10 April 1998

Fingers and thumbs

With the Art of Noise’s Anne Dudley

She doesn’t look like an experimental art-pop terrorist, but then you’d expect them to come in disguise. There could be one sitting next to you right now. The only clue to Anne Dudley’s identity as a founder member of the thrilling 1980s electronic collective The Art Of Noise, when her tall, blonde figure strides into a cosy top-floor London studio, lies in the ascetic, Bauhaus functionality of her clothing. Plain white shirt, slate-grey trousers – the purist colours of a minutely pencilled musical stave.

In fact, no one was ever quite sure who The Art Of Noise were, as they refused – a viciously clever stroke, in the heyday of New Romanticism – to pose for publicity photos. But Dudley has found a quite different fame lately, as the only British artist to be honoured at this year’s Academy Awards, for her musical score to The Full Monty. When the news broke, Dudley was out of the country, but a gang of craven hacks from the Express found out where her parents lived and camped outside their house, harrassing them for quotes. She finds the sudden media interest bizarre. “People always want a soundbite,” she observes, colouring the last word with a subterranean disgust.

Dudley is far happier talking about her musical activities, which are astonishingly eclectic. As well as composing for film (The Crying Game, Buster), television (Jeeves & Wooster, Kavanagh QC), and adverts, she is also a prolific pop arranger and orchestrator, having collaborated with producer (and Art Of Noise team-mate) Trevor Horn to craft the epic wall-of-sound textures on Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s enormous 1980s hits, and arranged for a raft of records by, to name but a strangely unrelated few, Wham, Seal, Elton John, Boyzone and The Spice Girls.

Dudley co-wrote songs on ABC’s classic album Lexicon Of Love, and recently built the darkly swooning string arrangements for Pulp’s new album (“Jarvis has always seemed a personable chap to me,” she says brightly). In 1994 she released a CD of her own classical music, Ancient And Modern, and she is currently scoring the debut feature, American History X, by commercials director Tony Kaye. They have a long-standing professional relationship, and Dudley is pleased about not having to work around pop songs on this project. “It’s about racism in America,” she explains, “so the obvious thing to do would be to have a load of neo-Nazi thrash metal stuff and some black rap stuff; but Tony said, ‘I want you to do a 75-piece orchestral, big, elegiac score.’ I was astonished.”

Such extraordinary stylistic versatility is helped by the fact that Dudley was a star student at the Royal College of Music – but she doesn’t think that gambolling in the Elysian fields of pop makes her a (dread word) “crossover” musician. “I’ve never seen a divide between classical, jazz and pop music,” she declares. “I wasn’t very interested in pop music until I was about 15, and then I came across it and it was very interesting: I couldn’t quite work out how it was put together. Then I started to play in a dance band, and I was useless, because I’d never come across a chord symbol before. I was a competent pianist, but I had these things saying ‘Dmaj7’ – what does this *mean*?” Things fell into place when she went for jazz piano lessons, and her teacher pointed out that jazz tunes can be analysed in terms of classical harmonic progressions – that, in effect, the two techniques are roads that meet at the same destination.

Dudley’s score for The Full Monty is a perfect musical analogue for this idea of convergence. “You start from a sound, a tone quality,” she explains when describing the conceptual process of writing film music. “In The Full Monty it was this conglomeration of sounds – baritone sax, acoustic guitar, harmonica… The reasoning was that all these six men are different, they come from different backgrounds, but in the final scene it all works. The idea was that the instruments should do that as well – they all come from different places but they actually gel… The sound is terribly important, you can’t just plonk an orchestra on everything; you’ve got to find something different.”

Taxing enough at the best of times; even harder if you see the film the way Dudley first saw it. The producers had slung on a “temp track” (movie jargon for any old bits of music to make the rough cut watchable) of a steel band. Dudley was incredulous. “I was thinking ‘steel band?’ – steel – Sheffield… maybe,” she whispers conspiratorially, “but you kept wondering when the pina coladas were going to come out! It was most bizarre.” In general, she is able to treat the ritual humiliations dished out to film composers with amused contempt. “I’ve been to dubbing stages and they do things on a whim – the director might be out at lunch and they say things like, ‘Do you think this cue might work if we start it later and chop off the last 10 bars?'” She chuckles. “Bastards.”

