one can only imagine the scene in London’s palatial Sarm West Studios during the mid-1980’s. In Studio Two, a visitor could easily have happened upon Frankie Goes To Hollywood madly bickering during their stratospheric rise to the top of the British charts. In another, celebrated model-singer Grace Jones might have been sneaking a smoke whilst bespectacled superproducer Trevor Horn and assistant Steve Lipson furiously worked the computer desk as they recorded a massive percussion ensemble. Over in Studio One, one might have been trying to stay out of the way of Bob Geldof, as he and Ultravox’s Midge Ure finished tracking Band Aid’s “Feed The World (Do They Know It’s Christmastime?)” single with a cast of pouty celebrities.

And over in still another studio, one might have found a wispy, unshaven 30 year-old nervously running his hands through his bushy mane, as he rushed his violin players through overdubs on his post-minimalist orchestral work, with nary a second to even ponder how it was he’d gotten here in the first place.

Had he the time, Andrew Poppy might have taken a moment to marvel at his accomplishment—how a young British composer who had nicked ideas from the likes of Phillip Glass and pop industrialists Throbbing Gristle had somehow finagled a five-album deal with the world’s most celebrated pop label, Horn’s Zang Tuum Tumb, for which he would record three albums—1985’s The Beating of Wings, 1987’s Alphabed (A Mystery Dance) and 1989’s Under The Son. He might have appreciated the irony of remixing one of his “serious” orchestral works to appear as the theme to British television’s pop music showcase, The Tube. And he might have chortled at the notion of working with artists as diverse as avant garde composer/vocalist Annette Peacock and synth-pop outfit Erasure.

But before he had even a chance to reflect on it all, it was over. With ZTT’s collapse in the late 80’s, Under The Son would never make it out of the vaults, and the composer found himself without a record deal, returning for much of the next decade to the world of concert music composition. Despite the occasional notice in The Wire and a steady stream of new works, including some for film, television and theater, Poppy returned to a life strangely similar to the one he’d left a decade earlier, fighting for write-ups and orchestra commissions.

Yet today, Poppy again finds himself dipping his toes back into the world of pop. With fellow ZTT alumnus, Claudia Brücken, he released Another Language last year, a reading of songs ranging from Schubert lieder to Elvis Costello to Bends-era Radiohead. And this month sees the release of Andrew Poppy On Zang Tuum Tumb, a 3-CD set of his complete works for the label.

��Wooden Hearts and Strawberry Switchblades’—Beginnings, Influences, Pop vs. Classical

Given how diffuse and rich the pop music scene is today, I think it’s hard for a lot of us to appreciate how mutually courageous it was for a composer to sign with a pop label like ZTT twenty years ago. Can you start by talking a little bit about how your contemporaries felt about pop music around that time?

Andrew Poppy: When I was at University in the 70’s, pop music was something that music students had on at parties or heard in the pub. They even bought the records, but it wasn’t something to talk about, think about or give any second thought in the study of music. But this is a “head in the sand” situation. The way that the stereo moves around with the guitar glissandi in Hendrix “Voodoo Chile” is exactly comparable to the work with space in Stockhausen’s Gesang De Junlinge. And Frank Black knows how to make tempo modulate as well as Birtwistle.

Ironically, now those music departments are trying to develop ways of dealing with popular culture.

Who were some of the composers influencing you when you were in school?

AP: I think there are so many influences on the work and they are not always musical ones. I could probably go to every piece and talk about what the musical antecedents are. That’s also because that’s my particular angle on the way any music, film, poem or painting is built. It’s building on the memories or ruins of other work. Or perhaps the genes of different parents. Sometimes, great grandfathers we never met are popping up in the skin tone.

There are influences from David Smith my teacher at Kingsway-Princton where I studied before going to university. Although he didn’t teach me composition formally as such but really shared his work and process. He was playing Glass in the early 70’s before anyone else in the UK. In his own music, he did the repetitive thing crossed with some kind of late romantic style. His piano piece Revolution Is The Main Trend In The World Today is a phenomenal hybrid. He’s taking a Cornelius Cardew pop song with a Mao revolutionary lyric and making it into something that echoes Gershwin and Godosky.

