Meet the Artist – Anna Appleby, composer

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Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I had a sort of mundane epiphany when I was sixteen, the realisation (while sitting on a cramped coach with fifty other sweaty and tired musicians) that I could spend every day for the rest of my life doing music and not mind. This was quite a big deal considering that I minded the possibility of pretty much anything else being a serious pursuit; my attention span was very unpredictable, and I didn’t tend to truly persevere at much except doodling ferociously in lessons.

We were touring Holst’s The Planets in Sweden, I was playing first oboe with my youth orchestra and over those ten days I just fell helplessly and unglamorously in love with music, having spent twelve years coasting along at the piano and at rehearsals without ever fully committing. I also fell a bit in love with a cellist which may have helped the decision-making process…

I subsequently had a weird spiritual experience back home in Newcastle where I felt that composing was my one true calling and that I had no option but to pursue it obsessively. The first piece I wrote was a strange and dissonant duet for violin and cello, and the second was a terrible ‘Chopin-with-a-hangover’ piano sonatina. I had no concept of structure, form, or large-scale harmony, so these pieces are still my most, and least original compositions.

It was necessary to learn the ‘big picture’ at university first before specialising. Oxford was a slightly mad choice, as the workload left rather little time for creativity, but I learned a lot there, and I started my string quartet which I have just finished this year! The career bit came during my Masters at RNCM as I needed time to work out how on earth people made it work full-time. Sometimes I look back at eight-year-old me, dancing around in bizarre, one-woman musicals on the living room stage for her dear parents, and wonder how she got here.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

The biggest milestones so far have probably been: hearing Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet at a concert with my mum when I was seventeen; discussing one of my first compositions with Nicola LeFanu at St Hilda’s; meeting Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and sending him one of my scores (he replied); getting my first professional commission with Streetwise Opera after my Masters; working with Rambert Dance Company as the Music Fellow last year.

Streetwise Opera showed me the power that music, and new music, can have in people’s lives, and how collaborating with performers can inspire me to make something completely different. Working alongside everyone at Rambert taught me more in a year that I think I’ve learned in the other twenty-three. My teachers gave me the tools to write and helped to equip me with the resilience and the perspective you need as a professional musician.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Undoubtedly the first summer was the hardest. I was juggling eight different jobs/commissions and I was still broke because none of them were going to pay me until September, so I got a café job on top of that. I had just moved house and all of my friends were away, I was ill every week so lost a teaching assistant position, I hadn’t had any holiday in over a year, my mental health was awful and I had zero inspiration for any pieces. It was hard to see how it was going to work out, but it did! I think it was J.K. Rowling who said “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” I don’t think I was anywhere near rock bottom but I wasn’t feeling very confident about the future, and it has all seemed less bad since that August.

The other greatest challenge was that of producing my chamber opera, which was a much bigger task than composing it! I spent a whole year on it with RNCM musicians, and it resulted in a collaboration with choreographer Dane Hurst at Tete a Tete opera festival, funded by the Arts Council and by the generosity of individual sponsors. I was very, very nervous before the August performance and barely slept for a week, but my team were amazing so I shouldn’t have worried so much.

It’s always frustrating when you get rejected from things, but I’ve made a ‘folder of failure’ that helps me to find the pitfalls funnier. If you want to know the really good anecdotes, you’ll have to ask me in person!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I love commissions as they give you restrictions within which to be creative! Sometimes they verge on being too restrictive, and if you don’t get to choose your collaborators it can be tricky at times, but generally I find it easier to write when I have a clear brief. Context is all. It’s also really lovely, every time, to be asked to write something for a special occasion or exciting new project.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

It’s their unique tastes, characteristics, personalities, strengths and weaknesses that give me my musical language for that piece, and the collaboration process generally produces something more original and exciting than I would have made on my own. Working with amateurs provides great variety as every group is different. Most of my pieces are tailored quite carefully to the ensemble that I am working with, but I also aim for some adaptability for future performances.

As well as working with other musicians, I love collaborating with writers, dancers, and artists with different specialisms. This work can be challenging in terms of communication and teamwork, but I love these messy and dynamic processes and their results.

Of which works are you most proud?

The chamber opera-ballet, Citizens of Nowhere, my string quartet, Antiphony, my choral piece, Fall, Leaves, Fall, and my two electronic pieces made with choreographers Carolyn Bolton and Julie Cunningham, Solo Matter and Imaginary Situations.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Sometimes it’s like Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Britten, Machonchy and Sibelius in a blender, and sometimes it’s like Sondheim and Bjork got drunk together and fell asleep on my keyboard.

How do you work?

If you could tell me that, I’d hire you immediately.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

That changes every month, but I will always love the four old B’s: Bach, Beethoven, Britten and The Beatles, and the lieder/piano pieces by Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann and Josephine Lang are just gorgeous. I grew up listening to my parents’ ceilidh band, my granddad’s jazz favourites, my grandpa’s bassoon practice, the best of Simon and Garfunkel on LP, and my siblings’ CD collections. I have not yet heard a piece by Stravinsky that I didn’t like. My contemporary playlist changes every week but it usually involves some classical, some electronic music, some pop, some jazz, and some silence…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Putting your heart into your music so much that other people can hear it beating, without exhausting yourself or exploiting anyone else. Success at the expense of others looks empty to me.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Everyone will tell you that it isn’t easy or sensible, but life isn’t easy or sensible, so think about whether you are happy for music to cause a lot of those problems for you, or whether you want it to stay safe as a side profession. Be prepared to fail as it will help you improve, and be prepared to compromise but not so much that you lose sight of your boundaries. Surround yourself with musicians and artists who can help you and whom you can help in turn, don’t be afraid to walk up to interesting people at drinks receptions and ask them about their work, but also have some friends outside the music world who can help you to have time off!

What do you enjoy doing most?

Something completely spontaneous like going for a long walk and taking photos of weird things that I see, or dancing full-whack after sitting at my desk for hours, or eating a huge homemade curry and playing pool with my housemates, or talking about life until the small hours, or praying / meditating / reading when I’ve realised that I have lost perspective, or looking at the sea when I visit my parents in the North East, or going to an art gallery in a new city, or getting on a train to meet an ensemble that I’m about to work with and then becoming part of their community for a time. And then, really, the two things I enjoy most of all are starting a piece and finishing a piece.


Anna Appleby is a multi-award-winning composer based in Manchester and is part of both the RSNO Composers’ Hub and the Making Music / Sound and Music ‘Adopt A Composer’ scheme for 2017/18. Anna has been the 2016/17 Music Fellow with Rambert Dance Company. She has written for artists including the Royal Northern Sinfonia, the Cavaleri Quartet, the Hermes Experiment, the BBC Singers, Manchester Camerata, Jonathan Powell, Het Balletorkest and A4 Brass. Her work has been performed on BBC Radio 3, and in venues including the Holywell Music Room, the Southbank Centre, RNCM Concert Hall, HOME theatre, RADA Studios, the National Theatre River Stage and the Sage Gateshead. Anna has recently been a composer in residence with Streetwise Opera, Quay Voices, Brighter Sound and the Cohan Collective.

Originally from Newcastle Upon Tyne, Anna has a great love of folk and jazz, and now specialises in writing contemporary classical music. Her work often consciously revolves around the human voice or body, with opera and dance being particular interests. Collaboration is at the heart of her creative practice.

Anna has worked with numerous choreographers including: Dane Hurst, Michael Naylor, Jacqueline Bulnes, Nina von der Werth, Igor & Moreno, Peter Leung, Pierre Tappon, Julie Cunningham and Carolyn Bolton. 

www.annaappleby.com