Interview: Poppy Ackroyd speaks to Carya Gish

Carya Gish, novelist and founder of independent publishing imprint Arcane Publishing, speaks to musician and composer Poppy Ackroyd who will perform at the launch of Jo Quail’s new album Five Incantations at St John on Bethnal Green on 19th March.

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I haven’t had the privilege to see Poppy Ackroyd live yet, and I very much look forward to the launch of Jo Quail’s new album, Five Incantations. One couldn’t think of a better guest artist for Jo’s concert. Like Jo, Poppy is an accomplished musician and composer who creates unique pieces of music using familiar instruments like the piano and the violin and then multi-tracking their sounds. The results of her experimental approach are spellbinding; Poppy’s music is beautiful and cinematic as well as incredibly evocative – it comes as no surprise that she has collaborated numerous times with visual artists, dancers and film makers.

This is exquisitely crafted and performed music, and I for one absolutely cannot wait to see the magic happen on stage next Saturday in London.

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You will perform at the launch of Jo Quail’s new release, Five Incantations. How and when did you meet Jo? How long have been aware of her work? Did you feel straight away that you had things in common?

Jo and I only met very recently, but I have been aware of her for some time as we both own Starfish electric string instruments. Starfish is a company based on the West Coast of Scotland who makes beautiful handmade instruments. They measure your acoustic instrument and create an electric one with exactly the same dimensions so that you can change easily between the two. Jo had a video on the home page of the Starfish website, which I really liked, and so have been following her since then.

At this event, you will perform a solo set and you will also play with Jo. How do you work on the set list for this kind of performance? Do you have both the audience and the venue in mind whilst working on a show?

My set tends to change organically. There are tracks that come and go and some that stay. I choose what I am going to play depending on the venue and event and work from there. I am in the process now, after having recently switched to working with Ableton, of realising how many possibilities I now have and am starting to change things around and play more with my material. I am excited about what I can do with the live show from now on, and I think the set will change dramatically in the next year.

What would you like the audience to take away from your performance on March 19th – in particular audience members who might not have seen you live before/who don’t know your work?

I hope that I can connect with the audience in some way and that they find something in the music that resonates with them. I hope that they understand the concept behind my work so far – the instrumental limitations that I have put on myself as a composer – but that they listen to and enjoy the music without this in mind.

Very much like Jo, you seem very keen on collaborating with other musicians and artists. What do you think these collaborations bring to your own work and practice? What makes a collaboration successful?

I love to collaborate. Every time you learn something new. Working alone can sometimes be difficult, and it is great to work with someone like-minded, to bounce ideas of each other and also to create new limitations as well as possibilities. I find working with someone else very inspiring, especially visual artists, or dancers. I feel there is something that can be said more through art with no words, and so responding to this is a great way to create new music.

You are a classically trained musician and composer. Classical training is (in)famously rigorous and requires enormous amounts of practice and discipline, but might not be very conducive to self-expression. What has inspired you to/made you take a different direction, a more experimental and personal one, in which you use technology to compose resolutely original contemporary music which transcends genres?

I always felt, performing classical music or more contemporary music by other composers, that I was trying to tell their story, read their minds and try and perform from their perspective. I was always debating how much I should add my own interpretation into the music, or if I should instead just try and recreate as closely as possible what the composer was actually trying to say. However I realised that it was never possible not to convey something of yourself when performing someone else’s music. Even if you researched their lives and knew their story and circumstances and tried to inhabit their mindset, your own life experiences would still play a part in your performance and interpretation.

I started making my own music after discovering more contemporary piano techniques and compositions – works by Lachenmann, Kurtag and Takemitsu. I loved the sound world I was discovering through using new parts of the instrument or playing in different ways, but I found that there was a very random quality to everything, that it was challenging, and it often made the audience uncomfortable. I wanted to arrange these sounds in a way that made what at first seemed random, harsh and often ugly, seem beautiful.

The first piece I wrote was Grounds and was for violin and loop pedal – I reworked this track and it is on my first album. This piece was originally 15 minutes long and was the soundtrack to a solo dance piece choreographed and performed by Maite Delafin. I was really inspired by her movement – using contemporary release-based techniques – and so I started to write and I have not stopped since. I definitely feel that the performance is more personal once you are performing your own music.

Could you introduce us to your music? Which instruments do you play and which techniques and technology do you use? Could you explain how all this combines to create your pieces?

On my first album Escapement (2012), I used only the piano and violin to create every sound on the album, and almost everything was recorded using one Zoom H4 microphone. I also used a few field recordings – some rain and birdsong.

On the second album, I recorded in a museum of old keyboard instruments in Edinburgh – The Russell Collection – and used spinet, harpsichord, clavichord and old pianos (wooden not cast iron frame, and only two strings per note), as well as a harmonium and my more modern grand piano at home. My friend Su-a Lee, who is the most wonderful cellist, added bass to the string sections.

When I compose, each track develops in its own way but I will usually start with one melodic, rhythmic or harmonic idea and build from there. I add, remove, structure and shape for months until everything feels like it is in its right place. Each sound is thought about and positioned in space and time exactly how I want it to be. I work in Logic to arrange each track; there can be up to 100 tracks of different layers moving against each other.

Live, I use Ableton as well as some other effects pedals.

There seems to be a very strong visual elements to your work. I understand that even though you are a (mainly) solo artist, you have worked closely with visual artists, film-makers and even dancers. This practice culminated in 2014 with the release of the Escapement Visualised DVD, a collaboration between yourself and visual artist Lumen. Could you talk to us about the concept behind the DVD?

Do you think your music could exist on its own, deprived of any visual element?

I started working with Lumen through Hidden Orchestra – Joe Acheson’s studio and live project that I have been working with for many years now. We were putting together a visuals show for the band and I absolutely loved what Lumen did. I asked if he would be interested in creating a series of synchronised visuals to project when I performed live. We discussed a few options for each track and he created the footage which is now Escapement Visualised.

Some of the visuals are created using edited vintage footage and others are filmed by him. I love what he did and he was amazing to work with. He completely understood the aesthetics and mood I was going for.

The visuals are not intended to dominate, and I usually perform the first half of my sets without visuals. They are there to add another dimension to the performance, but the music definitely stands on its own without them, and I very often perform without them.

When I was performing, a lot of people asked if they could get hold of the visuals so we decided to make the DVD.

Could you tell us a bit more about the projects you are working on at the moment/or ones you would like to work on: live, collaborations, new release, etc.?

Currently I am starting work on a new album that I hope will be out by the end of the year. I have just moved into a new studio so I am getting that set up perfectly. For the first time I have the space I need and it is also quiet and light. I absolutely love it.

After three months solid on the road at the end of 2015, I have taken a few months off touring, but I am looking forward to starting to play again both solo and with Hidden Orchestra over the next few weeks. Apart from a few house concerts, the show on the 19th March will be my first performance of 2016 and I can’t wait to play live again!

After that I will play an acoustic set at Union Chapel on the 26th March, Rewire Festival in The Netherlands on the 3rd April, before meeting Hidden Orchestra on the 14th April in Switzerland for Cully Jazz Festival.

Interview by Carya Gish