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Interviews

Kerry Andrew
25 Jan 2010

Kerry Andrew — An Interview

Kerry Andrew is a young British composer who seems to have her finger in an astounding number of pies, from modern sacred choral music to alt-folk, and including vocal chamber ensemble music and jazz. We talked via Skype on Jan. 12, 2010.

An Interview with Kerry Andrew

By Tom Moore

 

TM: Where were you born and raised?

KA: I was born and raised in High Wycombe, which is a nondescript town in Buckinghamshire, outside London.

TM: What sort of music were you exposed to in your family as a child?

KA: My parents aren’t musicians, and don’t play instruments, but my dad was always interested in singing. Once I was about ten, I joined the church choir with him. I lived in Canada, when I was very small, for three years, and my parents got into a lot of country music. I listened to a lot of classic country, like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.

TM: When did you go to Canada?

KA: When I was very small, age three to six. Not old enough to take much in, I don’t think.

TM: Where did you live?

KA: We lived in Toronto.

TM: Was it a shock to move there from the London area?

KA: It was more of a small culture shock coming back. Not for very long, because I was still tiny. My Canadian accent was dispelled pretty quickly. I have never been back, actually — I would love to go back to Canada. I have always meant to, and haven’t quite made it.

TM: So your father sang in the church choir.

KA: I joined quite soon after him. I sang for ten years.

TM: Was this Church of England?

KA: Catholic. And Catholic choirs in the UK are pretty bad! You get much better choirs at the Church of England than you generally do in Catholic churches. Nobody is paid to sing in a Catholic choir except for in very posh Catholic churches in London, so it’s often rather amateur. But I learnt to sing in parts there, which was hugely valuable.

TM: The same is true in the United States, with the best music at the Episcopal Church. You must also have explored other musical areas as a child.

KA: Nothing out of the ordinary. I went to school, and like many school kids, at least then, I learned two instruments - first the flute, then the piano. I got a scholarship at a weekend music center, which I went to from the age of 10 to 18 — so every Friday night and Saturday morning I was doing extra music, mostly classical.

This was in High Wycombe, at a music center that is still going. You got to do choir, theory, musicianship, a couple of instruments, and wind orchestra or orchestra, depending on what you were playing. It was really good, really good. Without all that extra weekend activity I am sure that I would not be a musician now.

TM: For those of us in the USA the English educational system is a mystery. What sort of schools did you go to?

KA: I went to a very ordinary state primary and middle school until the age of 12, and in Buckinghamshire, you did the 12+. If you passed you went to a grammar school, so I went to a girl’s grammar school for the next six years, up to eighteen. It works in different ways all over the country, so you can have non-fee-paying grammar schools, but you still pass an exam to get there. There are private schools, independent schools, and state schools.

TM: To have a public school that is just boys or just girls in the USA is very unusual. What was the music like there?

KA: It was quite traditional, but very good. I was the only one, when I was sixteen to eighteen, who was picked to do two music A-levels — I did theoretical music and practical music. The exams were quite intense, actually, but I was given one-to-one tuition to do that.

TM: You were singing, and playing flute, and piano. Do you still play flute and piano?

KA: I play quite a lot of piano. I am a bit of a jobbing piano player — I couldn’t give a concert, but I play piano in one of my bands, and for all of my teaching. I should pick up my flute. One of my New Year’s resolutions last year was to pick up my flute again, and I played it once, on about January the fifth! I am just too busy.

TM: Did you listen to pop, or rock, or jazz? World music?

KA: Jazz: not until a lot later. I listened mostly just to pop music, influenced by what was in the charts. When I was ten I was into Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan! By the time that I was sixteen, it was lots of British indie bands and a bit of hip-hop. I was a slow developer — you get a lot of prodigious talents who are listening to Berio at age seven, or John Coltrane at age nine… I was just not like that!

TM: When you left grammar, you went on to university.

