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?
“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—
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—
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—
“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—
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—
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 what you don’t know about, you can’t think about.
“There is so much out there to be experienced—
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 hour slot for that.”
This is familiar territory, of course—
“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—
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. Continue »
Indeed he has—
“Rather than try to write something ‘rock’n’roll’—
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’—
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. Continue »
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—
… 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—
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.