Paintings and Poetry in Liz Johnson’s Intricate Web

There is, on the cover of Liz Johnson’s new double CD of chamber music and songs for Métier, Intricate Web, a striking image. A girl’s face, eyes closed, serene, is surrounded by swirls and streaks of paint, part headdress, part halo, part dreamscape. The painting – In pursuit of happiness – is by Great Malvern-based artist Dora Williams, whose work has come into contact with Johnson’s music many times. It captures well the mix of direct expression and abstract construction that characterises Johnson’s music.

Although Johnson (no relation to the author) says that there is often ‘no tangible link’ between images and her music, she does find visual art ‘very stimulating’ as a compositional prompt; and those links are certainly growing stronger. Williams lives close by, and they first struck up a relationship when Johnson bought one of her paintings, Triptych – A Scarred Series. That painting became the focus of a set of pieces for Baroque instruments, the first of which, Triptych I, is for Baroque violin and was given its first performance by Lucy Russell at the Autumn in Malvern Festival last year, in the presence of some of Williams’ paintings. The relationship has subsequently grown, leading to closer collaborations.

‘Last year Dora invited me to be part of an exhibition of her work and we are planning a second exhibition this autumn with art and music that has been created side by side in Dora’s studio as part of a collaborative exploration of our creative processes. The focus of the music and art has become an exploration of seeking refuge, and we are currently bouncing ideas around between art and music very directly.’ The two women worked in sessions, developing their relationship to each other’s creativity. In the first Williams spent 20 minutes painting, then Johnson composed for 20 minutes. In the second Johnson composed, working on the solo viola material for her Colwall Requiem for Aleppo. And in the third they worked side by side.

‘The second session sparked a strong response in Dora’, the composer tells me over email. ‘She started painting a series of abstracts listening to the viola music and also the recording of the entire Requiem. We are planning to find ways to bind the music and art together closely for the exhibition, using some paintings as scores, and I am composing music very directly linked to Dora’s art and the physicality of how she makes art, which I found very exciting.’

Although not the first recording of her music, Intricate Web has the feel of a statement on the part of its composer. A double CD, with both discs – Métier are keen to point out – almost the full 80 minutes long, it collects a large cross section of Johnson’s chamber output, including her four string quartets, the Clarinet Quintet Sea-change, the Cello Suite, solo songs and and handful of shorter works. The performers – Loré Lixenberg, soprano; Ronald Woodley, clarinets and piano; Heather Tuach, cello; and the Fitzilliam String Quartet – form their own intricate web, playing in a variety of combinations amongst themselves.

The recording also traces Johnson’s work from her student years (she came to composition late, teaching in schools for ten years before studying for an MA and PhD in composition) right up to the clarinet quintet, which was composed last year. It is clear that in fact images have long been important to Johnson’s compositional process: the earliest work here is Images of Trees, composed in 1998 while she was a Masters student and one of her first instrumental pieces. Finding it difficult to compose away from the scaffolding of a text, she turned to photographs of trees taken in her local park. ‘I decided to create a different kind of “text” by exploring each photograph as the source material for the music. This is a process I stil employ, finding an external object or phenomenon and using it to direct my choices.’ The more recent Cello Suite, from 2015, applies similar principles to six paintings by the late Ben Hartley, thinking about them ‘in terms of their rustic vibrancy, or their mood’.

Not only did Images of Trees help Johnson find a way to compose the sort of instrumental music on such deft display here, it also proved her introduction to the Fitzwilliam Quartet, who performed it as the winning piece of the Birmingham Chamber Music Society’s Composition Prize in 2001. They have since become champions of her work, and she has written several pieces for them, including Fantasia Forty-Something (a gift for the quartet’s 40th anniversary celebrations in 2010) and Intricate Web itself, her Third String Quartet; both pieces are recorded here.

Quartet music has a special place in Johnson’s own story. She is a cellist herself, and as a student used to play chamber music. ‘As a teenager I spent a couple of weeks each summer sitting upstairs in Portsmouth Library where the Yehudi Menhuin International String Quartet competition took place. I must have heard nearly every string quartet, played by the best young talent from across the world.’ Often the string quartet is considered quite an abstract medium, but for her, ‘it really feels like home’.

Woodley joined the recording as funding was gained to record the Clarinet Quintet, and as a pianist – one of the composer’s favourites – he also accompanies Lixenberg in the songs Cabbage Dreams and Sleep Close.

Sky-burial, by Dora Williams. Courtesy of the artist

Lixenberg herself was brought in for Johnson’s Fourth Quartet, Sky-burial, which joins Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, Ginastera’s Third and Brian Ferneyhough’s Fourth in having a part for solo soprano. With the Clarinet Quintet, Sky-burial is the most substantial work recorded here, and it concludes the two-disc programme. A setting of Kathleen Jamie’s poem of the same name it is the product of a long gestation – ‘I spent six years searching for the right musical environment for the text, which needed to be evocative, strange, hallucinatory, deep, the meanings veiled and elusive’, the composer writes in her sleevenote. The result is an intense, intricate, 30-minute work that follows the poem’s journey alongside a (pagan?) funeral procession across a Scottish moor. Here the inspiration and framework are provided by the text, the string quartet evoking the landscape through which the cortege passes and the soprano voicing the dead woman’s chillingly passive observation of her last rites, the two closely integrated in the music as they become one in the poem. Yet still there is a connection to painting: after Johnson introduced her to the poem, Williams produced her own response, in a series of sensual and atmospheric semi-abstracts, one of which is reproduced in the CD booklet. The circle is complete; each loose thread of the web is tied.

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