KA: At York University. It has a fabulous music department — I will praise it to the hilt, because it’s brilliant, and I had the time of my life there. I did a degree in music, and stayed on and did a Masters in Composition. Then I did a Ph.D in Composition, first part-time, while I was living in London, and then I went up and finished it off full-time. All in all, I was at York for about nine years. So I must really like the place!

TM: We Americans have no sense of scale for England. How far was York from London by train?

KA: Just under two hours.

TM: It seems like it must be impossibly far north, if you think of Michael Palin and his Yorkshire accent.

KA: It’s a great city. For me moving from a slightly dull town to a bijou city was a really good move. There was just enough culture there for me to ease myself in — it would have been a shock if I had moved to London straightaway.

I think the department is starting to change now, actually. For a long time you could choose all the modules that you wanted to do — you didn’t have to do a rigorous training in theory and orchestration and music history — you went straight in and did loads of practical, fun projects. You could choose a project a term, from Popular Music to studying Debussy, from Electroacoustic Composition to Community Music — you could mix and match, and tailor your degree to suit you.

TM: Which did you choose?

KA: I did Popular Music early on, and did a hip-hop project. I have always really loved hip-hop. I revisited it for my MA, and did a seminar on the history of hip-hop, or the way it was then. I did Debussy, and Music Education which was very valuable, because I do so much music education now. I did a lot of composition, and I ended up doing a lot of music theater — experimental music theater, not musical theater — as director, producer, or musical director, and sometimes a performer. And I ended up singing. I have never really had any singing lessons, although now a lot of my living is singing. I was exposed to so much there - being in choirs, and singing a lot of new music — that it got me to where I am now.

TM: At what point did you decide that you wanted to be doing composition?

KA: At sixteen. I wanted to go to a college, like the Royal College of Music, and was encouraged not to by my music teachers, who thought that a university department with a real spread of musical activities would be much better for me than just having a composition degree. I wouldn’t have ended up singing had I done composition at the Royal College, had I even been given the place.

There are great composers teaching at York: Roger Marsh, Bill Brooks, Nicola LeFanu, who has just retired recently. Roger Marsh was my teacher for quite a few years, and he was a big influence.

TM: Could you say a little more about those two?

KA: Nicola LeFanu was the head of the department when I started. She writes very beautiful, often quite detailed contemporary classical work, which has included several operas. Roger Marsh has written experimental music theater works, music using interesting texts, and music drawing on Japanese music, which is something that I have gotten into as well.

TM: Were there particular models of composition that he was imparting?

KA: No, it was quite open. You studied a lot of twentieth-century music, and eventually you wrote your own pieces. What was great about York was that there was such a strong culture of not just writing new music, but playing and performing it, so students were willing and ready to try out your work. It was a fantastic environment for trying out new ideas.

TM: What choirs did you sing in at York?

KA: They had a chamber choir and a larger university choir. The chamber choir split so that there was an extra small chamber choir just for performing new music, and I was quite involved in that one. There is now a really good ensemble called The 24 which solely performs new music, and that is run by the great tenor John Potter, who is a great influence on the group that I am in, juice. He’s been instrumental in developing the new music side of the vocal department at York. He’s recorded John Dowland songs with the likes of double bass player Barry Guy and saxophonist John Surman, he works extensively with Gavin Bryars, and has an ensemble called Red Byrd — he’s fabulous.

TM: Yes indeed. Perhaps you could talk about your choral music. So much sacred music is in such poor taste, and your works are fresh and different, but still drawing on the English choral tradition. What would you say are the sources for your inspiration?

KA: Although I sang in a church choir for many years, it was a Catholic choir, and we weren’t singing wonderful pieces by Howells [said with a smile], or Stanford or Parry, or anything like that. I did sing quite a lot of good sacred music once I was at university.

The choral music I write comes from a mixture of the little church music that I have known, but mostly from listening to much more experimental vocal ensemble music or choral music by people like — I know you won’t think it from listening to dusksongs — Berio and Xenakis and lots of Meredith Monk. At university I didn’t write traditional choral music — I wrote quite experimental works. The reason that I have ended up writing a lot of decently successful choral music is because I entered a piece in the Temple Church Choir Composition Competition, and won. From that Oxford University Press, who are my main publishers, asked me to write a piece, and it’s just developed from there. The commission from the Ebor Singers for dusksongs came from my having established myself with the OUP publications, and the fact that they know me from York, since it is a York-based ensemble.