And of course, Cardew was a huge influence on Brian Eno. Coming of age in the 60’s, I imagine Stockhausen and Berio’s “meta-music” approach were important as well.

AP: Stockhausen’s virtuosity with electronics was very important to me early on—Gesang, Hymnen. Some of Berio but particularly the collage movement from Sinfonia. Because it’s a real cut-up piece. He has [popular 60’s swing ensemble] The Swingle Sisters next to Mahler next to Beckett next to Berio. And yet it is still Berio somehow, just sampling lots of different music’s he builds a new music. Of course its old hat now with the Fat Boy Slim-type of approach but Berio and Cage in a more radical way were exploring these ideas in the 60’s. Also that piece [Sinfonia], it’s a piece of theatre. So, I can hear its influence in [Alphabed’s] “Goodbye Mr. G”.

But Berio’s still too connected to a kind of expressionistic hysteria. I like some of that but want to get to it in a different way. What I really liked was the cooler grids of Reich and Glass which somehow meant all that angst was channeled in a some way.

In terms of influences the other composers in Lost Jockey were certainly a catalyst. And we were listening to all kind of stuff. I think that the 70’s was the great anthropological decade. Everyone was reading the French structuralists. Barthes. Ethnomusicology was really taking off. There was a great French label Lyricord which released all these records of Pigmy music, African drumming and many other extraordinary things. All in the interests of research of course!! It was the beginning of something.

I think that’s also what you have with Glass, Reich, Riley. John Cage and La Monte Young are very influenced by non-western music but they ignore one of its defining and fundamental elements.

Which was?

AP: The pulse! The influence of that other music was being really absorbed in the 60’s. It’s not done at the level of exotic colour. It’s not sampling a sitar! It’s about remembering that western music has a pulse. That it has a body as well as a brain.

It’s funny—for all the stodginess inherent in the scene, composers did seem further ahead of the curve than pop artists when it came to studying and appropriating aspects of non-western, “world” music. How did that happen?

AP: In the 70’s and early 80’s, people in the scene that I was part of…started to listen to everything all together. In the Jockey, Shaun Tozer and David Owen were really into African drumming I remember. To give you a flavour.

One of the highlights of the Jockey was a group outing to Peter Gabriel’s first WOMAD festival in ��82. We saw the Drummers of Burundi, African pop like Prince Nico Mbarga, a Gamelan orchestra, Jon Hassell, Indian musician Imrat Khan. I remember seeing this amazing Kora player. Must have been Senegalese. It all seemed perfectly natural to hear this music. It wasn’t something revelatory. We didn’t stay to see Echo and the Bunnymen. No one called it “World Music” then. It was before it needed to be marketed I suppose.

Lost Jockey-types notwithstanding, was being juxtaposed with the likes of Frankie Goes To Hollywood cause for some concern in composer circles?

AP: Well the Jockey were not taken seriously at all. Even people who thought that the minimal style was legitimate tended to see the Americans as the historical figures and people like us as pale imitators. That’s the trap of the academic. Being only able to see the grand narratives. Or perhaps only able to invent them.

Going back to the Berio Sinfonia movement, the composer Darryl Rundswick, who sang and worked with Berio on performances of that piece, told me Berio was slightly bemused by its success.

Why was that do you think?

AP: Because its incorporation of other texts casts a doubt on authenticity and also the inclusion of pop elements like the Swingle Sisters. These aspects are really antagonistic to his essentially modernist aesthetic and identity.

It’s almost amusing to imagine people being embarrassed by something as harmless as the Swingle Sisters these days. Authenticity’s become pretty quaint.

AP: The thing about the Jockey and the contemporary music community is this: we were having a great time playing all the music. Playing the stuff is a thing in itself. We were working on a seam that a lot of people couldn’t see. The scores don’t look like a scientific formula for black holes like a lot of contemporary music—they look like nothing sometimes. Look at a Riley, Glass or Reich score you see some really simple material, But the way that pulse works in these pieces is very unique. And requires a unique approaches to performance. Unique to contemporary classical music anyway. You find the music by playing and listening to it.

It seems like kind of a parallel to the singer-songwriter movement of the 60’s and 70’s—with composers playing their own music. Much more visceral.

