Scintilla – marking milestones 3 – pushing into new territory

Liz Glass CandlelightSo, what exactly does ‘Scintilla’ mean? It is a ‘soul-spark’ (Jung’s definition) and I am seeking ways to find some kind of soul-spark, to express it, to reveal it. I have been searching for that ‘Scintilla’ within the landscape of the poem Crag Inspector by David Hart.

I offer my ears and eyes open. Closed. Open. Closed.

Why this poem? Crag Inspector opens up worlds for me to explore: exterior worlds – of the wild beauty of Bardsey Island –  and interior worlds of memories, fantasies and nightmares, and of a mind trying to make sense of being human, within these worlds.

…I offer my memories.

And how does that work as a composer? I imagine the island. I imagine the pull and push of memories, of ghosts and dreams. I imagine the ecstasy of flying across the sea on the back of a swallow. I open to these thoughts. I play with them. I let the poetry and my imagination lead me:

closed                                 eyes                                   open

closed                         ears                             open

closed                mouth                open

closed                 imagination                open

closed                                  play                                     open

Screenshot 2019-07-06 18.09.54Where has this led to? Scintilla 1 – May 2019 – was a first layering of music, poetry, live electronics and choreography, conjuring up the island and the Crag Inspector himself. The performance captured some of the essence of Scintilla –  choreographed and performed by Dane Hurst (see Marking Milestones 2). But I know now there is so much more to explore…

Scintilla 2 September 2019 – I decided to break out of the mould, leave the existing material to one side and explore Scintilla in new ways. A whole set of new ideas for voice, percussion, clarinet and live electronics was presented in an interactive workshop in September.

Balloons, games, breathing, ping pong balls, break down, toy windmills, egg timers and a 10m snake of packaging paper were used to explore mental health, isolation, the wounded healer – within new layers of poetry, music, sound, choreography and film.  The audience of therapists and friends (including some friends who are therapists) gave frank responses in a post-workshop discussion, helping shape the path to find Scintilla.

I offer my sigh.

Now I want to weave these two existing ‘ScintillaWorlds’ with a newly spun thread – Augmented/Virtual Reality – to form three interconnected layers: a world of imagination, the real world, the virtual world. Somehow… the search continues…

I offer another, bigger sigh.

‘…we were greeted by performers walking in the round playing with balloons whilst musicians were playing… it was a wonderful, diverse and innovative performance of various acts flowing from one to the other, leaving us wondering at every single step of the way what might be happening next… a childlike performance, where the audience was allowed to play… to take part, and wondering what was being exposed in front of their eyes. …There were moods of light and dark being exposed …this was a serious story portraying the journey of mental health that exists in a lot of people… It allowed all of us in the audience to get our own perspective to really feel what it must be like to suffer…

This wasn’t an ordinary performance. It invoked emotion in the viewers, in the listeners; a performance of voice, a performance of acting, dance, music, sound and video…. a truly remarkable and amazing performance of talented people who are trying to get the message out to the world that something needs to be done.’

Michael de Groot audience member

I offer touch.

Many thanks – first to Wild Plum Arts for my composers’ residency as part of @MadeAtTheRedHouse in August 2019 – and to the Develop Your Creative Practice grant from Arts Council England allowing me to work with my creative team at the wonderful setting of Hellens Manor in September 2019. Also thanks to Sound and Music ‘New Voices’ for their ongoing support for the project. You too can donate! ScintillaSupporter

More about Liz Johnson here

Intricate Web Album

Composer Liz Johnson (far left) with the Scintilla team at Hellens Manor: Dane Hurst, Darren Gallacher (back row left to right), Mira Moshallski, Oli Clark, Jack McNeill and James Dooley

All logos July 2019

Poetry excerpts from Crag Inspector by David Hart, published by Five Seasons Press (with permission).


Scintilla – marking milestones 2 – realising the vision

All my foreshortened life

Scintilla is about searching – –

ever since I could run ahead / and get a grip on a crag

seeking out what it is to be human and to have a voice

my eyes have been reflections of slate / flaking

through fragments of poetry from David Hart’s book-length poem Crag Inspector

from one day to the next / from one week to the next / from one month to the next / from one year to the next. In the morning

interwoven with music, breaths, live electronics and choreography.

