Pop Goes Minimal
A successful composer of minimal music or would-be writer of pop instrumentals? Tim Goodyer isn't sure so he challenges the man himself for the answers.
Composer Andrew Poppy has written music for TV, arranged orchestras, and made a would-be hit single. Does his work fit into any of today's pigeon holes, and how does new technology come into the picture?
ANDREW POPPY RECEIVED his greatest public exposure to date through a television programme that no longer exists - Channel 4's recently deceased Tube. There, in among the closing credits, you'd discover it was his music that opened and closed the show twice a week. You remember the theme - lots of sampling and sequencing, brutal production, right up the Tube's street. Very nice, very hi-tech, but who the hell is Andrew Poppy?
Well, Andrew Poppy is currently one of ZTT's rosta of artists, and ZTT are noted for specialising in two kinds of music: music that is Art, and music that is Money. Frankie Goes To Hollywood were the Money, the Art of Noise were a bit of both - which leaves Andrew Poppy looking after the Art.
In the early days, though, Poppy's outlook was decidedly rock 'n' roll. He followed in the fine tradition of abandoning piano lessons and playing guitar at school, only to rediscover the piano and enrol on a music course in order to study it. Then his fascination with the minimal music of John Cage, Philip Glass and Steve Reich led him to become one of the four founder members of Lost Jockey.
"It was very stimulating, but it also presented loads of problems", he recalls. "I suppose there was a core of five or six composers and performers, and on top of that there were performers that drifted in and out. It sounds quite idyllic, but it was actually very frustrating because you never knew where you were. Any music takes rehearsal and if you had one rehearsal a week, you'd get all the composers pushing for their piece to be the one.
"It was also a great forum for meeting people and exchanging ideas, but I wouldn't go back to that collective way of making music now. The problem with collectives is that they suggest there's no leader, no hierarchy; but they just cover up a hierarchy and makes it less approachable. You can't confront it. If you want a decision made you have to phone everybody in the group."
Poppy's dissatisfaction took him from Lost Jockey to a series of one-off projects as diverse as orchestrating an LP for Psychic TV and writing dance scores and music for theatrical productions.
Eventually, he signed to ZTT in July 1984. An album, The Beating of Wings, resulted two years later as a declaration of Poppy's arrival as a composer of serious intent. Now he is continuing his crusade with a second LP, Alphabed.
Sitting quietly in Island Records' lavish boardroom, interview and composer take on the task of classifying the latter's music. It obviously owes much to both minimalism and systems music but, when challenged, Poppy is unhappy with both terms.
"I don't really like any of the terms. No musicians do unless they're squarely set in one style. I did an interview for Blitz recently and they were really interested in the whole idea of minimalism. They wanted a term to describe my music, so when they pushed me I accepted 'postminimalist'. I accepted the term because I feel I've moved on from minimalism - I don't mean I've developed it, but I've mixed some of its ideas and technical processes with influences from European classical music, jazz and rock."
And the systems tag?
"Systems is not a universally held term, it doesn't define any unique area because any music that has compositional rigour can be termed systems music. Also it implies some particular sort of mathematical or mechanical process, and mathematical processes have been present in music since notation began. There are pre-renaissance motifs that are completely mechanical and structured. Similarly the techniques developed by Schoenberg at the beginning of the century - serial music - are rigorously mechanical.
"When you write a piece of music, you have to develop a system to work with. The ideas of tonality and harmony that classical composers from Haydn and Mozart through to the end of the 19th Century used were systems. Schoenburg wrote this thing called The Structural Function of Harmony, and what he was saying there was that harmony and tonality are systems, they work in a particular way and this is how you can use them.
"I'm quite happy to say I'm post-minimal because that gives me options. I'm not a systems composer like Reich or Glass - I'm much less pure - but I start from there. It's to do with following your own nose."
You could, of course, accuse Poppy of belonging to the New Age movement, though the accusation would be unwarranted. I haven't even brought the term into our conversation, yet the composer offered a reaction to it.
"I see a lot of energy going into New Age and I hope that there are elements of what I do which are interesting to that audience. But the idea of New Age is that you don't really listen to it, and I'm completely the other end of the spectrum - I'm not about turning off, I'm about trying to focus your listening.
"As a 'New Age Person', either you're into an acoustic sound or complete electronics, but I don't think music is really about sounds at all. There's this idea that you have to have the latest sounds. Yet if you listen to Fela Kuti you find all these tacky electronic organ sounds from the '70s that nobody would use here, and the way they're being used makes you accept them. There isn't the snobbery that exists here.
"The whole idea of quality is very debatable. Is it a bad sound or a good sound? How do you decide? That, for me, is where minimalism comes in. It's to do with the perspective of the listener. You can see from the way somebody in London uses a particular drum machine and the way somebody in Soweto uses the same drum machine that they see them as being completely different. It's the way those two individuals think about the same machine that's interesting to me."
Regardless of Poppy's own perspective of his music and its relationship with minimalism, it is minimalism that has played a major role in shaping his music and his ideas. The fascination began at Kingston College in the mid-'70s...
"I'd never heard anything like it, and it wasn't until a bit later on that I could see its possibilities. At that time I was discovering 20th Century classical music, but as I went on to university, I listened to a lot of avant-garde classical music and I realised where minimalism fitted in - after the extreme complexities of the avant-garde.
"But I also like music to have a pulse. When I was at school in the late '60s I listened to a lot of rock and pop music; in the '70s I listened to a lot of jazz like Charlie Mingus and Thelonious Monk. I treat minimalism as a bag where you can collect together all those things and draw on them."
"Pop music is computer controlled, but you're never aware of the computer. I try to make you aware that elements of my music aren't human."
