Sometimes I want to strum the guitar, write a lyric and sing a song – and then
the enormous amount of fantastic piano music from the classical tradition draws me
in. I was never really sure how all the dots were going to join up. In fact, I’m
still working on that project!
…Playing the studio…
As Poppy recalls, this creative vision really began to take shape with ‘Cadenza’, written in the same year as his close encounter with Cage. A vibrant collision of old and new influences, it signified that he was never likely to deny himself the technological advances of the day. In fact, as pieces like ‘Sometimes It Rains’ would attest, Poppy revelled in the possibilities afforded by the modern studio set-up.
AP: Something like ‘Sometimes It Rains’ couldn’t have been made without being
in the studio and developing a particular approach to the space of the recording.
It’s the ‘studio as an instrument’ idea which pop producers have been exploring
since Phil Spector; a way of transforming what’s been performed into something
else. I wanted to do it with a notated music which was primarily instrumental.
While delighted that his ZTT work is freely accessible once more, it’s clear that
Poppy is not in the habit of looking back. While a joint album with ex-Propaganda
singer Claudia Brücken represents his most high-profile project during recent years,
he has remained ferociously busy with all manner of unlikely commissions and
collaborations. And, after more than 30 years, he remains committed to the minimalist
principle, which he compares to the writing of Jack Kerouac (“he’s desperately
trying to avoid the full-stop – the effect is a kind of drone, an incantation,
and it’s mesmerising if you go with it”).
AP: With my own work, there are always more projects on the shelf than can possibly
be realised. Funding is always a problem – it’s frustrating. But at present I’m
working on a half-hour piece for the Estonian Male Voice Choir incorporating 50
voices and electronics. There is also an ongoing project with the Portuguese singer
Bernardo Devlin, and I’m preparing Ensemble Poppy – we are planning to do a live
launch of the box set in October at Bush Hall in London, as well as some performances
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