“I’ve always loved writing for voices. I feel like it’s my comfort zone to write vocal lines, being a singer myself.”Anna Disley-Simpson
Anna Disley-Simpson is a British composer, performer, and educator currently based in London. Originally from Dorset, Anna studied composition at the Royal Northern College of Music and recently completed an MA in Opera Making and Writing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where her opera Lost Property with librettist Olivia Bell premiered in July 2023. Anna was a BBC Young Composer in 2014, and composer-in-residence for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (2015) and London Oriana Choir (2019-22), as well as Young Composer with National Youth Choirs of Great Britain 2021-22; she is currently composer-in-residence with Britten Pears Arts as part of the 2023-24 Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. As a performer, Anna sings with London Contemporary Voices, and was a touring member of the band New Order.
Following the premiere of Lost Property in July, we spoke with Anna about her recent opera, stylised reality, creating collage notation, vocal resonance, her influence from pop music, and more…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Anna! We’ve recently heard the premiere of your incredible opera ‘Lost Property’ at the Guildhall School — what really struck me about the opera was how it used tonal centres, and how reaching for different tonal centres kind of structured many of the scenes…
Anna Disley-Simpson: It’s a narrative device! At least, that’s how I was using it. Tonality, but also tempo — whether it was a literal metronome mark, or the nature of the material being fast, or slow, [or] drawn out. They were all used to frame a narrative, and punctuate the opera in different ways. I think that was really important for me especially to do, because I’d not written a piece that was that extended before. I [had] always written pretty short pieces — pretty much sub five minutes, definitely sub ten minutes — and I was suddenly writing a narrative piece that was 25-26 minutes long.
So I needed to work [things] out. I want to use repetition to recontextualise things, and have ideas come back, for the audience to recognise things that they’ve heard before; but at the same time, I don’t want to repeat and that be it. I want there to be a zoomed-out, macro plan, that is entirely subliminal for most of the audience members, but achieves quite a cohesive effect overall. I suppose [it] gives it direction, it emphasises what the text itself is saying. It means the text doesn’t have to do all of the legwork by itself. It’s so intrinsically linked, the whole process.
Tell me about you utilised these subliminal ideas in the opera…
That’s something we were trying to incorporate from the start, regardless of what the story of ‘Lost Property’ ended up being; we wanted this gear shift between the comic, the playful, the mischievous, to pathos of some kind. In a way that was hopefully not crude — hopefully not [a] cheap “we just wanna make people cry!” Your expectations feel like they’ve been played with, but you don’t know they’ve been played with until it’s already happened. It definitely stems from the cleverness of Olivia [Bell’s] story, and the libretto; it’s more of a gradual shift, I suppose, than was initially intended.
What I think happens is [that] the audience feel settled — especially in the programme, that had a lot of other serious opera and opera scenes in it — like “okay we’ve got a funny one now,” and they relax at that. It’s fun to have laughs, it’s fun to have choreographed dances and all of that, but it means they’re not expecting for certain twists to occur. That was really fun to play with.
I think the phrase is “if you can make them laugh, you can make them cry”, right?
Yeah! I think so. I think you need both. It represents life… -laughs-
Tell me a bit more about your collaborative relationship with Olivia Bell; did you two get on from the outset, and how did the opera develop from that?
We were very lucky, in that we completely hit it off from the first few days of being at Guildhall together. We made some work very early on together — one of which we made in the space of about an hour — and it was very clear from that point that any work that we were creating was gonna be a representation, indirectly or directly, of our friendship [and] our collaborative relationship. What that entailed was a lot of silliness, a lot of “what ifs”.
We had very similar aesthetic preferences, but also interests from the outset in terms of making work. That included the idea of the macro versus the micro: exploring quite big, quite universal ideas, but on a small scale — on an individual character scale, for example. We also wanted to create something that had a really clear narrative, as well — new opera doesn’t necessarily have to have that, at all — but we wanted something that anyone could follow, regardless of if they’d been to an opera before. Clearness [and] clarity were really important for us, as well.
How did the two of you generate ideas in the initial process?
