WITH four albums proper, so to speak, under her belt – Escapement and Feathers from further back last decade, and a brace for what’s now One Little Independent in 2017, an acoustic mini-album, Sketches and the full-length Resolve – we really haven’t heard nearly enough from Poppy Ackroyd in recent times; but then what with that pandemic renting the course of things, coupled with the birth of her first child, we can respectfully allow that.
Especially as the Brighton-based composer Poppy Ackroyd returns this Friday with a new album of solo, sometimes prepared piano, Pause, a title both apt and layered with meaning: written when all the viral unbalancing of things was at its hellish height and a newborn to care for, it doubly refers to normality very much being put on hold.
Come inside the album (and you should) and you’ll discover ten airy, pure solo piano pieces – gone are the accoutrements of Resolve, the additional colours of the violin, cello and clarinet. This album is her relationship with the piano and the piano only, explored with richness.
Poppy says: “For previous albums almost as much of the creative process was spent editing and manipulating recordings as it was composing at the piano.
“However, after having my son, I struggled to spend time sat in front of a computer. The only thing I wanted to do while he was still small, if I wasn’t with him, was to play the piano. In fact, much of the album was written with him asleep on me in a sling as I used any quiet moment to compose. It therefore made sense that this album should be a solo piano album.
“I used extended technique – playing with sounds from inside the instrument – like I do in my multi-tracked recordings; however, it was important to me that every track on the album could be entirely performed with just two hands on the piano.”
Leftfield compositional techniques, check; pieces written, check; now came the honing and the finesse. She spent months practising the compositions to achieve the gliding level of fluidity, the masterful glissando, you can hear at work herein – which effect achieved Poppy was more than happy with, recalling “there was a lightness and effortlessness to the recordings that I wanted.”
Offered in a subtle reading as a snapshot of the times of its composition, Pause has a titling schemata centred around single words, objects or moments, nouns and verbs; each captures that observed thing or process in a piece that stands way ahead of the surfeit of solo piano releases that lockdown engendered – even aficionados of the genre must surely feel, well, over-replete as hamstrung musicians worldwide took to their pianos this past year.
The difference: Poppy’s absolute excellence.
Pause rises with the day in “Seedling”, a piece which Poppy says was inspired by natural wonder of spring experienced on early morning walks through Brighton’s Queen’s Park. It’s got the bright refraction of early morning dew in a low, but rising, sun; heat beginning to gather as Poppy essays up the scales with flow. It’s glittering, fresh as the possibilities of a new day. The seedlings, bringing life to the lawns and the beds of the park; and Poppy, too, with her newborn?
And then, a movement of the locking down: “Suspended” sees Polly plucking notes, which gives a real late-Sixties’ spy movie feel. Suspended; suspenseful. The minimalist base melody drips like gentle rain as the other interjects from above. It was written to evoke a bird’s-eye view of her home city during that sudden, silent purdah; a city stripped of outdoor life. We’re told it was performed with both hands inside the piano: one hand tapping the strings on the performer side of the piano dampers, and the other using the strings on the far side. Piano as part-harp, with gentle and mysterious effect.
“Murmurations” focuses on starlings and the way they swarm, dip, explode outward and rejoin – a marvel of the natural world which has inspired many a tune (In indiepop, I’m thinking James’s early classic “What For?” – and another, closer in musical discipline, more of which later). It’s as if Poppy has somehow caught and plotted individual birds in flight, rendered their intricacy on a stave. It’s so damn fluid, a river-run of high glissando with occasional shadowier notes from the left hand as the birds cluster with light-blotting density for a brief second. Those hours of crafting of the tune, the scrimshaw of getting it right? You can so hear that. It’s playing of a level above.
The title track is imbued with the verdant, dusky mystery of a midsummer sprite and recalls the mid-period of Cécile Schott’s recordings for Leaf – music for a whispering dream (and if you don’t know those albums, The Golden Morning Breaks and Les Ondes Silencieuses, you really ought). The plucking of the strings inside the piano again lends a warming otherness, like a benign ghost. It gives way to the sprightly folk-classicism of the pastoral “Release”, airy and cathartic like an escape onto the South Downs. We’ve got that for you to delight in just below. Press play, why ever not?
“Muted” sees Poppy’s piano prepared with a weighted cloth dampening the strings in its lower half; as well as highlighting the woody resonance of the instrument, the muting also lends the piece the minimalist staccato of a pioneering ambient synth work. It chatters like some obscure gizmo Broadcast might employ. Experimental, autumnal, brief; play it again. “Impulse” is perhaps the most directly referential to the classical canon, beginning with a Bach-like strut before liquefying in the masterful flow of Poppy’s glissando grace, becoming a thrilling and effortless flood of melody.
The following “Stillness” inhabits similar territory to the title track, though maybe more domestic and familial; it’s a nocturne, the circadian rhythm slowly unspooling like a spent spring in surges and recoveries and barer prettiness. It strrretches with pleasurably heavy lids, in a reverie; maybe a reverie of “Flutter”, a composition focused on the simple gossamer wonder of a butterfly wing which seems to hop and corkscrew from flower to flower, alighting on sweet compositional nectar. Modern pastoral simplicity in fine effect.
The record unspools in “Unravel”, a mellow, effortlessly nuanced closer with a little autumn in its minor-chordal bones; a melody paced just so behind the implied beat is augmented with strummed strings under the lid with an autoharp quality. Reflective in closing, and you’d imagine it could be no other way. The clock slows … stops.
I’m not usually one for the psychology of colour but check the bright whites and creams of Poppy’s photograph and the album cover, and they have been chosen wisely; this album is shot through with a simple-yet-complicated purity and glimmer, worthy perhaps of Lennon’s Steinway on that endless white carpet in the “Imagine” video in his Sunningdale mansion.
Pure, nuclear in the home and hearth sense, diaristic, it also reminds me very much in effect and conceptual approach of saxophonist Samuel Sharp’s Patterns Various album from back in February; they both zero in on the wonder and the beauty of the small things and espouse what I suppose we might now call a certain small-E Englishness, free of the flags and the jingoism, but very much filled with a spirit of place and time in which they were written; Samuel the capital and the Chilterns, Poppy her home and Brighton. And that other birds-flocking track I was thinking of? It’s Samuel’s “Starling Swarm”.
It’s a lovely and meditative record, and if simple beauty executed with depth and talent and hard work move you, you should own it.
Poppy Ackroyd’s Pause will be released by One Little Independent on November 12th digitally, on CD and on vinyl; order your copy direct from the label, from Poppy’s Bandcamp page, or from your trusty local record emporium.