The String Quartets of Liz Johnson

We can be so surrounded by a sea of music. Never has so much music been within the grasp of ear and eye. We can so easily miss new stars rising in the firmament of music composition. But for me, unexpectedly, out of the ether (of BBC Radio 3) dropped a 4-minute jewel of a string quartet, and with a title that was hard to forget, Tide Purl by Liz Johnson. It was played by the Fitzwilliam Quartet as a trailer for a concert to launch 2-CD retrospective including all this composer’s work for the string quartet medium.

Part of the MS Sketch of Sky Burial for voice and string quartet

Part of the MS Sketch of Sky Burial for voice and string quartet

I was a thoroughly captive audience at the time, quite seriously ill in hospital, and this tiny piece broke through the miasma of mental lethargy and physical discomfort. I was immediately hooked, and as soon as I could, traced the new CD set on Spotify and began to acquaint myself with what I now think (after several ‘listenings’) is a significant body of English music for string quartet. This essay will discuss Liz Johnson’s four string quartets, in particular a most ambitious and striking work for soprano and quartet.

Looking through the excellent booklet of liner notes of the CD production my eye was immediately taken by the title of Johnson’s Quartet No.4, Sky-Burial. This is the title of a narrative poem by Kathleen Jamie, a poet I have followed as much for her beguiling and beautiful prose as her award-winning collections of poetry. Jamie represents a significant voice in and beyond what has come to be called ‘the new nature writing’. In her books of essays, Findings and Sightlines, she has engaged with the natural world of her native Scotland in a powerful and very individual way.

There are four numbered quartets, several occasional pieces, like Tide Purl, and a large-scale quintet, Sea Change, for clarinet and strings. They all share an understanding and celebration of the resonant qualities of the quartet that only someone who has played within a string ensemble can know. Johnson writes about the string quartet as the ‘centre of her musical heritage’ growing up with the cello, and this is well illustrated on the double CD by a solo Suite for the instrument.  Her writing rarely takes the individual instruments into those stratospheres beyond which natural tonal qualities begin to disappear. She’s not one of those composers who the cellist of the Arditti was recorded as saying try to compose as though for a quartet of 4 violins! In Johnson’s quartets a viola sounds for the most part inside its natural compass. Extended techniques and micro-tones are rare, but quicksilver changes of timbre colouring – sul ponticello with tremolando for example – are present, but never over played. Much of the music has a refreshing ‘openness’ in texture. There is rarely that dense, ‘playing as one instrument’ claustrophobic quality so common in contemporary quartet writing. All the quartets have inventive mixtures of arco and pizzicato, but in the second movement of Quartet 2 ‘For Elliott’, the whole of the first half is a most playful section of ensemble pizzicati with glissandi.

Listening to the first three numbered quartets in sequence I was quickly seduced by the employment of recurring groups of three to four pitches that will suddenly spin out momentarily, and often at the end of a phrase, into something longer and in an upward or downward trajectory. This device is aided by a rhythmic play and invention that takes place within quite traditional norms, never in complex irrationality, though occasionally there’s time-space and graphic notation used to produce improvisatory moments – well, even Britten employed such devices in his 3rd Quartet. In Johnson’s music, and particularly in her first three quartets, rhythmic figures seem to breed and multiply like changing light on water or the to and fro of grasses moving the wind. Whilst there is clearly a considered structuring in place, and that goes for her use of ‘found’ harmonic objects, rhythm (and to some extent pitch) appear to dance freely from one short gesture to the next. If I say there’s a hint of Janacek, I mean this as a compliment. There is a river-like ‘flow’. And this is nowhere more present than in Quartet No.3 ‘Intricate Web’, a single-movement work that takes its starting point from a close study of a spider’s web.

