Kerry Andrew in conversation with Ed Hughes. 1
Kerry Andrew is a classical composer and performer whose work reaches across genres, particularly folk music.
In this conversation, Kerry Andrew discussed with Ed Hughes how interests in folk music, and folk rock, have informed methods of composition involving existing material – for example, creatively working with and re-working folk song in new ways in her You Are Wolf albums. Perhaps this notion of ‘collecting’ and reimagining song in new work, a feature of classical composers’ work since the early twentieth century, inspired one of the methods behind her community opera for the Wigmore Hall? This was Woodwose, in which participants sang songs and lullabies that they remembered from childhood, and these were recorded, transcribed and woven into the final composition in which they performed. Overall, there is a sense in this conversation that referencing other texts, or working creatively with pre-existing song, can produce an authenticity of expression, but only in the sense of one that arises from a creative engagement with material. Remaking the material for now, certainly engaging powerfully with memory, but transformed with an energy that speaks to contemporary experience. In common with other composers in these interviews, Kerry Andrew thinks this is not about a sepia-tinted reproduction of the past. It’s about a form of production that is rooted (see Shirley J. Thompson) at the same time as being hard-edged, colourful, vibrant and of today. English folk songs are not ‘sacred’. The important thing is that they are sung. Who cares how they are sung?
Ed Hughes: A piece of yours that I’ve been listening to a lot is Salve Regina2, which I admire very much.
Kerry Andrew: Yes, it was commissioned by the Merton College Choir. They gave me the text – they asked me to do a Salve Regina 3. It was one of a number of commissions from women composers – Judith Weir, Dobrinka Tabakova, Hannah Kendall and me; they allocated us a text each as part of the larger project.
EH: Given the nature of the text was there any sense of mining the past for you?
KA: To be honest, with all my sacred music, I tend to look straight at the words, and not think about the history of Salve Reginas. I’ve realised more and more, recently, that the whole of my work has been on words and music. Sometimes the words are the most important. With Salve Regina I would have studied the text in Latin and English, and seen what comes. I like having a blank slate and not thinking about how a composer from earlier times might have treated those words. I go with my instincts. When you asked me for some tract to suggest I immediately thought, when I think of old forms that I work with, or the old material I work with, it’s folk music: works with older forms then it’s the work with folk material that is probably most relevant. But if we’re thinking about all the sacred stuff that I’ve done, one of the first pieces I wrote was for the Ebor Singers, Dusk Songs (2005). It was a 12 part compline mass; again I was interested in the words primarily and the interplay between the Latin and the English and the way in which the words emerge and combine. I tend to not thinking of anything musical but just begin with those words on a page.
EH: And yet you have a sophisticated sense of polyphony which might seem to emerge from an awareness of that culture/tradition of notated polyphonic music?
KA: I don’t have any knowledge of early music.
EH: What’s interesting me is the interweaving – I got that very strongly from Salve Regina with the stepped introduction of the high voices first, and then the lower voices. I admired this and it seemed to be polyphonic and therefore within that tradition and the idea of the motet.
KA: That’s interesting. I think it comes from a different place, actually. I think my polyphonic writing, which I never think of as very complex –
EH: It’s certainly very clear, but it is also complex –
KA: – comes from listening to West African traditional singing, when I was at university, and also getting really into Central African Pygmy tribe singing where, to my ears, I would often hear it that they would have a falling scale of five equi-distant notes and not at western tuning and that they’d all be doing that but at different times, all individually. And I was always totally struck by the idea of a choir; I know that’s not what you mean in the Salve Regina; but actually a lot of the time in my choral work it often suddenly does that and it probably goes back to that experience. I often put something in a box and say ‘freely and individually’ so it might sound complex but it’s actually just a little bit of material that I know in any combination, however they sing it in an overlapping way, will sound fine. So there’s a cloud of sound thing that I’m interested in, and there’s a more interlocking thing. In the end, my language comes from things like that, and Inuit throat singing, those type of hockets (as opposed to early music hockets). It comes from those sort of places which introduced me to experimental vocal music, and vocal music from around the world, and so it’s probably those traditions that influenced my choral writing.
