Last year, Chi-chi Nwanoku, the founder and artistic director of the Chineke! Orchestra, received an email out of the blue from the singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading. She, the message said, had finished composing her first classical composition.
They exchanged a few more emails about the piece, Symphony No. 1, and Nwanoku called to verify that she was talking with the real Armatrading, known for hits like “Love and Affection,” “Down to Zero,” and “Drop the Pilot.” She wanted to hear the music, with the idea of having Chineke! premiere it — which the ensemble will do on Nov. 24 in London.
Rather than sending over a recording or a score, Armatrading decided that the only way forward was to visit Nwanoku’s home. The two sat at the kitchen table, and listened to the 30-minute electronic piano version of what would become the symphony through separate sets of headphones, with Armatrading watching Nwanoku carefully for any hints of a reaction.
At one point, Nwanoku broke into a smile. Armatrading stopped the tape, assuming there was something wrong. But Nwanoku was just pleased by a moment of harmonic expansion, from total unison into flowing harmony.
“I’ve never done that before, with a composer looking at my facial expressions,” Nwanoku said recently. “It’s very unusual.”
A similar thing happened to me one afternoon last month. I met Armatrading, 72, in an upstairs room of a club in Soho, central London, where she, an artist not known for her loquaciousness, sat for an unusually long interview. But before we began, she insisted that I listen to a newer version of the symphony. She handed me an iPad containing an audio file featuring synthetic instruments, and headphones, which she’d wiped clean with a tissue.
Then she departed for a seat behind me. But instead than trying to gauge my reaction, she spent the next half-hour looking out of the window. “You will be amazed at some of the things that come into your head, as you just watch people,” she said a few minutes later. “You try and work out what their life is all about. Where are they going? What are they doing? How well do they know each other?”
Armatrading’s creative life is built on asking questions like those as a way of examining human nature. Her songwriting is largely observational; by removing herself from the equation, she gets much closer to capturing the feelings of others. “I am not in love,” her hit single “Love and Affection” begins plainly, before adding a lingering afterthought: “But I’m open to persuasion.”
“Where in pop,” Pitchfork asked in 2021, “do openings get better?”
In Britain, Armatrading is a pioneering singer-songwriter, but, as The Guardian noted following her 2021 album “Consequences,” she — a Black gay woman who challenged categories with both her sound and her determinedness to chart a career on her own terms — “still feels like a weirdly under-sung figure in pop history.” Perhaps that’s partly because, following her eponymous 1976 breakthrough album, her musical journey has charted a restlessly idiosyncratic course.
Armatrading has experimented with playing all of the instruments on her albums; first mooted then eventually scrapped on “Walk Under Ladders” (1981), she returned to that impulse with “Lovers Speak” (2003). Then, a trilogy of albums — “Into the Blues” (2007), “This Charming Life” (2010) and “Starlight” (2012) — were designed as deep dives into specific styles: blues, rock and jazz. To her, classical is “just one of the other genres,” she said with a laugh. “And because I like all music, I try and write all music.”
A lover of classical music since childhood, Armatrading had long expected to take up the art form. “One day, I was in the studio, and I thought: It’s today,” she said. There was never any doubt that her first piece wasn’t going to be a symphony.
“It’s just a symphony,” she said. “I’ve written blues, pop, jazz, rock, folk. I mean, I’ve written all the different things, so this is just another different thing.”
Toward the start of 2022, Armatrading sat down at her desk and, without a run-up, began writing. “People want it to be daunting and angsty, and ‘How am I going to do this?’ and ‘Is it ever gonna work?’ I didn’t have any of that because I know I can do it. It’s writing, and it’s arranging, and I love arranging stuff, so it’s just doing that.”
She finished the symphony in five months.
ARMATRADING WAS BORN on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts in 1950, and moved to Birmingham, England, at age 7. There, her mother got a piano as a piece of living room furniture, and she was given free rein to start experimenting with writing songs. “I was just to my own devices,” she said, adding with a laugh: “I never involved anybody. I didn’t really ask anybody’s opinion, which is how I am still.”
Some of Armatrading’s earliest experiences with classical music came through movies. “As soon as the strings come in, the emotion really kicks in,” she said. “It seems to be like a punctuation mark that says, ‘This is what you’re supposed to do.’” She enjoyed “Brief Encounter,” with its use of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, and “West Side Story,” and developed an early appreciation for depth and weight. “If you have 18 strings or something, and they’re doing that thing, you’re gonna cry,” she said.
It’s no surprise, then, that some of her favorite composers are those known for tugging hardest on the heartstrings: Rachmaninoff and Purcell, as well as Tchaikovsky, whose Fifth Symphony is being paired with her First on the Chineke! program.
Armatrading is adamant that, in her Symphony, she just wanted to sound “like Joan,” but she’s also happy for listeners to bring their own associations. When I listened to the work, which will be recorded for Decca, I heard flashes of the verdant textures of Vaughan Williams, a bit of Elgarian pomp and some of Copland’s brightness.
This symphony is by no means the first case of a pop artist to engage in classical composition. But unlike other instances — such as Paul McCartney’s “Liverpool Oratorio” or Deep Purple’s “Concerto for Group and Orchestra” — Armatrading’s debut is a two-footed leap into a different musical world rather than an attempt to straddle styles.
In the work, Armatrading was happy to deploy what she described as classical music clichés: gestures that “allow you to know the thing that you’re listening to.” Those reference points were drawn from her own experiences as a listener, and include big opening and closing statements. “I love that most classical things — ‘dun dun dun duuuun’ — they all start with things that say, ‘OK, I’m starting.’” She also placed an emphasis on strings, which, alongside their emotional power also give a “lyrical floating” quality, and employed repetition through developing ideas and shifting layers (unlike songs, which can be “the same melody with different words”).
“Classical music gives you a different feeling to pop music,” Armatrading said. “Pop music is almost like a ‘now’ thing; it says this is the culture of now, this is what’s happening now, this is it. Whereas classical music gives you the past, the present and the future. It seems to give you everything that you need. The perspective is bigger.”
Pop, she added, “tends to make people be very nostalgic and reminiscent; it makes them think, ‘I was here when I did that.’ I don’t know that classical music does quite that. I think it just puts you in the world. It’s not so time specific.”
The symphony is not programmatic, but Andrew Grams, who is conducting the premiere, said, “If one is going to say that it has any sort of message, it is a message that is meant to be uplifting.” It forgoes both the darkness and pessimism, and the narratives of triumph or defeat, that define many classical symphonies, in favor of a more consistently positive atmosphere. “It’s going to be kind of a challenge for us to maintain this level of optimism in our playing,” Grams added, “since it’s not something that happens very frequently.”
Nwanoku said that all of Armatrading’s music “is culminating in the symphony; who knew that she was heading this way?”
There is at least one person who did: Armatrading. But she sees this work as a beginning rather than an endpoint. After, all, the title Symphony No. 1 implies plans for more. And, she said, “I don’t want this to be the only thing I write.”