AP: In some senses the whole thing’s been taken over by the computer and drum machine, but in the late 70’s early 80’s we were playing the repetitions and finding the grooves. And finding the time warps that have their visual analogies in the distortions that happen in the eye looking at a Bridget Riley painting. We were engaged in exploring very real musical experience.

In some senses we were relieved to be out of the university with its fusty dusty approach to music, where everything is reduced to some simplistic historical lineage and controlled by a kind of accountancy—adding up the notes, finding the rows. The academic approach to technique seemed outmoded in its arrogant validation of music outside of its experience as music. And certainly outside of any expedience a general public might have.

I imagine a young artist bursting with ideas like yourself couldn’t wait to get outside of the world of classical music academia.

AP: Like the conservative party in the UK, the classical music world is a fading tea party preserved by a lot of nonsense talked by hereditary peers. The classical music establishment has been so complacent about it’s God-given right to be high art, now it realises this is an idea built on sand—that no one under seventy is listening. That it’s all become film music. It’s a sad state of affairs. Contemporary music could be in the same healthy state fine art is in, but it isn’t.

��Number One On a Scale of Ten’—Poppy At ZTT

Although I know you recorded some of your older works for your debut, I imagine arriving at ZTT had a big effect upon the compositional process. How much of that was working in the studio?

AP: I [had] cut my teeth with my own 2-track then 4-track then 8-track and early drum machines etc. But…the second half of my work at ZTT was dominated by making the studio and the technology work creatively. So, I might start with a formal structure (“Goodbye Mr. G”, Under the Son’s “The Passage”) but then an enormous amount of time is spent working with the sound and the balances. To go back to the Bridget Riley example. There is a lot of time spent working with the colour combinations whilst the outline structures might be the same in a number of works. It’s the same thing in the studio. The rhythmic and harmonic structure may be fixed but the work with the sounds goes on until the thing happens. In the 90’s, I turned away from this approach and technology to some extent and started to make “proper” scores again.

The story of being on ZTT is…about becoming more and more detached from performance in favour of a particular kind of studio construction. Something like “Goodbye Mr. G” might seem as far away from the compositional thing as possible. But it’s not really. All the flotsam and jetsam of the detail is held in the force field of the grid, this very slow but gradually speeding up sequence of chord changes in the string sound. Which you almost don’t hear after the first couple of minutes.

You must have been the only contemporary music composer in the world working in a multimillion-dollar studio at that time.

AP: It was a wonderful opportunity. You can’t quite believe it’s happening at the beginning and then while it’s happening you’re all the time dealing with trying to make the most of the opportunity to do the work and hope that you can get to the end of the recording and get what you want and that the company will be happy. Conducting Beating of Wings’ “32 Frames…” in the Studio One at Sarm West studios was a buzz. It’s a very exciting piece live. No legit orchestra was going to give that piece a chance. But I’d managed to hire my own orchestra for half a day—the absurdity of this situation only hit me a while afterwards. I knew quite a lot of the musicians from sessions that I’d done as an arranger. The amazing violinist Lis Perry who led the orchestra was a friend.

Recording “Cadenza” with Glyn Perrin was probably the real high point. The best performance of a piece I’d played many, many times in concert. Needs lots of concentration. It’s deceptively simple. Those two examples are really about the way that performance and emotion come together in memory. Because almost everything else on those records is put together in a much cooler way, building up the tracks. Those two pieces are real performances.

It was over very quickly really. It was exciting to get an insight into other people working: Trevor Horn, Steve Lipson and all the engineers at Sarm West studios were great: Stuart Bruce, Dave Meegan, Bob Krausaar, Nick Ryan.

Writer/Musician Paul Schütze once described ZTT as this sort of clearinghouse for not only virtuoso musicians, but virtuoso arrangers, technicians and programmers as well. Would you agree?

AP: The time I was there, Sarm West studios and ZTT records had a real sense of energy and excitement about it. It’s an example of what’s good about the factory system (in the Warhol sense) or studio system (in 40’s/50’s Hollywood terms). There’s a great sense of purpose, of being part of something. A lot of expertise and difference is very compressed. It doesn’t last very long, but you know.

