5 Questions to Ayanna Witter-Johnson (composer, singer, cellist)

Composer, singer and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson is one of the most multitalented musicians on the contemporary scene. She performs her own material, frequently playing the cello and singing at the same time: her work has the directness of a pop number as well as layered complexity drawing on a range of influences. Collaborating with a dizzying array of artists from Anoushka Shankar to Andrea Bocelli, she has a busy upcoming schedule including a jazz-infused programme with London Symphony Orchestra percussionists on November 12. 

As a composer, singer and cellist with incredibly wide-ranging musical sympathies, what has your journey been like to becoming more established in the music profession?

My creative journey has been an organic series of unfolding events — one opportunity leading on to the next. I studied classical piano as a young child, then cello in secondary school, and found my singing voice in my teens. I was taking part in all school concerts as well as going to theatre school on the weekends, dancing in numerous dance troupes throughout my childhood, and becoming a member of the National Youth Theatre.

It was whilst studying for a degree in classical composition at Trinity Laban and then a Masters degree at the Manhattan School of Music that I began to explore and harness my skills simultaneously. I founded an instrumental ensemble that I composed for — and sang and played cello at the same time — in a Caribbean restaurant nearby for extra money. I also played cello for friends, sang background vocals, attended jam sessions, and wrote and performed my own songs at various singer/songwriter nights.

All these formative experiences started to build a network of collaborators both at home in London and internationally in New York. I generally got involved in such a wide variety of music making across numerous styles (contemporary classical, jazz, pop, R&B, reggae, soul, folk), from doing classical/grime arrangements for the BBC Concert Orchestra to performing with Courtney Pine and becoming the only non-American to win the legendary Amateur Night Live at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. I found myself at home in a wide range of musical spaces, which led to the foundation of my professional career.

You describe your music as ‘a body of work that represents, celebrates and pays homage to my ancestral heritage, culture and identity.’ How does your Jamaican/British heritage feed into your creativity?

As an intrinsic part of my being, my heritage is expressed in everything that I do. But consciously, I honour it in three main ways: through my performance approach, and my thematic and rhythmical choices.

There is a rich tradition of storytelling, folk music, and dance in Jamaica. In my live shows, I often teach the audience folk songs such a ‘Hill and Gully’ and ‘De Ribber Ben Come Dung’ and enjoy engaging them in group singing as a way of connecting us together to break down that fourth wall and encourage a community spirit, which is very much a part of Jamaican Culture.

In my commissioned work, I like to explore legendary historical figures in Jamaican History, such as Queen Nanny of the Maroons in my recent work, Island Suite, commissioned by the Solem Quartet. I also explore Dancehall rhythms in my piece for String Quartet, Branle Riddim, and Jamaican Mento music in my piece, Mento Mood, commissioned by the Ligeti Quartet.

Throughout my music, there is most often a celebration of rhythm through a variety of grooves and playing with syncopation.  There’s often a sense that you can dance to the music, and in Jamaican culture, music and dance are often not separate. This stems from the majority of Jamaicans’ African heritage, in which music and dance are rarely separated.

There are a few singing string players on the London scene at the moment, but it’s rare to find a solo cellist that also sings and uses their instrument percussively. Can you share how (and maybe even why) you do what you do?

I have always had an affinity for rhythm. My earliest childhood experiences included being a dancer alongside my Mum in a Ghanaian Dance Troupe that regularly toured the UK. I was infused with drumming rhythms and also grew up in a Caribbean household with a wide range of musical styles filling my ears and soul. I danced in a number of dance troupes throughout my childhood and teenage years, and so rhythm is a part of my being.

When I started singing and playing cello simultaneously as a student during my years at Trinity, I didn’t have the funds to afford a band, so most of my performances were solo. I could always hear larger arrangements in my mind, which I could then manage to play alone, but I would try to bring as much of that sound to the cello as I could. This led to the development of my percussive approach — an attempt to hear aloud the drum grooves that were in my imagination.

In practical terms, I use a range of bowing techniques: ricochet, spiccato, sautille, bouncing the bow off the strings, chopping, etc. to create a palate of rhythmical accompaniment.

I’m enjoying Equinox, your recently released track on NMC Recordings written for the Philharmonia Orchestra Composers’ Academy. Tell us about this collaboration.

Thank you 🙏🏾☺️ The birthplace of Equinox was right at the start of lockdown when I applied for the Royal Philharmonic Composers’ Scheme. It was in the very first few weeks where everything in the music industry had been cancelled, and I was looking for opportunities to keep me occupied during those uncertain times.

On the scheme was a cohort of seven of us who would meet monthly online to explore a variety of facets to being a composer from technical challenges to managing your tax return! The culmination of the scheme was a commission for an assigned ensemble, and I was paired with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

I wanted to create a piece with a sense of timelessness: a universal message that would transcend the minutiae of day-to-day life; something that would allow me to contemplate life from a wider perspective. Originally, the commission was going to be a visually-recorded performance, but the pandemic altered what was possible and it became an aurally-recorded outcome. However, my 3D spacial ideas remained. Throughout the piece, I have scored many of the melodies to pass like a wave between the players — circles, like orbits, like years passing. The cyclical nature of life.

Here’s an extract of some of the lyrics:

Long as the day, long as the night, long is the dark, long is the light
That shines on us in circles, all year round.
Spinning around, no end in sight, melting the ground, will we survive
To see another sunset going down?
Slow as the moon, fast as the sun, who follows who?, thought we were one
We belong together, all year round.
Circles of light split the world in two, half for me and half for you.

I’m looking forward to your concert with the London Symphony Orchestra percussion ensemble on November 12. What should audiences expect from this event?

Me too! Expect beautiful melodies and lots of rhythm!! Music for voice, cello, piano, marimbas, vibraphones, djembes, congas, and a variety of bells and shakers. Music that celebrates my years as a child dancing in the Ghanaian Dance Troupe, songs that celebrate my Mother and her huge influence in my artistic development. Music about time spent in Jamaica and songs of unrequited love. A real musical feast for the soul.


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