EH: That’s great – but just to follow up on this point; the clear sense is that intervals and scales in that piece, Salve Regina, are based around G scales and A scales. Just purely as a listener; and I love the interlocking effect – and that comes from the non-western source really…
KA: Come to think of it I’ve still got something at home which I remember photocopying something at university. It was West African – Ghanaian I think – and it went [sings:]
So my Juice Vocal Ensemble writing comes from that.
EH: I love pattern making which is never quite a repetition.
KA: That again comes from those sources. But when I started working with a folk singer [in my folk work] I started to use a loop station, and so got very into the idea of repeated loops. But then what’s so nice about writing for live singers is those repeated patterns don’t have to be stuck in a box going round and round exactly the same way. I like doing that and you can trace that back to me doing loop station, and trace that back to these influences from world vocal traditions. And I’ve done that more and more. And talking about the scales as well – that comes from me getting into folk music, and sitting on modes, or sitting on scales; so I would naturally, if I was writing something tonal, which I do from time to time – e.g. for the National Theatre – it’s always a modal, aeolian, lydian [melody] because I’ve listened to and sung so many folk songs that that is a more natural scale for me than our western scales that we are taught first. I don’t consider myself very sophisticated. My priority is not harmony even when I write choral music. Obviously I’m thinking about it all the time, but I’m not thinking in grand harmonic schemes. I just never have. For me, it’s much more about textures, words, modes, loops and interlocking things.
EH: One more question about Salve Regina! Am I right to detect a sense of journey or narrative through it. There’s this clear soundworld at the opening, then there’s the pattern section in the middle, then this fantastic tense close with maybe more chromatic sounds.
KA: Yes – it would be responding to the words – to whatever journey I thought was implied by the text. Or, whatever I wanted to make the text say. Not being in the slightest bit religious. So I try to find a personal way through the text. The shape/form of the work came from what the text demanded.
EH: I started to explore the new album Keld 4. I noticed you had drawn on a song that had been collected by Bert Lloyd and Vaughan Williams [track number 2: As Sylvie Was Walking].
There’s a distant vocal melody and a cello introduced in the mix which makes the atmosphere darker. So that piece is clearly based on existing music.
KA: It will be obvious which ones are original songs, and which are traditional songs, when you listen to the You Are Wolf 5 albums. And a bit like with me just working with the Salve Regina words, let’s say, when I would just print them out and scribble on them, with the folk material I take that melody and the words, and often I’ll try and find recordings by people like A L Lloyd 6, or Shirley Collins 7, or others that are as early as I can get – for example singers from the 1950s. And just hear an unadorned version so it’s the purest version you can hear. And there’s not any other associations. And you don’t listen to other arrangements of it. I don’t think there’s any need to. So the reason I would have chosen that song is because the tune alone struck me, rather than an arrangement by anyone else. So, with the second album, Keld, it’s very collaborative – I always choose the material and lead it, but the arrangement was collaborative in terms of what we did. And another layer is making the record, working with my producer, MaJiKer, and adding in a production later. So when you were talking about the counter-melody that’s my producer and me saying ‘let’s take it away from the live version and do a little bit more to it’. So very collaborative, but what I always say about the folk material when people say ‘very contemporary arrangements’ is it’s always the song at its heart – if you strip it back I can always just sing it. And even the arrangements have to be incredibly sympathetic to the original material. I never want to [impose an inappropriate creative elaboration upon] a folksong – it always has to be let’s see what is suggested by the [song’s] story and the melody.
EH: When I was listening I was thinking – could this ethereal voice [added voice in the production] be like a distant voice from the past? I think I was over-interpreting it!