I am interested in vocal music generally, so although I have written a lot of sacred choral music, it’s because I have been asked to. Even though I grew up in the Catholic Church, I am a total atheist now, quite emphatically so.

I am really interested in words as well. I am interested in vocal music because I love writing, and have always written poetry, some of which has been published in small presses. I have written lots of lyrics. What I always enjoy doing, and this is also true for the sacred music, is just responding to the words. That’s the most important thing. I try to find a way to make words as interesting and illuminating as possible.

TM: To go back a little, what piece was it that won the competition?

KA: A piece called maranatha. It was for the first of the Temple Church Choir Composition Competitions in 2002. They gave a number of texts that you might want to set for a five-minute choral work. The first text was just one word — maranatha. It is Aramaic, and means “Lord, come!” or “The Lord has come”. At the time, at university, I had been getting into setting really small bits of text, splitting them up, using just tiny bits of words, and exploring their sonic possibilities. I decided to choose that word, maranatha, because it was the shortest, along with the fact that it has these two meanings. I explored the sounds of the mmm — aaa — rrrr aaa—naa-tha. The piece won, and Faber Music decided to publish it. It was a good start.

TM: What came next?

KA: O lux beata Trinitas, which Oxford University Press asked me to do, to be included in a book of anthems, for quite competent choirs; from the suggested texts I chose a lovely Latin one. I like to combine languages, so there was Latin and English, with the two going alongside each other. Paul Gameson got the Ebors to perform it, and they liked it so much that they thought they would create a commission using this as a starting point. And so the Compline Mass, dusksongs, has O lux beata Trinitas as its final movement.

TM: You have various other venues as a performer. Could you talk about juice?

KA: juice (www.juicevocalensemble.net) is a trio that I co-founded with Sarah Dacy and Anna Snow. We all went to York, so we have all come from that brilliant vocal department, and been influenced by the likes of John Potter, and all the music we were exposed to — Berio, John Cage, Meredith Monk. We had sung together a little bit at university and found that we had a rapport, and when we all moved to London in 2003 we officially formed the group. We are an experimental vocal trio coming from a contemporary classical tradition, which is still our core, but we are also really interested in singing elements of folk music, world music, jazz and pop, as long as there is something a little bit twisted or experimental about it. We try to put quite eclectic programs together. We’ll do music with electronics, or electronics and visuals, a little bit of music theater, sometimes collaborations…

TM: Is there a CD out yet, or is that on the way?

KA: This year hopefully! We’re part of a loose alternative classical scene in London, with other groups like ours mixing contemporary classical with elements of pop or electronica. Other groups are the Elysian Quartet, Sarah Nicolls, a pianist who does a lot of stuff with electronics, and Gabriel Prokofiev, who is a composer and DJ, and runs the ‘nonclassical’ label, which we should be on in 2010. We hope to start recording soon, and it will be out at some point later in the year.

TM: Music for just voices?

KA: It’s still undecided, actually. Gabriel’s initial albums on nonclassical were his own string quartets, for the Elysian Quartet, where you would have a four-movement quartet, which he would get DJs and producers to remix, so you have a part-acoustic, part-remixed album. That’s generally the format of the nonclassical releases so far. Gabriel and juice are trying to decide if it will be just a cappella, or juice and electronics, or a cappella pieces and remixes.

TM: You mentioned the various influences on juice. How do these filter into your life? Do you seek them out?

KA: It’s a real mixture. It’s from recommendations, it’s me finding artists on MySpace, searching around online….All of juice’s ears prick up when we hear a group or a vocalist doing something new and exciting with their voices. We’re big fans of Zap Mama, who are quite an influence on us. Do you know them?

TM: They were big in the United States.

KA: A lot bigger than they were in the UK.