We would often go away by ourselves to generate ideas, and to brainstorm; then we would come back together in a sort of place of abundance. And then we would share, and edit, and go back to that idea of being very decisive from the outset. We had about ten different ideas for chamber operas, but we settled on ‘Lost Property’ pretty early on. Looking back now at sketches and notes from that time, the story really hasn’t changed a whole lot. We made edits and revisited a few things as we went along, but generally it stayed quite the same.
We were in this really lovely, quite unique position in that Olivia’s also a musician — she’s an opera singer. So I feel like whilst I was really invited into her world of text, and story, and narrative, I felt like I could really invite her into my world of music. It wasn’t so much a sense of her “changing” anything that I’d done, or influencing anything that I’d done. There was the dynamic of knowing when to step into each others’ worlds, and for what purpose — and the purpose was always for the greater good of the opera.
Quite early on, when we were coming up with lots of different premises, I experienced a bit of a block — “something doesn’t feel right, I’m not happy with one of these ideas” — and we had this difficult but also breakthrough moment, where I had to just come to her and say “this is not quite right for me, and I can’t quite work out why.” We had the discussion, and it turned out she was feeling exactly the same. That was really nice; that really helped to build trust in our collaboration.
That’s a really wonderful position to be in when collaborating with someone. Were there any particular characteristics about your artistic practice you realised from that?
Having had that discussion… We then realised that whilst Olivia was very much focused on plot, character, what their intentions are — “events” that happen in the opera — for me, what was really important beyond all of that was the idea of place, and environment. The precinct in which all of this plot was happening. In a very direct, obvious way… If I can imagine the world that we’re in, then I find it so much easier to imagine the sound world that will eventually come to be. Then we adjusted ideas accordingly.
We did everything in person. We weren’t texters, or emailers, for creative ideas; that was very important for us, to be face to face. The majority of those face to face meeting, we would talk about other stuff first — almost for the majority of the time — to settle into it. To be humans.
In terms of how you wrote for operatic voice — how did you adjust to writing in this medium, having worked a lot with different voice types before?
I suppose it made me question, for the first time, why we set text to music in the first place. Why do we do it — why does it need to be set to music? I, and many composers, have set poetry to a choral piece, or an art song, and not really questioned why. But it made me think: a poem is a standalone thing, why are we putting more art over it? There are many successful examples of that, of course; but it made me consider what counts as meaningfully setting text to music — embedding the overall concept in the [music] — instead of having a text that has meaning and subtext, and writing music that kind of colours it in.
In relation to the really early sketch process of the opera, it shifted the methodology behind it entirely. Suddenly, I was embedding things like character, narrative, rhythm of speech, into the music itself; not just the musical material, but how that musical material is put together and structured. What comes back, and what doesn’t come back — how can the outcome be stronger than the sum of its parts? Rather than just “here’s some text, here’s some music, let’s put it together.”
But at the same time, I’ve always loved writing for voices. I feel like it’s my comfort zone to write vocal lines, being a singer myself, having written for a lot of choirs and voices generally. I feel far more comfortable with that than writing instrumental music. And so all of the work me and Olivia have made so far [has] been very vocal-line-led. I feel that comes across in ‘Lost Property’; you can tell that they’re very much the foreground, and the instruments are almost built around the characters — like the instruments are objects in the lost property office. The instruments represent the environment, and the world, as opposed to being main characters as such.
Of course. How our vocal writing is impacted by the dramaturgy is something that’s so important to consider…
I suppose with an art form like opera, as well… It has these centuries of distinct tradition, and form. I think it was important for us, and for me, to not get too bogged down with thinking about every piece of work that’s come before — twentieth, nineteenth, eighteenth century. It would have been overwhelming. If I thought about that too much, I would have written something that was far more generic, and formulaic… relating to other work more. I know a lot of composers maybe come from a technique-based, maybe more academic approach — looking at what the masters have done, and starting by copying them, and being inspired by them…
I get that. What’s been your relationship to that kind of “traditional” approach?