KA: No but it could be – that’s nice. It emerged from the sense of wanting a bit more. But also, it feeling right in the story. It’s the idea of her feeling very lost, and her lover has left her. And so, it could be her lamenting voice, in counterpoint to her more factual voice. Or several lamenting voices as it develops at the end.
EH: So you said the West African influence is very important in forming your voice? Is the folk music also an influence on your voice?
KA: Yes, massive, and that’s become much bigger.
EH: Does that influence extend into your concert work?
KA: Not all the time. I have to work hard for it not to be. The tunes are there all the time. The folk thing came at university level – I’ve always been interested in folk legends and traditional stories. It’s just a feeling of a connection to an older – Sometimes I think this when doing British and English songs – I talk about being connected to the land – there’s not much wild land any more. That’s not in a wanting to get back to the past way, but somehow for me there are some roots there that I want to connect to. But then there are stories from all over the world that I’m influenced by, not so much musically, but more emotionally. But going back to the British songs, I think these are songs which should still be sung. And they can be heard in lots of different ways. There’s quite a good quote from Martin Carthy which is that you can essentially do anything with a song – it’s not sacred – the important thing is that they are sung. Who cares how they are sung? With all the You Are Wolf I sometimes worry about what people on the folky side will think – but not too much – nobody owns those songs. I can do what I like with them – but I have deep respect for them. So everything comes from those tunes.
EH: I am interested in what that signals – a bridge between the popular and then classical forms of transformation. I worked with the Agincourt Carol (1415) which is already widely interpreted but is in the manuscript in Trinity Library. I wrote it into a large-scale ensemble piece.
KA: I think I try to do that a bit more with some tunes than with others. My collaborators in You Are Wolf, Sam Hall and Peter Ashwell, are classically trained musicians as well – we all do a bit of everything; we don’t come from folky backgrounds – so in a sense anything is fair game. A community chamber opera I did for the Wigmore Hall, called Woodwose (2013) 8, which was an hour long project for 150 community participants, and one professional tenor, and Wigmore Hall’s Ignite ensemble – part improv and part classical band. I wrote the words too but there was a lot of song collecting with the participants as part of that. There were three different schools – two primary and one secondary – all youngish kids. And an adult community choir. And a small group of Westminster elderly residents who were persuaded to sing. I was very interested in lullabies, things that would have been sung to them or to their parents, or their grandparents when young, and monsters or creatures they might have been warned about. So I asked the kids to go and see what they could find, and also the elderly group. And because it’s Westminster, a borough which as people from very diverse backgrounds, I had all these great songs come back. It was really sweet what some of the kids brought back. They had to learn it from their mum, or from their grandad. So they had some songs that we would know – English songs; nursery rhymes; but also songs from South Africa, Poland, Lithuania, India, Bangladesh, etc. So we would learn bits of them and I would record everything. And then the elderly group were brilliant talking about monsters. Strange creatures from the Carribean, Macedonia.
Basically, Woodwose 9 is a figure in the woods – an outsider, a wild man of the woods. Very Britten, and it was a Britten anniversary – centenary. It’s always winter in the village, and they blame this on the misunderstood Woodwose – but eventually they come to understand one another. So there are moments in which the parents are warning the children – and there’s a lullaby section in which I took some of the lullabies and layered them; and there’s an introduction in which I used lots of play songs. So in this work there is a lot of material collected from participants and then woven in.
EH: What was your method in the lullabies section?
KA: If I had ten lullabies, I’d choose four that fit; and kept moving them around. Lullabies the world over – even the one from India that I had – are very tonal. They share the same sort of melody shapes – also interesting. Lots work in rounds. They worked together naturally. I did a lot of research into folk lullabies. There’s variations on soothing words like lullay, lullo, in many parts of the world. So I became really interested in the commonalities in these songs. I wrote the libretto also. Some of the songs they taught me helped to shape the story. There was a man in the elderly group with dementia who sang if he was prompted. And so the ladies would say, ‘go on Robert, what’s that song; Early One Morning – go on sing us Early One Morning’. So I recorded that, and decided I would use that song towards the end where Woodwose emerges out of the woods, and there is a confrontation; but he ends up telling a story that he’s a traumatised soldier. And he’s been hiding for a long time; but he’s started to remember who he is, and that he’s from the village; and he sings a song that his father sang, and the idea was that Robert would sing the song – but he was not well enough to sing the song at the performance, but one of the other ladies did – and it’s very moving to watch the video because I think that she stepped up at the last minute to do it. But it’s nice to use that song – because it had real emotional resonance.