It is in making such a close study of a natural object that initial impetus lies and forms itself into material found in many of Johnson’s works. In the Quartet No.1 ‘Images of Trees’, we find it is three photographs that show ‘Clefts and Fissures of Bark’, ‘Winter Branches’ and ‘Leaf’ (shown in the liner notes). One needs to imagine that such a close study, an intense meditation perhaps, is this composer’s chosen device to generate possible parametric elements. The outcome seems similar to that of a visual artist who in making exploratory marks, sketches, and experiments develops a physical fluency with these that can be applied at will. So Johnson’s music is never stultified. If stasis occurs it is momentary. So much is fleeting and appears (and possibly is) spontaneous.  Exact repetition is rare, so intensity (through repetition) is even rarer; as in nature events repeat, but in never the same way.

The opening bars of Liz Johnson's Sky-Burial

The opening bars of Liz Johnson’s Sky-Burial

With Quartet No.4 we come to a wholly more ambitious project. At a duration of 27 minutes, and in one continuous movement, while containing aspects (and even material) found in the earlier quartets, Sky-Burial seems to breath a different air and intent. Some six years in the making, it was a slow process of gathering and learning: making a very detailed analysis of Jamie’s poem, undertaking an intense study of a vocal work by Lutoslawski, and several preparatory and experimental compositions. Sky-Burial eventually became the central focus of a PhD portfolio whose attendant commentary and analysis makes for revealing reading. That advanced academic study promotes such analytical content is able to tell us so much about how composers think, plan and execute in our contemporary musical art where techniques of composition are so often devised to serve the creative outcome. Although such explanation and revelation can be an anathema to some creative practitioners, at best it can provide an illumination that can bring performer and listener closer to new or novel work.

Sky-Burial - a painting by Dora Williams

Sky-Burial – a painting by Dora Williams

A Sky-Burial is an ancient phenomenon common in locations where terrain does not allow for burial or cremation. It is particularly associated with Tibetan Buddhism and is still prevalent in some parts of the Himalaya and Mongolia. The dead have their bodies defleshed and bones cut apart to be left on a large flat rock for the birds to devour. Although seldom practiced today it has remained richly symbolic of the impermanence of the body and that being a right source of food to the insentient creatures. Jamie’s poem richly imagines a dead person, already in passage within the spirit world, ‘observing’ her final journey from a springtime valley to a bleak, heathered moorland, descriptions more akin to the Scottish Highlands than the Tibetan plateau. It is not a sombre ritual this final journey, but coloured and peopled with striking natural features and tender actions. There is even reference to the leaving of the corpse to wait for the arrival of ‘winter birds’ as the burial procession returns homeward. It is a remarkable feat of imagination that perhaps comes out of the poet’s early experience working on an archaeological dig described in The Woman in the Field from her book of essays, Sightlines. On the final page of this essay Jamie returns thirty years later to the site of her ‘dig’ and reflects  ‘it is still landscape that the Neolithic people had understood so acutely . . . you are placed in landscape, you are placed in time.’

Although Johnson’s portfolio of work includes many vocal works the very nature and extent of the poem Sky-Burial asks for more than a narrative song setting with accompaniment. Johnson says she sought at the outset a particular kind of integration of voice and instruments where the vocal part, which she says was written first, is resonated through the strings who are ‘intimately bound to the vocal line, predicting and echoing the melodic shapes and key pitches, surrounding the voice with a halo of strings.’ But as the music develops the quartet assumes a more distinct identity, though never in conflict in regard to emotional content.

The beginning of the reprise of the poem's first stanza - marked gently waltzing.

The beginning of the reprise of the poem’s first stanza – marked gently waltzing.

To achieve this Johnson’s organisation of the poem is interesting. It is not a through-composed setting but uses a particularly well-considered and successful repetition of the first stanza (16 lines of the poem) as an insertion after the second stanza. And this is to a quite, quite different and straightforward music marked gently waltzing. Further ‘play’ with text order is on a much less dramatic scale, but feels entirely right in the context of the overall structure, and of the music and progress of the narrative. Johnson has acknowledged that she has not attempted to ‘tell a story’ with this music but to create musical content that evoked the different locations and atmospheres present in the poem without being ‘bound to the intimate details of the text, and thereby enabling me to maintain some distance.’

