London-born and Scottish-raised composer and musician Anna Meredith has torn down the boundaries between popular, “classical,” and film music, proving to be an exceptional musical force in all genres. A classically-trained musician, she received her master’s degree in composition from the Royal College of Music in London, where she became a junior fellow shortly after her graduation. Meredith is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, often performing with her band that replaces a traditional electric bass with a cello. She has served as the composer-in-residence for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, released multiple albums of electronic and popular music, toured with her band, and written multiple film scores. In our conversation, we discussed shaping film cues, the need for visual sketches for musical compositions, and using bumper cars to signal musical shifts.

Could you talk a little bit about your background with music through your childhood and through your university days?

I got into music through performing. I grew up in Scotland where I started learning Scottish fiddle and then when I went to high school, started learning clarinet and then percussion. I played in lots of orchestras and wind bands and that kind of thing, and then started to compose, which you had to do for your exams towards the end of school. The first pieces I wrote were ones you had to do. That got me going. My teacher was encouraging. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a performer or what to do, but I then went on to do a music degree that covered both aspects, the academic, the performing and the composing sides. Then, through that, I went on to focus more into composing from postgraduate onwards.


I’m so thrilled that you actually had someone who was supportive of being a composer at university. My undergrad degree is in percussion performance, but I wanted to do some composition and I was basically told, “No, that’s just for the composition majors.”

Actually, my supportive teacher was when I was at high school, and that was just someone looking at the tiny little pieces I wrote as a teenager, just purely saying, “Well, these are interesting, a little bit different. You should do some more.” You know, that kind of encouragement? At university it was definitely harder, and especially when I got to postgrad, which was just focusing on composition and there were levels of––what’s the right word––where you feel like you’re a fraud?

Impostor Syndrome?

Yeah, massively at that point, you know, “What am I doing?” It can feel like a very closed-off world with only certain people from certain backgrounds who came to music a certain way are allowed to write music.

Totally. As a composer, rhythm seems to be a very significant component of your music. Most composers either focus on melody or harmony, but for you, rhythms seem to take precedence. What is it that draws you to rhythm as a significant musical driver?

I think rhythm is super important to me. I think probably only in the service of pacing, though. For me, almost the most important thing is the plotting and planning of music to make sure that it delivers or surprises or fulfills or swerves a path that the piece is on. I like to use rhythm as a way of building momentum or of changing directions, but it’s normally always in the service of building up or cutting away to something that I’ve planned, that I’m laying the groundwork for. Music is a very visceral thing for me. I like stuff to feel physical. I almost use my own body as a sense of when the material is working. If it’s got energy, if it’s got excitement in it, then I will know it because of how I’m physically reacting. [My music] is quite often rhythmic and I love things that are dance music and stuff that is rhythm-based. I think I’m mostly using the rhythm probably more instinctively over melodic stuff to push it linearly.

Your first film score was for the 2018 film Eighth Grade, which was a wonderful, wonderful film and a big hit here in the US, directed by Bo Burnham. How did he come to contact you about scoring this film? 

He wanted to use an existing piece of mine in the film and he’s very literate and clued up on what music is around and out there. He got in touch and working in film is something I’d been wanting to do for a while, so I think when the conversation happened about using the track, I think it was then because he’d done the temp for the music himself and he didn’t want to write the music; he wanted to work with someone, but he had quite specific criteria of what he was looking for. He wanted a classically trained composer who was working with electronics, who was possibly female. The two things that he said he wanted in the music were both a strength and warmth in it, which was how he came to me.

That’s actually very surprising that a director knows that much about contemporary music. That’s very exciting. It doesn’t happen very often.

Right. I think he’s a big music fan.


Last year you scored the film The End We Start From, which is an apocalyptic film in a lot of ways. What was the path to finding the right sound for that film, which is, of course, very different from Eighth Grade?

I’ve seen the script and some bits, some scenes, and then I spoke with director Mahalia Belo, met her a few times to talk about what specifically what she wanted the role of the score to be. I want to do something where I’m able to create [music] that has an identity. I know that as a composer I’m not very good at replicating another composer’s stuff very well. I’d much rather start with a blank canvas of what I’m trying to create. The film is apocalyptic, but it has apocalyptic backdrop. The actual narrative is actually, in some ways, very intimate and private, and it’s about this woman who is basically trying to get on with her newborn baby and survive and figure out what to do next. She makes a lot of very pragmatic, practical choices that are not about London flooding. [Instead, her choices] are much more about what to do next, where to get food, that sort of stuff. I think there’s an intimacy and we talked about the music having something very small scale even though there’s a big scale sound to it. I knew that I would have lots of electronics, but I wanted it to have a couple of acoustic things in it and there wasn’t a ton of budget to do a massive notated score. I think I had this idea quite early on that it should be flute focused, and that it should have a breathy [feel] and an air, and this idea of in-and-out of breath and upholding the intimacy of the breathing cycle. It felt like a right connection to me, so that was where I started with that sound, combining some strings and electronics.