EH: I’ve been reading Marquez’s book One Hundred Years of Solitude 10, because Shirley Thompson was saying how she loves this literature and magical realism; there is a scene where the community is visited by an insomniac and the condition spreads across the town; but the particularly bad thing about this insomnia is it starts to erode memory. So they have to write things down like, this is a cow and you have to milk it everyday. They resolve it when a gypsy comes in with a potion, and they get their memories back. But the experience of losing memory is made very palpable through that story. But isn’t that beautiful that you can recover a form of memory through music?
KA: It’s incredible when everything is stripped away you can still remember the song that your sister sang to you when you were seven. I find that so interesting. There’s something about those formative years.
EH: I’ve got a linked question to that – I’ve found it’s really interesting to ask people are there any musical experiences that are particularly formative to you?
KA: When people ask about influences I say Meredith Monk 11. When I was introduced to her work, in my Masters year, that was a huge epiphany. Because I understood the power of the wordless voice; and the voice as instrument in a gestural sense. She uses a lot of repeating and varying patterns. I studied her during my Masters for a term; I also transcribed duets and solos, because nothing was written down. And learnt them with Sarah – before we were Juice Vocal Ensemble – these were the beginnings of the ensemble 12. So it’s getting under the skin of her music – not just learning about it but transcribing it – as a way of understanding it – was really important. And even though I played with taking text away, now I’ve gone back to words, I think I’m doing so in a very different way, as a result of her influence. Now I know I can set four words, and get loads out of them. Listening to country music and Fairport Convention 13 in the car with my Dad was another formative experience. Also Willie Nelson 14 when we lived in Canada. Those tunes stayed with me and they came back in a different way. My dad and I would sing in church choir – that was formative just in the fact of singing all the time, and realising very soon that I was an alto – I liked harmonising and not singing the tune – I wanted to be write in the middle doing something more interesting. Everything has a knock on effect to other things as well. I took it for granted I’d sing in a choir – it wasn’t a good choir but it meant you were singing all the time. And I didn’t sing much in school – so it was very important.
EH: I have one more question – it’s about notation. You are fascinated with Meredith Monk, and transcribing. So out of curiosity, a genuinely open question – is notation an active medium for you? Does notation enable composition?
KA: I think it’s changed a bit over the years but I was trained in notation, so I do think in notation first. If I was on a train, and something came in to my mind, I’d write it down; I would always notate it – when composing I always notate. When working on a You Are Wolf song I will work like that but I cannot do it all like that; so I guess that’s more like a band – write down bits and bobs. Sometimes just an interlocking rhythm pattern. And the best way for me to understand it is to see it written down. So I do think like that; I know with Juice Vocal Ensemble we wanted to work like a band – collectively. But we always just end up writing it and bringing it back. It reflects the way we trained.
EH: My epiphany at university was discovering early music – motets and so on and discovering other ways of writing music than, say, sonata form. And I liked Cage’s early work for the same reason – different structures. But this idea of a motet you write music in ways that are really extreme – a piece of chant stretched out and you hear one note every thirty seconds – somehow almost architectural I find that interesting. In the back of my mind I’m thinking are there musical forms or processes that you can only achieve through notation?
KA: I’m often at the piano making chords and I’ll have to write them down. It is a mixture; sometimes when I’m writing tonal material I’ll just record things in. But generally – whenever any interlocking pattern is involved, for example – I will have to write things down. I can’t really think if any of my work is made by the notation. It’s an interesting question though.