In that period, the label was so strong partly because of the cohesion of a classic team. [Horn’s wife] Jill Sinclair doing the business, Trevor Horn having the musical visions and expertise and Paul Morley working on the presentation and images. And given that I was a kind of law unto myself, if any of them had not been really interested in what I was contributing to the label, then I’d have been out on my ear. So many acts were signed that never made a record. I feel very lucky to have made two or three.

You mention that you were grateful for the independence Trevor Horn gave you to produce your own records. But you also worked with former NME scribe and ZTT propagandist Paul Morley on artwork and presentation. What was the experience like?

AP: Well, of course I had a real respect and admiration for Trevor Horn and Paul Morley. And Jill Sinclair as managing director was an important part it putting it all together at the business level I’m sure. The connection with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records has got to be very important. I’ve talked about Trevor. Paul is an endless flow of spontaneous ideas, shot through with an acerbic wit and a master of the advertising campaign. His attention to detail on the adverts is legendary.

But more than that I think the whole design of the label, the sense of a provocative style that echoed the development in magazine design in the 80’s—that’s very much Paul’s contribution.

Are you still in contact with him?

I bumped into Paul again at the end of the 90’s—hadn’t seen him for over ten years. He was really nice and said something like “if I’d been running ZTT you’d be on you’re 16th album by now.” It could have been a kind of radical ECM or Nonesuch. Well, it was for a while. Most people acknowledge that the 80’s period for the label were something special. That’s not to say that Jill, Trevor and Paul haven’t done anything since. I’ve not been idle either.

With your skills scoring for orchestral instruments, it’s a little surprising you didn’t do any arrangements for ZTT artists.

AP: Well Trevor had [arranger and Art of Noise member] Ann Dudley on his team. She is absolutely wonderful—the unsung hero of ABC, Propaganda’s “Dr. Mabuse” and so many other things. I did nearly do something for [French chanteuse] Anne Pigalle. And Claudia and Steve Lipson wanted me to play some piano on the Act single “Snobbery and Decay”. Steve came into the studio when I was sorting out flying in the piano solo on “The Impossible Net.” They were in studio 3 whilst I was in 4—goes back to the earlier point about things all happening under one roof.

I can’t remember why those things didn’t happen. It’s usually about schedules. I would like to have produced other artists, but there’s never enough time to do everything.

Did you feel that the label treated its experimental artists differently than those who were more chartbound?

AP: Well, it’s a well-known fact: if an act got produced by Trevor Horn, he would spend whatever he wanted. I don’t know if the process of making “Slave to the Rhythm” the Grace Jones track, is documented anywhere. It was a legend even before it was released. Even before it was mixed. And he was justifiably very proud of it. He took me into the studio one time and showed me how he was working with the two multi-tracks. After it came out he showed me a review which raved about all the kaleidoscope of musical images woven into this three minutes. He just said: “it’s great when someone actually gets it.” Which it is—it’s a kind of relief.

I’m sure you know a lot of the stories about how people didn’t get to play on their records very much. Also, Frankie and Propaganda had hits and were doing endless amounts of miming on TV and out doing their world tours. I was where I wanted to be, in the studio, making the music. And I feel very privileged to have been able to do it. Just getting on and making the records. On the practical side, I had to map out timetables and budgets with Karen Goodman the label manager and they had to get approved, which sometime look a while. But that’s all par for the course. My thing was very different from being a teenager signed to a label as part of a band. I was already thirty by the time I signed my contract and was working as an arranger/composer. In fact, I was working on the Strawberry Switchblade album at Sarm West studios whilst I was negotiating my contract at ZTT in the same building.

Tell me a little about The Value of Entertainment label revue—the video of the show is virtually the only place where anyone ever saw one-off ZTT acts like Anne Pigalle and Instinct. What was participating in that like?

AP: A real pleasure…The whole label except Frankie played a set—we did seven nights…ZTT gave me a budget to put a 9-piece band together. 3 keys 2 horns, 2 voices, one percussionists and I played piano. Great players. Some old Lost Jockey friends and two German guys who I’d heard and really wanted to work with. I remember Trevor really liked our performance and was very complementary about it.

Did Art of Noise’s departure from the label on the eve of the opening show affect the run? Were you privy to the story behind that?