As a pop musician in the studio, Dudley has more control. Much more, in fact. We talk about the explosion of musical technology since The Art Of Noise started, and the way the ability to change anything at will in software can potentially lead to a sterile perfectionism. “It hasn’t made making records any more enjoyable – it’s made it much less enjoyable, actually. You can sometimes go into a studio and instead of hearing music you hear the sound of fingers clicking on computer keyboards. That’s one of the reasons that I like doing film music, because you get in there and you get on with it for three hours, and as you go along it sounds like it’s going to sound.”

And has the ubiquity of sampling – a technique that her band, after all, helped popularise – eroded standards of musicianship? “No, that is true. I find that frustrating. It makes me sound like an old fogey, but In My Day we used to go out and play – not just original stuff but covers, and learn how all that was put together.” Dudley’s long fingers suddenly dance into action on the table. “You wouldn’t believe the keyboard players I see playing like this” – she mimes a three-year-old with no knuckle joints banging out Chopsticks – “oh, don’t use the little fingers and thumbs, for God’s sake.”

This is a rare outburst of sarcasm; Dudley usually prefers to drizzle certain words with a light, glittering irony. This rather subverts her apparent reluctance to denigrate fellow musicians. Talking about James Horner’s Oscar-winning musical Oirishry for Titanic, for instance, she’ll say: “The film is not particularly rooted in Ireland… people say it sounds like Enya, which it does a bit – but she’s Irish, so I suppose that’s why. You know, I’ve met James Horner,” she confides. “He affects an English accent. He’s Californian.”

Later, she enthuses about the work of maestro John Williams: “His score for The Witches Of Eastwick seems to have had tremendous influence…” Er, what can she mean? I wonder aloud if anyone might suppose that Danny Elfman, the composer for Batman and Edward Scissorhands, had studied that music rather carefully, and Dudley bursts into laughter. “It’s very influential, let’s leave it at that.”

Dudley’s combination of tact and exhilaratingly incisive analytical powers made her an obvious choice to sit on the judging panel for last year’s Mercury Music Prize. “They chose the wrong album,” she complains in mock-stentorian tones. Pulp eventually won, but she was rooting for the Manic Street Preachers’ wondrous Everything Must Go. “It really did attempt to break new ground in terms of its arrangements. It was a fantastic sound – the clarity of the texture, very interesting use of the strings… I couldn’t really get the others to agree with me. They kept saying [adopts nasal tone of generic pop hack] ‘Sounds like Queen to me.’ Well, what can you say? Well, yes, it does a bit… But the whole thing was totally exhausting.” Dudley shakes her head. “Just physically getting through listening to 120 albums. Very hard.”

Much more fun to go away and make your own album, which is what Dudley is doing right now, finalising the mixes for the September release of the new Art Of Noise opus, splendidly entitled The Seduction Of Claude Debussy. “Debussy was working almost exactly 100 years ago,” Dudley observes. “His influence on 20th-century music wasn’t perhaps appreciated at the time, but he was the real revolutionary in terms of harmony and colour. So we’re taking Debussy’s music as a starting point and trying to reinterpret things.”

So The Art Of Noise are set to make a glorious comeback and show today’s callow sample-everything whippersnappers, with their herd-like genre mentalities, how it’s really done? Dudley laughs, but it’s a confident laugh, not an embarrassed one. “I said to one of the publicists: ‘Doesn’t it worry you that we’re all near 40 or slightly over?’ They said: ‘No: we’re going to make a positive aspect of it – The Professionals.'”

Yes, it’s got the right sort of stylishly threatening ring – Bodie, Doyle, Cowley, Dudley. And there’s no denying that the face of electronic music, from The KLF to Fatboy Slim, would be unrecognisable without the stolen aesthetic of The Art Of Noise. Soon, it’s going to be payback time.