Screenshot 2019-07-06 17.59.26
Dane Hurst and Jack McNeill in rehearsal May 2019

I wake with their shapes in my mind

Since February 2019 I’ve been working with choreographer/dancer Dane Hurst who has created layers of choreography inspired by the poetry

so that sometimes at breakfast / after an intense dream of flying

and in May 2019 we staged a work-in-progress performance at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

I am the mountain, its hardness, / its cracks and gullies. In the mist cormorants

with clarinettist Jack McNeill, digital artist James Dooley and Dane Hurst.

guillemots, gulls, / razorbills, puffins, occasionally / gannet, shearwaters and, I saw once, / an arctic skua,

Screenshot 2019-07-06 18.13.02The intimate performance space added an intensity to the event, and the audience were invited to contribute to the creative process in a post-performance review:

have no statutory existence, / only presence.

‘moving and beautifully conceived’, ‘organic and beautifully layered,…it seemed to inhabit this really interesting space between abstraction and a concrete narrative’, ‘And what we were watching…was a passing of time with that deep awareness that time passing in that perhaps confined way hurts.’

The poetry led me to consider isolation and how it has affected me.

I might tell you about the writing I have seen / running along the sheer faces after rain

My ultimate vision for Scintilla is to create something that not only explores those difficult, perplexing, tragi-comic moments we find ourselves in when we are isolated (for whatever reason)

from crag to crag, or when I’ve been tired at the end / of a hot day, but honestly I can’t say

but that also allows people to engage directly with the material within the piece – the sound, the movement, the words. I am starting now to work with experts in Virtual/Augmented Reality and app design along with mental health support professionals to expand these ideas,

I’ve ever been able to decipher it. The signs,/ you understand, the inherent speech of the rock,

expanding ‘out’ from the more traditional staged performance with a passive but engaged audience. My long term aim is to reach people who would not usually come to a contemporary arts performance – for whatever reason – and to encourage them to explore finding their own voice, and join me in the search.

its necessary speech. I could ask myself again / say next Friday week and see if I have better luck.

Poetry fragments from Crag Inspector by David Hart published by FIve Seasons Press  ISBN 0 947960 29 5

Screenshot 2019-07-06 18.09.54

I am looking for further funding to support the future development of Scintilla and to realise my dream.

If you would like to help, like this blog, share it, get in touch and/or donate online — it all helps! Thank you for your interest and support.

Thanks to these organisations currently supporting Liz Johnson and the Scintilla project: Sound and Music New Voices artist development scheme, PRSF Women Make Music, Arts Council England, Help Musicians UK Fusion Fund, STEAMhouse and Wild Plum Arts. All logos July 2019


‘Scintilla’ – marking milestones 1 – music into theatre

Scintilla is a new piece for clarinettist and live electronics with theatrical aspirations. Its first showing on November 15th 2018 was supposed to be a music workshop, a work in progress, a stop-and-start affair, at least that is what I had expected it to be. But what emerged was something much more. Although we had started from a jigsaw puzzle of separated musical ideas, when the fragments were combined into a whole they took on a new form of their own and, almost by accident, morphed from music into theatre.

Clarinettist Jack McNeill, digital artist James Dooley and I initially started working on developing fragments of music I call ‘kernels’. I composed each kernel to have a distinctive musical character, drawn from David Hart’s extended poem Crag Inspector. Jack  was improvising around each kernel (to a greater or lesser degree) and James created a live electronics ‘scene’ for each kernel.

Digital artist James Dooley

The essence of the live electronics design stems around accessing random recorded fragments of the same material that is being played, with slightly different parameters shaping the sounds in each scene. With the live clarinet sound, Jack can control how much of the processed sound is being accessed through the amplitude of his playing. This generates very rich sound environments that we started shaping during rehearsals this summer.

In October 2018 I created a first ‘proper’ score, joining up these individual kernels into a sequence, creating a through-composed piece for the first time. In this process I was forced to make a million decisions about how things should be: deciding how things could join up, how the music gets from one kernel to the next, how to start, how to end… Many of those decisions felt arbitrary. In the weeks leading up to the work-in-progress day the usual roller coaster inside my head was playing itself out: great excitement one moment followed by impending doom the next, then back up again, and down, and so on. Questions. Possible solutions? More questions…

James, Jack and I talked through the new score on Skype along the way and they seemed to be more or less happy (see below). I knew that we had a full day and a half of rehearsal leading up to the first showing, in which time we could iron out any serious wrunkles. There would be enough time to decide how the music should be presented: in chunks or part-sequences.

Composer Liz Johnson

So during the first day’s rehearsal, when it became clear that the whole piece would flow from beginning to end in a single span (about 26 minutes), I was delighted.


