Lost And Found: An Introduction To Andrew Poppy By Paul Morley

Among the chart topping radical pop hits of Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Art Of Noise, contemporary composer Andrew Poppy was, on the surface of it, an oddity on ZTT. Here Paul Morley explains why he was an ideal fit for the label

Andrew Poppy by Henrik Knudsen

Back in the early 80s, Paul Morley came across a demo cassette sent in to ZTT records for consideration by English composer Andrew Poppy. The label subsequently released Poppy’s first two albums. This year he has compiled unreleased material from the last four decades across four CDs. Ark Hive Of A Live is an ironic meditation on his archive, bringing together elements of biography and materials collected during a lifetime of creative endeavour in sonic, literary and visual forms. This essay is Paul Morley’s Introduction to the Ark Hive of A Live book.

For most of my life I have been a music critic, a writer about music, a pop journalist. I found new music – new company – so that I had something to write and think about as much as to be delighted and surprised by the unknown, and to develop my personal sense of musical history, of how things, moments and artists were connected, or not, and how one rhythm, one voice, one experimental breakthrough led to another. 

Oddly, because I have occasionally strayed into other areas of interest in music, it was not as a music writer that I first found the music, and mind, of Andrew Poppy. In the early 1980s, when I was part of the Zang Tuum Tumb record label, invited to ‘dream it up’ by the record producer and owner Trevor Horn, amongst hundreds of mailed in artist demo’s I came across a cassette tape that Andrew Poppy had sent to the label.

It was interesting that Andrew had sent the tape to ZTT, as Horn was a well-known hit making pop producer, and superficially it was a pop label. I wanted it to be something more though, as a fan of labels such as Nonesuch, Elektra and ECM as much as Island, Virgin and Factory, so although the first single we released was by sensationalist pop pranksters Frankie Goes To Hollywood, the first record we released was by a group of anonymous session musicians, programmers and studio technicians Trevor used to construct his music that we called Art Of Noise. 

Art Of Noise, named after an early 20th century Futurist enterprise, generated sample heavy electronic musique concrete that gleefully shredded genre, found sound and pop precedent, accidentally generating an early neo-hip hop swing. As an electroacoustic musical ensemble designed as the label’s house band and as a self-conscious and cryptic set of images Art Of Noise was meant to send out the signal that the label was interested in music other than pop or rock, that it had a playful, experimental spirit, that it knew its Fluxus as much as its Roxy Music, and all were welcome. 

Of all the cassettes sent to ZTT by groups and singers hoping to be signed I remember this one as containing the most obvious work of someone for whom music held an overwhelming importance. And I was excited that here was a classical musician – what else was he? – who had clearly grown up listening to recorded music, which at the time was a relatively new concept. A new generation of contemporary composers were now used to the sound of music coming out of a speaker; amplification as a musical reality. 

Playing Andrew’s cassette featuring seriously confident, deviously fervent, anxiously surging and oddly wistful music immediately made me think, naturally, of American and British minimalism, then something of a secret for various nerds, know it all’s, awkward academics and fans of Brian Eno’s 1970s Obscure label, a sublime ten album sample of post-serial systems music featuring among others Eno himself, Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, Max Eastley, Cornelius Cardew and early John Adams. It also made me think, less naturally, less officially, of Soft Machine, Jimi Hendrix, Henry Cow and John Cale, of sonic adventure that was filed under rock but explored structure and rhythm as transcendentally as any extreme contemporary classical music.

I knew within seconds that Poppy had picked up the coded ZTT signal, and maybe one or two other clues buried in the advertising of the label, and sensed a possible home for his music, that to some extent belonged somewhere – inside, if outside, the classical tradition – but that also belonged nowhere, or in the misty margins of various musical scenes, or on the desert border between psychedelia and the liturgical, between repetition and radiance, between pulsing and floating, between primeval and post-modern, between English and cosmic, and for a while between the electronic and the orchestral.

It was music that was, splendidly, a little sadly, and necessarily, homeless, even though for a strange period in the mid-1980s, Andrew Poppy had an unlikely home at ZTT, using their expensive West London studios, highly skilled engineers and sophisticated electronics to test the limits, logic and language of his music. He even had a little advertising muscle. 

He loved the access he suddenly had, battling through the chaos of the label’s emotional and commercial tensions and obstacles to produce music that could be described as post-rock, post-minimalist, post-12” remix, post-classical and post-Obscure, gracefully expressing more than one musical direction at a time, experimenting with multi-track mixing and loops as much as with the more conventional selection and manipulation of notes, musicians and instruments. As music produced by Valgeir Sigurðsson for the Bedroom Community label would decades later, it gloriously disregarded the rules of contemporary classical album production.

For Poppy, ZTT was a period of turbulent, enlightening private study that because of the association with the label’s epic and notorious hit music by Frankie Goes To Hollywood was conducted in public, or at least as much attention as a composer as covert, as lonely, as Andrew Poppy can expect to receive. As far as I was concerned, when ZTT was, if only for a year or two, the label I wanted it to be, part pop, part art, it needed Poppy as much as it needed Frankie.

It required a relatively well-funded research and development department populated by outliers and outsiders as well as the big budget pop factory, the shrewd, industrial music business, of Horn. And I thought, if the label was going to work as I hoped it would – in the way ultimately it never did – elements should be added that didn’t seem to fit, and then all the other pieces would move around to make sense of it all. Which it seemed to do signing Andrew, and Trevor seemed to agree and loved having him on the label, as removed as he was from Trevor’s particular entertainment background and interests.

