Title: Poppy art
Author: Marc Issue
Publish date: December 1986
Andrew Poppy has no objections to being called a Post-Minimalist in musical terms. So how does he come to terms with releasing a 12” single that people can dance to?
Interview by Marc Issue. Photograph by Liam Woon.
“NO I HAVEN’T MANAGED TO THINK OF a term for what I do yet. Perhaps we should start the interview here? First quote: ‘I haven’t managed to think of a term for what I do yet.’”
This appears halfway down page five of the transcript, about twenty minutes in. We have been wrestling, over our starters, with the knotty problem of contexts and terms and categories, a central conundrum of Andrew Poppy The Public Event.
Andrew Poppy, serious musician-in-residence at The Famous ZTT Label, is entertaining interested persons of the press in honour of the release of his first album, The Beating Of Wings, on Compact Disc. The more usual sort of record, in black vinyl, was released last year on Zang Tumb Tuum Records, in the wake of all that business that I shan’t trouble myself to describe all over again, but whose initials were FGTH.
Context is the big problem, for everyone concerned. For the pop press — who did not fall over themselves in the rush to proclaim Andrew to be the new Sex Pistols — the question was a matter for professional pride; how, after all, was any self-respecting music hack to fabricate a context that encompassed what ZTT usually get up to, and what Poppy might or might not promise?
For plucky ZTT, flushed with commercial success to outshine their wildest fantasies: how to get people to forget about the popularly perceived identity of the label long enough to hear Poppy’s work in its proper context? For Poppy himself, the problem was, and is, very clear:
“A lot of people thought when I signed to ZTT that it was some sort of one-off Paul Morley joke, and I got very upset by that because that attitude doesn’t consider my work as having any continuity — that kind of interpretation was entirely taken up with ZTT. Okay, I’m involved with ZTT, but I don’t really want to talk about them, and if people want to read about ZTT here, then fuck off, basically — I can talk about my involvement with ZTT as part of the continuity in my work, not about me as a part of the continuity of their business ventures. The problem is that Jill, Trevor and Paul have such enormous profiles within the popular arena, and they are signing people who are unknown to that arena, and so we’re always going to be seen a bit as — you know…”
Yes, another wacky wheeze from ZTT… There are certain fundamental concepts which we will have to get our thinking gear around right here, otherwise we might just as well be talking about favourite breakfast cereals. There are terms to be defined, so we know where we are in all this.
First, it seems that we should divest ourselves of the notion that Andrew Poppy composes systems music.
“In terms of terms, minimal or systems music — I don’t like them, and I don’t know of anyone who’s been put in this bracket who does like them. Mind you, Debussy didn’t like being called an Impressionist, you know? The word ‘systems’ implies a number of (presumably) mechanical procedures. This first came up in something called Serialism, an idea invented by Schoenberg. His system, which was taken up in the Fifties by Stockhausen and Boulez, is very much Systems Music.
“Minimalism, on the other hand, concerns the idea that the art object is not complete in itself, that it must be perceived in order to be complete; it was an idea that took hold in the late Fifties and early Sixties with people like John Cage. The art object does not exist, right, it’s an illusion. What actually happens in the presence of the art object is that your perception creates the art object. The classic piece of John Cage’s work is The Silence Piece — it denies the art object completely, saying that if you can re-orientate yourself to understand what is going on, you don’t actually need any work, in terms of making the object. The next stage is minimalism, which draws back from that position because it says, let’s face it, it’s totally idealistic to expect people to suddenly start listening to their own body rhythms and experiencing it on an aesthetic level, there’s just too much work to be done before we get there. What the early minimalists did — early Philip Glass and early Reich were very similar in this was to take simple structures repeated over a long period of time. What happens is that because we are in time, there can be no absolute repetition, it is always going to be different.”
In other words, we will experience the seventeenth repetition differently to the fifty-first.
“In a sense, that is the phase we are still in, but a long way from that starting point, and both Reich and Glass are now a very long way from that starting point, they’ve moved further and further towards the idea of making objects.
“You can’t deny that someone has to go and organise things in a particular way, and in that sense there is an object. That’s why one of the pieces on the record is called The Object Is A Hungry Wolf. It concerned the fact that I didn’t know how to avoid making an object…”
But the music-objects produced here… post-minimally…?
