We caught up with composer-in-residence Liz Dilnot Johnson, as we eagerly await the release of our latest collaboration, the album Gentle Flame, which celebrates features several works Liz has composed for Ex Cathedra and is released for her 60th birthday year.

1. What inspired you to make this recording and what was your creative process for selecting the chosen tracks and working with Ex Cathedra?

Talking with Jeffrey, he and I wanted to include the wide range of music that Ex Cathedra has performed and commissioned over the years of our creative relationship since 2016. There is a lot of music we had to leave out – but I am thrilled with what we have been able to include. The choral music from my Requiem When A Child Is A Witness makes up the second half of the album, and the first half includes (nearly) everything the choir has sung by me at their iconic annual Christmas and Summer by Candlelight concerts. The range of music stretches from several carols and winter-themed pieces to evocations of Summer in For Hester and my ‘tour de force’ Dawn Chorus commission for 10-part choir with baritone solo: The Windhover.

2. The album features Blake Reimagined and When A Child Is A Witness – Requiem for Refugees. Can you explain the background to these two works?

Both these pieces stem from my passion for bringing people together through music in different ways.

Blake Reimagined takes elements of Parry’s famous setting of Blake’s poem Jerusalem and reinvents the second verse. Jeffrey commissioned this piece during lockdown – in fact, the way he first put forward the idea was bit of a challenge. He said, ‘talking with another composer we decided it would be impossible to do anything with the second verse of Jerusalem – what do you think?’ I immediately had an idea of what I could do, and said to Jeffrey – ‘I think I can do it!’

I wanted this piece to provide an opportunity for the choir to connect with each other – and with our audiences – in different ways. First I asked each singer to make a sign with words from the original poem: ‘Bring me…’ ‘I will…’ ‘Till we have built…’ I asked each person to complete each sentence and take a selfie with their words and these photos were shown in the original video.

Improvising soloists also sing these lines adding their own words, singing over a choral backdrop of two choirs – one choir improvises around the first pair of notes and words of each melodic line, while the other choir sings harmonies drawn directly from Parry’s music. 

I wanted to reframe Blake’s poem which conjures up mythological images that seem quite remote from our modern world. I wanted to find a way for people to relate to the sentiments of the poem in relation to their own lives by asking them: what do you need? What will you do? What will you build?

The soloists on the CD recording of Blake Reimagined represent three different vocal traditions: Carnatic Indian, gospel, and jazz. This track was a real challenge to record and we weren’t 100% sure whether it would work. The end result is quite miraculous, all recorded live in a single take, with no overdubbing or multi-tracking. I’m deeply grateful to Jeffrey for the opportunity to create this and to the three wonderful soloists: Debipriya Sircar, Margaret Lingas and Gabriella Liandu.

When A Child Is A Witness embraces a range of different musical styles from around the world. The first movement is inspired by gospel music, the ‘Kyrie’ is modernist, the ‘Sanctus’ combines a folk-like accompaniment with earthy tribal chants, the ‘Agnus Dei’ reflects the French choral tradition and [the movement] ‘When a Child is a Witness’ is a call-and-response song inspired by spirituals.

In ‘Lighten Our Darkness’ (my setting of words from the Book of Common Prayer) I was able to add a layer of music that was composed by young people in the European Youth Music Refugee Choir as part of the award-winning performance of the Requiem at Coventry Cathedral in 2022. The words are in three different languages spoken by the group: ‘Heywat’ (meaning ‘Life’ in Tigrinya, a language from Eritrea), ‘Kusheristi’ (meaning ‘Love’ in Kurdish) and ‘Haya’ (meaning ‘Love’ in Arabic). The baritone solo sings this beautiful melody while the choir sing in English: ‘Lighten our darkness… Give us that peace which the world cannot give.’