James and Jack both had serious technical challenges to master in order to make this happen. In this version of Scintilla Jack has to:

  • move between three different-sized clarinets (in E flat, B flat and bass)
  • sometimes improvise from two sets of contrasting material at the same time
  • respond to the random processing of the live electronics that he is controlling with the amplitude of his playing, and which is always different every time he plays
  • recite poetry
  • perform vigorously for 26 minutes with no break
  • occasionally play the melodica.

    Scintilla: Kernel 4 oarweed, Kernel 5 I should have been sea

James also juggles a whole load of stuff at once. Balancing the sound in the room is a complex and subtle art in itself, but he also has to decipher and follow this first draft of my score which includes some discrepancies – as all first drafts do. In my shiny new score several of those decisions I’d had to make involved activating layers of different recorded samples: of Jack breathing, different white noise effects and recorded fragments of music, all of which had to be triggered by James at precise moments.

James had originally been excited about collaborating on a work that didn’t rely on sample triggering. And now I had included a whole load of …sample triggering. Oops… sorry James… But in the performance he made it work and we will rethink for next time.

In a moment of whimsy at an early rehearsal, I decided that reciting fragments of the poem Crag Inspector would be an interesting thread to run through the piece. We tried different ways of doing this and, to cut a long story short, decided that Jack should just read the poetry live. Jack then suggested that because he hadn’t had time to memorise the poetry, he would write each poetry fragment on a scrap of paper, and that each scrap could be lying around on the floor. At the time this felt like a purely pragmatic solution, but its impact on the overall piece was profound. It was this that moved it from the realm of the concert platform into the realm of theatre.


Jack opens Scintilla reciting poetry standing at the back of the performing space. As each fragment is read, he drops the scrap of paper onto the floor, moving towards the centre of the stage. The putting down and picking up of things became a feature of the piece: putting down and picking up pieces of paper/clarinets. I want to explore this idea further in the next stage of the creative process.

The next challenge is for the three of us to reflect on what we did, decide how we can shape it further using different solutions (hopefully, avoiding the triggering of samples…). And at that point I will have the pleasure of inviting a choreographer to join the team to shape-shift Scintilla again: from theatre – into dance.

Liz Johnson’s Scintilla project is supported by Sound and Music through the New Voices 2018 artist development scheme.

Next work-in-progress event: Sunday May 5th 6pm The Lab, Royal Birmingham ConservatoireBasic RGB


Being a New Voice 2018 – realising the potential

In June 2018 I was privileged to be selected as one of Sound and Music’s ‘New Voices 2018’, a group of fifteen composers and sound artists selected from across the UK to participate in an 18-month long programme of support for artists working in sound and music, supported by Arts Council England, the PRS Foundation (PRSF) the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust (RVWT). So what does it mean to be a New Voice 2018?

New Voices 2018

The scheme provides a small bursary for each participant, along with generous support from a whole team from Sound and Music to help us each realise our individual artistic potential. This comprises an individual Creative Project Leader, who oversees the practical and financial side of things, and other members of Sound and Music team who collectively have extensive knowhow and expertise in digital platforms, funding applications and audience development.

As well as this support network, each artist is offered a personal coach with whom to explore some of the psychological issues to think about in order to realise ambitious dreams, and with whom the final member of the team – a mentor – is selected. Being able to select a mentor is a very exciting prospect for me: to have a mentor for an extended period of time, and anyone – a composer, a director, a curator, a choreographer, an artist – can be selected for this role, anyone who will be able to expand horizons, give support and guidance in developing and promoting my individual work.

Next week I will have my first working session with my own Creative Project Leader, Samara Jancovich and with my coach Richard Whitelaw. I have been thinking carefully about who my mentor might be, what area of expertise they might have, and how I can best use this opportunity. There is great potential, but also a sense of responsibility to live up to high expectations and to create something that will make its mark in some way, speaking with a ‘New Voice’.

So far I have mapped my own plan of action, centring my focus on the development of a new work for clarinettist and live electronics Scintilla. This work has the potential to expand out, to grow in different directions, depending on how things go, where doors open or close, and on the other individuals taking part and their own creative energy, drive and ideas.

Scintilla photo montage reh July 2018
James Dooley, Jack McNeill and Liz Johnson rehearsing at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

I have started working with clarinettist Jack McNeill and digital artist James Dooley at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire to develop a rich and complex soundworld that will be presented as a staged performance. The work could expand into an ambitious community project/dance work/opera/film or all of these and more. As yet nothing is fixed for the final outcome; but these possibilities are making me feel very excited.

