Anna Meredith: ‘Is it classical, is it pop? I don’t really think about it that way’

The composer-performer on her spectacular new work launching this year’s Proms, her silver cape, and mastering electronics

London-born, Edinburgh-raised, Anna Meredith, 40, is a composer and performer across all genres, whose Five Telegrams, part of the first world war commemoration programme 14-18 NOW, will be performed outside London’s Royal Albert Hall at 10pm on 12 July before its official world premiere at the First Night of the Proms the following evening. It will also open the Edinburgh international festival on 3 August.

Can you describe Five Telegrams?
It’s five short pieces about the first world war using a big-ass orchestra, young musicians, a choir and the spectacular, eye-boggling visuals of 59 Productions. It’s not soldier’s stories but the mechanics of how they communicated: codes, redaction, field postcards. Is it classical, is it pop? I don’t really think about it that way. There’s a beat, there’s a rhythm. Who cares about those distinctions any more? I use the same musical building blocks whatever kind of piece I make. There’s not such a panic to make categories. Radio 3 and 6 Music overlap in a way you’d never have imagined.

It’s no surprise that concert programmes are still dominated by male composers. Surely we should be moving on? Are quotas essential, or irritating?
It’s healthy to have the discussion. Things are changing. Weighting a programme towards greater female or sexual or racial diversity – composers, conductors, performers – has to be progress. We still need mechanisms for pushing us towards a more naturally balanced state. But that takes time to happen naturally and spontaneously. Yes, it’s annoying, I guess, to be told, when you get a job, “and it’s great you’re a woman”, but I’m glad they’re even thinking about it.

Why hasn’t there been a #MeToo equivalent in classical on the scale of Hollywood?
To be honest I don’t know. I don’t feel so aware because I’m mostly working on my own in a room. I’m not in an orchestra or circumstances where that might be more obvious. That said, I know musicians are sharing their stories on websites like One reason – and maybe it sounds superficial – is that the key figures in classical music aren’t as well known, beyond a handful, as those in Hollywood, so the stories that have come out haven’t grabbed the headlines in the same way.

You’ve said you didn’t “just want to be a composer”. Isn’t it enough?
When I’m writing I’m on my own. I need to be pumped up, confident, mentally in the right place. I know what works for me. But I’ve discovered I need to perform too. I didn’t only want to write stuff down and have other people play it. There’s something very visceral about being part of a group of musicians, or in the middle of massive electronic sounds you’re creating. It’s a fist-clenching feeling. I love it.

Anna Meredith’s Tiny Desk Concert on NPR Music, March 2018

And now you wear a silver cape on stage?
Yeah. My band have seamlessly transitioned from wearing classy black and gold to disgustingly unbreathable silvers. I found someone to make me a metallic-silver, pink-lined flouncy cape, like a Doctor Who reject. Then halfway through our shows I throw it off when it all gets too sweaty…

Music and politics – oil and water?
It’s down to the individual. Some do it naturally – such as the issues regarding feminism and race within Beyoncé’s Lemonade, or Philip Venables with The Gender Agenda, where he engaged the audience via a game show. I am a feminist, but it’s never governed what I write. If someone said write a piece about the NHS, I’d support the issues, the principle, but I wouldn’t know how to set about it through my music. That said, I thought that about World War I and now I’ve done a big piece about it.

Is classical music any worse now than in the past in its appeal – or not – to young people?
It’s much easier to access than it ever was; there’s a greater awareness. It’s less formal. Children are encouraged to use pieces – like the BBC’s Ten Pieces – as a starti ng point for art, dance, storytelling and less as a history lesson.

Was there one thing that switched you on to music as a child?
I wasn’t super fussed about any kind of music as a child. As a teenage clarinettist at my Edinburgh comp, it was a way of socialising: wind bands, orchestras. I loved honking my way through things like Swan Lake. The wind band was where you found your fellow geeks. Then I got interested in grunge, trashy 90s Ibiza anthems and pop. I loved the volume.

You’ve had some amazing collaborators – fashion houses, Selfridges and M&S; a hospital scanning unit…
I haven’t sought them out. I’m lucky they’ve come to me. I’m quite cautious about what I do. I like working with people from other art forms but I don’t look for influences. I tend to shut myself away. I did my first film (Eighth Grade) last year. That was a challenge. You don’t just present the music you want. You try to do what the film needs. That was a bit of a lesson for the ego.

Not like Varmints, your 2016 debut album, where you were in charge of everything?
Yes, I produced it. I was in total control of the electronics. Björk made a big statement a while back about women not being given credit for producing albums. In the pop world that basically means: who does the electronics. In my puppet-master control way there was no way I could let someone else come in and take control. I figured out the electronics using my classical software. That’s where my skills are. Notation. Some assumed this gnarly mix of bombastic instrumentals and wonky pop was me selling out and raking in the cash. Ha. But in truth, expensively, lavishly, I lobbed every penny I had at it. It’s a huge loss-making exercise and investment in a future you hope will happen – but it’s worth every second.

Any dream collaborator in mind?
Björk. I’m waiting by the phone. Call me!

Anna Meredith’s Stoop, from Anno, released on 18 August


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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