Jenny Jackson

I am a composer (yikes)

Trying to look at the bigger picture… writing for orchestra and piano six hands

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So; I have been commissioned to write a new piece for Sheffield’s Endcliffe Orchestra for a concert on 28th June 2014 (venue tbc but keep the date free!). I have chosen (stupidly?!) to write for orchestra plus piano six hands in the hope of developing ideas first explored in Desire Lines, written in 2011 but with the added excitement that is an orchestra. The three soloists will be Tom Owen, Chris Noble and Tom James (fellow composers; see

Initially, my idea was to treat it as a ‘concerto’ (i.e. as a vehicle for the soloists to show off, or the instrument to be shown off, leaving the orchestra to support and comment) but I want to make the most of having so many instrumental colours to work with, so I think there will be passages where the piano will be treated as just another instrument. As the Endcliffe Orchestra is an amateur orchestra I want to give them plenty to do whilst keeping it very ‘playable’ (but challenging!), and without compromising my own compositional style and language. 

In writing Desire Lines I was concerned with how to control textural density and rhythmic complexity with having so many available fingers at once, as well as more practical issues such as player co-ordination (when eye contact is not easy) and territorial access (the physicality of being seated in close proximity). Some of these concerns will be amplified by the addition of so many more instruments. The very nature of having three performers at one piano offers up opportunities for theatre, which I am keen to exploit. So; I am thinking, ‘why six hands?’ (what are the unique features it presents?) and, ‘what is the role of the piano in the context of this orchestral piece?’ (how will it fit in?)… I do feel like I’ve challenged myself and then a bit more… I have written for orchestra once before when I wrote the embarrassingly entitled Revenge of the Shellfish whilst an undergraduate. It wasn’t too bad but I’d like to think I’ve ‘come on a bit’ since then (21 years ago!!!), so the pressure’s on.

So: it’s all very well being excited about writing a piece, but actually doing it is quite another. So far, I have produced a huge number of drawings – a compositional tool I often employ to get me started. This enables me to work quickly, without getting bogged down with specifics that often force me to accept safer, more contrived and, often, a little bit derivative options. It’s a bit like automatic writing: it can throw up lots of nothingness but, occasionally, some really interesting textures and structures come out. Here are some of the results:



Working on sheets of plain A3 landscape paper gives me a sense of temporality so I can see where the big moments will occur (a bit like the golden section in visual art) and I can also get a better sense of perspective where instrumental textures and lines may overlap in pitch terms, but not necessarily in aural importance, which is not so easy to see once a piece is scored.

I have also started trying to translate some of these drawings into instrument-specific activities (a score) but, so far, I have a lot of ‘starts’ and no ‘continuity’. It does feel a bit like an over-sized, unwieldy and uncontrollable beast. Which I will tame, of course… It’s just that I’ve got a workshop booked with the performers on 1st July and I’ll need something for them to read from. And they’re looking forward to it. Yikes, indeed… 


Author: jennyjacksoncomposer

Jenny Jackson is a composer of acoustic instrumental and vocal work. She is strongly influenced by a long-term interest in the visual and dramatic arts and often chooses to exploit the visual aspect of musical performance in her concert pieces. She has developed this to create two fully staged pieces of music theatre and has collaborated to produce multidisciplinary projects with visual artists, sculptors, writers and choreographers. She is a member of Platform 4 composers - a composer collective based in Sheffield.

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