SO THINGS IN Andrew Poppy's musical world are complex, to say the least. And perhaps not surprisingly, each of the three pieces on Alphabed represents a different aspect of Poppy's character, from the chaotic repetition of '45 Is' through the slowly evolving textures of 'Goodbye Mr G' to the rock rhythms of the single, 'The Amusement'.
One element that is common throughout, however, is a sense of balance between modern technology and human performance. In the hi-tech corner we have a Fairlight, an Akai S900, a Juno 106, a DX7 and a Compaq (PC-compatible) computer running Octave Plateau's Sequencer Plus software. In the human corner, we have the trombone and sax of Loose Tubes' Ashley Slater and Jo Pretzel, and the voices of Annette Peacock, Sheila Smith and Udo Scheuerpflug. Over to you, Andrew.
"What makes Alphabed different from the first album is that all the pieces have voices on them in some way. On the first album 'The Object is a Hungry Wolf' uses voices very much as a texture that ghosts the instrumental line. On this album the voices are spoken because I wanted to use words more.
"I chose Sheila and Udo for '45 Is' because the text deals with the whole idea of sexuality and gender, and I wanted the two roles to be confused to help bring that out. Udo is operatically trained but his voice is quite high and effeminate, while Sheila is a very strong contralto.
"On 'Goodbye Mr G' I wanted the voices to make you aware of how a voice influences what you feel about the words it's saying. Annette's speaking voice is very firm and resolute - I wanted that and a very insincere male voice which Ashley has. I wanted those qualities so I used those people."
Moving on to 'The Amusement', Poppy has retained both the minimal and vocal elements of '45 Is' and 'Goodbye Mr G' but underpinned them with a conventional rock rhythm courtesy of drummer Maritz Oswald. Although this provides a level of accessibility missing from either of the other tracks, the operatic element alone has been enough to deter the average single buyer.
"I think it's commercial and Trevor (Horn) thought it was commercial", comments Poppy in his defence. "The trouble is the media are so tied up in this country. I'm hoping it'll do something in Europe instead."
Although Alphabed has only just made it into the record shops. Poppy has another album in mind - though mention of it comes as a surprise to him. Apparently I'm not supposed to know about it, but as the cat's already out of the bag, he agrees to talk about it - cautiously.
"This album and the next album are two parts of a kind of opera idea... It's not opera, it's music that has a large-scale structure over a period of time. There will be an hour-and-a-half of music that will all be interconnected - individual pieces that are part of a greater whole. I'll be interested to see what people make of it." And a closer inspection of Alphabed's sleeve notes suggest the project, if not the forthcoming album, will be called The Songs of the Clay People.
But irrespective of the sales of either single or long-player. Poppy has successfully brought together elements of classical and popular music, and created a credible role for computer technology to fill. It's been done before, agreed, but in Poppy's case, the technology seems to enhance his individuality, rather than threaten or stifle it.
"There's a difference between the way I use technology and the way pop producers like Steve Lipson use technology. The majority of pop music you hear is computer controlled, but the idea is that you're never aware of the computer. I always try to make you aware that elements of my music aren't human, that they are controlled by a computer. I don't push it so far that it becomes absurd, but I'm not trying to make you think you're listening to a guitarist or something.
"I was talking to the producer of Tomorrow's World about making a special programme about the technology there is in the modern recording studio. (Shown on BBC1, June 18.) He was saying 'isn't it wonderful. I've seen this guitar that you can play synthesiser sounds from and I've seen this video technology that makes different sounds when you move' - basically the whizz-bang side of technology. I was saying, well, in some ways, technology tends to sidetrack you. He was talking about the 'amazing possibilities' all this technology offers, but what's really happening is the playing out of a finite number of possibilities built into the machines.
"For me, the piece of electronic music par excellence which hasn't been surpassed in terms of creativity is a piece Stockhausen did in the '50s with tape and tone generators called 'Gesang der Jünglinge'. We've got all these computers today and nobody's making music as startling as that piece. You've got to ask yourself why."
LIKE MANY RECORDING artists tied - in one way or another - to a contract. Poppy is expected to make use of the in-house recording facilities. Only in his case, "in-house" means Trevor Horn's Sarm West...
"Before I came to ZTT I was used to manual mixes live, off tape, where every mix is a performance. You know it's going down to master tape, and the adrenalin's going and you do things spontaneously and make mistakes that can turn out to be good. At Sarm it's all SSL computerised desks, and never having worked with computer-controlled mixes before, I found the process completely different; It's much colder and methodical. I love the computer but the transition is a difficult one.
"I'm a big fan of Prince, and I think he's the opposite end of the spectrum. He's about going into the studio and saying 'let's get this one down'. I find it very exciting music to listen to, and at the same time you can see the perspectives are all wrong. There are bass saxophones really dry pouring out of the left speaker and somehow it still works. I think it's the mess of it."
But perhaps Poppy's most meaningful encounter with technology was where we came in - with the Tube theme, which relies on machines to the total exclusion of the musician. The music itself is the closing four sections of 'The Object is a Hungry Wolf', though considerably revised.
"I had my doubts about it initially, about it being a piece that nobody was playing on, but it was an interesting process nevertheless. Basically we used the Fairlight and the Synclavier. The programming was done on the Fairlight because it's very user-friendly, and then we went into the Studio and MIDI'd it to the Synclavier so that we could combine the sound libraries. The strings were Synclavier and most of the electronic effects were Fairlight.
"I'm not sure the version that they finally used was actually the best version we did, though. It never sounded as good on the television as it did in the studio, even though we had a television there to check it with."
So, not even Fairlight and a Synclavier can guarantee perfection. Which, according to Andrew Poppy, is just the way it should be.