Jenny Jackson

I am a composer (yikes)

[S]pan & Lament: variations on a theme?

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You can probably guess by the lack of blogs lately that I have been writing music, not words. The focus of my efforts – a new piece for the (inaugural) Classical Sheffield Festival of Music: [S]pan for flexible ensemble. It was performed by Platform 4 on 23rd October in Sheffield’s fabulous Winter Gardens before a more formal concert in Sheffield Cathedral in which my Lament for solo cello with off stage viola, double bass and vocal ensemble, was given its second performance with Charlie Hardwick playing the solo.

“A highlight was Jenny Jackson’s ‘Lament’, a mournful aural mirage that played with our perceptions of listening whilst simultaneously being very listenable. Notes continued elsewhere when the lone cellist onstage had stopped playing them. The music was coming from behind us too. A wonderful use of the Cathedral space, it also highlighted the importance of attending live music events. In another venue or on record, this would have been a completely different experience.”

Nat Loftus, Now Then magazine 09/11/15

I have been preoccupied with hiding players and altering stage placings for a while now and, as Nat Loftus has recognised in her review, I rely on live performance for my pieces to be wholly understood. In Parabola (2012) – written as part of a collaborative installation piece with the sculptor Gillian Brent and Platform 4 (shown at the Hepworth, Wakefield) – two horn players performed from numerous positions during the performance, inside and outside the galleries, automatically becoming integral to the visual aspect along with the sculptures. These were also moved into different positions throughout the performance and so the audience experienced variations in the visual ‘theatre’ at the same time experiencing changing aural effects as the players moved closer together or further apart.

In [S]urge (2012) I developed the idea of altering the audience’s ‘reading’ of the performance by permanently hiding the two horn players with one placed Stage Left and the other Stage Right. A group of string players took centre stage providing both aural and visual interest (although the simple fact that horns are timbrally very different to strings meant that they forced themselves into the aural foreground much of the time). Being out of view meant that their unexpected surging/emerging was even more effective and unsettling, as things unseen but heard often are.

In Tableaux (2012) I produced a light-hearted sequence of five ‘sounding’ tableaux where the visual was more-or-less static and the sound was produced off stage on inappropriate instruments where the music was at odds with the visual. This resulted in a theatrical (and comedic) outcome. In Sanctum (2013) the humour was more subtle and the musical outcome far more important. Players were positioned, unnoticed, around the performance space encircling the audience, leaving a solo piano player centre stage to mime throughout the performance (the internationally renowned pianist, Philip Thomas! – a bit of an ‘in-joke’, in other words…). He therefore, provided a visual spectacle but added nothing to the aural effect other than to confuse the listener by sheer coincidence of a perceived conflation of the ensemble’s sound and the pianist’s physical movements.

My new piece [S]pan also employs the idea of the ‘unseen’ performer but, rather than heightening the theatrical aspect of the performance as in Sanctum or Tableaux, the stage placing merely enables the desired panning effect to work. Once I knew that the performance was to take place in Sheffield’s Winter Gardens I decided I wanted to occupy the space, rather than just perform in it. The islands of plants with walk-ways provided ideal places for displaced performers, and the live acoustic was an invitation to fill the space with sound. The general public were free to walk around and could potentially experience the resulting sound in many ways, depending on where they were standing.


The spatial positioning produced a very practical problem in co-ordination. As the Wind and Brass players would not necessarily be able to see each other the only way to do this was by using timers, with certain events set to start and end at specific points. I divided the Wind and Brass players into two Groups, with one Group positioned on the left of the main performing area and the other, on the right. This meant that I could give both the same material to perform but control the timings of their entries. The opening gesture presents the germ of the piece as two, pre-selected, solo players pan the same pitch across the entire span of the space. As in [S]urge, I chose to position the string group in the centre of the performing area to provide a visual focus but, in this piece, they also become a central point of reference for the panning material to cross. I have posted the score here for your perusal…:

[S]pan score

I’ve posted the recording here (the sound of chatter and footsteps reveals it’s ‘liveness’!) – of course, you won’t experience the panning effect and, therefore, you will only be getting ‘some’ of my piece…


Is it time to find a new trick?… Answers on a postcard.


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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