AP: Not really... I think the individual members were negotiating their contracts and it all fell apart for some reason. If you see the original printed programme, I’m down to do “Cadenza” with Ann Dudley—it’s a pity we never got to do that. Paul Morley did something with backing tracks as the AON, I think. I was getting nervous backstage.

��Goodbye Mr. G’—The Fall of ZTT, The 90’s and Another Language

Given what the label was going through during your tenure at ZTT—lawsuits, financing problems—I imagine there were some frustrations.

AP: Almost overnight, the label sort of evaporated. Everyone seemed to be suing each other. The atmosphere at Sarm West studios was deadly. Although, I didn’t leave on any bad terms. I’m not a group so I couldn’t split up. I would have liked it to have continued but it was clear they couldn’t deal with the third album. I was out of contract. With Jill Sinclair’s blessing I tried to take the project to a couple of other labels. It nearly happened with Daniel Miller at Mute. That would have been ideal for me. But....

So what happened then?

AP: As I've described, the 90’s were a different time for me. I was always busy but in a much simpler way. I started to become more interested in the traditional concert hall convention. The Poems And Toccatas for violin and piano were premiered at the Huddersfield festival by Lis Perry and Andrew Ball for instance. And also during that period, I was trying to develop a music theatre or operatic type of work.

In ’96, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned Horn Horn for two saxophone solos and orchestra. Unfortunately the piece has only had one performance which is very frustrating but typical of the contemporary music situation. Perhaps like Under The Son [the third ZTT album released on the box], in 20 years time it will get another performance...Towards the end of the 90’s I started to get back to the computer and made Time At Rest Devouring Its Secret a long almost ambient piece using synths and samples much like the old days...[And I] set up my own label/production company Bitter and Twisted Records and Productions (BTRAP) in '92 to release the Recordings CD and Ophelia/Ophelia, an opera for one voice that I wrote for Margaret Cameron.

Of course, this has been a big year for Andrew Poppy, with the box set and the fantastic Another Language record with Propaganda singer and fellow ZTT alumnus Claudia Brücken. How did the latter come about?

AP: On a simple Chinese whispers type of level it goes something like this. In 1999, I went down to Real World studios to visit Stuart Bruce who engineered The Beating Of Wings (and Band Aid’s “Feed the World” coincidentally, which was recorded in Studio One at Sarm West studios in the middle of the overdub sessions for my piece, “The Object Is A Hungry Wolf”!). Stuart was engineering for the producer John Leckie on a Real World project, and I hadn't seen John since the Jockey days and wanted to say hi and also to have a look ��round Real World.

So, the next week Stuart was working in Germany with Michael Mertens (of Propaganda). Michael and Claudia had been asked play together at a party by Martin Gore (of Depeche Mode), but Michael couldn't come over to London because he was busy, so Stuart suggested he call me.

Were you and Michael friends?

AP: We all knew each other from doing The Value Of Entertainment show together. Anyway Michael called me, and I thought it sounded like a great idea. We didn’t get to play the party, but the rest is Another Language.

Why did you two decide to record the works of other songwriters?

AP: The moment of meeting up with Claudia again coincided with starting to think about “the song” again. Perhaps it was something to do with getting into Radiohead. The Bends is a fantastic album (produced by, there he is again, John Leckie) and OK Computer is a kind of Sgt. Pepper-type of masterpiece. Also, I was playing through the piano part of Schubert’s Winterrisse song cycle every morning as kind of practice/therapy. I’d had a score since I was a student but didn’t know it. In fact I didn’t really know much Schubert at all. As I got to know the pieces I just became obsessed. In ��98, I wrote cycle of songs for ensemble and two singers and although we did a concert at Goldsmith college it was…too hard to fund. Not contemporary music enough to get Arts Council funding—not rock ��n roll enough to get a record label interested.

So, I started to think about how I could make a contemporary version of the Schubert cycle. Just piano and voice. The piano parts are so fantastic—they are like pieces in themselves, even without the vocal line.

So, how did Claudia fit in to that vision?

AP: Having met up with Claudia again almost by accident and recognising her wonderful and unique vocal quality, it seemed like an opportunity to do something, to make a connection with the older song traditions. But I thought if I wrote something myself that was fixed in a score, it might not work. Pop singers work with their own range and particular set of intervallic fingerprints. As a composer when you write a line, you want it to be that way with that intervallic structure. Pop music is put together in a much more intuitive way where the singer is really given the freedom to invent. But I’m not so interested in that type of head arrangement thing. What I do need is a certain amount of control. I thought that the best thing would be to work with found material, which would be challenging for Claudia and I could get on with what I do.