That [leads into] my next question: Could you talk about the orchestration between the acoustic and electronic elements?

It’s exactly that very small scale, multitracked alto flute and flute and multitracked cellos. That was all the acoustic stuff and everything else is electronic, so I wanted it to have a mix. I used the flutes especially in a range of ways––sometimes they’re played quite straight, and other times I’ve used some extended technique, harmonics and overblowing and key clicks and that sort of stuff as part of a more textural soundscape. I was quite happy for that line to be blurred between what’s real and [not.] I’ve messed around a lot with the sort of samples I had. I think it’s nice in the same way that you focus in on one person in the film to feel something as direct as a single instrument, and other times I wanted to focus more on tension or discomfort or whatever the scene needed.


You were speaking about a certain sort of intimacy and warmth to some of the music. There’s a recurring theme in the score that is just something I absolutely adore. I keep listening to it over and over and over. It’s the cue “Make a Wish,” and that theme happens in two or three different cues. Could you talk a little bit about that particular cue and how you offset it from the rest of the music in the score? […] It’s got those really slow-moving chords.

Some of these things were slightly expanded further for the soundtrack release, but I think one thing I was keen to do, especially for these versions, was to give them each a certain kind of a separation to each other, so that even though there are some things that come back, they each have an identity, depending on what other layers and stuff I added in. I’ve built the chords out of flutes, transposed flute, waves of chords, and I think with that one it was mostly about a very long harmonic growth into a release moment.

For whatever reason, the first time I listened to it, I was just absolutely struck by that particular track. To be honest, that’s literally the moment that I contacted my editor at The Cinematic Journal and said, “Can we track down Anna Meredith and do an interview with her?”

Oh, thank you. That’s really kind.

This particular score is different in a lot of ways because, for you, it doesn’t have much pulsing rhythm. There’s really little rhythm in here, and so when there is rhythm in a track like “Raid,” what’s going on in those particular spots in the film that you wanted to differentiate by using a very pulsing rhythm?

That was initially a bit of a concern. A challenge for me was that I like to create drama and momentum and another thing that was interesting to think about was a lot of the other film work I’ve done has had a lot of hard stops. Things have built to hard cuts, whereas a lot of these cues basically have to do a big arch shape and go up and come down again. [The challenge is] how to build to something that on screen might be quite a subtle climactic point that you’re not necessarily building to, you might just be building to change of eyeline or really the moment that someone realizes something, so there’s a subtler sense of progression. I was keen to try and find places for little bits of pulse and momentum. I knew that there probably wasn’t going to be the opportunity to push it in the same way as some other stuff I do, but I want the score to have contrast. What was nice was Mahalia, who came in here to work with me a lot or to hear what I was doing, was really keen to have these rhythmic spaces, and I think she encouraged them in quite unexpected places.

In “Rage,” it’s a scene where raiders are coming to the shelter that the main character is in to, look at the place and it’s pretty scary when this is quite low in the mix at that point. Our intention was to have this kind of site detached, so the music for that is quite right. It’s not pulse percussive. I think I did a percussive one for… I can’t remember the names, but this is a scene where she kind of grips the fence which is more driving. The idea was to sort of show the disconnect with what was happening through these almost mechanical little flute arpeggios and to not lean into a massive, tense thriller track, but to actually show something––a little bit more of the parts of the paralyzed way that you might [feel] in that situation and what to do.


You have an upcoming film that you’ve scored called Tuesday, which is scheduled to be released at some point in 2024. Clearly film music and film scoring are something that you continue to return to. What is it about this particular music that’s attractive?

