To paraphrase a man infinitely more intelligent than myself; you won't get a different result if you carry on doing the same thing. If you always go straight to the pasta isle, for example, you may never try Moroccan spiced vegetable couscous. Now, compartmentalising is fine if you're in a rush at the supermarket, but it takes away the element of discovery and surprise. The same could be said of music, although increasingly with streaming services allowing you to travel the world and sample, more-or-less, any music you hit on, it's far less restrictive and confined than it was. We don't just have four radio stations to choose from, we don't have to just listen to predominantly English and American artists. The world is your oyster, or clam, or urchin; you can be you're own DJ whenever you choose.
Arguably there is currently so much more music, literally at your fingertips, that filtering is increasingly difficult. But, as with most things in life, the cream of the crop usually finds its way to the top. One such artist who is at the top of her game and oh so refreshingly hard to compartmentalise and genre assign is Brighton's Poppy Ackroyd.
Poppy can't be found down the pasta isle, she's not a 'supermarket brand'. By blurring the lines between traditional perceptions of classical and contemporary compositions, Ackroyd is creating her own niche. Her use of laptops and loops would no doubt be abhorrent to some pianists but she makes each element in her complex arrangements play a pivotal part. The virtuoso pianist, violinist and composer has drawn comparisons to Nils Frahm and Max Richter but there is something about Ackroyd's music that makes her compositions more vibrant and immediately engaging. Call it what you may if you need to - neo-classical, experimental pianist, contemporary classical or new wave instrumental - the music is what matters, and the music is outstanding.
At the newly restored, Sir Basil Spence-designed Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts in Brighton, Poppy Ackroyd was joined by her friend Mara Simpson as the opening act on the bill. Mara, accompanied by James and Jools in the Modernist architectural landmark, played a laidback and folksy set. Simpson and her band opened with the gentle lilt of 'Home', a song about two brothers in 'Keep You In The Light', and a more impassioned 'Don't Know Much', all from this year's album, '285 Days'. She was thrilled to be sharing the stage with Ackroyd as she got to use "a great piano". She shared her 'cheesiest' of song titles sat at the keys ahead of playing out the lovestruck 'Baby You're The One', and then went solo to share the reflective 'Flare', jokingly explaining it's "the rescue kind that goes up in the air, not the trouser leg kind!". Mara was in fine voice on home turf, adding a further element of sophistication to the evening.
The stage was cleared of guitars and banjos ready for the arrival of Poppy Ackroyd. Arriving on stage in a black trouser suit, white trainers and her customary beehive haircut, she looked calm and collected as she sat at her piano. It's the last day of the current tour, Poppy explained ("It's nice to be in my home town, I can go to bed in my own bed, but not yet!"). Ackroyd started with the title track from last year's album, 'Resolve'. The acoustics in the auditorium gave the pianist the best environment in which to showcase her work as they were nothing short of spectacular. As the track built and built and Poppy's playing became ever more dramatic you couldn't help but be completely transfixed.
Poppy played tracks from all of her albums to date to a captivated audience that were mesmerised throughout. On 'Timeless', Ackroyd told us that the use of the clock was the only time she'd used something that wasn't an acoustic instrument in one of her tracks. The violin intro set up the song beautifully as the projections behind her accentuated the performance perfectly. The rolling piano and revolving violin filled the theatre. From her debut album of 2012, she played a few of her older tracks. The grainy projected visuals, shot on a very wet drive to Wales, and the rippling puddles on the stage ensured that the atmospherics of 'Rain' were brought together brilliantly. The stunning cinematic film to accompany the very emotive 'Grounds' was similarly impressive. The whole show in many respects was like being immersed in a piece of performance art.
The evening's set was cleverly constructed and had a subtle balance to it as Ackroyd deftly played with varying degrees of light and dark, maintaining an element of suspense, drama and theatrics. Before the intensity of the track 'Light', she asked the audience if they could "try and not cough in the first minute and a half as there's quite a lot of looping". She need not have worried; the crowd were on their best behaviour. There was only a minor hiccup ahead of one of her favourite tracks, 'Feathers' ("Tom is here doing the visuals in this wonderful venue. He's in control. I'm usually in control. I like to be in control"). Starting afresh, 'Feathers' sounded as sublime as ever with Ackroyd note perfect.
Poppy Ackroyd closed out her set with two of her most evocative compositions; 'Luna' and, in particular, the rhythmic and energetic 'Trains', were magnificent. After a brief departure from the stage, Poppy returned to rapturous applause to play out her "hit", 'Paper'. "It's got seven million hits on Spotify" she said, before quipping, "no one's listened to it, it's just on in cafes!". The typewriter footage that the song played out to was another fine piece of footage that helped elevate the experience beyond its original construct.
An evening with Poppy Ackroyd is a very special occasion indeed. The virtuoso pianist has an abundance of originality with an outstanding talent to match. Her piano playing is spellbinding and her songs sublime. If there was ever a reason for you to try something fresh and new then Poppy Ackroyd is surely it.
Poppy Ackroyd -
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