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Composer Portraits: Thomas Meadowcroft

Another Children’s Television (2021)
Forward Through Circles (2021)

On one hand, these two pieces are easily introduced. In the first, the four musicians of Yarn/Wire perform an album of invented kids’ TV jingles from the 1970s. In the second, a chain of chord progressions moves like slow clouds across a clear sky.

Yet, much lies behind. The music’s surface beauty is ambiguous, even ambivalent. Its ideas are provocative, yet the music can be laugh-out-loud funny. It tells stories that are personal, but these stories are distanced—meaning can be made only by the listener.

Thomas Meadowcroft is an Australian-born composer and performer living in Berlin. His works cross worlds, embracing notated compositions for acoustic instruments and electronics, improvised performances, sound installations, and music for theater and film.
 

Photo by Katrin Streicher for Miller Theatre    


To start to understand the complexities of Meadowcroft and his music, we need to look back. Way back. Back to the sepia-toned 1970s of regional Queensland, Australia. Back to his grandmother’s home organ, to his cousin’s old V8 car.

 

“All these pieces were made in a state of homesickness for Australia...I wouldn’t have made them if I were still living in Australia. Much of the tension of my music is involved in trying to work through this problem of belonging.” —Thomas Meadowcroft


Journeys
Meadowcroft grew up in Toowoomba, a regional town in the state of Queensland. 1970s Toowoomba was sleepy, subtropical, suburban—something of a backwater. He remembers his childhood as one of security, of strong emotional stability.

As a teenager, Meadowcroft dreamed of becoming a composer. But he felt a tension with Australian classical institutions, which were busy propping up the work of Great Masters while also perpetuating paternalistic representations of indigenous culture.

As an undergraduate student, Meadowcroft was drawn to the ambition and visual beauty of American composer George Crumb’s oversized scores. After graduation, he traveled to the U.S. to study with Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania. Afterwards, with $400 in his pocket, he moved to Berlin.

With few financial pressures (“Berlin was a different city back then”), Meadowcroft drank in the teeming concert life and dabbled in freelance life. But he still felt a tension. “My training prepared me for a tradition which didn’t sit so well as a suburban Australian kid of the 1970s,” he says. “I struggled to see where my music fit in Berlin.”
 

Found objects
To move forward, he looked back. “I returned to the more mundane aspects of the regional culture from where I came,” Meadowcroft says. “Mine became a search for an inauthentic/authentic Australian music.”

He began to use musical objects remembered from his childhood: country guitar licks, ambient chords, Californian sunshine pop, surf guitar, 1950s tiki jazz—material not typically considered part of the classical world. Each of these objects became distanced, transformed.

The percussion sextet Home Organs brings his grandmother’s Casio organ to noisy, memory-affected life. The sound installation Monaro Eden features recordings of his cousin’s V8 hotrod. Cradles is a lullaby, putting beloved analogue musical equipment to bed.

In the radio piece Song Buslines, Meadowcroft maps long Australian bus rides, mixing the voice of a laconic bus driver with the sleepy sounds of the slide guitar. In Moving Homes, he creates a fictional North Queensland town, complete with an approaching hurricane and absurdist talkback radio.

“All these pieces were made in a state of homesickness for Australia,” Meadowcroft says. “I wouldn’t have made them if I were still living in Australia. Much of the tension of my music is involved in trying to work through this problem of belonging.”
 

Long tail
The two works on tonight’s program were conceived and written as a pair. First, high-energy: Another Children’s Television, “a very directed, culturally loaded, snappy piece of commercial music.” Second, our pulse slows: Forward Through Circles, “opening up a larger sort of field, a different time flow—a sort of non-commodified time.”

The two works don’t share musical material. But, for Meadowcroft, they respond to each other, like “two forms of drapery.” Both use musical “found objects”: children’s jingles in Another Children’s Television, chord progressions in Forward Through Circles. Both build chains: chains of jingles, chains of chords.
 

The News in Music
Another Children’s Television is a sequel of sorts. In 2017, Meadowcroft wrote an orchestral work for Germany’s Donaueschingen Festival, The News in Music, which consisted of a sequence of invented 1980s-style news broadcast themes.

Meadowcroft was questioning the use of music to further powerful commercial interests. He was also rejecting the idea of the Great Composer Genius, instead celebrating the skills of “my commodified cousins in the commercial world.”

The premiere of The News in Music was greeted by a loud chorus of boos. The reaction took Meadowcroft by surprise. “I often make stuff without knowing quite what it does. It’s obviously culturally loaded, but I am honestly trying to do the thing. It’s not an association, it’s not meta.”

Another Children’s Television became “my difficult second album.”
 

Another Children’s Television
Like many Australian children of the 1970s, Meadowcroft woke up on Saturday mornings to a mix of American and English kids’ TV. “It was a sort of gentle cultural imperialism,” he says, laughing, “but I’m quite happy to have a working knowledge of both B. J. and the Bear and Paddington Bear.

