Jenny Jackson

I am a composer (yikes)


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

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.

Span-player-placings-23.10.15-Winter-Gdns

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.

 


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Classical Sheffield Festival of Music: October 23rd – 25th

Sheffield’s music scene is all of a buzz lately with the launch of the Classical Sheffield Festival of Music website. http://www.classicalweekend.com

I am currently working on a spatialised, site-specific piece for one of the Platform 4 ‘Pop Up’ performances in the Winter Gardens on Saturday 24th. http://www.classicalweekend.com/event/pop-up-performances-1

There will be another chance to hear my ‘Lament’ performed by Charlie Hardwick in the Platform 4 concert in the Cathedral, also on 24th. http://www.classicalweekend.com/event/made-in-sheffield-new-music

Platform 4 are joining up with Manchester Ensemble, Sounds of the Engine House, to perform a selection of Minimalist masterworks as part of the University of Sheffield concert series on Sunday 25th in Firth Hall. http://www.classicalweekend.com/event/new-york-counterpoint

Tickets are available now. See website for details…


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A new piece. At last.

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to have finally completed a new piece. And this recording of the first performance last Friday isn’t bad! What you miss by not being at the concert is the visual aspect of only seeing the cello soloist and hearing the other parts off stage but it still works, I think. The fantastic cello playing is Charlie Hardwick in action: the piece was written very much for her to play.


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Lament, dance, compose and exhibit.

Well; it’s been a while but here’s some news:

I have written a short piece for the next Platform 4 concert on Friday 3rd July, in Dronfield (see poster below). The piece is called ‘Lament’ and is scored for Cello Solo (but you should never believe everything in print)… Although it’s a short piece, it feels like a massive achievement for me as, for a significant part of the last year, I have felt completely disconnected with composing and music in general. I had convinced myself that I would never write anything again! Sounds melodramatic, but it didn’t feel like it. So, perhaps the title and the character of the piece reflects how I was feeling but it has also given me a vehicle to express emotions surrounding some difficult events that have touched me over recent months. I decided to stop trying to be clever and just write what came easily, and this is the result.

Platform 4 concert poster July 2015

Another development is that Platform 4 have begun a collaboration with dancer Hannah Wadsworth Hannah’s Linkedin page We are at the early stages but hope to have some new work to present early next year.

My course proposal ‘Composing for Beginners’ has been accepted by Benslow and will run next year from Fri 17th – Sun 19th June Benslow Course Brochure I am really excited to be teaching at Benslow, which is a fantastic venue and a brilliant organisation, and look forward to encouraging adult beginners to explore and create new works.

Finally; a heads up that Platform 4 will be performing as part of the Classical Sheffield Festival October 23rd – 25th later this year. Plans include performing a number of short, ‘pop-up’-style pieces around the city centre… http://www.classicalsheffield.org.uk/about-cs.html

My (fairly old) piece ‘Fluxus Boxes’ for clarinet trio & flexible wind band is being performed by Platform 4 on Friday 3rd October in Sheffield. It was first performed by SUWO (the University of Sheffield’s Wind Orchestra) in 2007 following a competition, and I’m really interested to see how well it’s ‘aged’. Following in the ethos of the Fluxus art movement in the 1970s, it is a little bizarre and could edge towards music theatre… I am currently working on my new piece, ‘Kraal’ for cello solo & flexible string ensemble for the Platform 4 string concert in the new year: I wonder whether hearing ‘Fluxus Boxes’ again will inform on it at all…

October 3rd 2014 POSTER

You can hear the first performance on my soundcloud but, really, it needs to be seen! https://soundcloud.com/jennyjacksoncomposer/fluxus-boxes


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Vent: a blast of rapid response writing…

How about that, then!?: after spending almost a couple of years writing ‘Moot’, I have just completed, scored and recorded ‘Vent’ for strings & piano in a matter of days, ready for broadcast on Resonance 104.4fm tomorrow (Wednesday 6th August)! This is the result of a collaboration between Platform 4 and artist Lisa O’Brien. For more info follow this link: http://www.thisisliveart.co.uk/projects/remote-performances-online/

‘Vent’ is my interpretation of Lisa’s painting called ‘Windstorm Geno’, which she produced some years after experiencing the extreme weather conditions in Scotland, where she currently lives. I often work from my own visual sketches during the writing process and I was excited to see how it felt working from someone else’s artwork. Of the four paintings she provided the four members of Platform 4, ‘Windstorm Geno’ was the most expressive, and the least like a score. I maintained the overall structure, reading from left to right, but interpreted the drama of the gestural mark-making rather than specifically attempting to relate an instrument to a particular line or colour.