TM: They were huge — everybody knew who they were.

KA: Their first album was a big influence.

TM: Tell me about your alt-folk thing.

KA: I have been working on my own solo stuff for about a year, under the name You Are Wolf (www.myspace.com/youarewolf). I wanted to explore folk music, because it was something I had listened to for the last fifteen years — English folk music in particular. I have been arranging English folk songs using a loop station, which enables me to perform basically solo, feeding my voice into the loop station, and building up vocal layers around the songs.

TM: You mentioned enjoying twisting music with juice. How do you twist around the folk music?

KA: The first song on my soon-to-be-self-released EP is called “All things are quite silent”, which I picked up from an English folksong book, just the melody and the words. I have never heard a recording, so I didn’t come to it with any preconceptions. I learnt the tune, and developed a layered vocal version, where I take a couple of bits of the beginning of the folksong, and create loops out of those that go on underneath. I explore treating my voice, making it sound like the sea, bleeps, whistles, and cracks, and I tried to turn it into a very dark song. It’s about a girl losing her man to the sea — he’s gone off to be a sailor. The last verse is faintly optimistic, where she hopes he will come back soon. I sing those words, but underneath I produce all these cracking, creaking, nasty-sounding effects from my voice which suggest that …

TM: …he’s not coming back.

KA: There’s a lashing sea and wind…I guess that’s a good example of twisting it up.

TM: How do you integrate Berio and Xenakis? I know the Cries of London by Berio, but I wouldn’t have thought of Xenakis as having much connection with the vocal world. It seems like it takes someone with extensive experience with the voice to write effective choral music.

KA: I agree — that is usually the case. I say Xenakis because I studied his piece Nuits which is a really good choral work with lots of microtonal writing, all in these lovely little blocks. It was an influence on me because I have been interested in having lots of vocal lines doing very similar things all at once.

I teach a lot of projects on composing for voice with juice, and we always say “sing your music”. Even if you are not a singer, don’t sing in a choir or in public, it’s all about getting it in your voice. Sometimes you get composers who write difficult, angular things for the voice that don’t feel very natural. That’s not to say that you can’t write difficult, angular material for the voice, but some work better than others. I always recommend singing your parts, just to see if it generally feels natural, works with the words, and works within the range of the voice.

It’s very useful to be in juice, and have so much experience about how a vocal ensemble works. Knowing how voices relate to each other when you haven’t got any backing, any piano or organ or anything else, knowing about voice-leading and tuning. I am lucky that a lot of that comes naturally to me because I have done so much of it. That said, I can’t write a string quartet to save my life! It’s what you know.

TM: The composers who take this route to composition are few. In 1500, in England, if you were a composer, you were a singer, but not anymore.

Frequently there seems to be a connection between the scene for early music and the contemporary music scene, with musicians who may not do much in between doing both sixteenth and twenty-first century music, for example. Is there a connection for you between the early music scene and what you do?

KA: Not really!

TM: Though you mentioned John Potter.

KA: John Potter is someone who makes that connection, both as a soloist with his John Dowland work for example, and in his previous work in the Hilliard Ensemble. Trio Medieval are another ensemble who sing mostly early music, but do some contemporary music as well. If you sing early music you have a straighter voice which, perhaps, suits a lot of contemporary writing. It depends.

I quite like listening to early music, and I personally love a straight vocal sound, both in choral music and in solo or small ensemble singing. But juice doesn’t sing any early music — we are all about the now!

TM: Are there other areas you are moving into or would like to explore further?

KA: I am in two other bands, actually. I sing with a group called Metamorphic, who are a jazz sextet, doing original jazz. I also co-founded DOLLYman (you can hear us at myspace.com/dollyman). Until recently we were a four-piece group, all from York at some point, with me singing and playing some piano, melodica and glockenspiel. We have James Lindsay, a cellist who also sings and plays keys, Matt Dibble who is a fantastic clarinet and sax player, and Lucy Mulgan, who is a bass player. We have spent a couple of years having a lot of fun. It’s not professional, it’s just fun. We all write material for the band which is sort of jazz……..ish. There’s a bit of jazz, a bit of experimental classical music as well, a bit of pop. And now we’ve got a drummer, Pat Moore, so we feel more like a proper band - ha!

