Ocean Floor

Ocean Floor

A young man, alcohol-fueled, runs into the sea and drowns while a baptism takes place on the beach nearby. Children play as his body is retrieved and mourners gather. The scene, witnessed by composer, cellist, and singer Ayanna Witter-Johnson during a visit to Jamaica, inspired key works from a portrait album that pairs her vibrant music with pieces by Gwilym Simcock. Witter-Johnson’s Ocean Floor Suite and its companion Tidal Warning, commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra for the LSO Percussion Ensemble, also honors the 130-plus enslaved Africans thrown overboard by the captain and crew of the British slave ship Zong in 1781 to qualify for an insurance payout on lost “cargo.” Ocean Floor displays the pulsating energy, playfulness, and expressive eloquence forged by Witter-Johnson from elements of classical, soul, jazz, R&B, and other genres all too often held apart. The album’s strong autobiographical thread runs through Unconditionally, the composer’s tribute to her mother; Chariot, a daughter’s perception of her father through child’s eyes; Falling, a soulful take on unrequited love; and Forever, an uplifting homage to the formative childhood experience of watching her mother rehearse and perform with a London-based Ghanaian dance group. “Pioneers” from Ocean Floor Suite, meanwhile, stands as a memorial to her grandparents and other members of the Windrush Generation, who crossed the Atlantic after the Second World War to help rebuild the United Kingdom. Witter-Johnson’s oceanic imagination was nourished by her father’s work as a DJ, her mother’s dance dates, cultural treasures inherited from her Jamaican family, and influences drawn from London’s cosmopolitan music scene. She was introduced to the London Symphony Orchestra and its long-serving principal percussionist, Neil Percy, as a participant in the orchestra’s Panufnik Composers Scheme. The creative relationship flourished after she joined the LSO’s Soundhub, a forum for composers to test ideas with members of the band. “A group of us collaborated with a small ensemble that Neil was part of. I sent him some of my recorded music. Then in lockdown, I did a livestream concert with saxophonist Tim Garland and pianist Jason Rebello which Neil heard. He loved Unconditionally, the song I wrote for my mum, and was like, ‘What? She plays the jam block with her right foot and sings and plays the cello. What’s going on?’ He reached out to say, ‘It’d be lovely if you’d write something for us as an ensemble.’ That’s how Forever came to life.” Ocean Floor Suite and Tidal Warning grew from Witter-Johnson’s friendship with Neil Percy, as did the Ocean Floor album and its exquisite new arrangements of existing songs. The recording also includes Gwilym Simcock’s All Roads, based on a theme from Chariot, and Holding, formed from melodies that entered the Welsh composer’s mind on daily strolls with his newborn son. Witter-Johnson reflects on the incredible teamwork that’s gone into crafting her album. As she notes, “I feel very honored and happy that I’ve been able to go on this journey with Neil, Gwilym, and the LSO Percussion Ensemble.”

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