I’ve always struggled with that way of working. I’ve seen a lot of it — I’ve been to conservatoire, I’ve been to music school, and I think that approach [is] still quite favoured. But I’ve always found that really stifling. I suppose it’s only one way of working, isn’t it? There’s loads of other perfectly good ways of doing things…
Exactly. I remember Jeremy Rosenstock said it quite well — our job is to (fingers crossed) reach the twenty-second century, and we need to make art that builds towards that. And I think that’s what ‘Lost Property’ captures beautifully; it’s so incredibly “now”.
That’s really kind of you to say. I agree, but also — it has this almost ‘50s black-and-white film quality to it, as well. It’s very English, especially those comic bits — that polite, slightly sarcastic British humour that’s been around for decades is in there. I think Olivia really brought that in with her theatrical background. She’s so amazing; she’s got all of these different pathways. She’s a journalist, as well; I think that influenced the kind of naturalistic air of some of the text, and some of the music. The dialogue ended up being conversational, and close to real speech — but then, at the same time, at the other end of the spectrum, we’re in [a] supernatural world where everything someone’s ever lost in their entire life is in a single room! It’s nice to have elements of both, for sure.
Maybe it’s more a superposition of reality and the fantastical — something “super-real” rather than supernatural?
Yeah — incredibly stylised, but real at the same time. Like a stylised reality.
I think some opera tries to do the “naturalism” thing, and it almost feels like they’re speaking, but in an operatic way. It’s a very funny art form, isn’t it — just someone walking over and going -Anna sings in an operatic voice- “how are yooou toodaaaaay?” — I really didn’t want it to be like that… -laughs- I think that would have ruined the emotional content for [the opera], if it was in that realm! That’s a different kind of stylisation, though.
Of course! -laughs- Though I’m sure there are many operas that deliberately do that, as well.
It’s so funny! It’s such an un-serious art form, but then it takes itself really seriously — which kind of makes it funnier. The spectacle of it all, the ridicuousness of it all…
You’ve mentioned that your primary discipline is in vocal writing — what initially drew you to writing for voice?
I was always singing in choir at school, and [I] did really love that. Something about that sound world, [especially] the warmth and the resonance. Resonance is something that I really focus on in a lot of my music, whether that’s to do with acoustics and space, or whether it’s more of a building-in resonance to instrumental and orchestral textures.
I think that’s [choral music] where I got my ear for vocal writing, and the idiomatics of it. It’s always been really important for me to write stuff that is eminently singable, and that translates into my instrumental writing, too. I want it to be eminently playable; I want the performers to enjoy playing it, as well. Which is why it’s so much nicer writing for specific players or singers you have in mind, as opposed to “generic violin”, “generic voice” — writing for them, and playing to their strengths.
I prefer, to some extent, working with untrained voices. I’ve done stuff with kids. It gives you a whole set of limitations that can be, creatively, really amazing. You’re forced to think about them, as players, as well, rather than “writing what you want to write” — which [is] not self-indulgent, but… maybe a bit self-indulgent. -laughs-
I guess that’s where things like graphic notation come into play — almost as a point of accessibility.
Exactly. I feel like with graphic notation composers, what I guess is necessary is that they have to be such amazing communicators, as well. It’s not about the score alone; they have to explain what is going on, and how their approach should be to the score. Graphic notation can be such a daunting thing, if [performers have] never seen something like that before. The freedom they’re given, in itself, is daunting — and quite overwhelming sometimes. It takes a good communicator to express those ideas beyond just the score. That’s what [organisations like] CoMA do really well.
Have you done much graphic notation in your work?
Yeah! In one of my really early pieces — my first piece that got a bit of success with the BBC Young Composers [scheme] — that was for three voices and beatboxer. The whole first third of it was very much inspired by ‘Stripsody’ [by] Cathy Berberian. That was the first time I’d seen stuff like that; the singers that had shown seventeen-year-old me what different types of notation could look like. I thought that was the coolest thing ever; it was so cartoony, so playful. [The piece] had a gradual move into more conventionally notated music, which was more regular and rhythmic, and pop-y. That was the first time I used [graphic notation].
