PRXLUDES | Emily Abdy

Emily Abdy – ‘Red/Alibi’, Pt. 1. Performed by Amy Van Walsum and Emily Abdy, 2020.

“It’s nice to celebrate and show what you do, it’s nice to get recognition, but also… I want to be able to make art, and enjoy making art, have value in it no matter what the situation.” -Emily Abdy

Emily Abdy is an artist, composer and songwriter based in Birmingham. Over the course of her career, Emily’s work has combined both a cathartic viscerality and quiet vulnerability to create a sound world that is equal parts haunting and powerful. Her work has been performed by Orkest de Ereprijs, Project Instrumental and Decibel, and her pieces have won the 2019 John Mayer Prize and Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Orchestral Prize. Emily spoke to PRXLUDES about artistic authenticity, her compositional approach and mental wellness as a composer.

Emily Abdy, 26th Annual Young Composers Meeting, NL, 2020. 📷 Marije van den Berg

Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Emily! Thanks for chatting with me today. I thought it’d be nice to start out by talking about a particular project you feel most strongly represents you at the moment?

Emily: Hmm, that’s a hard question… I don’t know. -laughs- Cause they’re all so different… I think my songs at the minute are what I’m enjoying, but also what I’m hating the most. I think cause they’re the most personal to me, I feel like I’m getting out a lot of baggage with them. But I’ve found a more authentic way of doing them, where I’m not trying to be something I’m not, [because] I think I was trying to find my voice as a songwriter. Whereas I was finding my voice as an instrumental composer more easily, I feel like my voice as a songwriter is a bit harder to define, cause it was so personal. I mean, I feel like my instrumental work’s personal as well, but there’s a certain, like, barrier or layer there because other people are performing it; whereas with my songs, it tends to be me. 

So I’m enjoying writing them because I feel like I’ve finally gotten somewhere where I’m not trying to fit a box, it’s, kind of, naturally all becoming cohesive. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I do need to keep a little bit of separation between that and my instrumental work, to some extent. I don’t want to box things; I am a composer, this is all of what I do, and I’d call all of it composition or whatever, but to some extent I do have to box things for my own sanity. I can’t approach one thing the same as I would another. It’s pointless me trying to approach everything in the same way. I think that’s something I was trying to do for ages — because that’s what I was encouraged to do — but it just doesn’t work. 

Are there any barriers you feel might be impeding that?

Like, physically it doesn’t work, because I have vocal issues. I have a vocal disorder, and have had issues with anxiety and stuff relating to my voice. Pushing myself to be loud and heard just doesn’t work with my voice, whereas a lot of my music is quite like that, my instrumental music. I think I was also afraid to be quite vulnerable with my songs, and now that I am, it feels like a relief. There’s been a couple of pieces that have felt like that as well, like, I did a piece that was about body image, which was live music, film, and recorded audio; sort of like a film installation-type piece. But the music for that was more, kind of, ambient, and less aggressive, [maybe] because it was a subject matter I felt really quite vulnerable talking about. I think sometimes I’m quite pushy with things, and try to have control over stuff, an anxiety defence mechanism of sorts — and it comes out in my music — but then I have to learn to be a little bit more vulnerable, and — not quieter, because I still think it can have a loud impact, but — less forceful. 

Is it the quietness that makes you feel vulnerable?

I think maybe, because I’m not hiding behind something. I used to strum guitar quite loudly, and try and sing with it, but then I was trying to push my voice too much, and… I still write some songs like that, but it doesn’t naturally seem to happen that way anymore. I [now] tend to sing almost inwardly, rather than outwardly, like I don’t feel like I’m trying to put anything on or show anything. It just feels very real; it’s that trying to be authentic and organic again, I don’t want to be putting anything on or trying to make it something it’s not.

I think it’s interesting how people are too afraid to be too loud or too quiet. To be honest, I feel the same way sometimes, with my own instrumental work.

Yeah, you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone, to some extent, but you have to let things happen naturally, you can’t force them. Like, I do yoga, so there’s pushing yourself a bit to get yourself into a stretch, like, working hard and breathing through it, but there’s pushing yourself so that you’re damaging your body, or [pulling] a muscle, and like, that’s just not sustainable. I think it’s exactly the same with anything else.

Emily Abdy – ‘Red/Alibi’, Pt. 2. Performed by Amy Van Walsum and Emily Abdy, 2020.

