The universe is making music all the time

Step Right Up: Poppy Ackroyd

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Interview with Poppy Ackroyd.

“The main crossover was thinking and listening to the sound I made on each instrument. Learning to take an interest in the composer and of course the music itself, thinking about the story and why the music was written, and then considering how best to express and perform it.”

—Poppy Ackroyd

Words: Mark Carry


Poppy Ackroyd is a composer from London, currently based in Brighton. Classically trained on violin and piano, she makes music by manipulating and multi-tracking sounds from just these two instruments. Her debut ‘Escapement’ was released in December 2012 by Denovali Records and a DVD – ‘Escapement Visualised’ – featuring bespoke visuals by Lumen for each track on the album, was released in September 2014.

Feathers’, her second album, was released in November 2014, and builds on the concept behind her debut, with most of the sounds again coming from the violin and the piano, however this time the tracks also feature other keyboard and string instruments. On the sublime sophomore full-length, a larger sonic palette is utilized by the gifted composer; including an array of acoustic keyboard instruments such as harmonium, clavichord, harpsichord and spinet. Furthermore, the immaculately crafted string section is augmented by guest cellist Su-a-Lee.

Similar to the enchanting debut record ‘Escapement’, Poppy’s trusted Blüthner grand piano forms the backbone of the album. A myriad of field recordings (traffic noise on ‘Roads’ and chiming clock walls on ‘Timeless’) are dotted across the album’s sprawling sonic canvas that further heightens the magical sense of discovery rippling through the majestic waves of piano and violin melodies cast by Ackroyd. The infinite beauty distilled in ‘Feathers becomes a wonderful symbol of new beginnings as one catches a glimpse of a bird in full flight; majestically owning the vast blue skies ahead.

‘Feathers’ is out now on Denovali Records.

Interview with Poppy Ackroyd.

Congratulations on the stunningly beautiful and mesmerizing new record, ʻFeathersʼ; you must feel deeply proud of this divine work of art.  Firstly, can you please discuss the sonic palette at your disposal this time around? On ʻFeathersʼ, the sonic terrain is expanded to include various other acoustic keyboard instruments and guest-cellist Su-A-Lee. I would love to gain an insight into these new branches to your distinctive piano/violin-based compositions?

Poppy Ackroyd: Thank you! On ‘Feathers’ I decided to expand on the sound world of my debut album ‘Escapement’, and bring some other keyboard and string instruments into the mix. On the new album you can hear clavichord, harpsichord, spinet and harmonium, as well as old pianos – my favourite being a Broadwood piano with a wooden frame, from the late 18th century. These other instruments are all more delicate and intimate than the modern grand. They were designed for smaller spaces, and were instruments that people would have in their homes, they were not designed to project, so are all very quiet and this gives them a more intimate feel. I like that they all have different mechanisms for producing sound, so there are a variety of timbres – for example, the clavichord uses a tangent to hit the string, the harpsichord has feather quills (or other materials such as soft leathers) that pluck the string, and the piano uses felt hammers to strike the strings. In a similar way to how I treated both the violin and piano on ‘Escapement’, I also played with these other instruments, using their frames, pedals, sound boards, strings, tuning pins and mechanisms. Because of the low volumes they produce when played, I had to record very closely and this created a more intimate world – you can hear more of the imperfections…the creaks, clicks and there are also very slight irregularities in tuning. Su-a Lee performed cello on almost all of the tracks on the album, except ‘Taskin’ – which is all keyboard instruments and almost exclusively just made from recordings of the Taskin harpsichord in the museum. She makes such a gorgeous sound on the cello, it really transformed all the string sections on the album to have that extra depth from the bass notes.

Similar to the debut ʻEscapementʼ, your beloved Blüthner grand piano serves the vital pulse to the recordʼs sprawling canvas of sound. Similar to pianists such as Nils Frahm, Hauschka et al, I am always amazed by the new sounds and endless possibilities you generate from the instrument. Can you please describe this particular instrument and indeed the approaches and processes you have utilized on ʻFeathersʼ?

PA: It is a Blüthner boudoir grand, and it is my favourite possession. The day I decided to buy a grand piano it was put online for sale, and it was exactly what I was looking for. It was in a terrible state when I bought it though – most of the keys were stuck together, as the lead weights in them had expanded from being kept near a fire, and so it was kind of unplayable, apart from about two octaves near the top of the keyboard. I immediately fixed the problems with the action and keys, and since then have gradually been doing it up. It has Aliquot stringing which means that the upper register has sympathetic strings that resonate with the main strings when they are played, so the melodies really sing. It is beautiful… I use every part of the instrument when I am writing – the wooden frame, the cast iron frame, the strings, the pedals – and play with my hands, plectrums, ebows and various percussive beaters and instruments. I record and then edit, chop and piece the sounds together, to create different beats and textures. Often I use various effects to alter and manipulate the sounds. After starting with a melody or chord sequence, a lot of the composition is done after recording. I record, and then start to sculpt something. Once there is a loose structure, the melodies and harmonies start to change, and I then record again. The end result is often very different from where I started.

