‘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.