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Ayanna Witter-Johnson (b?)

Ocean Floor

Ayanna Witter-Johnson (vocals/cello), Gwilym Simcock (piano), LSO Percussion Ensemble Detailed performer information
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Label: LSO Live
Recording details: November 2022
Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Nick Wollage
Engineered by Jonathan Stokes
Release date: October 2023
Total duration: 52 minutes 4 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph by Benjamin Ealovega.

Recorded live in the Jerwood Hall at LSO St Luke's in 2022, this is an album born out of the real sense of fun—and profound musical respect—to be found when contrasting musical cultures come up against one another.

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This special project was born out of a beautiful friendship with Principal LSO Percussionist Neil Percy, whose love of music knows no bounds. His enthusiasm for my music moves me to tears and was the catalyst behind our first collaboration and subsequent commission Forever. We had so much fun playing this, the ensemble wanted to create a full concert programme which led to the second commission Ocean Floor Suite and a selection of arrangements which includes Gwilym's composition All Roads (a response to my song Chariot) as well as his own beautiful song Holding.

The organic development of this project is something I will treasure forever because, above all, I have felt the fullest support in expressing myself exactly as I am and that goes beyond words. My deepest thanks to the LSO Percussion Ensemble.
Ayanna Witter-Johnson

Cellist, singer-songwriter and composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson has described her songs as influenced by ‘soul, hip-hop and reggae’. Her classical cello training is also vital to her musical idiom.

Witter-Johnson wrote Unconditionally as a tribute to her mother, following a trip to Cuba. It was originally scored for voice, cello and cowbell—with Witter-Johnson accompanying herself on both instruments, playing a traditional Cuban rumba clave on the cowbell with her foot. The cello part employs techniques including pizzicato (plucking the strings), clapping on the body of the instrument, and col legno (tapping the strings with the wood of the bow). The bowed passages are reminiscent of the famous moto perpetuo opening of Bach's first cello suite. The lyrics describe mother and daughter's mutual love (‘nothing comes between me and you’) and Witter-Johnson's recognition of her mother’s generosity (‘the hard roads you walked so I could fly’). The song ends in an ecstatic repeated affirmation: ‘I see you in me’.

Unconditionally featured on Witter-Johnson's 2019 album Road Runner. This is her new version for voice, cello, piano and percussion.
Kate Hopkins

All Roads
All Roads is a short piece for voice, cello, piano and percussion by pianist and composer Gwilym Simcock, which uses thematic elements of Ayanna Witter-Johnson's Chariot and acts as an extended introduction to the latter work.

Chariot, co-written with songwriter Ofei Sakyi, is another song featured on Road Runner, and is the story of how a daughter perceives her father, through the eyes of a child. Reminiscent of a classic soul song, with its roots in gospel music, it takes on a fresh perspective with this new reimaginging, which uses the mallet percussion to accentuate different layers of time within the original lilting groove, whilst staying true to the spirit and feel of the original track.

Falling—also featured on Ayanna's debut album Road Runner—is a song about unrequited love, co-written with pianist and songwriter Alex Webb. This is an intimate new arrangement of the soulful lilting ballad for voice, cello, piano and percussion.

The world premiere of Holding took place in 2021, although I'd actually performed it dozens of times before! To explain, my son Rowan was born a few months before the premiere, and part of my daily routine involved taking him for a walk around our local park in Berlin. This could take up to two hours—depending on how successfully I could get him to sleep—so I started thinking about how to use that time creatively, getting into the habit of inventing melodies and various musical things in my head, and then writing them down when I got back home.

One of the routes in the park is a circular running track. Whilst on this, I thought I'd write the most incredibly simple thing I could, something that would seem like it had a constant cycle—going round and round—with the connections being disguised by the piece having an irregular length. Each bar has exactly the same rhythm, and I realised that this never-ending cycle would hopefully be most useful in the (considerable!) efforts to put little Rowan to sleep each night. Until last year (2021), I had sung this to him dozens of times, but never actually played it on an instrument—hence a world premiere but not a first performance!

Usually, I like the pieces I write to have an arc and a clear narrative journey, but this one is just meant to exist and hopefully be pleasant to listen to. I hope you enjoy it, but please do try to remain awake!
Gwilym Simcock

Tidal warning
As a young child, I often spent the six-week summer holiday season in Jamaica, staying with extended family and taking trips to a particular beach along the south coast of the island. On a more recent visit to this familiar spot, I bore witness to a fatal drowning of a young man. The sea was rough, he was drinking alcohol and refused to heed the warning of his friends—and indeed the violent waves—that he must not go into the water for a swim. Ignoring the local pleas, he proceeded to enter the water and after half an hour was not seen again. A search party of fishermen was sent to investigate, but it was too late. They recovered his body and brought him back to shore. They say he heard the Angel of Death calling and could not resist her voice.

This piece is my response to the intensity and tense atmosphere that led up to that moment—the conflict between having a beautiful day along the coast and then being thrown into an emotional cocktail of disbelief, sadness and acceptance at the fleeting nature of life. The ostinato rhythm in the marimba part holds the essence of basic dancehall rhythms, which were playing through the restaurant speakers at the time, and underpins the entire piece like the constancy of time passing. The other instrumental parts weave in and out, at times in harmony, and at others in odds with one another, searching for a consensus and state of peace amidst an uncertain moment in time.
Ayanna Witter-Johnson

Ocean Floor Suite
Ocean Floor Suite pays homage to a major historical event that affected my ancestors in the 18th century and reflects upon the fateful day I had at the beach along the south coast of Jamaica a few years ago, the same event depicted in Tidal warning.

In 1781, the Zong—a British slave ship—left Ghana with twice the number it was designed to carry, bound for Jamaica. The ship's owners claimed that water was running low, and the crew threw more than 130 living enslaved people overboard. Evidence to the contrary suggested that there was heavy rain and that the ship had enough water. The ship owners had taken out insurance for their ‘cargo’ of enslaved people and made a claim for compensation upon their return to England.

Over 200 years later, a young man lost his life to the powerful ocean currents in what felt like a senseless death the day I was at the beach along the south coast of Jamaica. What, and whom, did he leave behind? A young life cut short. At the same time, a baptism in the water was taking place further along the coast, and in the other direction along the beach children were playing, splashing in the shallow waves, building sandcastles, and burying each other knee-deep, completely unaware of the mourning party that was gathering around the dead body of the young man that had now been brought back to shore. I scanned the horizon in awe of the spectrum of events. Even amidst the darkness of death there is still room for joy.

The rhythms, choice of percussion, and harmony, all have symbolic meaning in relation to the inspiration for the songs.

I composed Forever as an accompanying piece to my song Unconditionally, dedicated to my mother, that opens this album. Forever expands upon the gratitude that I express to her for nurturing my musicality in my early childhood. When I was three years old, my mother was a dancer in a Ghanaian West African dance troupe, and I would dance with them on a few of their shows, becoming the ‘baby’ of the troupe. Those dances are embedded in my soul, especially the grounding drumming rhythms of the Atsiagbekor dance of the Ewe-speaking people of Southern Ghana, Togo, and Benin. It is this sound that opens the piece, forever combining my earliest memories of my love for dance and music.

Ayanna Witter-Johnson © 2023

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