The use of field recordings adds a further dimension to the deeply personal and affecting musical compositions. I am curious whether some of these field recordings provided the starting point to compose a piece of music, Poppy? For example, ʻTimelessʼ begins with chiming wall clocks. In a way, these field recordings – the percussive effect of chiming clocks; traffic noise from a vibrant city on ʻRoadsʼ – become central characters to the albumʼs gripping narrative. Please discuss some of these field recordings and the sources of these found sounds, so to speak?

PA: I use field recordings when I feel they can add to the story of the track. The traffic on ‘Roads’ is recorded in the centre of Brighton, I like the way the sounds of the passing cars create a feeling of movement and journey. The sounds of the waves and the sea on ‘Birdwoman’ is also recorded in Brighton, walking along the beach and then right down to the shore. For ‘Timeless’, I was playing with the idea of time – the track is in 120bpm, the main beats falling 60 in a minute, therefore every second like a clock. The field recordings came later. I came across an old clock in my cousin’s shop – she sells vintage furniture and other things. The chimes and mechanism start quite freely but from quite early on each sound is positioned and chopped, gradually becoming a beat, that continues for the rest of the track.


One of my current favourites is the gorgeous ʻTimelessʼ and the utterly captivating dialogue between violin and piano inherent in the piece. Can you talk me through the layering of this particular composition?

PA: This track started out as a solo violin piece and I wrote the initial ideas using just a violin and loop pedal. The pizzicato came first and then the main ‘Tick tock’ sound which is actually fingers on muted violin strings. Gradually the bowed strings come in and the track builds. The meandering piano line came later, in order to contrast with the rigidity of the violin pizzicato, and the beat. The reverse notes, (these are reversed plucked inside piano strings) are also there to pull the track away from its strict time keeping. When everything falls away in the middle, the slightly freer quality of the plucked inside piano notes, and the lyrical piano melody intend to create a feeling of space and free time. I think this is my favourite part of the album. The beats are made mostly of violin sounds and there are quite a few layers, and these are also combined with the beats made from the mechanism of the clock.

I was very interested to read how the album-title was inspired by the line “Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson. For me, itʼs a wonderful symbol of new beginnings as one catches a glimpse of a bird in full-flight; majestically owning the vast blue skies ahead. Please discuss the albumʼs narrative for me, Poppy and what central themes you feel connect these eight sublime sonic creations?

PA: The line of the poem is actually only partly responsible for the album title. This quote was lying around in my flat when I was starting to write and it really resonated with me, and the title track ‘Feathers’ definitely owes its name to this line. Over the months I was writing, other factors started to come into play. A feeling of lightness and delicacy was present in all the tracks, my moving house and general travelling lifestyle created a theme of flight and migration. The fact that some of the instruments in the museum used quills from crow feathers in their mechanisms (like those pictured on the album cover) to pluck the string, made it seem like ‘Feathers’ was the obvious title.

Can you reminisce for me your earliest musical memories? You are classically trained on the violin and piano from a very young age; I would love to know what common ground you must have discovered as you developed on both instruments? It must be quite liberating to have this dichotomy of worlds, so to speak where both these worlds flow nicely into one another.

PA: I have so many early musical memories, it has always been a big part of my life. I think I owe a lot of my interest in music to my father, however it was my mother who pushed me to practice and made me work at it when I was little. My father is an artist and always listens to music while he works, I grew up with Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Chopin, Mozart and Schubert amongst others. By studying both these instruments from a young age, obviously one informed the other, but my experience due to my various teachers and the different environments in which I studied each one was quite different. The main crossover was thinking and listening to the sound I made on each instrument. Learning to take an interest in the composer and of course the music itself, thinking about the story and why the music was written, and then considering how best to express and perform it.

As ever, you are involved in various other projects, most notably the wonderful Hidden Orchestra, in addition to composing scores for dance, film, theatre and radio. I would love to gain an insight into the collaborative aspect of these ventures, particularly your involvement with Hidden Orchestra which has been (and continues to be) an awe-inspiring musical collective?

PA: My role in Hidden Orchestra is as a session musician. It is actually just Joe Acheson who composes all of the music, it is really his solo project. We record for him during the writing process, then after the album is finished we come together to tour the tracks live. There are four of us who have been there since the beginning, and often now we feature guests on trumpet, clarinet, cello, harp, visuals etc.

What records have you been listening to the most lately? I wonder do you have plans and works in the pipeline? 

PA: When I am writing I can get really involved in what I am doing and after 12 hours of making music I just want silence, or I listen to the radio or a podcast. However, in the morning I usually listen to something new while I wake up, and I try to listen to something different most days. I am currently working on some new material and also a few collaborations, including music for a short animation.




‘Feathers’ is out now on Denovali Records.


Written by markcarry

June 16, 2015 at 11:33 am

2 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on Feminatronic and commented:
    Courtesy to Fractured Air for this in depth interview. Will be highlighting some other Denovali artists soon.


    June 16, 2015 at 12:09 pm

  2. truly wonderful music. thank you for introducing me to it

    Nabil Jacob

    June 21, 2015 at 7:21 am

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