I made a score using collage for The Hermes Experiment a couple years ago. This was during lockdown, they did a call for graphic scores. I got my big A3 sheet, and split it into cross-sections of low, medium, and high instruments, [and] voices — they were doing this with the Gesualdo Six, as well — [I] tore, cut loads of coloured paper that had either solid colour or different textures on them, and used that as a collage-timeline for the score, with a few cut-out words as well. I’ve dabbled, but it’s not my absolute go-to. I love art, and I love the visual, and I love to consider the visual in my pieces; so it makes sense that when coming to scores, and notation, that also is the case.
That sounds so fun! Tell me how you used this collage notation in the piece, how did the performers interact with the score and how did you facilitate that?
It was very open to interpretation! it wasn’t on a stave, as such. There were different lines — you had jagged lines, straight, clean lines, more wavy [and] fluid lines, and they took a lot from that for their interpretation. [It was] totally wordless, other than one or two little cut-out words. A couple of the other shapes acted as landmarks for the piece, as well; if you heard someone say one of the words, you knew where they were in the timeline, so you could respond to that, as well. There’s a little crib sheet that comes with the collage score. That was really fun — to relinquish control over certain parameters, and take control of some other ones that I wouldn’t typically have done in a conventionally notated score.
Of course. How important do you find having these kinds of specified parameters in your work?
When we were building pretty exclusively “supernatural” worlds in the opera… We could kind of do anything because of the story, the setting, the art form itself. You can do anything with opera — the real, fantastical stuff. But at the same time, without any crib sheet or set of rules — even if you’ve made up those rules — it can get out of hand, and dramatically [speaking] it doesn’t make sense. I suppose that applies here too; you kind of lose your way if you don’t have your own rules. Maybe that sounds really strict, but having a set of options that you stick to within the wild and fantastical makes it a lot stronger. So maybe that’s what graphic notation is trying to do; striking that balance of “this could be a standalone piece of art”, but also it’s a score, and it’s there to translate into something audible.
It’s great to feel like the possibilities are endless, but at the same time, it’s hard to make something tangible when there’s no limitations.
It’s nice to have space for those early conversations to consider all of the possibilities. But eventually, you do have to be decisive with those things. I’m the type of person to make those concrete decisions early on, and then stick with them, in composing or anything dramatic. But those conversations are fun: “what if we did this?”
Something I’ve also noticed about your work is that it has a very “pop” sensibility — is pop music something that’s important to you, either as listener or artist?
I loved pop music growing up! I love dancing, I love going to gigs. Live music, in particular — as opposed to listening to music on my iPod — was something that really blew my mind, and got me to write my own. The kind of viscerality and physicality of a live performance, regardless of genre. It’s something that’s really influential; it doesn’t feel like it’s super direct, but I feel like it comes into everything.
That’s so wonderful — what was it about pop music that appealed to you, and how did that impact your practice?
[With] pop music… I felt that because I’d always studied music, as well — I was doing piano, and music theory, and GCSE Music, and all of that — I found that in pop music, it was a bit less serious, because it didn’t rely on things like classical training, and years of studying, to be able to do it. I liked the idea that people could do it from their bedrooms. I was always a sucker for those types of stories — “this person stumbled across a guitar, and now they’re a pop star, and doing sellout tours!” — I loved that, and romanticised that, and loved the communities that surrounded certain artists, as well. I was desperate to get out, and go to gigs, as soon as I was old enough to do that.
Do you still notice elements of your interest and practice in pop music in your recent / current work?
The idiomatics of pop music are still in my work, in my classical work. I came to composing from very bad songwriting, basically. -laughs- Because it’s a great form of creative expression. As I say, I was studying music classically at the same time, and I think I was yearning for something that’s a bit more exploratory, a bit more creative. Not that studying classical music isn’t creative, but learning pieces [and] learning piano was what I was generally doing — so I was craving something a bit different.
Do you still write in that idiom, as well?
