‘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