I totally get that. Have you noticed yourself pushing yourself too hard with your work?

What I have noticed — it’s a personal thing, as well — is that I went through a phase of “oh, I have to be productive, I have to keep going”, but I was definitely going 100 miles per hour from September, and trying to churn stuff out. So one of the lessons I’ve definitely learned is that you need to give yourself more time to, sort of, creatively mull over things, and let things develop naturally. [For] a recent piece, the deadline was set back because of this pandemic, so I did give myself the time to work on it and let it develop naturally. It was so much better than it would’ve been [otherwise].

I’m sure that approach is difficult to manage.

I did get this horrible, kind of, conveyor belt mindset to my work throughout the year, because I was like “I wanna tick things off”. It was definitely a self-esteem thing; I set myself goals, like, “I wanna do x, y, z”, and I still have those goals to some extent — they’ve changed a little bit — and I’ll still meet them by the end of the year, probably, maybe? -laughs- But they’ll be done in a better way than they would have when I was just trying to, like, churn stuff out. I was getting frustrated — like, “I’m trying hard to work, and it’s not working” — so I was just like “okay, you need a break”, as I was making myself ill, so I stopped… And now I’m starting to come back to my work again, and finishing things off, so I can move on to what I wanna do next. I actually have quite a, like, back catalogue of stuff, that has potential to become something else, and I’m just really excited. I’m always worried about “appearing” to look like I’m doing something. But that’s a lot of fabricated pressure you get, when actually, no one gives a shit, unless you’re like, a devoted fan, which I’m not really sure I have that many of! -laughs-

I totally get it. It can be hard to work under that kind of pressure.

Yeah, that took me a while to, sort of, realise. Not that I thought people cared, I think I just put pressure on myself; “I need to look like I’m doing something, I need to show, I need to prove I’ve done something”. But I have done stuff, you know? Just, like, trying to figure out who I am as an artist and what my approach is. It’s just really nice now, cause like, I do have stuff I can show people! But it’s nice to not have a deadline, and sit on it, and think “how do I want to show this?” But then also [to] not make it a big thing, because knowing my stage in my career, it’s gonna go up on the internet somewhere, I might get a few messages from friends but I’m not gonna get a Grammy for it! “Just calm down…” -laughs- 

I think maybe because I was quite an academic, goal-oriented kid, I feel like I need to be reaching all these goals all the time when really, it should come back down to “I’m making it because I enjoy making it”. I’m quite lucky that I’ve managed to hold on to a little bit of “I’m making this because it’s been inspired by this experience”, cause I’ve had over the past year a lot of crazy emotions and experiences going on; so I’ve had enough of that in my pool to, like, pour that into stuff, and adapt it to goals I’ve set myself and projects I’ve taken on. But that kind of runs out after a while! -laughs- You need time to step back… I’m not sure how to explain it.

I know what you mean! It kinda comes back to what you were saying about a “conveyor belt mindset”.

I think cause it’s so subjective as well, like, I’m a creative, but — where’s the line? Where do you prove to someone that you’re a valid artist? How do you do that, is it the amount of pieces you write, the awards you get, the amount of different things you can show you can do? You can be an artist and just draw one stick man. -laughs- Because [if it’s about] how other people regard you, if somebody thought it was good if you drew a stick man on a piece of paper, and somebody put it in a gallery somewhere and said “this is the greatest piece of art that’s ever been made”, and everyone believed it, everyone came and paid to see it, you would be an artist in your own right… That’d be you for life. -laughs- It’s only [about] how we regard stuff. That’s the biggest thing I’m trying to learn at the minute, is I can’t rely on other people to validate my work. I have to be doing it for me, always. It’s nice to celebrate and show what you do, it’s nice to get recognition, but also… I want to be able to make art, and enjoy making art, have value in it no matter what the situation.

From my experience, besides how you value yourself and your own work, everything else just feels like marketing; what’s your perspective on that?

I suppose practically, if you wanna make money from something, it’s nice to know how other people perceive you and [know], like, what festivals you can play at, what grants you can apply for, what opportunities [are] worth spending your time on; cause if people view you in that way, you [might] have a good chance of getting those opportunities.