You can hear ‘Vent’ here: Vent – audio recording It has been a really interesting project and the results/ approaches are – not surprisingly – very individual!

You can also see my score here: Vent – performance score


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‘Moot’ first performance & new stuff… (and sketches!)

The first performance of Moot for orchestra & piano, six hands, on Saturday 28th June went well, I’m pleased to report! In the last few rehearsals before the concert the orchestra started to show signs of ‘getting’ the piece, and the addition of the three percussionists, tuba, harp and – of course – the three pianists, brought the piece alive and helped to reveal it in all its chaotic and overcrowded glory (!). The acoustic in the venue swallowed the strings, unfortunately, so the brass and percussion did dominate at times, and the piano was not a full-size grand so this also suffered in terms of balance, occasionally. However, the overall impact was there and I was really pleased with the convincing performance and the gutsy outcome. Click on the link to read a review which has appeared on the Classical Sheffield website, written by Ben Gaunt: http://www.classicalsheffield.org.uk/reviews/28-june-2014-endcliffe-orchestra-victoria-hall-methodist-church An audio and video recording was made and will be available in time… If you know any amateur or youth orchestras that may be interested to perform ‘Moot’; point them in my general direction!

So; what’s next?!?…

I met with Lucie Lee this week http://www.lucieleedancecompany.org.uk to discuss a pilot project combining dance and music with digital visual media to create an interactive performance. We are beginning the collaboration with some exploratory workshops and will show the results in a short performance on Friday 22nd August at Cafe Ollo, Huddersfield. For more details, and to keep up to date, follow Lucie’s blog: http://lucieleedanceco.tumblr.com Platform 4 will be performing a short programme at the same event, which will include Tom Owen’s Prowl Routine.

More Platform 4 news: we are all busy writing new pieces to be performed in an Autumn two-concert double-header of music by us alongside other pieces from the contemporary repertoire. The programme looks, roughly, like this:

Friday 3rd October (winds): Stravinsky – Symphonies of Wind Instruments; Varese – Octandre; Pousseur – La Deuxieme Apothéose de Rameau; Bach – something arr. Tom Owen; and a new work by Tom James.

Saturday 4th October (strings): Ligeti – Ramifications; Ives arr. Tom Davies – 3 Quarter Tone pieces for piano (arr. for strings); Corelli? – some manner of Baroque ‘sorbet’; and new works by Chris Noble and myself.

Both concerts are at the Wesley Hall, Sheffield S10 1UD.

My piece is for cello solo & flexible string ensemble. I’m playing around with ideas of panning, and spatially positioning the string players around the performing space, so that the audience will experience a moving audio in surround-sound… We’ll see… I’m currently at the ‘drawing stage’ and loving it!:

IMG_1445  IMG_1446 IMG_1447

(look out for future blogs bemoaning the difficulty in translating the drawings to a score…)

 

 


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I told you I couldn’t blog about what I was doing if I was doing it, which I was… (there’s proof)

Well… It’s done. Moot for orchestra and piano, six hands, is complete, and the score and parts are with Sheffield’s Endcliffe Orchestra, in preparation for the premiere on June 28th at the Victoria Hall, Sheffield. I did intend to blog about the piece’s progress as it developed but I clearly did not manage to divide my creative output between the two activities, and the composing had to come first. So; what can I tell you about the process in retrospect?

I know it’s obvious but the fact that it is a large format piece means that every aspect of its creation was a big job. The following elements had to be dealt with concurrently (a complicated creative task a bit like simultaneously knitting without a pattern and sculpting from a breeze block and – at the same time – considering how to present it to the gallery curator and how to sell it to the general public):

Generating the musical material I spent quite a lot of time at the start of the creative process drawing in pencil on large rolls of paper. I find that this method of sketching enables me to capture the essence of my compositional ideas before questions of pitch, meter and rhythm, dynamics and timbral nuances, or notational language have to be considered, and allows me to work gesturally and instinctively. In this way, a shorthand version of an idea can be captured, quickly, in a tangible form and the level of detail can be decided at a later stage. During this process I began to identify gestures and motifs, often with specific instruments in mind, and then I developed these choosing to follow the shapes strictly or flexibly, depending on the context. This way of working enables me to visualise the interaction of multiple parts in relative pitch terms (so the top of the page is the highest pitch and the bottom, the lowest) as well as the shape of the entire piece, or the proportions of sections within the overall structure, which is harder to achieve in a musical score. In this way I can see where, for instance, passages of intensity or climax occur and how to juxtapose these with other, contrasting passages to greatest effect. 