(I wait for some reaction, and titter self-consciously to drown the sound of terms being masticated, weighed, assessed…)
“I think that’s a valid term,” ventures Andrew, at last.
“I wouldn’t object to being called a Post-Minimalist…”
(Hey, it looks like we’re getting somewhere.)
They’re going to be different in some way to the music-objects made before. Aren’t they?
“Steve Reich says in his book Music As A Gradual Process that you should be able to watch the processes unfolding in the work. Now for me, the idea in that phrase completely sums up minimal music; music as a gradual process. If you look at it in film terms, you have a film with no edits in it — the camera is shooting one totally continuous movement. An edit, which tells you that what you are watching is artificial, is very interesting. My work, which seems to be out of this minimal tradition, nevertheless contains this device that I use all the time — edit. Collage. So we have the technique of gradual processes, which involves setting up different pulses or whatever, and we have the other technique of going somewhere else, instantly.”
Both these principals are at work in Andrew Poppy The Happy Medium. No problem there that we need to concern ourselves with.
Our tour of the rarefied zones of musical thought concluded for the moment, we turn our attention to the selling of Andrew Poppy The Desirable Commodity.
Herein lies another big fat dilemma.
“I suppose it’s just asking people to think, and popular culture doesn’t want people to think, I think… well, I know it doesn’t. It’s difficult to talk about the relationship between popular culture and art. I’m not saying that all pop music is crap, because I don’t believe that, but at the same time, it is used to keep people from thinking.
“You talk to people who are very disillusioned with what’s in the charts and what’s on the radio, and they’re hungry for something more — and there is so much more out there, but how are people to know what there is? If you listen to the radio, or buy magazines, or if you walk into a record shop, what hits you first? It’s the stuff that has had a lot of money spent on it, the stuff that’s gonna slip down easy, the things that get played on the radio, they’re the only things that people are going to find out about.”
And what you don’t know about, you can’t think about.
“There is so much out there to be experienced — I think people are put off things they are led to believe are going to be ‘difficult’, or ‘not for them’, and I really want to explode that idea. I mean, music exists for everybody, even the most complex intellectual piece, not that I write very complex pieces, but even the most complex is for everyone who wants to listen. It’s down to each individual and if they reject it, then they reject it, but the present situation is that people are not aware of it, and so they are not being given the opportunity to reject it. I’ve always known, in some ways, that I’d have to get into the popular arena, even though some of the things that I’m doing are a very long way away from that, I also know that that is the only area where it can happen.”
Problem right here…
“The radio and TV are the prime source of information for just about everybody in this country, so you have to ask yourself why there are eighteen hours of chart material every day of the week, and if you should decide you don’t want pop music, you want classical music, and you turn to Radio Three, why there are twelve to fifteen hours a day of music written before 1900, and you start to think… Granted, there is Jazz Today, who play stuff by people like Loose Tubes, but there’s an hourslot for that.”
This is familiar territory, of course — complaints about lack of airplay for interesting music. It is a fundamental problem for every musician who happen not to sound like Phil Collins.
“It’s even more difficult for the likes of me, because I don’t fit into any of the clearly defined categories. The art music world is even more reactionary than either the jazz world or the pop world — the preoccupation is with music before 1900, and somebody who’s on a pop label, and uses drums and stuff — they can’t possibly take me seriously!”
A mischievous question, perhaps: are you sufficiently sceptical about your chances of widespread commercial success not to be worried about the adverse effects of widespread popularity on your creative process?
There is quite a long pause.
“Yeah, I am pretty sceptical about that, I must say. Even when you’re involved with a big company like ZTT, and even though they give me a lot of room, and I’m allowed to produce my own material, and to an extent I’m allowed to do as I like, the most important thing has always got to be what I want to do, because as soon as I start trying to anticipate what They want to do, or what The Public would want me to do, then I’m lost, so far as making any sort of serious contribution goes… I have to do what I feel I have to do, and I want to make sure that it gets enough attention in terms of promotion, or whatever. That isn’t to say that I’m not prepared to play the game, up to a point — I’ve just done the music for The Tube…”
Indeed he has — this is described in a ZTT press release as “a turn up for the books”. Quite.
