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