The original starting point of Scintilla comes from an extended poem Crag Inspector by David Hart. This poem explores the relationship between a man and his environment, in this case a poet struggling to make sense of his existence (and his art) on a wild and remote island. The poem explores memory, dreams and nightmares; landscape, seascape, wild flora and fauna; other humans and their existence on the island past and present. There is an other-worldliness to the poetry. It goes deep inside the conflict and joy of finding one’s artistic voice, seeking it out, losing it, and finding it in unexpected ways.

The other aspect of being a New Voice 2018 is the amazing group of artists I now find myself part of. We met each other for the first time in June, and each individual spoke briefly about their own work: their hopes, their frustrations and struggles, and their dreams. It was inspirational.

It occurred to me that this group has not only enormous potential as individual artists creating fascinating work, but also as a group in itself, New Voices 2018 may have other kinds of collective possibilities.

We are a very diverse group, with a very diverse set of audiences. Maybe, over time, we can connect up the pockets of activity and interest we have each generated, to encourage a more engaged relationship with people generally?

Raising the profile of contemporary sound art and music as something relevant and important to modern day people, whatever their background, would be a great legacy for us to leave, and for the New Voices of the future to build on. The potential is huge.


Simple vs. complex?

IMG_0226Sometimes I’ve worried about whether my music is too simple, or too complex. Nowadays, I don’t worry so much about that any more, as I have realised that both have their place in my work. This has been highlighted by a new song I have just completed.

At one time I would’ve been reluctant to reveal or discuss this song as it does not match my other public outputs (currently). So this blog is about why I wrote it and how it fits into my working practise as a composer.

About three years ago I joined a local poetry group. It turns out that this monthly get together, sharing new and old poetry/songs around a theme in a relaxed cafe atmosphere, has proved a stimulus for me to create different kinds of work from my main outputs as a composer. This group provides a supportive open environment within which I can present live words and music, shared with friends – along with tea and tasty cakes.

The latest of these pieces, Body of water, was completed this weekend and I will perform it for the first time tomorrow evening. It started out as a list of words. Then I realised it could become a poem. Then a poem read out loud with emphasised rhythm and silences. IMG_1987Now it has emerged as a song with lever harp accompaniment. It reminds me of the songs I used to make up in my bedroom as a teenager, completed over a couple of days. It has proved a useful ‘balance’ to the other piece I am composing at the moment, a large-scale complex and challenging work with a tight deadline.

I often work on several pieces at once, when each work is quite different from the other. I find that these contrasts allow me to explore the distinctive character of each work more fully. Body of water is soft, intimate, revealing, personal. It is modal, strophic, simple. For one voice. The other piece is brutal, confused, ironic, angry. Complex, with many texts and different languages layered through it, with many performers, political. The simplicity of one piece allows me to be even more extreme and multilayered in the other, and vice versa.

I was not expecting to write Body of water, it just emerged. Now I am enjoying retreating into its world every now and then as an antidote to the mental turmoil of the other new work (about which I may write more soon…)…



Writing words, tools for composing

IMG_1266I write words as part of my composing process. Some one asked me recently how the two disciplines of writing and composing combine in my practise, so I’ve had a go at listing what goes on in my notebook…

  1. An initial spark for an idea.

I write down any inspiration or a thought about a new idea so that the first moment of a new piece is captured – so that I don’t forget it, primarily, and also so that I can track back to that very first moment when I am further on in the piece and might need to return to the original stimulus (which can sometimes get forgotten or lost in the mix).

2. Verbalising a problem.

If I get stuck and feel I don’t know what I should do next, I write to help determine what the next step should be. I write down what it is I have done so far, and what I perceive the problem to be. Then through this process of examining what is there, usually the next step emerges. This process is extremely helpful. At the beginning, I will be feeling confused, frustrated and at a loss as to what I should do. Through writing the situation down, the wall I have hit tends to disappear, just evaporate, focussing on thinking about what one thing I can do next to move forward. If I can’t find anything specific I encourage myself to take some time to relax, rest and move away from the problem for a little while. Sometimes a whole list of things emerges, which can be a bit overwhelming. When that happens, I look at the list and decide which of these things should be done first, and aim to do that.

3. Celebrating an achievement.

When things have gone well I like to document my feelings. This can be very reassuring when I hit the next sticky patch. I like to reread my notebooks occasionally, and finding an entry celebrating a high reminds me that there is a cycle: of hard work, not knowing, seeking solutions, more hard work and eventually some reward. Sometimes the rewards are unexpected, and often they come a very long time (…decades!) after the initial work was done.