“Rather than try to write something ‘rock’n’roll’ — not that I think they wanted ‘rock’n’roll’ anyway — I decided to take something I had already written, and reworked the textures. It’s a piece from the end of The Object Is A Hungry Wolf — that is me playing the game, because I realise that if my music should become remotely popular, then people are going to take it and do what the fuck they want with it, you know. So this is also me saying that if everybody else can do it to my music, then look, I can do it as well. For me, it’s just like froth, something to do while I’m waiting to get on with my work, it isn’t something that I take very seriously.”
On the other hand…
“I have a lot of projects that I’m waiting to get on with that I know have no commercial potential. I know it’s an old cliché, and I don’t know whether it’s entirely true, but once you have gained some kind of access to that popular arena, then maybe it will be easier to do other things. Maybe that isn’t true, maybe once you start compromising in those particular ways then you are totally compromised all the way down the line. I am aware of that, and it is a problem, but… Shall we talk about the music for a bit?”
It so happens that Andrew Poppy has done what might seem, from a respectful distance, to be a shocking about turn on his academic principals and made a twelve-inch single you could almost dance to. More shocking still, the front side of the offending vinyl is a reworking of a track from the album. There must be something in the Contemporary Composers’ Handbook against one or both of these, surely?
“32 Frames was the piece that got probably the best reaction generally from the album. The A-side was an orchestral piece on the album, and now it’s the same piece with… well, drums, basically. And I knew when I was doing it that people were going to say, ‘Hooked On Classics’ — and I just laughed, because it was just a twelve-inch, just a bit of fun. The A-side was simply trying to take something I’d already done and make it somehow sharper, glossier if you like. Thinking about the same piece in a different way led to The Impossible Net, the B-side of the twelve-inch. The Impossible Net is much more what I’m interested in. The title, for me, says it all about that process. I even thought about spelling Net with a ‘£’ for the ‘t’, like Ne£, but then I thought Jill wouldn’t like it…”
You can’t see his expression from where you’re sitting. This is a shame. You’d love it. But what about these drums?
“It’s a horrible thing to say, but if you have that drum crack all the way through, that makes it easier for people to recognise the time signature of the piece…”
Formatting your listeners, to borrow a term from computing…
“Yeah, it is. It doesn’t compromise the piece to put the drums there, so if it makes it easier, then, fine. I like the idea myself. I’m not going to go back on that point about giving people what they want — hold on, I’m contradicting myself here… no, I like the twelve-inch format because once you’ve done the album you’ve got some room to loosen up a bit. In a way, I would rather have gone ahead and started the second album, but the way the commercial world works… Hopefully I’ll be getting on with it next month and it’ll be coming out early next year, about February or March. There’ll be a single as well, The Amusement, which I did at the Ambassadors shows last year. That’s recorded already…”
Finally, consuming the music. Do the ways in which people use the music interest you?
“Let’s narrow it down. What do you think the primary ways of consuming the music are?”
Ooh, let me see now — in consuming live performance, one has a live audience standing or sitting in front of you, and they may move parts of their bodies in time to the music or not according to their disposition…
…consuming recorded music, one can wander around with it on a walk man, or one can…
“Have sex to it?”
…have sex to it, or one can simply have it on in one’s living room with the TV sound turned down, as I do with most music…
“I like that one. Having sex to it, or putting it on with the TV set turned down, I like those two. Thumbs up for those two. Go on…
I was going to say one can hear it on the radio, but we’ve already gone over how one can’t hear it on the radio… Modern instrumental music, as yours predominantly is, tends to find gainful employment as background noise for announcements of forthcoming attractions on BBC1 and grafted into documentaries on heart surgery…
“This goes back to what I was saying about The Object Is A Hungry Wolf and the signature tune for The Tube you’ve only got to watch TV for a few hours to hear everything from classic Beach Boys tracks through Mahler, Beethoven, Mozart, Philip Glass — anybody who has any musical credibility will be pillaged to advertise something. Yes, is my answer, I’ll do it. I’ll give you my number, and you’ll find that I’m not that expensive. I’ve got to make a living, after all. What can you say? You know that kind of situation exists, you just have to deal with it…”
Surprise, surprise. Serious musicians have much the same problems as any other sort. Give it time, you may yet come around to Andrew Poppy’s way of thinking.