Was this the first time you found yourself able to do that in a quasi-pop setting?

AP: In another way the precursor for me was the project I did with Erasure where Daniel Miller gave me three tracks to work on orchestral arrangements. I said I’d only keep the vocal lines and rewrite the songs. Daniel thought that was great. But check it out for yourself—The Two Ring Circus is still around on CD. It worked best on ”If I Could”, which is for string quartet, Eb clarinet, keyboard and voice. In some ways it’s a radical re-mix in a pre-20th century kind of a way. Or more accurately, a pre-recording technology way.

I can definitely see Another Language in that light as well—just with barebones piano and songs.

AP: Taking a bunch of songs and trying to rebuild songs that you love gives you an insight into how they work—the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen has said that we make music about the music that we love and I think there is some truth in that.

[Kate Bush’s] “Running Up That Hill” has been the surprise success of the record so far in that almost everyone mentions that track and many people say it is their favourite. Which is very nice because it is quite a re-composition. Again, leaving the vocal line intact but writing new themes which question or answer the vocal melody.

I would agree—what were some of the inspirations for the record in particular?

AP: Every so often, I need to refresh or get re-inspired. This may be by analyzing very closely a score. Some years ago I really got into looking at Morton Feldman’s scores as well as listening to all the CD recordings. I’d played the early works when I was a student and then he disappeared from my life. Sometime in the mid 90’s, I discovered all the late work which is very rhythmically intricate and you can hear he’s listened to Glass and Reich. In fact, [Feldman] talks about Reich’s Four Organs in his book.

Then I’ve also become obsessive about the techno group Underworld. They reminded me of the pleasure of repetition that I was really inside in the 80’s and then left during the 90’s to do something else.

��The Passage’—The 21st Century and Beyond

Ben Jacobs sampled “The Object Is A Hungry Wolf” for Max Tundra’s debut. Do you feel that your work with ZTT contributed to the breaking down of barriers between pop music and other forms?

AP: I don’t want to make any great claims but I know that just being on ZTT and doing what I was doing meant that some people became aware of another music outside of pop music. It’s easy when you’ve had the “privilege” (indoctrination?) of a musical education to think that everyone understands that there are different traditions: Classical, Jazz, Pop, Folk and all the hundreds of ethnic traditions. It’s strange when you realise that people haven’t had access to anything other than songs. Then all abstract music, anything without lyrics becomes film music with the images and drama missing.

In a way breaking down the barriers isn’t really possible at the level of the music. Because traditions are built over long periods of time. Individuals can only piss into the stream—they can’t re-route the river.

Based on what’s coming out today, though, do you think that this has been an entirely positive development?

AP: Recording and the availability of music from different times, different cultures, is part of the globalisation process. The difference between pop music and classical forms started to change in the 60’s. I can see very clearly that my work, especially in the 80’s, is framed by my education in the 70’s and the technological developments in the 80’s.

Do you sense the same excitement in today’s music scenes?

AP: Well, I was making a connection between the American composers’ work with pulse and what was happening in discos which with the dominance of the computer has really developed into a very exciting period of change in popular music.

Perhaps you don’t agree. I sense you think it’s not as interesting.

(laughs) You could say that. But who really excites you?

AP: Again, I come back to Underworld who make fantastic dance music but they make something that is very engaging in a “to be listened to” way. For me they exhibit all that’s best about that pulse-based music we were playing in the early 80’s. They’re very musical guys. Then there’s the Bang on the Can team, who are producing really provocative concert music. I recently saw a piece of Michael Gordon at the QEH in London. It felt really dangerous. I hadn’t felt that in a piece of music for ages.

So, it’s not the same as the 80’s. Everything’s far more atomised. But maybe that’s a good thing.

Andrew Poppy On Zang Tuum Tumb is out on ZTT today.
Another Language is out on Mute UK now.
Photo: Julia Bardsely.

By: Matthew Weiner
Published on: 2005-07-18
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