I really like it in combination with the other stuff that I do. I think a lot of the other things that I do––writing for my band, or myself with my album projects, or commissions that I do––are just on me or just my thing and that has real pros and cons. I think sometimes I was really looking to do some stuff that was more collaborative and not necessarily musically collaborative because I know that I’m kind of a terrible musical collaborator. [laughs] I’m not somebody who’s very good at [that] anyway. That’s not my thing. But to work with the director and all in the service of something else has been a really interesting process. I could always write quickly, but oh my God, I’ve never written quickly until I had to start doing it for films. I think it’s a very intense, sometimes quite stressful [process], but amazing to be part of this little community all working, quite often, in very rushed or difficult circumstances, but everyone’s wanting the best for the projects and you become a little sort of family for that moment. That’s really nice and quite different to other work that I do, but I don’t think it could be the only thing I did. I think I like to have the combination of this work with another purpose and combining that with stuff I do that is purely on my own terms.

Let’s talk a little bit about your concert music. Your concert work is fairly well known for being, perhaps, atypical in terms of its instrumentation, but it’s always accessible because it’s always grounded in Western art music and things that we’re familiar with. Do you see a difference between writing a concerto for trombone and a concerto for beatboxing?

I try not to. I think the way that I approach everything I’m doing, whether it’s a film score or an electronic track or a piece for kids or piece for concert halls, it’s trying to approach it all the same way. I don’t think about genre at all. I try not to think of any reference points of other music. I don’t listen to music for inspiration; I listen to a lot of audio books and try and write everything purely on all of my own terms with what I want the music to do. Even though the context or the audience, or even the instrumentation might be hugely different. I’m quite often still interested with the same types of ideas and materials, [like] little fragments and watching [them] mutate and grow, changes of feel, pacing out, surprise elements, or keeping things so that there’s invention even when the ideas might feel minimal on the surface. I think trying to play with that stuff cuts across everything that I do. Even though a lot of people might think there’s stuff that obviously sounds different, I think the intention in terms of what I’m trying to do with the music is pretty similar across everything.

You also had an installation in in 2021 called Bumps per Minute: 18 Studies for Dodgems. For the US readers, a “dodgem” is a bumper car. This was created during COVID lockdown. Could you talk a little bit about the process and the installation itself and how the music would occur when people were in the vehicles?

Yeah, it was a really fun [project] and I’m so lucky that it happened in this time when so much other stuff was [canceled]. I was meant to be on tour and all this stuff was meant to have happened and everything got stopped. Where I work––my studio––is in London in Somerset House, which is right in the center of London and it has this quite famous big courtyard in the middle that once a year has our quite well-known ice rink at Christmas and big Christmas tree and everything. I was talking to the director of the studios and asked, “Would it be possible to do the ice rink in the middle of COVID, in this peak everyone-worrying-about-distancing time?” And he said he didn’t think so. People get too close and I remember having this [idea] that what you should do is get bumper cars, dodgems, because you never get too close. You’re always two meters away if you could get them in there. [I was told] I could write music for them and sort of amazingly, they went for it and found some bumper cars that you can hire. They sat in this courtyard and what I decided to make was quite an interesting exercise in getting to know myself a bit better as a composer because I worked with the amazing creative team who were doing the technical stuff about how the bumps at the dodgems could relate to the music.

They made these amazing little physical boxes that sat in the footwell of each car, which had a free-floating weight, and when you stop the weight, it would move forward inside a little metal cage and create a circle, completing a circuit to send the trigger. That was designed to differentiate between a sort of bump and a swerve. They were quite carefully calibrated to work like that, but they actually found that there were all sorts of data they could give me that could have influenced the music. I could have made music that reacted to how fast people were driving or what direction they were going, or all these sorts of things. But interestingly, it made me kind of realize that there’s a limit to how much control I’m able to give other people before it stops feeling like me musically. For other composers I know, that would be really exciting and a really great way to work, but I think how I wanted to view this piece was more like a very maximalist shuffle. I made 18 little very high impact, purely electronic, sort of almost circusy manic miniatures, but each with a very different atmosphere. The idea would be that on a bump, a new [miniature] would get triggered and lights would flash and you just suddenly jump into the world of a new thing. I imagined it more just like a door had been flung open, one at a time, and you’re just plunged, even if only for a few seconds.

Compositionally I had to make sure that in the recorded version it was a little different because I extended them a tiny bit for the album that’s released. They’re only two minutes each, but for the ones that we actually did for the installation, you had to get to the heart of the track almost immediately because you might only have a few seconds before the next bump, and I think in the end we had to do some clever coding because there were too many bumps and it meant you never actually got to hear anything. They had a really great word for it, where you teach the software to ignore [the bumps], so it meant that you normally got to have fast bumps a couple times and then you could have 5 or 10 seconds to actually establish between stuff so that you wouldn’t just have this totally jarring [switch].