3. How would you define innovation in your work?

I’m not sure how to answer this…. I approach each piece afresh and spend time imagining and meditating on what it could be and how I can realise this through the musicians. I strongly believe that everyone has their own voice and their own creativity, and some of my pieces ask performers to join me in making musical decisions. A couple of examples of this are found in the Requiem. In the central section of the ‘Kyrie eleison’ the upper voices perform a ‘vocal cloud’. This is a technique first seen in the 1960s that allows some freedom to the singers, where only some of the written music is fixed. The singers are given three different notes with the words ‘Christe eleison’ and each singer is asked to sing the notes in any order, at their own pace, unsynchronised with the other performers. This creates a particular shimmering effect. At the end of the ‘Lux aeterna’ a group of soloists are given a long lyrical melody which is layered freely so that each performer decides when to start, without any fixed starting point. This creates a timeless, floated effect where the pulse no longer dominates and the music takes on a spacious quality.

In my music I like to draw in different sources, taking inspiration from different external starting points, like O Vos that is a musical representation of the Fibonacci Sequence for three sopranos, like a musical fern frond unfurling. I always research my pieces in detail, looking for ways to tap into the physicality of the subject-matter and seeking out a distinct emotional landscape for each one, while staying open and playful.

4. Are there any particular moments in the album that you find yourself particularly affected by the music? Perhaps those moments are reflections of events and situations or perhaps they coincide with intensity in the lyrics? Perhaps something completely different?

I find several tracks deeply moving. The three days of recording were very emotional for me. The Windhover is the most extraordinary track for me to listen to, with the choir on such spectacular form. They are incredible! I composed this piece to showcase everything Ex Cathedra can do, from scrunchy harmonies to effortlessly floated lines. The muscular baritone solo performed by Lawrence White drives through the choral textures like the wild hawk in flight. Composing this solo for Lawrence was a real joy, and I love being able to compose for voices I know really well. This is one of the enormous benefits of working with Ex Cathedra over time, as I get to know each voice and its strengths, enabling me to explore and push creatively in ways that will allow them to shine.

One track that is especially affecting is For Hester – the song I wrote the week after my mum died. It’s a very personal piece. And I am always blown away by the final track of When a Child is a Witness, the ‘Lux Aeterna’, with the soloists soaring in an evocation of eternal light. 

5. What is currently in the pipeline for the rest of the year?

2024 so far has been extremely busy with premieres of Into The Dream for baritone and piano, another new song I should Have Been Sea for mezzo and string quartet, an interactive piece Anam Cara for performers and audience, The Blue of Distance for viol quartet, and a set of songs for the Strange Futures Theatre Co.’s innovative show On The Bare Hill. There have also been three other CD releases featuring my music this year: Inflorescence for saxophone and piano, The Space Between Heaven and Earth for basset horn and piano and In The Mirror for cello and piano.

I am very excited to be planning something with the extraordinary vocal quintet Papagena (including three Ex Cathedra singers Suzzie Vango, Imogen Russell and Lizzie Drury) – more news will be coming about this soon… and I am composing a set of orchestral works including On Malvern Hill and arranging the carol Gentle Flame for brass band, plus a set of new works for the Pace Collective, a dynamic trio of voice, cello and saxophone with another wonderful Ex Cathedra singer Suzie Purkis. 

Over the coming year the Fitzwilliam String Quartet are touring my String Quartet No 5 ‘Borderlands’ around the UK (supported by the Vaughan Williams Foundation). This piece forms the centre point to a wider project called ‘The Borderlands Project’ to inspire creativity in our young people through connecting with landscape, poetry and music. The project will provide free resources and creative workshops to support our young artists and musicians and creatives of the future. You can support the project here.

Finally, I am composing a set of eco-carols for Ex Cathedra and the young voices of its Academy of Vocal Music inspired by Prof. Kate Raworth’s book ‘Doughnut Economics’. We are planning a new set of recordings and videos of music for young voices including Moon Incantations, Imagine a Winter and Nightmare Night due out next year.

The album Gentle Flame is released on 14 June 2024. Find more and order your copy from our online shop here.