Composer, singer and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson is among the most multitalented musicians on the up to date scene. She performs her personal materials, often enjoying the cello and singing on the identical time: her work has the directness of a pop quantity in addition to layered complexity drawing on a variety of influences. Collaborating with a dizzying array of artists from Anoushka Shankar to Andrea Bocelli, she has a busy upcoming schedule together with a jazz-infused programme with London Symphony Orchestra percussionists on November 12.
As a composer, singer and cellist with extremely wide-ranging musical sympathies, what has your journey been prefer to turning into extra established within the music career?
My inventive journey has been an natural sequence of unfolding occasions — one alternative main on to the following. I studied classical piano as a younger youngster, then cello in secondary college, and located my singing voice in my teenagers. I used to be participating in all college live shows in addition to going to theatre college on the weekends, dancing in quite a few dance troupes all through my childhood, and turning into a member of the Nationwide Youth Theatre.
It was while finding out for a level in classical composition at Trinity Laban after which a Masters diploma on the Manhattan Faculty of Music that I started to discover and harness my expertise concurrently. I based an instrumental ensemble that I composed for — and sang and performed cello on the identical time — in a Caribbean restaurant close by for more money. I additionally performed cello for mates, sang background vocals, attended jam periods, and wrote and carried out my very own songs at numerous singer/songwriter nights.
All these formative experiences began to construct a community of collaborators each at residence in London and internationally in New York. I usually obtained concerned in such all kinds of music making throughout quite a few types (up to date classical, jazz, pop, R&B, reggae, soul, folks), from doing classical/grime preparations for the BBC Live performance Orchestra to performing with Courtney Pine and turning into the one non-American to win the legendary Newbie Night time Dwell on the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. I discovered myself at residence in a variety of musical areas, which led to the muse of my skilled profession.
You describe your music as ‘a physique of labor that represents, celebrates and pays homage to my ancestral heritage, tradition and identification.’ How does your Jamaican/British heritage feed into your creativity?
As an intrinsic a part of my being, my heritage is expressed in all the things that I do. However consciously, I honour it in three principal methods: via my efficiency method, and my thematic and rhythmical decisions.
There’s a wealthy custom of storytelling, folks music, and dance in Jamaica. In my reside reveals, I typically train the viewers folks songs such a ‘Hill and Gully’ and ‘De Ribber Ben Come Dung’ and revel in participating them in group singing as a manner of connecting us collectively to interrupt down that fourth wall and encourage a group spirit, which could be very a lot part of Jamaican Tradition.
In my commissioned work, I prefer to discover legendary historic figures in Jamaican Historical past, similar to Queen Nanny of the Maroons in my latest work, Island Suite, commissioned by the Solem Quartet. I additionally discover Dancehall rhythms in my piece for String Quartet, Branle Riddim, and Jamaican Mento music in my piece, Mento Temper, commissioned by the Ligeti Quartet.
All through my music, there may be most frequently a celebration of rhythm via quite a lot of grooves and enjoying with syncopation. There’s typically a way that you could dance to the music, and in Jamaican tradition, music and dance are sometimes not separate. This stems from the vast majority of Jamaicans’ African heritage, during which music and dance are not often separated.
There are just a few singing string gamers on the London scene for the time being, nevertheless it’s uncommon to discover a solo cellist that additionally sings and makes use of their instrument percussively. Are you able to share how (and perhaps even why) you do what you do?
I’ve all the time had an affinity for rhythm. My earliest childhood experiences included being a dancer alongside my Mum in a Ghanaian Dance Troupe that usually toured the UK. I used to be infused with drumming rhythms and in addition grew up in a Caribbean family with a variety of musical types filling my ears and soul. I danced in numerous dance troupes all through my childhood and teenage years, and so rhythm is part of my being.
Once I began singing and enjoying cello concurrently as a pupil throughout my years at Trinity, I didn’t have the funds to afford a band, so most of my performances had been solo. I might all the time hear bigger preparations in my thoughts, which I might then handle to play alone, however I might attempt to convey as a lot of that sound to the cello as I might. This led to the event of my percussive method — an try to listen to aloud the drum grooves that had been in my creativeness.
In sensible phrases, I exploit a variety of bowing strategies: ricochet, spiccato, sautille, bouncing the bow off the strings, chopping, and many others. to create a palate of rhythmical accompaniment.
I’m having fun with Equinox, your lately launched observe on NMC Recordings written for the Philharmonia Orchestra Composers’ Academy. Inform us about this collaboration.
Thanks 🙏🏾☺️ The birthplace of Equinox was proper in the beginning of lockdown once I utilized for the Royal Philharmonic Composers’ Scheme. It was within the very first few weeks the place all the things within the music business had been cancelled, and I used to be searching for alternatives to maintain me occupied throughout these unsure instances.
On the scheme was a cohort of seven of us who would meet month-to-month on-line to discover quite a lot of sides to being a composer from technical challenges to managing your tax return! The end result of the scheme was a fee for an assigned ensemble, and I used to be paired with the Philharmonia Orchestra.
I wished to create a chunk with a way of timelessness: a common message that will transcend the trivia of day-to-day life; one thing that will permit me to ponder life from a wider perspective. Initially, the fee was going to be a visually-recorded efficiency, however the pandemic altered what was attainable and it grew to become an aurally-recorded final result. Nevertheless, my 3D spacial concepts remained. All through the piece, I’ve scored most of the melodies to cross like a wave between the gamers — circles, like orbits, like years passing. The cyclical nature of life.
Right here’s an extract of among the lyrics:
Lengthy because the day, lengthy because the night time, lengthy is the darkish, lengthy is the sunshine
That shines on us in circles, all yr spherical.
Spinning round, no finish in sight, melting the bottom, will we survive
To see one other sundown taking place?
Sluggish because the moon, quick because the solar, who follows who?, thought we had been one
We belong collectively, all yr spherical.
Circles of sunshine break up the world in two, half for me and half for you.
I’m wanting ahead to your live performance with the London Symphony Orchestra percussion ensemble on November 12. What ought to audiences anticipate from this occasion?
Me too! Count on stunning melodies and many rhythm!! Music for voice, cello, piano, marimbas, vibraphones, djembes, congas, and quite a lot of bells and shakers. Music that celebrates my years as a baby dancing within the Ghanaian Dance Troupe, songs that remember my Mom and her enormous affect in my creative improvement. Music about time spent in Jamaica and songs of unrequited love. An actual musical feast for the soul.
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