Also, just for curiosity, you can learn more about yourself and think “oh, that’s interesting how you view my work in that way”.  It’s the same with, like, a piece; I’d take my piece to a teacher, or another composer, or I have it played at a concert, and we’re in the pub afterwards and people who’ve heard it talk to me about it. It’s interesting to hear what other people think of a piece [in that way]; it may not necessarily be what I wanted the piece to be, or what was going through my head when I wrote it, but it’s interesting to know and adds to that story. It’s the same with you, right?

I think it’s a delicate balance. I feel like it can be a bit of a trap to rely too heavily on what everyone expects from you as an artist, as a composer… because otherwise is it really your development, or are you internalising that music industry mentality?

Yeah, business… and capitalism. -laughs- It’s what we live in, though, and if you wanna make a living, and you wanna survive, to some extent you have to adhere to it… but I don’t think it’s a healthy model for life. But you can’t ignore how you live, it’s like a fish trying to ignore the tank, you can’t just keep bashing your head against the glass wall of the tank, you’re gonna die! Or get concussion at least. -laughs-

I guess it’s a question of authenticity.

Yeah, I think I just try to be as authentic as possible. Like, obviously I’m inspired by things and influenced by things, but I’m not gonna do [something] purposely to defy or adhere to what’s going on.  But also it’s like I’m at war with myself a little bit because I’m a perfectionist; but at least I’m trying to be a perfectionist by my own standards as opposed to others. Maybe that is still authentic… It’s ironic, because I like artists’ work that feels quite, like, raw, and, polished because it’s unpolished… I think it’s a journey — I hate the word “journey” — that I’m going on. Trying to find my way, like a little artsy person… -laughs-

Have you found that kind of self-relection useful in terms of your compositional process?

Yeah; writing this commentary for my masters’ portfolio has been quite nice, because I’ve noticed my method of composition is quite interesting. -laughs- I don’t even realise I’m doing it until I go back and look at it, like, “oh, this has come from that”… even when I have processes or parameters in place, it feels like a very natural process. And then I’ll realise where things have come from and what they’re associated with, or what they symbolise, and then I’ll be like “oh, this is actually quite cool”. It feels a little bit like my English Literature A-Level, where I was going over a text and combing over it for meaning! -laughs- I definitely don’t feel like I create meaning that’s not there, I feel like I find meaning that makes sense, and I’m like, “this piece makes sense and I can explain it now”, but it does get frustrating when at times it would be helpful to explain it whilst you’re writing it. 

For me, at least, writing is quite a subconscious process.

Yeah, exactly. It’s difficult when some people ask you how you wrote something, or how you came up with that idea, and you have to tell them— you sound so big-headed, cause you have to tell them “well, it just came to me”! -laughs- The idea just came, or something sparked… I can never trace it back exactly to the source, but I’m like… it’s just subconscious, and then it’s what you do after that which is the compositional process.

Emily Abdy, ‘Anthem’, 2018. Performed by Emily Abdy, Maarten Benschop and Thallein Ensemble.

Have you noticed that subconscious accumulation of ideas in your work so far?

So like, suppose with my most recent orchestral piece, I had this phrase going round in my head, and a rhythm — it was just going round my head for a bit — and I was like “I wanna write a piece where everyone’s shouting”, and a little later I was like “I wanna write it about, sort of, domestic abuse and the themes around that, about being silenced by people, not [staying] quiet”, which kind of [ties in] to the shouting… 

That idea just, sort of, came, it wasn’t like I had to brainstorm the idea; but I’ll often just, sit on an idea and not put it on paper for ages, it almost feels like an itch I avoid scratching, or procrastinate scratching? -laughs- It’s so frustrating, though, cause I’ll go to lessons, and I’ll be like “I have this idea for a piece, and I can hear it all in my head, but it’s just not on paper yet”… I think I just need to get better at writing things down on paper, and just letting them be on paper. But also maybe I’m afraid of that, as well, because I don’t wanna start changing it and trying to perfect it, and then lose what kind of [quality] it is; but then if it’s in my head, I’m like, I’ll have it in my head for ages and I’ll compose it all in my head [before] I need to get it down on paper, even when it’s a massive piece, like an orchestral piece.

It’s fascinating how you’re able to visualise a full orchestra in your head like that.