The vocal part is intentionally not a bravura or expressionist rendition of the poem. It is beautifully crafted to amplify and illuminate the imaginative breadth of Jamie’s text without resorting to the kind of musical exaggeration that can so easily break the thread of narrative and the already rich word images.

The six-part sectional nature of the composer’s devised structure holds some imaginative moments of quasi-cadential stasis, as though the music is being allowed to gather itself for the forthcoming music. This happens four times throughout the score. The first instance is at the end of the poem’s first stanza where the voice ‘rests’ on a voiced ‘mm’ and joined by the singing voices of two violins and viola, while the cello embarks on a direct statement of part of what the composer has called her ‘cantus’. This moment of ‘gathering’ occurs several times, and for the listener is a welcome moment and marker. Here is the final instance with violin 1 playing the cantus in harmonics whilst the rest of the quartet sing:

Final section of ensemble singing in Sky-Burial

Final section of ensemble singing in Sky-Burial

This ‘cantus’ is a curious, though effective device. Johnson regards it as a way of ‘achieving some distance from the poem.’ Although its mechanism is not always directly apparent, it is a presence throughout the work when the listener realises its function. The ‘cantus’ actually comes from material formed during the composition of Quartet 3 Intricate Web; a list of measurements of angles, segments and lengths of rungs taken from a photograph of a spider’s web! The eventual outcome of this measuring was an 80-note cantus, which was further adjusted to ‘give a flowing melodic line that has a definite shape, building to a high central climax and unwinding to a final quiet resolution.

Part of the 80-note cantus at the heart of Sky-Burial

Part of the 80-note cantus at the heart of Sky-Burial

What is so intriguing is how Johnson defines her vocal line, composed first, and in direct relation to this cantus. This is demonstrated nicely in her PhD analysis, but it is to her credit that something of this relationship was noticeable when I first began looking at the score. This cantus also provides some of the harmonic material – by arranging parts of the cantus vertically. These ‘found’ constructions result in some striking sonorities and chord objects that underpin or simply contribute to colourful string arpeggiations present during particular sections in the work.

Alongside the cantus material Johnson employs small units of pitch material, basically interval sets that are often appear in conjunction with each other as in the following example (below) where the first violin plays with adjacent semitone pitches and a key descending chromatic phrase (see the score example of the opening bars) with the violin 2 and viola play patterns built from fifths.

Sky-Burial Pg4

Sky-Burial is a composition that really benefits from spending time with the poem prior to or during the listening experience. Whilst the texture of the string writing is always very ‘open’ there is constant diversity in musical action, texture and timbre that can so easily draw the listener away from the detail of the text. But perhaps this is no bad thing as the composer’s intention seems not so much to ‘set’ the poem to music as to provide music to flow alongside the words and form what the composer has termed a series of landscapes through which the poem moves.

My own experience of the medium of voice and string quartet seems, in comparison to Sky-Burial, like a polar opposite. Origami Letters was written for the tenor Mark Padmore as a kind of companion piece (in spirit more than content) to The Juliet Letters by Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet. It sets my own poetry, and in a very direct fashion works predominantly from algorithmically ‘found’ harmonic material upon which a vocal line is freely composed. The Letters are straightforward songs bound together by the circumstance of an imagined long weekend of correspondence made by a woman on sheets of origami paper but described poetically on receipt by her lover.

My short but intense acquaintance with Liz Johnson’s Sky-Burial and her string quartet oeuvre proves testament to that maker’s adage to know and do one thing well, and in her case to regard the quartet medium as being capable of expressing the richest musical message. In travelling through her work I’ve been on a journey into new musical territory, but territory I feel  carries a very English resonance. It was intriguing to read that Johnson’s current project (for string quartet) is to provide companion pieces to the Purcell Fantasias, a hugely important work in the history of English string composition. I can now begin to imagine how appropriate her way with the quartet medium might be to produce newly-minted material ‘after Purcell’.


















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