Whether they realise it or not, nearly everyone knows The Four Seasons, Antonio Vivaldi’s 1793 string concerto. From movie soundtracks and TV ads to that ubiquitous ringback tone of the late aughts, the piece pops up all over. Yet not everyone knows Anna Meredith, an immensely talented modern composer whose work spans classical and electronic music. Her debut album, Varmints, is an onslaught of sonic genius, featuring percussive guitar tangling with woodwinds and midi keyboard overlayed by strings. The antique opus meets modern avant-pop in Anno, Anna Meredith’s hourlong multisensory reinterpretation of The Four Seasons.
When it debuts at the Spitalfields Music Summer Festival at London’s Oval Space, Anno will engulf its audience in the colours and sounds of a passing year, intertwining Vivaldi’s concerti with new electronic compositions. Musical greats like Philip Glass and Nigel Kennedy have tried their hand at reworking The Four Seasons, but Anno instead aims to recontextualise, rather than reconfigure, Vivaldi’s work. “When I met Jonathan Morton, the lead violinist and artistic director of Scottish Ensemble, a couple of years ago, he said, ‘I think Vivaldi would be a really good fit for your music.’ He had this idea of, not reworking the Vivaldi, but giving it a different context. It’s not a mashup or a mix. We’re not trying to make Vivaldi super ‘down with the kids’ or anything,” Anna Meredith tells The Creators Project.
Rather, old and modern melodies intertwine and flow together in a sonic pas de deux, while projections by Anna Meredith’s sister, visual artist Eleanor Meredith, surround the audience. “There are nine massive screens, and the players move around you. The audience is seated in the middle, on little stools so they can swivel to where the players are standing, and everything, the musicians and animations, starts on the far left, representing spring, and move through the space, crossing the middle in summer and ending on the back right,” Anna Meredith says. Though it splices and even throws out whole movements from Vivaldi’s original score, Anno is faithful to the composer’s intent: to paint a picture in celebration of the changing seasons.
The confluence of 18th century music, electronic arrangements, and visuals are paramount for both Anna and Eleanor Meredith. “I don’t do anything without really thinking about how the pieces are connected,” Anna Meredith says. “Doing it for the sake of it can be so awkward. You end up with something slapped together. I’ve seen visuals paired with my stuff before, and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s not right!’” The sisters mapped out the entirety of Anno, charting the parallel paths of the Vivaldi score, Anna’s new compositions, and Eleanor’s accompanying visuals. The result is a beautiful and sapient journey through time.
Reshaping a masterwork is a daunting task, but Anna Meredith now feels a sort of kinship to the Baroque Italian composer. “The original Vivaldi is essentially little loops of three to four minute pieces. Looking at the whole score, I see we’re connected in the way we use those little loops. He’s stubborn about repetition, and that’s actually how I like to write,” she says. “It’s quite a big responsibility in a way, this piece. For a while I was nervous about what people would think about tampering with it.” Critics have the chance to respond when the piece debuts this week, but defending The Four Seasons is wholly unnecessary. At its heart, Anno is a dialogue between two composers, albeit across a couple of centuries.