I feel like I write for the orchestra as one instrument, rather than all the individual [parts]. So, like, I’ll be like “I want this kind of sound, I want this higher sound, this lower sound, this percussive sound”… [With me] it tends to be percussive a lot of the time, it’s what I’ve noticed. Maybe it’s from listening to rock music a lot, as well; the one thing that I love when I used to listen to rock riffs, and rock bands, is that you have the guitars and the drums all working together in one unit. There’s always this kind of — I don’t know how to explain, but — “this is the riff, this is the main idea”, and you can have the guitar, bass and drum parts separately, but it doesn’t really work; it’s always something cohesive that’s together. It’s always percussive to me, even when there’s a melody. 

Does most of your work have that riff-based element?

I don’t know if [it] comes out in my instrumental writing, but my songwriting, I suppose, [is] quite riff-based, [lots of] repetition… I think I’d probably like to write for percussion more, because I haven’t! -laughs- But I feel like no matter what instrument you give me, somehow I’m writing for percussion.

That’s not a bad thing!

It’s weird [though], cause I’m a violinist… but the sounds I enjoy most on the strings — and I do love the strings — are the horrible, percussive sounds, the quote-unquote “nasty” sounds you can get, no vibrato, just the scraping, the distortion. I just love pedal effects as well, because you can, like, get that gritty, distorted sound; it’s all percussive, and it’s all “noise”, all raw, but it feels quite animalistic and natural. I like singers like that, too; I like Björk, she’s got a lot of interesting things going on with her voice which feels quite natural… yeah, I don’t like things that are polished. I like things that sound organic, and natural… I’m realising this as I talk about it! I think I like animalistic sounds, percussive noises, things that sound visceral.I think I like visceral subject matter as well, which a lot of people don’t like. I’m not very into… pastoral stuff. -laughs-

Emily Abdy, ‘Skin’. Live soundtrack premiered 2019, Birmingham.

What do you think it is that draws you to viscerality, both in like, subject matter, and instrument writing?

I don’t know, I think it’s just naturally where I’m drawn [to]. -laughs- But I think I notice it in other art as well, in like the gothic, [among other things]. Something that’s done technically well, but has no meaning behind it, [is what] I’m least interested in; it’s nice to hear lovely sounds, or look at well-painted pieces, but otherwise…

I mean, you get these realist painters, who are incredible to look at, and be like, “is that not a photo”? It’s amazing. But for me, unless the subject matter interests me because I’m trying to look at the story behind it, or understand it, I don’t think I’m that interested. I’ve seen some incredibly painted jars of flowers, but… they’re just jars of flowers? -laughs- But if one was wilted, or one was thrown out, or if there was something next to the jar of flowers that implied something else going on, maybe I’d be more interested. I always find realist portraits more interesting, because as soon as you have someone’s face, it implies something, there’s like a character there. I’m always drawn to stuff that has a story behind it, or something more visceral.

Is there anything you can think of that’s affected you in that way recently?

I just get interested in certain people. [For example,] with the piece I wrote for the singer… I don’t know why, just certain pieces of work stick with me. For example Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas; Dido’s Lament has always sort of fascinated me, because it’s not aged well. -laughs- It’s very anti-feminist, like, she’s sad because this man goes away and then she dies, cause she’s like, “I am nothing without you”… But you can view it in different ways, like, she dies out of pure defiance, like, “you’ve left me, so I’m gonna die”. It’s just, sort of, the way it’s written [that] interests me, the sort of descending bassline, she sort of cries “remember me” and there’s this… it’s very visceral! It’s purely like “I’m so sad because this hunk has left me”, and it’s like… -laughs- She just cries in song form, and I was like, “that’s pretty intense”.

So with the piece I wrote, I was thinking about, sort of, “metaphorical death”, like you’ve been haunted by stuff that’s happened to you, it affects your life so much that the life you had, the person you had, you feel has died. It’s also about addiction and coping mechanisms that people have, so it’s more of a modern approach to it; [as] it’s a song for soprano, it’s essentially a lament, it’s like a cry. There’s this bit at the end where she [sings] “saturate me” — I can’t feel like a whole person — like with something that can numb me, whether that’s unhealthy relationships, or alcohol, or drugs, or whatever.

Like I was saying, I was looking back on stuff, so it’s funny that I wrote that, and then I looked back on it, and I was like, “this is so Dido-esque”! But it’s probably quite unexpected, people wouldn’t expect that a contemporary piece written by a female composer for a soprano — interested in feminism and all the talk around it — to be inspired by something by Purcell, that was clearly, like, of that time! -laughs-

Emily’s work can be found at:

References/Links:

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