Another Children’s Television blurs the boundary between concert hall and live recording studio. In the 1970s and 80s, thousands of stock records were made to give TV and radio stations albums of off-the-shelf music tracks for their programming. In this new piece, Yarn/Wire takes the Miller stage to perform what Meadowcroft calls “a lost 1970s children’s music record.”

For Another Children’s Television, Meadowcroft wrote dozens of original jingles, mixing live and pre-recorded, acoustic and electronic sounds. In the score, each jingle is labeled: “Big, melancholic;” “Funk rok (check this spelling);” “Children’s disco;” “Creepy bossa;” “The prude shuffle;” “Boozy;” “Bold, crisp;” “Wistful.”

Meadowcroft’s “stock record” has two sides. An American A-side: funk-tinged tunes reminiscent of shows like The Banana Splits, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, and Sesame Street. And a B-side with polite, dreamy music from BBC and Yorkshire TV shows, like The Sooty Show and The Wombles.

The music aims to capture the direct, virtuosic, thrillingly “live” qualities of 1970s stock records. But during the B-side, the tone shifts. The tunes begin to drift slowly away. “I’m hoping,” Meadowcroft says, “the jingles start to resemble blocks of memory.”
 

The Sesame Street test
Meadowcroft’s mother was the children’s librarian at the National Library of Australia. “She was obsessed with good children’s literature.” From his mother he learned that the best art for children is made for everyone. “Maurice Sendak didn’t make his books for kids,” he says, “he just made them for people. If kids liked them, great.”

For Meadowcroft, children can also be important arbiters for art. His theater friends talk often about what they call “the Sesame Street test.” “It doesn’t matter if artistic work is pitched at adults,” he says, “if children don’t have some kind of visceral response, it’s not working.
 

Meadowcroft’s sound palette is unique. At its core is the sound of the analogue synthesizer, the distinctive sound of Hammonds, Hohners, Farfisas, and Fenders...In his music, they represent both a celebration of childhood as well as a rejection of the standard classical music sonic playbook.


Analogue synthesis
Meadowcroft’s sound palette is unique. At its core is the sound of the analogue synthesizer, the distinctive sound of Hammonds, Hohners, Farfisas, and Fenders. He loves their raw, un-finessed sound, but is also drawn to what he calls “their culturally overloaded nature.”

Synthesizers first emerged in the early decades of the 20th century. By the 1970s and early ‘80s, they dominated pop music, a period that overlaps with Meadowcroft’s childhood. In his music they represent both a celebration of childhood as well as a rejection of the standard classical music sonic playbook.

Meadowcroft seeks ways to match and contrast their raw tone with acoustic instruments, particularly with percussion. He finds a kinship with percussionists. “They can be multi-instrumentalist tinkerers,” he says, “and they approach keyboard playing very differently to a trained classical pianist.”


Broken economy
Many of Meadowcroft’s works explore the contradictions of making art in a capitalist society. Medieval Rococo is about building “an abundance of wealth, ornamentation, and redundancy on the back of an impoverished idea.” Entertaining Alone is “a defeatist commentary on the broken economy of music.”

His work can touch on the absurd, like a mini-opera seeking funds for an opera in outer space, or a piece blending texts on extinction with the sweet nothings of anonymous lovers. And it can be tinged with melancholy, like a string quartet intended to be performed in an apartment, which confronts the impossibility of intimacy in our modern economy.

His previous commission from Yarn/Wire fuses some of these concerns. Walkman Antiquarian utilizes various music technologies to make clear how fast the modes of music-making are changing, to lament “technology’s effect upon the ability to think in longer blocks of time.”
 

Forward Through Circles
The title holds a contradiction. By definition, circles loop back on themselves, unable to move forward. But Meadowcroft treats the title almost like a riddle: What is a thing that moves forward through circles? Answer: a chain.

Forward Through Circles is a long chain of chords. Each musical link is based on the simplest version of a progression known in popular forms as a turnaround: a sequence of chords that propels a musician from the end of a tune to its beginning.

The richness of Forward Through Circles’ sound-world comes from the collision of acoustic and electronic. Here, the sound of analogue synthesizers (Hammond organ, Hohner Clavinet, Farfisa Organ, Juno synthesizer, Fender Rhodes) blends with the acoustic sounds of melodicas, beer bottles, pitched bowls. A synthesized soundscape hums in the background.

When talking about the new work, Meadowcroft mentions the mandala. This intricate geometric pattern appears in many cultures, often representing a spiritual journey. These days the practice of drawing mandalas is often used as a therapeutic tool.

In Meadowcroft’s own musical mandala, we drift, unmoored. His slowly changing harmonies live in the fuzzy middle between tension and resolution. Perhaps we might give up some measure of control, some of our insistence on “where is this going?” This music isn’t in a hurry, so perhaps we shouldn’t be, either.
 

—Notes by Tim Munro

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