Jenny Jackson

I am a composer (yikes)

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MitR Update… (P.S. I did rip it up…)

Sometimes, the only way forwards is to go backwards. In the case of my string quartet, ‘Focus Pull’ (commissioned for Music in the Round’s upcoming May festival), I knew that I wasn’t happy with it as it was (and it was way too long), so something drastic had to happen.

Ripping it up doesn’t feel as disastrous/stupid/final as it used to when I wrote everything by hand (I must have at least twenty-five ‘versions’ of it on my computer to fall back on, for example) but it still feels like starting all over again because essentially you have admitted that, although it looks like a finished product, it really isn’t.

This is the problem: scores look so good on the computer (even when the music is completely unplayable!)… And, although it’s exceptionally easy to cut chunks out via the use of a ‘delete’ button, it’s not so easy to allow yourself to break up what looks like a solid piece of finished work. So I printed it out! I often find this helps because I can lay out the pages in a continuous landscape roll and see the entire piece at once, rather than seeing individual pages as discreet sections, and I feel much more free working on the floor/table with physical scissors, sellotape and a pencil. Especially in the middle of the night, when sleep is not a thing…

This activity definitely helped me to feel more positive about my piece (like I was taking back control!) but it wasn’t until I was forced away from my computer completely (for a long weekend of pre-wedding events (not mine!)) that I made myself think about the flavour of the piece that I wanted to create. And that’s when I realised that I had become too drawn in by the process of using the selected ‘tone row’ of pitches that I had found in the Haydn quartet (my companion piece) so that I was no longer writing my own piece…

I often do line drawings in the early stages of writing a piece to get ideas going: it allows me to work gesturally and expressively as I can quickly capture the essence of what my intentions are without worrying about the finer details. I like imagining the progression of sounds and often hear the instruments in my head as I draw, so that the results are instinctive rather than considered. In this instance, I produced shorthand representations of the types of textures I intended and, before I knew it, I had drawn out the whole quartet and created a distilled version of all the work I had done up to this point.


This provided me with the structural framework that I had been needing and a notational solution where I could more easily play around with my initial concept of pulling the focus in and out. So now I could apply the Haydn to my own work, instead of the other way round. As my PhD supervisor Dr George Nicholson once said to me; “remember you are dealing with sound”. Wise words! (i.e. ‘get away from the computer’)…

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Music in the Round commission: current status (rip it up and start again)

Music in the Round has commissioned me (whoop!) and the other three members of Platform 4 to write a new piece for their 2017 May Festival, inspired by famous Russian repertoire. Our new pieces will be performed alongside the works that inspired us at concerts throughout the festival.

My piece will be performed during the lunchtime concert on Monday 8th May at 12.45 at the Crucible Theatre Studio, Sheffield by members of Ensemble 360, the resident ensemble with Music in the Round. The other two pieces in the programme are HAYDN String Quartet Op.33 No.1 and TANEYEV String Trio in E flat Op.31.

As part of the process, and to engage our potential audience (!), we are aiming to document the writing process and offer some insight into the make-up of the pieces we compose. We were recently interviewed by Matt Hunt, the clarinetist with Ensemble 360, who wanted to hear our initial thoughts and to reveal a bit about our writing practices: apparently, people want to know where you work, so I have uploaded a photo of my workspace (below). It’s much nicer than I made it sound! You can listen to the first set of podcasts here by following the link on this page: Music in the Round website: Platform 4 commissions

Interestingly; we were asked to come up with a title for the brochure long before composing began, and I came up with Focus Pull. As I mention in the interview with Matt, my initial concept was the idea of pulling focus on ‘recognisable’ references from both quartets in my programme.

I decided straight away to write for string quartet (instead of trio, for instance), challenging myself to compose a contemporary piece for a traditional line-up. I started by looking through the Haydn and Taneyev pieces, extracting bits I liked the look of (for texture, dialogue, rhythm, melodic contour etc.) and put them on scrapbook pages (see below). One sheet shows a circled melodic fragment taken from the first violin part of the Haydn quartet (3rd movement). I decided to try working with this melodic fragment, treating it like a tone-row (using the pitches in the exact order they appear in the original melody, but with different durations so they are not easily traceable, aurally). So far, this is offering an interesting way of working, and I’m enjoying finding ways to combine this with typical Haydn-like textures (I’ve abandoned Taneyev). The Russian connection is a bit weak, however: Haydn merely dedicated the set of Op.33 quartets to Grand Duke Paul of Russia. They are sometimes referred to as the ‘Russian’ quartets…

I’m still working on the overall structure, however, and trying not to overwhelm a five-minute piece with too much material. I think this is the real challenge: for there to be a connection to a piece written by another composer, but for me to maintain my own compositional voice and write the piece I want to write. Currently, I’m fighting the urge to delete what I’ve done and start again (but how I really intended it to be…). Aargh!