Jenny Jackson

I am a composer (yikes)


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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…


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Do I work better under pressure?

Do I work better under pressure? Other people seem to think so and, although I often fall back on that as a comfort when I’m struggling to produce anything, I still wonder what my output would be if I didn’t have to get completely frazzled and stressed before ‘it’ happens. I’ve never really managed to work on more than one piece at once and, as recent weeks have proved, I still can’t. If anything, I stopped being able to work on anything at all until push came to shove and then I popped out something a little unexpected (but, possibly, more interesting than I thought I was going to) which exploited my current preoccupations; the inherent theatricality of musical performance, and the audience’s expectations and perceptions of what they see and hear. In this respect, I am quite pleased with ‘Sanctum’ (it’s interesting to compare the two performances – see http://www.youtube.com/user/Platform4composers), but I do feel like I’m having to review and critique my output in retrospect. It’s not really the Mozart way of composing, is it?

So, I feel pleased that I managed to squeeze out a new piece for pianist Philip Thomas to perform in the recent Platform 4 concerts, and happy I found something relevant to my practice to boot. In contrast, Desire Lines for piano, six hands (2011), received it’s third and fourth performances so I feel I know these pieces well. It was more like listening to music composed by someone else in this respect. I was pleased with the performances but can’t believe I wrote the pieces! You can watch Nos 2 and 4 here:

 

 

You can hear all four Desire Lines here: https://soundcloud.com/jennyjacksoncomposer/sets/desire-lines-2

So now I have to get back into Moot, my orchestra and piano, six hands, piece. I have five or six versions on the go, and several sketches. Somehow I’ve got to manhandle this beast and get back into the world of it. I’ve got till the end of December to complete it and deliver the score and parts. Hopefully, I can finish it calmly and effortlessly. I doubt it though… First performance on 28th June 2014! Panic!!!

Much excitement.

(almost too late) News Update:

First-of-all, and before I miss the promotional boat altogether, I am slipping in THIS flyer for a couple of concerts later this week (17th & 19th Oct):

Platform 4 concert with pianist Philip Thomas

I am looking forward to hearing the first (and second) performance of a new work I’ve written called ‘Sanctum’, and another performance of ‘Desire Lines’, as part of this exciting concert in which Platform 4 have teamed up with pianist Philip Thomas and some fellow composers from Huddersfield.

http://www.philip-thomas.co.uk
Also, if it’s not too late and no longer relevant, I am happy to tell you that I had a really good first rehearsal of a section of ‘Moot’ a couple of weeks ago – the piece I’m writing for Sheffield’s Endcliffe Orchestra (concert on 28th June 2014). I knew we would be limited to a forty minute rehearsal but wanted to get an idea of how the orchestra will balance once the piano (six hands) was in, so we tried out a section where every instrument has a bit of stuff to play and the texture is quite changeable and wild. As it’s conventionally notated, it went together quite easily and the players really went for it.

So, with all the flurry of getting ready for the Philip Thomas concert, ‘Moot’ has been left to settle a bit so I’m keen to get back at it. I hope I can jump straight back in. Sadly, the artist whose studio I spent the summer in working on it passed away a few weeks ago. It was completely unexpected and has come as a huge shock. Out of respect for him, his approach to life, and for the encouragement he gave me, I am determined to finish it and do it well. Enough wallowing and pondering over the meaning of life… This piece will be dedicated to Keith Hayman, artist, friend, inspiration, and wearer of red trousers and other funky gear, aged 69. Sadly missed and never forgotten.


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When is a workshop a rehearsal and a rehearsal a workshop?

I think the answer to this is simple (although it’s not always possible to maintain the distinction). When you have the opportunity to experiment and to try things out which may not work, it is a workshop. Here, the priority isn’t to practice, or perfect, but to simply get a sense of whether it will work eventually. It is definitely a luxury for a composer to workshop ideas as there is no pressure for any of the results to make their way into the finished product (which makes it a bit of a risk for the performers who have put aside their time for you). The only down-side is that, in preparing for a workshop, you have to work in a different (less free) way – a bit like preparing for teaching a lesson at school (yes: I have taught in schools and survived) – where you have to whittle down, identify and present the concept quickly and succinctly in order to ‘sell’ the idea to the players. Preparing for a workshop can feel like an interruption to the writing process but it’s a good way of focusing and pinning down some of the fundamental material. Timing is everything: if you want to try out a lot of stuff in forty minutes, you have to be organised and know exactly what you want to get out of the session. You also need to be flexible enough to respond to feedback, and try things out in different ways, which can mean not getting through everything you hoped to as a result. It’s a bit like composing ‘live’, or painting with sound, and it’s great if you’re in the right mood and the players are open to it.