In their own ways, light years apart from each other professionally, technically and conceptually, there were similarities in how they imagined and made music. Both were fascinated with how music works, and I could find myself slipping easily from a conversation with Trevor to one with Andrew feeling both were ultimately interested in the same problems and solutions involved in creating music, and in investigating the relationship between technology and music, between player and listener. Both were interested in the movement of music and were always in a kind of anguish about the apparent impossibility in music of having an original idea after everything that had gone before them. 

They were obsessed with the sounds of the sounds themselves, and both were committed to making sound beautiful, or at least to making sound more direct and immediate than anything that existed before. They were both searching for a revelatory experience. It was the ZTT way, at least in my utopian mind – music whether pop or other that gets people accustomed to new dimensions and new experiences, to the disorientating and challenging complexity of life itself. If anything can happen, you need to be ready for it. You need to be ready to experience different ways of being in the world.

Even though as far as I was concerned Andrew was as ZTT as any act, hit, remix, sound, t-shirt or scandal and made great musical use of its resources,  I sometimes wonder if signing him to ZTT interfered with his natural progression, with his search for truth, broke some kind of prime directive. It was as though we had discovered a charming, ingenious but delicate alien music and spoiled it by introducing it to unforgiving techniques and possibilities that were more corrupting than productive. It left him a little wounded, always in recovery from being neither one thing nor another.

Even when he returned to a more inevitable and in its own brutal way inspiring avant-garde homelessness, and a loss of connection to mainstream resources, he would never be fully accepted in the purist contemporary classical world for this brief foray into, it seemed, cross-over pop, with the dicey, forbidden luxury benefits of a world class studio and the sympathetic advisory attentions of a glossy, world-class pop producer. His homelessness was even more pronounced than the usual nomadic status of the contemporary composer whose work, not least because of its appreciation of shadows, exists in the shadows.

Then again, if you consider that Andrew Poppy is as much performance artist as composer, as much creator of events as musician, a conceptual analyser of processes, connections and consequences, it was absolutely the kind of thing he was meant to have done and should have done. He could explore and extend his range by being both composer and performer, working out where one ended and the other began, all at once pianist, band leader, musical director, listener, conductor, writer, multi-instrumentalist, singer, implementor, soloist, interpreter, producer, dreamer and communicator. 

Andrew Poppy by John Hollingsworth

I might just be excusing my own guilt at dragging him into near showbusiness exile for a while, but listening to the music he has written and performed since, a continuing song and dance, a constant state of play, a series of variations on solitude, on memory, it seems clear that what he did then was part of where he was heading, because it couldn’t have been any other way. Whatever the details, whatever the situation he finds himself in at any given moment, whatever his temporary function, whatever company he finds himself in, whether he is on his own or with others, commissioned, contracted and sponsored or left to his own devices, the music is as elusive and compelling as ever, expressing a mysterious state of being rather than merely a form, creating space and time for both performer and listener. Some of his pieces are intensely exciting and uplifting and cheerful, a melancholy razzle-dazzle; some are very austere and serious and sober, a freaky, bittersweet unease. Exactly as they were, exactly as they will be, the same, but different, taking advantage of the ambiguity in the world.

His music is evolving, adapting itself to changing movements and his personal circumstances, and somehow at the same time it sounds like where his music would be having had his ZTT years and also where it would be if they never happened. Everything he has written, and ghostly elements of things and rituals he was thinking about that never quite made it into his music, exists in his work – where he was, where he is, and where he never quite was. It’s always the end of something and the beginning of something. His compositional activity continues to be a tree which gives another tree which gives another tree.

I listen to this music now having found it more as a writer/thinker continually curious for new experiences and surprising compositional decisions than any kind of collaborator, which I was for a while, representing ZTT, opening up some different spaces for Poppy to enter. I would have found Andrew even if there had been no ZTT, because I was always wandering along the sort of roads, the tangled routes, that lead into and out of his music – roads that go back/forward to Satie, Schoenberg, Bartok, Boulez, Carter, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Birtwistle, and to Debussy and Ravel, and further back/forward to Handel, Dowland and Bach, as well as Cage, Riley, Reich, the Scratch Orchestra, Feldman, roads at the crossroads where AMM, Kraftwerk, Carla Bley, King Crimson, Prince, Animal Collective and Cabaret Voltaire meet, and quiet, ominous roads that few travel that go nowhere but it might yet be somewhere. 

The idea of that unknown road to nowhere, that road to the end of the road, where you are on your own, making waves if only in your own mind, until someone, perhaps, finds you, and remembers you, reminds me of something Morton Feldman once said about how when you write a piece of music the idea is not necessarily to set out to write a good piece. The idea is to get lost, sometimes dangerously so, face up to your fears and doubts, and then find a way to come out of it alive. It’s not about making something. It’s about finding something. It’s about finding yourself. It’s an act of survival. It’s beyond music, which itself is beyond most things.

Andrew Poppy keeps getting lost, and he keeps coming out alive, in a world crowded with composers, and history, and noise, and there is always a sense he has, even when he was on a pop label, that maybe his music will be heard, maybe it won’t. But it has to be here. And here it is. One way or another, it survives. It’s happened. It happens.

Paul Morley is a writer and broadcaster, and a member of staff at the Royal Academy of Music. He wrote for the New Musical Express between 1977 and 1983 and has since contributed to a wide range of publications. A founding member of pop collective Art of Noise, he has written a number of books on music, including biographies of Joy Division, David Bowie and Bob Dylan, and collaborated with Grace Jones on her autobiography I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. His most recent books are A Sound Mind (Bloomsbury) a history of classical music, and From Manchester With Love: The Life and Opinions of Tony Wilson (Faber and Faber)

Ark Hive Of Live is out now on False Walls. Andrew Poppy will be performing his new album Jelly live in Mile End tomorrow (June 9). The concert is free but tickets must be pre-booked

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