We made these things called “impact gestures” […], a special name for a thing inside the dodgem school like a little tent. The whole courtyard had some food trucks and little places where people could sit. We made a big surround system there, so anytime an impact would happen, a big sound would ripple clockwise, anticlockwise, all the way around, with lights as well. There were these really amplified moments and it was just kind of intervention that didn’t happen constantly because I think it would drive the people who were coming just for a drink or food mad. It was an hour [that] this thing would take over, and there’d be these big moments for four minutes or whatever, and it would be different each time depending, obviously, on how people drove or how many collisions there were. We tried to make an online version where people could drag a little virtual dodgem into another virtual dodgem and do that, which was just all nice little things to try to make happen in a sort of crazy time. [We’re] still trying to make it happen again. We’ve got all these boxes somewhere, so it is possible; I just need to find someone who’s up for going for it.

Did you get to ride in one of the cars?

Yeah, so many times over and over and over and over. There’s a little video somewhere we made of the thing. Even though I knew it, obviously knew all the tracks, you made the connection between the impact and the new music and you felt that kind of power or feeling like you had made this thing happen. Also, the way that the little track soundtracked the way you were driving, sort of felt like you were chasing someone down and [others] that felt like you were creeping up on someone, added a sort of narrative, even though it was sort of subjective in your own head, which was really great to do.

Your albums inhabit a very different sonic space than some of your classical concert works. Do you hope fans that are really into one style or the other crossover and get to enjoy the other part of your compositional life?

Yeah, [but] I suppose I don’t really know if I do hear them different[ly]. I mean, they definitely are, not superficially, but in terms of instrumentation. But you know, as the actual compositional ingredients, I’ve quite often taken musical ideas from some of my [works], maybe there’s been a chord sequence of something that I’ve loved and an orchestra piece I’ve written and I’ve taken that as a starting point for some album stuff. I feel like I don’t approach them in a different way. I have lots of people who have been to their first “classical” concert because they come to see the band, and likewise, people have come to some nasty sweaty gig because they’ve been to see an orchestral or chamber thing or whatever. I see it all as very fluid continuous space and it’s been nice to see people not worry about that stuff too much as audience members.

Am I correct in stating that you are working on a new album right now?


Since the COVID tour didn’t happen, do you plan on taking the band on tour with this one?

Yeah, I hope so. So many awful things that happened in COVID. Obviously, so many disclaimers about how stuff goes because, as anyone who’s ever made an album knows, it’s so much work. Compared to a commission, where there’s infrastructure and funding, the leap of faith when you’re doing [an album] yourself, I’m without any funding and just doing it, and it’s kind of scary. For me, the part of the payoff is getting to perform, which is this extra side to being a composer that I certainly didn’t expect to be happening. [It’s a] surprise extra bonus side of what I do, which I really love. It’s part of the reward to all that work and slog and detail and agonizing. Months or years and years and years of work that you then get to have this time seeing the world and playing to people. We didn’t really get that in the same way [in 2020].
So, I really hope that we can come back to the [United] States and go to some places like we were meant to go to and didn’t get to go to. By the time those festivals or whatever got back up again, FIBS which came out in 2019, was an old record to them. That’s the way the world works, I guess, people just kind of move on in that way? I obviously hope we get to do something with this new one, but who knows? Everything seems to be very globally up in the air at the moment.

I got to watch your NPR Tiny desk concert [from 2018] and that is just full of energy and so lively. When you do play with the band, obviously you’ve recorded these songs and they’re very structured, [but] are there moments where the players are allowed to improvise, or are there places where you’re able to say, “OK, we’re going to do a solo here, who wants it tonight?”

A few moments; everything’s very structured and we restructure the tracks for live [performances], so the versions in the album become longer or slightly different. We have real instruments in the band, so we take out stuff [like] electronics for real instruments to play. There’s stuff where it depends almost on the intention of the track. Because most of the players in the band are also from a contemporary classical background, so playing an annotated part is quite often the starting point for a lot of this material. There’s stuff where we’ve got a few tracks that are just like a bit of a release, a bit silly. And Jack, the guitar player can just let rip some amazing insane solo that I know he’ll do a solo in this time and he knows he’s got to get to X point, but I know he’ll do it. We’ve been touring together for so many years that we all know how we are. I guess the parameters are for freedom and we always end our gigs with a cover and we have done some really trashy, trashy covers. I think part of this journey of the gig is to get from, you know, what can feel like a quite serious, quite intense start and all the ups and downs through stuff with beats, stuff with no beats, stuff with big builds, stuff that’s vocals, hugely varied in some capacity, to take the audience with us on that journey through all those spaces to a place where they can kick back and sing along to “Enter Sandman” or whatever at the end of the gig. [The cover song] is like a payoff.