TM: Is there a CD in the offing?

KA: We are talking about recording this month or next month, but I can’t make any promises!

TM: What sort of jazz does Metamorphic play?

KA: The pianist and band founder, Laura Cole, would say Kenny Wheeler, Moondog, Bjork, Radiohead, Keith Jarrett and many more. And we are doing some recording this year as well — I can’t keep up with it!

TM: I’m at a loss for words. Your projects are so various. Is this something true for your generation? Or is it just your path?

KA: There are lots of people in my age group who are doing a lot of different musical activities. I could name my friend Laura Moody, who is the cellist in the Elysian Quartet, but who has developed solo leftfield pop for cello and voice, and also plays cello in the West End. Gabriel Prokofiev is another — he’s a DJ, a contemporary classical composer, a producer — he produces a grime artist called Lady Sovereign who is on the UK’s celebrity Big Brother at the moment.

I don’t know if it is because you have to be multi-disciplinary these days to be successful, or just because you simply enjoy being that way. I just love all sorts of music, and slowly over the last ten, fifteen years I have been finding my way through that. You just keep following your path until another opportunity appears, and then you follow that one, and you might have a few paths you are going down in the end. I also think that it is practical as a professional musician today to have fingers in lots of pies — you never know what will take off and won’t.

TM: This seems immensely different from the generation of Birtwistle and Davies.

KA: Birtwistle hates pop music!!! He hates it! [laughs]. It is a different generation. There is a problem with kids not being exposed to any classical music or creative music making, or at least hardly any. Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies came out of a time when they did do a lot of that in school, and that’s fantastic.

It’s just the way the world is. You are exposed to so much music. I have the shortest attention span. I can listen to half a track on MySpace and say “yeah. Next! Next!” But I think it’s awful to damn pop music. Most people listen to just pop music, and there’s a reason for that. Lots of it is really great, and gets you going [looks serious and nods head] or [mock-cries] or [dances] or a doing bit of all of those. You shouldn’t dismiss it.

TM: You mentioned no string quartets, and I presume there’s no solo piano music from your pen yet. Do you see moving in that direction at some point, or is that of no interest?

KA: It would be of interest….I did a lot of vocal music at university, and it’s been like a stone gathering moss as it rolls downhill. I often regret that I haven’t, alongside that, been writing loads of orchestral works and chamber music…but that’s just the way it is! If a string quartet asked me to write one, then I would!

Some of the music that I have written for DOLLYman would fit happily into a contemporary classical music concert, so I have made my own opportunities, I suppose. I would love to write more theatrical works, and ask instrumentalists to be part of that.

TM: If you look ten years down the road, where would you see yourself, musically?

KA: I would hope that all of the things I am in involved in at the moment were ten times as successful as they are now.

TM: Who would you like to have commission you?

KA: I have become so used to linking performance and composition that just thinking of myself solely as a composer can be hard… The absolute ideal would be Bang on a Can All-Stars, because they are interested in the sort of music as I am. The Elysian Quartet. I would almost be more interested in being commissioned by the fantastic Scandinavian pop group Efterklang, or Antony Hegarty, or Björk — people interested in the outer limits, but still within pop music.

TM: Are there other activities you would like to mention?

KA: Keeping up with tradition of Britten, Maxwell Davies and co, I do a huge amount of educational and community work. This is both as a workshop leader, performer and composer, with organisations like Wigmore Hall, Trinity College, Drake Music, Creative Partnerships, Live Music Now and others. It feels valuable, and it’s good to be delivering some high-quality musical experiences to kids.

I also curate an occasional experimental vocal night, Gobsmack, in London, through the music networking organization Music Orbit. And I’m a keen blogger — both on my own cultural life (http://de-composing.blogspot.com) and sporadically on football (www.feverbitch.com)!

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