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Emma Johnson| 40 Outstanding Global Women 2023

Caroline Thorley-Farrer

Leading & responding to the climate emergency in the creative sector 

Emma Johnson MBE is one of the world’s foremost clarinettists. A bestselling recording artist, former BBC Young Musician of the Year, lecturer and composer, Emma’s latest work. ‘The Tree of Life’, is inspired by the global climate emergency.

The all-female Orchestra for Environment premiered ‘The Tree of Life’ at Lamberhurst Music Festival in May 2023. Accompanied by birds singing outside the St Mary’s Church venue and performed just as the English countryside bursts into bloom, ‘The Tree of Life’s’ four movements ended poignantly with the recorded call of now-extinct bird.

“It really was a dream come true to be able to perform it,” says Emma Johnson. “I’m very grateful to the organisers and Marc Lodge. He was interested in focusing on women in music this year in the Festival, partly because as in many spheres it’s still not an equal playing field, particularly in composition. 

“Until very recently it’s been taken for granted that women didn’t compose. You saw so few of us and our names barely appeared on programmes, which is crazy. It’s only in the last ten maybe five years that there has been more acceptance of women and an attempt to really put them forward.” 

Emma’s outstanding contributions to music have been recognised with multiple awards, including an MBE. She also became the first female alumna to have a portrait unveiled at Pembroke College, Cambridge. 

Emma wrote ‘The Tree of Life’ during the Covid pandemic lockdown period. With live public events cancelled, this was an opportunity for Emma to explore her ideas about the natural world and the global environmental crisis. “It felt very luxurious to have the time to express something in music and take a political stance,” says Emma. 

“Music can be quite an abstract art, but you can tell some truth through its artifice. There’s no reason why we can’t use it to help promote awareness of issues, especially climate change, which I think should really be at the forefront of everybody’s mind. I would love to see more leadership from government on all levels to help us find solutions.

“I think the solution lies where more people band together and say we really want to do something about this. It’s at every level that action needs to be taken. We all need to be using less energy in our homes and everyday lives and we need policies on high to help us make the best choices.” 

“Music can be quite an abstract art, but you can tell some truth through its artifice. There’s no reason why we can’t use it to help promote awareness of issues, especially climate change, which I think should really be at the forefront of everybody’s mind. I would love to see more leadership from government on all levels to help us find solutions.”

Musician, Composer and Lecturer, Emma Johnson

Creative solutions to challenges

The UK’s creative sector is well-placed to make an impact in this respect. It adds around £110bn to the economy and accounts for one in eight businesses. Around a third of the sector’s roles are self-employed. Outstanding, purposeful leaders like Emma in the creative sector can therefore influence people and lead with intent through a wide range of channels to complement regulation, ESG frameworks and spur individual action.

‘The Tree of Life’ itself grew from Emma’s lifelong love of nature, particularly bird song and birdwatching, and from understanding and connecting with what audiences want.  “I am always aware of the people who come along to concerts and performances – the nice people who buy tickets,” says Emma. “I try to understand their minds and what they need from a musician. This is about taking them out of their comfort zone occasionally and showing them music that might be new to them.”

This approach has enabled Emma to “plough her own furrow” and build a successful 40-year career in the music industry. Grateful for the platform of becoming BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1984, which was watched by millions of people, Emma’s route to longevity in the music business is the product of her continual hard work, focus, self-discipline and self-awareness, learning and adaptation.

“When I first started out, all the musical establishment and its main representatives, including record company executives, in radio and television, were all male-dominated,” says Emma. “It was largely men making the decisions. I realised I wasn’t easily going to be included in the networking involved. If you were a male musician, you could automatically fall into socialising with the right people and so on.”

In response, Emma has always tried to make her work as distinctive as possible. “I earned a reputation for being able to draw an audience and for always doing good work, which is very important. That’s always been my main thing: to always keep my standards as high as I possibly can. I think I had a very lucky start. I didn’t realise how lucky at the time. I think if I had been starting out without that fame already, it would have been very hard.”

Widening opportunities to engage

Emma’s career has taken her all around the world to small as well as principal national venues. Today, her concerns for the natural environment have led Emma to re-assess what it means to travel internationally for her work; or more precisely, the importance of small, local performances and including a wider audience.

“I suppose that’s something musicians have to think about and I certainly have,” says Emma. “Can you justify doing a lot of international travel? I’m not sure that you always can. But I think it’s important to serve your local area. I’ve always been quite into that. 

“Just because you live in the countryside, it doesn’t mean you are less of a music lover than say if you lived in Tokyo. I’ve had some of my best musical experiences sharing music with local audiences. The UK is a wonderful country for that. There are so many little hubs you can get to quite easily often by train and play to a very intelligent and receptive audience. I think that has to be a way forward. I would love it if we could do more in the UK and raise awareness of the beauty of the countryside and the climate crisis.” 

Emma is currently working with promoters to do exactly this with ‘The Tree of Life’, forming the Orchestra of the Environment and spreading a message of hope. Emma and her fellow musicians are already scheduled to perform the piece at festivals and events in 2024, including Swaledale Festival, Newbury Spring Festival and at Bradford Cathedral. 

“It was important ‘The Tree of Life’ ends as optimistically as I could make it because I have tried to write music that gives people courage.”

About ‘The Tree of Life’

Emma Johnson’s composition, written in response to the global climate emergency, comprises four movements: In the Beginning, Bacchanalia, The Truth of Things, and Resolution. 

Premiered at Lamberhurst Music Festival 2023, ‘The Tree of Life’ lasts about 20 minutes and is arranged for a 13-member orchestra, including string players, a harpist, drum kit player and Emma on clarinet.

The first movement, In the Beginning, sets up a natural landscape that expresses “awe, joy and wonder at nature”. This is shattered by Bacchanalia’s machine-like configurations and “very rowdy, raucous sort of party, dancing movement with a big solo with drum kit,” describes Emma. The Truth of Things recognises the destruction being wrought and the realisation of the harm that has been done. The Resolution – including recorded bird call – is about finding acceptance and ways to meaningfully respond. 

Watch the video and find out more here.

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