In conversation with composers Ayanna Witter-Johnson and Charlie Piper

This Sunday's LSO Futures concert is devoted to the music of our time, particularly highlighting the composers we have seen through the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme. Two of those are Charlie Piper and Ayanna Witter-Johnson, who participated in the scheme over ten years ago. We spoke to them about the pieces in Sunday's concert, how it feels to listen to them ten years after they were written, and the excitement of experiencing music you've never heard before! 

How did you get into composing, and come to take part in the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme?

Charlie Piper: I started playing instruments at primary school – piano, violin, percussion – and really enjoyed it. Then I got to secondary school, and started doing a bit of composing, as you do, for GCSE music, and really enjoyed that too. I wasn’t a natural performer, I would get really nervous when I was on stage, so I enjoyed composing because it was something you could do on your own, you didn’t have to perform as such.

I entered a local competition and won that and thought, OK maybe I’ve got something. It went on from there and off I went to music college. I had friends who had taken part in the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme in its early years, and said it was really good and I should apply. It seemed like a natural thing to do, and with the LSO, an amazing orchestra – obviously I was going to apply.

Ayanna Witter-Johnson: I studied classical music all through childhood and picked up the cello in secondary school, but my passion was French – I thought I was going to go to Cambridge and study French, but that didn't happen. I took a gap year and in that year a friend of mine suggested I come along to a jazz jam session at the Jazz Café. So I went along, I didn’t know what it was about, I didn’t understand jazz standards, I don’t think I’ve ever done any jazz. But I got that people were expressing themselves, and I realised maybe my calling isn't French, it's music.

I was offered a place on the BMus course at Trinity, and that was really the beginning of my awareness of life as a creative musician, that could you live life as a creative musician. My eyes were opened to all kinds of music. I jammed with people, composed for different players, I just absorbed everything that was part of that composition course. As part of it I was made aware of the LSO’s Panufnik scheme and I applied. Lo and behold I got onto that and that was where it all began.

What can you tell us about your pieces Flēotan and Fairtrade?, which we're hearing on Sunday?

Charlie: Flēotan was my original piece for the Panufnik Scheme in 2007, my workshop piece, though it was actually called Sketches then. It was a show-offy kind of thing, showing off what I could do, I guess, musical ideas that I was playing around with and seeing where they went. Years later this piece was recorded for the first Panufnik Legacies album. For the recording session I found the word 'flēotan' and it seemed very fitting.

It is an old-English word that has the double meaning of floating but also fleeting. I imagined an object floating in the wind, and the fleeting part is that it keep shifting; nothing stays still for long as it gets pulled around by the currents. The piece starts very statically and then twists off in different directions, building to a huge climax in a short space of time.

Ayanna: Faitrade? is about bringing awareness to sweatshops and the fashion industry. There are so many things we take for granted in our society, we don’t really think through the consequences of things that just come so easily. Popping out to pick up a t-shirt is actually hundreds of hours of work for someone else, somewhere else.

I wanted to create a sonic version of the factory and the workings, and to give voice to people who aren’t often given a platform to share their experiences. So I wanted to feel as if you were three-dimensionally in the factory: you hear the machines, you feel the brutality of it, you feel the atmosphere, the stress, the tension. The piece will do the work of taking you from this strange environment int something hopefully quite transcendent and then back out again. I did things like give solos to players at the back of desks to subvert the hierarchy. I think I felt as though writing for the Panufnik Scheme in 2008 was such a big opportunity, and I really wanted to use that to highlight something that was important.

Do you hear these pieces differently now, over 10 years since they were written?

Ayanna: I do, and I think ‘who wrote that?’. It feels ambitious, exciting, full of energy. I have a fondness for it because I know that it might sound completely different to how I’d approach the same topic today. But I wouldn’t change it. I think that’s the amazing thing about growing as a composer, you get to document your growth over time.

Charlie: It’s quite funny because it’s not what I would write now. It was very flashy, crash-bang-wallop. It’s quite funny listening to what I packed into a four minute piece. Listening back to it there’s a lot of things I really like there, lots of ideas I’m quite fond of, and I would probably extend it now so that all these ideas got their moment to shine and to develop. But it was who I was at the time.

Sunday's LSO Futures concert includes two premieres and other pieces from the 21st century that people might not have heard before. What's exciting about that for you?

Ayanna: It's an adventure. There's a sense of experiencing something new and finding new perspectives, fresh perspectives, on life. We do listen to music for different types of things, so some music might make us feel safe and comfortable, and some allows us to learn something new and feel like we've had a new experience. It’s a portal to refresh yourself and see yourself in a new way.

Charlie: I love hearing things I’ve not heard before. I love concerts, I love that excitement of being at a live concert as opposed to listening to something on a recording, the thrill, passion, drama. And from a concert of new music, there’s the potential to discover something new and amazing in an hour or so.

You can’t replicate a live performance, there’s something so magical about it. You get to experience another dimension to the music, so it’s really important to go and hear something live. I’m just so desperate to get back to concerts and operas, I feel like I’ve been starved of that for the last year.

How does new, perhaps unfamiliar music relate back to the older repertoire that has come before it?

Charlie: People are so used to listening to older music in a particular way, listening for melody and the emotional content that in older music is a lot more obvious, a lot more instantaneous. You might have to work a bit harder to find those same things in 20th- and 21st-century music that you’re used to identifying in older music but allow yourself to get absorbed in something. Maybe you’ll find a new way of listening and actually get something really positive out of it. So open your ears, try to find your own way through something.

Ayanna: In Fairtrade? specifically there’s definitely a great big beautiful melody that emerges and everyone partakes in this melody together. It’s this unifying moment of peace and it’s light seeing the light of hope in the midst of the dark. I do feel like by the time we’ve got to that point in the piece, it’s as if we’ve been holding our breath and we exhale together. 

Remember that in the future, we'll become the old school music. This point in time will be hundreds of years old at some point. So we need to allow classical music to move on, to keep expanding, in the same way that jazz can mean a lot of things. We need to allow new music to be in the mix of programming.

I think it’s to do with repetition and the comfort in things being familiar. Things need to be repeated in order for them to become familiar and certain works have had hundreds of years to do just that. So where a lot of new music tends to have single performances, you hear it and then might not hear it again, particularly if it’s not been recorded. The series recording Panufnik composers' works, including both mine and Charlie's, is great because it just means that the audience can get familiar with the pieces. Then when you see them, they can have a whole new life and there’s new experience to the music.

Charlie Piper's Flēotan and Ayanna Witter-Johnson's Fairtrade? will be performed at the Barbican on Sunday 13 June as part of LSO Futures, alongside music by Betsy Jolas and world premieres by George Stevenson (LSO Panufnik composer 2018) and Mark Simpson.

Find out more and book tickets from £18

Listen to the Panufnik Legacies albums, music by alumni of the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme, on LSO Live

LSO Futures and the Panufnik Composers Scheme are generously supported by Lady Hamlyn and The Helen Hamlyn Trust


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