(it looks like someone lived there)

2022 | 13’

for ensemble with soprano  

commissioned by Klangspuren Schwaz

and written for the Riot Ensemble


(it looks like someone lived there) sets words thought by Mrs Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse – ‘now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by’ – but in fragmentary form, as if the words themselves are submerged and barely breaking above the water. The voice is marked ‘abstract, as if an instrument’, and at first it appears a member of the instrumental ensemble just as much as flute, clarinet, bowed percussion or strings, distinguished only by the alternation of its notes with their chords, like the Woolfian swell of a wave. Later, as insistent interjections in a suspended ensemble texture, it takes on a more-human quality although still in highly circumscribed terms. Pinnock’s title too is derived from Woolf (down to its characteristic parentheses) and her description of the Ramsays’ abandoned holiday home on Skye becoming swallowed by the nettles and thistles: ‘here once some one had lived; there had been a house’. The house fell into ruins while World War I raged; in post-Covid 2022, the image of homes and the people inside them carries different connotations, but both Pinnock and Woolf share a fascination with humanity and the constructions that define and shape it.

(it looks like someone lived there) was commissioned Klangspuren Festival and written for the Riot Ensemble and first performed by them in Innsbruck, Austria, in September 2022.

© Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2023


2022 | 10’

for vocal ensemble

commissioned by Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik and hcmf//


“As humans reshape the landscape, we forget what was there before…Yet ghosts remind us. Ghosts point to our forgetting, showing us how living landscapes are imbued with earlier tracks and traces.”

Anna Tsing et al, Introduction, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet

“It is like losing a year of your life.

To what would you lose a year of your life?”

Louise Glück, Landscape, from Averno

In Louise Glück’s set of five poems entitled Landscape, any evocation of landscape is given over to the elemental and the enmeshment of human life within it. Borrowing this title, the vocal ensemble traces words from the poem from afar. Non-words. Parts of words. Phonemes. These fragments are turned over and over, the lingering remnants of what was there.


2020 | 6’

for solo soprano

commissioned by the Riot Ensemble

with funding from the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung

Written for Sarah Dacey

A tracery of words, a thread of a memory of a musical line, not quite heard, not quite forgotten. I re-discovered a piece I wrote for string quartet when I was about 17 or 18, whilst going through some old papers at my parents’. The first notes of the melody were an almost match of what I was already sketching for this piece. The words are really almost-words, stretched out fragments from poems that have become important to me. They are vestiges, these traces we carry with us in our lives, woven imperceptibly into who we are and what we create.

First performed at the Wigmore Hall, London 2021

I am, I am  

2019  | 17’

Text an extract from Tentsmuir VII by Rachael Boast

for soprano and string quartet

commissioned by hcmf//


Written for Juliet Fraser and the Sonar Quartett. Premiered at hcmf// 2019.

Received the 2020 Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Chamber-Scale Composition.

Embedded and woven into the fabric of the string quartet, the soprano is ‘disappeared’, hiding in plain sight. At least at first. Using two lines from Rachael Boast’s poem Tentsmuir VII -


         I am, I am,

         is all that remains –

    © Rachael Boast / Sidereal / PanMacmillan / 2011

    Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear

the music moves achingly slowly from this receded state to one in which the voice emerges, and emancipates itself from the instruments. The glacial evolutions speak of a fragility, both internal and external. When the self is seemingly lost to us, what is left?


Juliet Fraser and Sonar Quartett     hcmf//    2019

                                                                            New Music Dublin     2020

and yet there was (love)  

2014  | 3’

Text by Naomi Pinnock

for solo mezzo-soprano

With a text (the title) taken from something I wrote in my diary, this short piece was written in close collaboration with  mezzo-soprano Michelle O’Rourke


Michelle O’Rourke, Dublin 2015

Léa Trommenschlager (lovemusic), Strasbourg, Edinburgh, Manchester etc. 2019

The writings of Jakob Br.      

2013  |  8’

Text by Jakob Br. from the Prinzhorn Sammlung, Heidelberg


 for vocal ensemble (SSATB)


In the very first folder I opened in the archives of the Prinzhorn Sammlung in Heidelberg, I found pages and pages of Jakob Br’s notebooks and was immediately impressed by them. Jakob Br’s work can basically be divided into two categories – the page-long repetitions of similar-looking but indecipherable words and pages filled with patterns, often following a grid-like formation, with stripes and crosses but also sometimes with more organic shapes. I was especially drawn to these pages of indecipherable could-be-words (which I would later call writings) and decided that I was going to attempt to decode them.

