A blemish here, a flaw there can somehow make a thing of beauty appear more beautiful. The paradox is central to VIII, the debut album from composer Isobel Waller-Bridge. Its eight miniatures for string ensemble infuse exquisite soundscapes with rough edges that catch the ear and open the heart to the confessional nature of the composer’s music. Each track journeys into Waller-Bridge’s psyche, revealing little islands of identity, some dark and stormy, others at peace beneath a cloudless sky. “I didn’t know these pieces would come out in the way they have,” she tells Apple Music. “I thought they were going to be a sort of theme and variations, but I decided they were individual compositions. I let the process dictate and reveal how I was feeling. And I realised I was having a very personal reaction whenever I wrote something that felt like I was slipping into a place where I was being indulgent or when the thought occurred, ‘Oh, somebody might like this.’ But I reacted with, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’ I needed to connect with something deep within. It was a really cathartic experience.” Waller-Bridge has spent much of her career writing scores for TV, film or stage productions. The composer’s credits include music for her younger sister Phoebe’s BBC comedy-drama Fleabag, Autumn de Wilde’s film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, and theatre productions for London’s West End. “Collaborative work is all about response,” she notes. “I’m always responding to something that’s presented to me, whether it’s a picture, a script, an image or whatever. The interesting thing with VIII was figuring out what I’m going to respond to when it’s just me! It was interesting not to be writing for anyone else. I wanted to lean into that because I felt it was important to listen to the thing in me that was saying, ‘Don’t be taken in by an expectation, maybe from an audience.’ What if this is just for me, and it’s something that I need to get out. That’s when I began writing these funny little pieces.” And each of VIII’s short tracks is strikingly rich in expression. Waller-Bridge drew inspiration from Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles Op. 9, six aphoristic pieces for string quartet, the longest of which takes just over a minute to the play, the shortest less than 25 seconds. They served as models for how to pack big emotions into a small musical space. “I loved the efficiency of writing pieces which are not indulgent and demand so much focus from the listener. I wondered what happens if I write things that are too short or too long for a playlist, for example, that sometimes feel like they’re a bit incomplete or are not always perfect but are just how I feel.” The creative process, she adds, was marked by a surprising degree of self-discovery. “I loved the imperfections in these pieces so much. It feels very unlike me not to neatly tie everything up in a way that feels very complete. But I don’t feel very complete as a writer or as a person, and I love that. I think that’s a good thing.” Read on as Isobel Waller-Bridge guides us through each piece on VIII. “Daylight” “Most of the titles came to me after I’d finished writing the pieces. We usually think of daylight as something that emerges very slowly. But for me, it’s also like opening a window into the darkness of the mind to reveal a new thought or a new idea or a new part of your identity that, perhaps, you didn’t know before. That’s the idea of just opening up: even though the music is a little jagged, it turns to this question of identity and bringing parts of shadow into the light.” “Haiku” “I loved looking at these very fine sounds but was also interested in the oddity, almost the joke, of hopping out of one tonality into a completely different kind of harmony and then going back to it. And all that within just over a minute of music. Like a haiku, it sort of makes sense, and then again…!” “For a Moment” “‘For a Moment’ is about love and a particular type of experience you can have—that moment where you felt truly peaceful and were able to share that with somebody. It’s very simple, in fact. It’s about being peaceful for a fleeting moment and being comfortable with a feeling that travels, then disappears. Everything is transient, everything moves, and we grow and evolve with it.” “An Odd Interlude” “After this beautiful, peaceful moment, which sometimes happens in life, there’s a kind of repositioning of the self. It’s when you think, ‘Oh, this is great. I know exactly how this is.’ And then there’s a moment of, ‘Hang on a minute. What’s going on?’ ‘An Odd Interlude’ is about those moments of finding your feet.” “My Brain Distorts Again” “I feel you can have complete clarity, then something happens, and your thoughts become very distorted—reality can be very distorting! ‘My Brain Distorts Again’ is about moving through a place where it’s difficult to reach a state of clarity. It’s what happens when you can’t go over and you can’t go under whatever’s distorting your thoughts; you simply must go through it.” “An Exercise in Restraint (Until You Go)” “Although I’m getting better at it, I don’t always say the things I wish I’d said until after the moment when someone’s gone. I liked the idea of trying to write something that’s quite measured but full of feeling which then loosens up a bit. It feels to me more truthful. But there’s also a positivity in that restraint.” “Trace” “This was an experiment. I’d never used this edgy sound with muted strings before, and it woke me up when we tried it! ‘Trace’ contains these unmuted arpeggio patterns followed by shadow played with mutes. So, you hear complete clarity, and then you have this other, more distorted, muted layer, which is the shadow.” “Song for A” “I’ve always been interested in the second self, the shadow. With ‘Song for A’, the rest of the ensemble shadows the solo cello part. They play what the cello is playing but in a sort of unsettling way. There’s a melancholy about this very legato, expressive cello line, but behind it is something slightly spikey, more textured. It’s the idea of listening to your shadow, which is always there. It was interesting that I only realised that’s what it was once I’d written it.”

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