Yeah! I’m actually building an EP at the moment, with Ben Scott. I did a module at Guildhall on electrouacoustics; you had to submit a portfolio at the end [of the module] that was roughly 6-8 minutes, and I was like “I’ll do a couple of songs!” I like writing songs, I’m a bit better at it now than I was when I was thirteen… -laughs-
I know how to produce music, and find that really fun. Although I always consider it as separate from my composing composing; but [in] the early writing processes of writing something — whether it’s a song or a composition — it does come from the same place, i.e: singing to myself, recording voice memos, sketching, drawing, doing things by hand. Writing down words, writing down notes. Weirdly [it’s] linked to the collage thing. Any early sketches are very collage-like, because it’s almost like coming up with my materials — my little cells of ideas — and gradually seeing how they can possibly interact with each other, or overlap… Be smushed together into something that vaguely looks like music that happens in a period of time. -laughs-
Tell me more about that kind of compositional process; do you tend to have an idea of where these sketches will go?
It starts from the individual, tiny musical ideas. And then once those start to take a bit of shape, step two is to think of the overall structure. Because that feeds back into the musical ideas again, and informs how they go on to develop and interact with each other over the course of the piece. And [it’s] the same thing with songwriting, really. I think there’s probably more parallels than I consciously realise, because both are a combination of melodies, layers, rhythmical elements. Explorations of different ranges, bandwidths; exploring contrasts, and how to achieve that. It’s all the same, really.
There’s a really good quote I found recently about that (by Austin Kleon), that says something like: “you’re a mashup of what you choose to let into your life”…
Completely! That’s literally what ‘Lost Property’ represents, for sure. Certainly for Olivia — but for both of us. It represents everything Olivia’s gone through in her life, it represents our entire relationship over the course of the past year, it represents our sense of humour, our own relationships, our childhoods. It’s bizarre, but it’s so true. Most pieces will do that, either directly or indirectly; but with the opera, it’s particularly directly. When it’s narrative, and it has words involved, it’s a bit more obvious…
Following on from ‘Lost Property’ — what other pieces have you been working on, and how has the process of working with Olivia informed those pieces?
Working with Olivia, on a very basic level… I’ve realised the work I love making most is collaborative, has some kind of text involved — either sung, spoken, or embedded more subtly. I really love working with voices, but at the moment, I’m really trying to hone my instrumental writing a bit more. I’d love them to be what I consider [to be] more on a par with each other; at the moment, I feel like [my] vocal writing’s stronger.
I’m doing [an] audiobook piece, which is called ‘Oyster in the River’. One of my best friends — also called Anna! — has written a children’s book about her dog, called Oyster. She’s a primary school teacher, so she’s written a book that is very beautiful, short, and a really good snapshot of everything I like. I love the idea of making work that’s for children, as well. That was very much informed by time restraints [and] the instruments I have available to me. Originally, I wanted it to be for a string trio — violin, viola, cello — but I managed to find three violins, and no viola and no cello! -laughs- Which is really difficult, but a cool challenge; it’s really making me explore the uniqueness of the violin. I’m looking at Bartok’s Violin Duets — of which I think there are 44 short ones — they are totally amazing, and he makes it look so easy.
Tell me about a project you’ve got coming up that you’re particularly excited about…
[I’m] gearing up for Britten Pears! I’m the Composer-in-Residence on the English Song course, which is for singers — but there’ll also be a couple pianists there, as well — and they’ve got a Writer-in-Residence, who I believe is a poet, but I haven’t met them yet. The idea is that we work with each other — me and the poet — and work with [the] singers, to create a new 15-minute song cycle. Which I’m so excited for! I’ve always wanted to write a song cycle. I’ve written smaller chunks, and smaller songs and pieces, but I’m loving the [opportunity to write] more extended work — especially when text is involved. That’ll be a fun experience, working with someone new. Sally Beamish is [my] mentor.
I’m so excited to be in that environment again. I’ve been once before, with the National Youth Choir, for a creative residency. It was so unbelievably peaceful, fruitful, creative; I don’t know what it is about the air in Snape Maltings, in Aldeburgh, but it’s… chef’s kiss!
More about Anna and her practice can be found at: