Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Isobel Waller Bridge Credit SOPHIE HARRIS TAYLOR
Nine Songs
Isobel Waller-Bridge

Ahead of her debut UK show, the Fleabag and The Boy, The Mole, The Fox And The Horse composer talks Kate Crudgington through the music that helped to deconstruct her classical training and find her own unique musical voice.

03 February 2023, 08:00 | Words by Kate Crudgington

“I really love that there's a space for violence in music, just as there's also a space for feeling soft and pensive.”

Delivering both lines in the same thoughtful, calm tone, Isobel Waller-Bridge - who is responsible for the altruistic scores behind Oscar-nominated Best animated short film The Boy, the Mole, The Fox and the Horse and Fleabag - is referring specifically to a piece of music titled “Kottos”. Written by Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis and featuring Belgian cellist Arne Deforce, it’s one of nine carefully selected pieces of music that have shaped her own sound.

The composer will be performing her debut UK show at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in the Purcell Room this weekend as part of the Purcell Sessions, which is something she’s looking forward to. “I've seen so many gigs in the Purcell Room. It's so intimate and the acoustics are really good. In terms of the music I’ll be playing, it'll be some live re-imaginings of my EP, VIII, and then I'm thinking about it as an opportunity to try out all the new stuff that's been swimming around in my brain.”

It seems that music has been swimming around in Waller-Bridge’s brain from day one, as she tells me about her childhood memories. “I'm so lucky that I was introduced to music so young, because it made me so happy,” she enthuses, when reflecting on her relationship with her art.

From being photographed sitting on someone’s knee at the piano aged four, playing duets with her Mother at the same instrument, to having her Father patiently carry around her amp as she performed “little guitar concerts” to her family, music was an ordinary part of day-to-day life for Waller-Bridge. She openly acknowledges what a joy and a privilege it was to be nurtured in such a creative environment.

Having a pre-disposed curiosity and sensitivity to sound naturally propelled her into the traditional learning spheres of classical music. During this time, she acquired a solid foundation of skills for performing and composing but was also exposed to music that fuelled her impulse to “un-learn” much of her academic training. Intrigued by many different abstract pieces she encountered during her adolescence, Waller-Bridge began to dismantle music in a new way, and this has been her approach ever since.

A thread of anarchy runs through each of the Nine Songs she’s selected, but what also permeates her choices, and our chat, is a passion for music on a cellular level. Her love for writing, “deep listening” and talking about music is palpable.

She endearingly refers to herself as a “nerd” throughout our discussion, too. “It's so exciting when you discover music like this for the first time. It’s one of the most thrilling feelings ever. It's like falling in love,” she beams, her charisma radiating through the screen as she retraces the songs that make up her personal repertoire.

“I think most of the songs I’ve picked are me un-learning my traditional education. I love having that education, but overall, as an arc, these songs definitely triggered a huge period of time, probably about twenty years of me just experimenting and searching for sound.”

“Nautilus” by Anna Meredith

I heard this track years ago when it was first released. It’s got so much character, it's got such big, bold energy. I can’t sit down, I have to move when I hear it! I think at the time I was studying with George Benjamin and listening to a lot of subtle, finely written music. Lots of orchestrations that were very delicate. I was really in that mode of listening, as well as writing.

I already knew and loved Anna Meredith’s music. The most exciting thing I have always found about Anna is that she writes in the way you would write for an orchestra, but for synthesizers. So she orchestrates, but in Ableton, as far as I understand it. I thought that was a really interesting way of using her classical background and education.

Sometimes when I'm writing classical music, I do feel the parameters of it. It’s like a stylistic wall or something. I can often feel like I'm being a bit polite, whereas Anna’s music made me feel like no one needs to be polite. You should just really go for it, so it's a really important piece of music for me.

Hearing this music absolutely blew my mind. I hadn't heard anything like it before, and I still don't think there is anything like it. I think it's a completely unique piece of music.

“Kottos” by Iannis Xenakis, Arne Deforce

Through my teens, I listened to really Romantic composers like Gustav Mahler, especially in my later adolescence, when it was all emotion. I needed those big, rich harmonies and lyricism to feel my feelings properly. But as I got older, I started to reject all of those things, and that really started when I heard “Kottos”.

It felt so violent. I love that the cello sounds kind of industrial. It's not this lyrical sound that we associate with the instrument. What I really, really do find so engaging about the piece is how quickly it changes from one thing to another with such deep contrast. To go from a dense, aggressive industrial texture to fine harmonics and little pizzicatos - it pivots really quickly, and I found that very freeing, very liberating.

“Kottos” isn’t even the most extreme in terms of sound and performance. There's an amazing quartet called Apartment House, and they became famous for smashing up musical instruments - really old, beautiful instruments - on stage.

That was a weird one for me. I was watching them smash up a piano and I was like ‘No, it’s got a soul!’ But there is something in the breaking of an instrument, that's probably why I have such a massive reaction to it. I can't really articulate about why I find it upsetting, and yet, I do. I can promise you that no instruments will be harmed in the making of my own show, I can completely guarantee that.

“Bryggen” by Arve Henriksen

Imogen Heap did a concert at the Southbank Centre in 2014, and some of the performance was in the round. She was playing the piano and she was wearing the gloves that she’d invented. Arve Henriksen was also there playing his experimental music, and I've never forgotten that gig.

I think this piece of music, it's sort of sound design in a way. I am really interested in the relationship between sound design and composition. I enjoy making new sounds from physical materials, and then playing them like an instrument. I think when I heard Henriksen’s music - a lot of which is quite lyrical - it felt really physical.

I find it really inspiring. I think this was part of the journey of me getting into abstracting and distilling everything down to sounds. When you’re listening to this piece, you're not always sure where the sound has come from. Perhaps it came from something he made, who knows? But I like it.

I’ve always been highly sensitive to sound. I was so overly interested that I was such a nerd about it. I liked finding out how instruments worked, what the tunings were and how the mechanisms worked. I think it was my passion for instruments and their different personalities that made me want to learn about them. I can usually identify specific instruments in pieces, but I also enjoy giving myself that test of figuring out what the sound is if I don’t get it.

I've totally gotten to that point where the more nerdy I am about it, the happier I am. That’s probably across everything, actually.

“Ravel: Jeux d'eau, M. 30” by Maurice Ravel, Martha Argerich

The title translates roughly as “Water Games” and I chose this because Ravel is one of my all-time favourite composers. I picked this particular piece because Martha Argerich performs on the recording, and she is my all-time favourite pianist on the earth.

I remember first hearing her when I was at school. She played all the music that I loved, so she plays a lot of Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Debussy, all the sort of repertoire that I really enjoy. She's in her 80’s now and she’s still touring, and she remains my favourite. It’s like she's got flames in her fingers. She's amazing.

So that's why I've chosen this piece, because I think it's a really beautiful recording. I think it was her debut recital too. There's a documentary about her made by her daughter, called Bloody Daughter, which I’ve watched too. It’s really wonderful.

“Tombeau de Messiaen” by Jonathan Harvey, Philip Mead

So “Tombeau de Messiaen” is an ode to Olivier Messiaen. When I was at university, I was studying composition and I was doing my undergrad at Edinburgh. I was exploring atonal music for the first time and also the idea of using detuned instruments, and basically trying to kind of break everything I already knew and understood about music, to sort of mould it into something that I felt was more ‘me’.

John Harvey was an amazing composer who sadly died. He was so creative, he made these really effervescent textures with electronics, but this piece is for the piano. It’s for really detuned piano, and it's not a peaceful listen.

I haven’t analysed it a lot, but Messiaen is a very important composer to me and so is Jonathan Harvey. So it makes sense that this ode would mean a lot to me.

“Sequenza IX b for Alto Saxophone” by Luciano Berio

Luciano Berio has a number of Sequenzas, and all of them are for solo instruments. There's one for the trombone, where the player has to dress up as a clown and perform it, so they're really theatrical.

The Sequenzas were a really important part of my learning about instruments and how they sound when they're not holding back. It was a really important part of my learning to write for them, so that's why I’ve picked this.

I know they’re not the easiest to listen to, because they're written to display a kind of technical sophistication, but I really love this one, mainly because I really adore the alto sax. I find the sound very soothing. I think it's interesting to listen to it in a way that I wouldn't usually listen. My associations with the sound of the saxophone probably come from a slightly jazzier place. This isn't a total departure from that, but it felt really thrilling to hear this saxophone be given that really long reign to play, with no interruptions.

I'm challenged by this 14-minute piece of music, but it really leans into the whole deep listening thing, which is a really important part of my listening. My attention span has gotten worse over the last 10 years, so deep listening for me is a way of really focusing, but also being relaxed at the same time. The more I do it, the more I feel like I'm less fidgety when I'm reading, or I stop scrolling on my phone. I feel like you get to a sort of meditative state almost, it's like you're in a different zone or something.

“Lost Highway (2002/2003): Scene 5.1” by Olga Neuwirth

David Lynch's films are really important to me, and Lost Highway was one of the first ones that I saw. I felt very stimulated by the abstract stream of consciousness of his films. When I heard that the Young Vic were doing an opera of Lost Highway and that Olga Neuwirth was composing the music for it, I disappeared into a puff of smoke because I was so excited. I will never forget the whole experience.

The score was like nothing I'd ever heard before. It was an opera and a musical, which was something I had not experienced before. I'd been to very classical, atonal operas, or musicals like Blood Brothers, so this, again, was a really important part of my discovery of new things.

I remember the band was made up of about six or seven players and they had electric guitars, weird types of metal percussion and a saw. There was a little bit of brass and some strings as well. It was just phenomenal. This score is taken from that show.

Bach's "Goldberg Variations, BWV 988: Aria” by Glenn Gould

Bach is, and has always been, really important to me as a composer and as a musician. There's a clarity and a purity to his writing that always really moves me.

When I was at school I was playing a lot of Bach, and one of the things I would do is listen to other recordings of the pieces that I was playing. I listened to amazing pianists like András Schiff and Daniel Barenboim, who are world renowned and very traditional. I’d heard this piece played so many times before, but then somebody sent me a recording of Glenn Gould playing it, and his style is so much more relaxed. He hums along with the music that he's playing too, which I think was almost unheard of in the traditional recording environments he was in.

It’s just not what you'd expect from someone playing Bach because it's so revered, but Gould’s technique is so different. The way he uses the pedal, the way he interprets the music really resonated for me, and it felt much more contemporary.

Again, it showed me that there's no single way of doing things. Even if it's traditional, there's always an alternative. At the time when Glenn Gould recorded this, I'm sure people were really upset about it. I think that's always a good thing because it means there's change. He's by no means the most modern now in terms of the sound, but when I first heard this, again, it freed me from tradition.

“Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush

There probably is some sort of foundation from my love of Emily Brontë’s novel that means I love this song. I've just bought the book to re-read again, it’s on my kitchen table. It's such an interesting subject for Kate Bush to have chosen and I think it's flawless.

I remember when I first heard “Wuthering Heights”, I hadn't heard anything like the production on this song in the pop world before. Then when Kate Bush’s voice came in, I was so startled and blown away. I thought it was such an incredible sound that she was making.

It’s one of those songs that I kind of have in my own personal music box in my head. I started getting into Kate Bush when I was a bit older, in my late teens, getting really interested in the nerd stuff and how she actually made the music.

There's something in the tone of her voice - the fact that she always stays up there – that is so odd and expressive and completely unique. Even though this tone exists in her other songs, in “Wuthering Heights” it’s like a whole other instrument. I think it might have been one of the first songs I'd ever heard of hers, so my reaction was enormous because of that.

Isobel Waller-Bridge will perform her debut UK show at the Southbank Centre's Purcell Room on 5 February. VIII is out now on Mercury KX

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