Two of the words I discovered were ‘lucere’ and ‘lumen’, both Latin and related to each other in their etymology. Lumen means light, opening and in physics is used to mean a unit of light. Lucere means to shine.

In the piece itself I use these two words, both in their original forms and expanded (adding vowels) and contracted (using only fragments), as well as employing a range of vowel sounds, using various possible variations of e, u and w, that have no meaning in themselves. The writings of Jakob Br. plays with an almost visual interpretation of the handwriting and the copious number of lines and layers of words as well as embracing the reflective atmosphere of light, lucere.

There is a book/cd published by Wunderhorn Verlag about the project - ungesehen und unerhört 2

Performances:     SCHOLA HEIDELBERG, Walter Nussbaum (cond.), Heidelberg 2013

                                      EXAUDI, James Weeks (cond.), London 2016


2011  | 12’

Text by Naomi Pinnock

Commissioned by the London Sinfonietta

for baritone and ensemble

(2cl (= b.cl), 1perc, accordion, cimbalom, harp and strings:


why solve a night without why without silence without why nothing why again nothing why

© 2010 Naomi Pinnock

I why…

II solve a night

III again nothing why

“An art of passage, about reality that has already passed by… and which leaves a spread or spray of traces… Art that shadows reality, delicately following in its half-blurred tracks, sketching it from afar.”

Susan Sontag – from Diario per immagini, Marilu Eustachio

Words takes it’s title from the poem by Sylvia Plath. In my Words, the text is declamatory or broken up and stretched-out almost beyond recognition. A sudden recollection appearing amidst a shifting, shadowy landscape, of what is forgotten or already passed.

Words was written as part of the Blue Touch Paper project by the London Sinfonietta, mentored by Beat Furrer.

Performances:     Omar Ebrahim (baritone), Beat Furrer (cond.) & London Sinfonietta, London 2011

                                     Rainer Killius (baritone), Manuel Nawri (cond.) & Opera Lab Berlin (staged), Berlin 2014


2010  |  25’

Text: W.N. Herbert with short extracts taken from Der Zeuger (The Witness) by Jörg Burger (originally featured in Die Zeit Magazin 6.8.2009)

Commissioned by hcmf//

for six singers (SSATB), accordion and recorded text


Cycles of two superimposed texts give fragmented glimpses of two atrocities: one mythical (Erigone hanging herself from the tree under which she found the buried body of her father, Icarius) and one real (the massacre in Srebrenica in 1995, using extracts from an interview with a survivor).

The antiphony of the vocal ensemble and accordion is interrupted each time by the recorded voice, until the repetitions break and there are no words left.

Oscillare was written for the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and the Norwegian accordionist Frode Haltli

Performances: hcmf// Huddersfield, UK 2010 and ECLAT Festival Stuttgart, Germany 2011


2007  |  10’

Text: W.N. Herbert

Commissioned by the Vigani Cabinet, Queens’ College, Cambridge

for solo soprano, solo violin and ensemble*

*the ensemble is split into three groups: vocal, strings and percussion and was conceived to be played by amateurs

I    Lullaby

II    Nostos

III    from there to here

IV    Nostos

Nostos is the Greek word for “return”. Nostalgia combines nostos and algos (meaning pain).

This piece really began when I read Milan Kundera’s Ignorance : he has a way of taking a tour through the etymology of certain words (nostalgia being one of them) in many languages to create multiple perspectives on one concept.

After meeting with the poet Bill Herbert we began discussing how we could work together on this concept. We threw ideas back and forth but what became gradually important was the notion of a sense of place. Not just of what or where the place is, but also different perceptions of the same place.

Kundera offers the reader a depiction of a character who has persistent daydreams and nightmares of the same place she longs, but also dreads, to return to. Although these ‘returns’ are fictional and in a way seem rather trivial - they are not odysseys back to the homeland - they are real and powerful none the less. And somehow a sense of stasis is forged by the nostalgic pulls to the same place, but with contrary emotions. It’s this two sides of the same coin approach that appealed to me.

Initially my idea was to place the three ensemble groups in different rooms, cut off from the singer and violinist – to encourage an audible pull. As the music developed, it became clear that the sounds would be too quiet and too discreet to enable this to work successfully. The solution was to place the ensemble groups around the soloists, still with some spatial separation, but in the same performance space.

And the music itself? I wanted to create and set up a difference, and at the same time a unity, between unvoiced, toneless sounds and voiced sounds. A commentary that can’t quite express itself, and the voice that tries to.

Performances:     Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano), Farran Scott & the Vigani Cabinet Ensemble, Cambridge, UK 2007

                                      Students of the Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe at ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany 2007