Ohhh my gosh, that would be so much fun, especially not knowing what you’re going to get at the end and if you have a bunch of songs that you can cycle through on tour, that keeps it fresh for you as well.

Yeah, exactly. Our sets are pretty fixed and we curate the whole [event]. We love the walk-in music and we have playlists that we like to play before and after and costumes and the whole thing. Even though we’re quite small, it’s carefully thought through [as much as] it can be. Covers-wise, we’ve got a few. We tend not to switch them about once we’re doing one that tour. We’ve had a few medleys where we’ve, like, jumped through four or five songs, and that’s really fun to watch people not knowing what’s coming up next.

Since electronics are incredibly important to your music, what sort of equipment do you have? Could you talk a little bit about your studio? Do you have a favorite piece of equipment or a favorite piece of software?

I think I’m quite a disappointment to people sometimes on this front. I’ve had a few interviews that are focused mostly on gear or people who are interested in that stuff, and that is not a real priority for me. I work in this room, which has basically no equipment in it. It’s a writing room, and that’s where all the work goes into Sibelius and notation software, where am I spending 80% of the composing. Even a track that comes out sounding completely electronic, I write it all, notate it all because I want to check [if] the ingredients work, it’s not about the production, because the production just isn’t my skill. So, if the actual nuts and bolts, the actual ingredients of the music will work with eight pianos or whatever, just to check the content, then I know it will be fine once I extract the MIDI. And then I use Ableton to actually build the synths in there by trying not to rely too heavily on the synth stuff.

I don’t have any hardware. I’ve got no sense. It’s all paper drawing of architectural-type things where I pace out the shapes of the music I do. Literally I have blank paper where I draw a timeline and then I sketch out this pacing, which is so important for me and I’ll pace out the film, I’ll use what happens in the film to show, “OK, I’m heading to here, I’m heading to here,” and if there’s no film and I’m doing it myself, I’ll artificially put in arrival points or change points or swerve points or whatever they’ll be, and then I’ll be about drawing how I’m going to get to these points, whether I’m going to build up to it and drop in something else, or whether I’m going start a seed that explodes out of it. I’ll have these development paths that I’d like to plot that are nothing to do with gear and nothing to do with notation that are just purely about imagining pacing, and I’ll quite often sit in silence, if it’s going be a five-minute track, for five minutes and imagine where things need to happen. Where do I need something new? How much can I push this idea before something else should happen? So again, it’s trusting my body and trusting my instinct to know how to control the pacing of the material. Paper sketches, then Sibelius extracts the MIDI and then tabletop as my process.

That’s fascinating. There are several composers who do sketches. Arvo Pärt does sketches, Andrew Norman does sketches. Xenakis famously did sketches, because he also was an architect first.

Yeah, I just think you want to have something to stick on your wall that defines the whole piece.
I want to have something. I don’t want to start at the beginning of the blank bit of manuscript, I want to have a sense of where I’m going to and it can go one of two ways. Sometimes I’ll draw the shape and then I’ll write material to fit that shape, and other times I’ll have a little tiny idea of something and I’ll draw the shape around the idea of what it could be.

I remember it really clearly as a composing lesson when I was a student and I had a piece to write that was due in a few days’ time when I hadn’t really got anything I liked and I was in a panic and my teacher probably getting pissed off at me, (aside: OK, fair enough) but he’ll say, “OK, look, just sing me the piece and I’ll draw it for you,” and I was like, “What do you mean ‘sing it’,” and he said, “Just don’t worry about it. Just sing me the piece,” and I was like, “OK, let’s start. So, this, and this carries on, and then ‘la la la la’…,” and he drew out and handed me this bit of paper that was this sort of rough outline of where I was like, “Oh, this idea comes in here and it’s something really strong and rhythmic, and then, OK, I think around here we have [this],” and at the end, he handed me this thing, and it was like, “OK, look, you do know what happens. There’s a piece. Go and do it,” and that was such a huge moment in terms of realizing, that the notation for me is the least important bit. It’s a tool to get the idea down, and even though it’s my tool and that I know it’s the thing I know how to use best, making the connection between like brain into [something tangible], it’s an extra step. You’ve got to go through this medium, but ultimately the hope is to try and do something that feels instinctive and immediate. I love to have a map. [It] just helps.