Structure During the writing process the structure changed depending on how confident/deflated I was feeling. At one stage  a number of contrasting characterful miniatures seemed appealing (to avoid struggling to develop any ideas or to conceptualise a larger temporal structure without having the necessary material already in place). I had planned, originally, to compose a traditional three-movement concerto but, eventually, it emerged as a one-movement structure lasting approximately twenty minutes, which combines, develops and contrasts characterful material in an organic, filmic way. I hope the plot works and the climax comes at the right time…

Instrumentation and balance I know it was my decision but, if writing for orchestra wasn’t a big enough balancing act, the addition of piano, six hands, was almost enough to stop me writing the piece at all. I had imagined a mad piano concerto, with a crazy six-handed soloist providing numerous opportunities for the theatrical and comical but, in reality, it presented itself as a major challenge which was far from amusing. In my piece Desire Lines (2011), for piano, six hands (a set of four miniatures which have provided some of the material for Moot), the close proximity of the three players gives rise to a theatricality of performance, the concept of which informed the compositional process. In Moot, I chose not to capitalise on this aspect, as it will probably happen incidentally. Instead, the piano is treated as just another (often percussive) instrument in the orchestra’s forces but with the spotlight on it from time to time. The number of hands allows for a density, complexity of texture and greater coverage of the keyboard than when played by a single pianist, and this needed careful handling so as not to overload the sound when playing with the orchestra. It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you have to make use of all players all the time or, at least, enough so that they feel involved, utilised and avoid getting lost(!). I made a conscious effort to pare back and be selective, although there are moments of controlled cacophony. I have included passages of sparse orchestration and juxtaposed them with more robust, chaotic material, which employs the entire orchestra (including three percussionists and the timpani player). I have tried to keep in mind lessons learnt from working with the Nieuw Ensemble, Amsterdam, in 2009 when I composed Self Portrait. This piece is scored for twelve instrumentalists, including winds, strings, percussion, piano and harp, as well as mandolin and guitar. The lack of attack or sustain in the plucked instruments means that they can not possibly fight to be heard so they must be exposed, instead, in light and roomy scoring, so that the individual instruments’ unique colours can be heard. I can’t say for certain that I’ve achieved this in Moot as I haven’t had the opportunity to hear the piece yet, but I was definitely conscious of the potential for creating a big, grey sludge with no definition or clarity.

Notation As the piece was commissioned by, and will be premiered by, a development orchestra for players of ABRSM Grade 5 and above, I was careful to write within a comfortable range for players, and I have used flexible notation wherever the character can be achieved through more generalised pitching, rhythm or timbre. Some parts are harder where individual strengths have been identified in the orchestra – the leader is semi-professional so I have included a violin solo, for instance. Although scoring and type-setting may appear to be the final stages of creating a new work I find that until I know how to present it on the score I can’t find the vehicle to develop my musical ideas, so there is a lot of trial and error involved, and many different ‘versions’ created. One such notational problem was working out how to score for three timpani with one drum that plays almost entirely – but not exclusively – pedal glissando, and therefore has no fixed pitch throughout. Once I separated the three drums onto two staves, with the pitched drums notated on a five-line stave and the unpitched drum on a one-line stave, the part was easy to compose. In the same way, the low brass and strings read from one-line staves during the opening passage because I calculated that the resulting effect will be more-or-less predictable regardless of specific pitching. There is a written instruction to perform ‘very low’, and the one-line stave indicates the approximate and slight variation in pitches above and below the chosen starting pitch. This should also mean that players choose pitches within their own comfortable range so they will be confident to perform them.

Overall, the changes in the notational language throughout the score support the movement between passages which appear ‘in focus’ (where rhythm, meter, pitch and co-ordination are controlled), or ‘out of focus’ (where durations and pitch are flexible and the conductor merely controls the vertical co-ordination of evolving blocks of texture – and, therefore, the pacing of the piece at these points), and varying degrees in between (where some instruments are co-ordinated and some play independently, for instance).

I have attached the full score for your perusal (contact me for parts if you fancy giving it a go…):

Moot – full score

And here’s the flyer for the Endcliffe Orchestra’s concert and the premiere of Moot:

Endcliffe Orchestra concert flyer 28th June 2014

A recording will appear here and on my soundcloud page in due course…