4. Speaking the truth to myself.

When I am really struggling emotionally I write down what I am thinking and feeling physically. Tuning in to my body in detail and noting how it is reacting has been a helpful thing to do, to honour and express what is going on physically. This is a more recent way of using writing that I have developed, inspired by listening to Tara Brach’s talks on RAIN – recognise, accept, investigate, nurture. It is very personal and helps me to dig deeper down into myself. It helps me acknowledge what is there and helps me understand myself in a different way. It has helped to unlock things. It has helped me to give uncomfortable feelings a voice.

5. Noting something cool.

If I read, see, hear, learn about some amazing thing I like to write it down, either just a title or name, which is enough, or my thoughts about it as well. Sometimes I write in detail so I can relive the experience more vividly in the future. Sometimes I might find a new word or phrase to incorporate into my work somehow. I like to copy out significant bits (lines, paragraphs) from books I read. When I revisit them I have often forgotten all about it and am delighted to rediscover them.

6. Creating poetic texts.

Sometimes I find it useful to work words into a poem form. The poems are not necessarily very sophisticated, but for some reason it helps me to do this, I find it entertaining. And occasionally a good idea comes out of it that will either become a poem or a song or something else. No pressure.

7. Seeking the reflected image.

Since 1999 I have deliberately sought out reflections of my intended goal, rather than diving straight for it. This is inspired by the approach of Italo Calvino in his fascinating book about writing: Six Memos for the Next Millennium. One of the ways of seeking out reflections as a composer is to use another form of creating, e.g. writing, drawing, movement, colour, daydreaming. All of which I savour.

So what happens to all these words? Sometimes I share them when talking about the gestation and creation of a piece of music, sometimes I keep my words private. 

I find it reassuring to have my notebooks as a catalogue of the ups and downs of being a composer. Especially as every time I start a new big project I wonder how I ever created anything before.


What am I? Composer? Comuser?

I don’t like the word composer. Recently I’ve been using the world ‘COMUSER’ as a more inspiring and appropriate word to describe what I do – it seems more open, and more interactive than the traditional term. It links with the words ‘muse’ and ‘music’, a co-muser – someone who muses, musically, in a co-operative or in a communicative way with others.

‘Composer’ seems to imply an impression of more didactic and definitive outcomes. Playfulness and imagination are not at the forefront of the word. I remember when I started composing full time that I felt unsure about using this word to describe what I was doing. It took some guts to tell people I was ‘a composer’.

Lots of people I have met also seem to have a problem with the word ‘composer’ – it has a lot loaded onto it on one hand, but very little is known about it on the other. No-one really seems to know what it means, unless they have done it themselves – and not many have.

People seem frightened of the idea of composing, or being called a composer. I often ask people I meet if they compose. They usually laugh, as if it is a strange thing to ask, for someone ‘normal’ to do. I have met musicians who will not use the term in reference to themselves, even though they compose their own music. They ‘write their own stuff’, but they do not ‘compose’. A group of GCSE music students would only admit to ‘making stuff up’ – they could not equate their own musical creativity with ‘composing’.

Do poets and artists, writers, sculptors, dancers and other creators have the same problems with the words that describe their craft?

Two of the common myths about composers are that the music descends from on high, from somewhere ‘else’, and that once written down the ‘score’ takes on some hallowed state, not to be tampered with. In my experience this is not how things happen. The music is built up from nothing, it forms itself in layers through experimentation and play. The writing down is part of the making process, and the score should be treated as a prototype, not necessarily the finished article.

When I am working with solo performers in the creation of new works we are constantly tailoring the fit. Also I like my pieces to have several manifestations, to rework an idea in different ways, to reinvent things. And I like the idea of the musicians feeling free to adjust things to suit their own style, taking more liberties, making decisions.

I have started incorporating elements of improvisation into several works, encouraging the performer to ‘co-muse’ with me. This expands the nature of the finished music in different ways. The player can choose to play things that I could never write down, or the things that are unique to their technique – accessing sounds that otherwise might not be heard.

Just to clarify, the kind of improvisation I am talking about has nothing to do with jazz. I know nothing about jazz, and do not know anything about jazz improvisation. But I do know about the joy of finding freedom through making sounds in an improvisatory way. There is much more to be said about this… and about the reactions of classically trained musicians to being asked to make music in this way.

For now, though, I’d like to present this new word to the world and see if it helps encourage more individuals to make their own music, to compose – and to comuse.