I have recently had the opportunity to workshop initial ideas with members of the Endcliffe Orchestra – an amateur orchestra in Sheffield – as part of the development process for a piece I’m writing for them (first performance – June 28th 2014). The finished piece will be for piano six hands and orchestra but, at this initial stage, I have been more concerned with discovering the way that the orchestra works and identifying their strengths (and weaknesses). The piano will come later!

Here’s a taster of what we produced. It’s pretty menacing!:

https://soundcloud.com/jennyjacksoncomposer/endcliffe-orchestra-workshop

In the first workshop I worked with strings and harp. I am fairly happy with what strings can do so some of the time was spent introducing the players to the different types of notation that I might use and some techniques that, perhaps, they have not been called upon to perform previously (like bowing behind the bridge, scratch tone, snap pizz and col legno battuto). We also tried out a scored section which I described as pulling back on a bit of elastic until it snapped. This worked very well and the harpist seemed happy to have discovered, and to perform, a half-pedal buzz (something she hadn’t done before). In the second workshop I worked with woodwind, strings and brass, where we explored instrumental techniques for the winds and brass such as flutter tonguing, pitch bending, key clicks and mouthpiece popping, as well as speaking into the mouthpiece, and I presented them with sheets containing boxed material of mostly flexibly-notated gestures which we experimented with in various combinations. The gestures were reinforced by mood or character descriptions to aid interpretation.

One element I hope to incorporate into the piece is a live panning effect, so that sounds pass from left to right of the auditorium, for instance. This will add an interesting visual aspect to the musical performance and also enhance the listening experience as the audiences’ perception of perspective is challenged. I think it will produce a sense of movement and theatre and will tie in nicely with the theatre of having three performers at the piano.  Anyway…. experiments in this area have been successful, mostly, and this really was something I could’t try at home! It was great to be able to work on the practical aspects of making this work (it seemed fine once we established that it was like a Mexican Wave!) and in establishing/ questioning the role of the conductor.

What I discovered overall was that the players are very much ‘up for it’ and were encouraging, enthusiastic and engaged, even when the results were muddy, ugly and overloaded (not that there’s anything wrong with that, in the right place!). It’s great to have the players ‘on side’ and to have a supportive (and also ‘up for it’!) conductor when you’re finding your feet, and – considering they have no sense of how the finished product will sound – it’s a real leap of faith for them. Workshopping ideas is, in some ways, harder than presenting the finished piece: you assume that what you’re presenting is being judged as good or bad and so, when it doesn’t work, all you can do is be honest and tell them that, and thank them for trying it out. I have found myself feeling vulnerable, apologetic and embarrassed but, luckily, as I’ve said, this orchestra is supportive and keen. This is a great place to be starting from!


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Progress?

So…. I expect you’re wondering whether there is any progress with the orchestra and piano six hands piece?!? (Endcliffe Orchestra concert June 28th 2014, somewhere in Sheffield (tbc) http://www.endcliffeorchestra.org.uk)… Well; I’ve got a title, but I’m not going to reveal that just yet (it might change anyway!). I’m hoping it remains relevant but chances are it’ll just become a good-looking title that I’ll have a major struggle to explain in the programme note later on (as ever).

As the first orchestra workshop draws ever closer, I’m fluctuating between producing stuff to try out in the workshop (which will be a string-only sectional) and the stuff of the actual piece. It’s a bit chicken and egg so I’m not feeling wholly satisfied with anything yet. As it’s an amateur orchestra I can’t be sure that all the players will be familiar with some string-specific techniques, or some of its notation, so it may be that some of the first session is spent looking at those, and then trying out some textures which utilise them. I had said I’d bring some completed sketches but that’s looking less likely as time goes on. I’m still struggling to get stuff out of my head and onto the page. And still too many ideas. .. I was directed towards a beautiful piece yesterday; it’s called Bel Canto by Cassandra Miller http://cassandramiller.wordpress.com. What struck me (apart from the beautiful, haunting and ethereal sound, and the clarity of her notation) was her capacity to stick with the initial idea and to develop it throughout the entire piece. I always seem to try and cram as much of everything into a piece as possible, afraid that ‘nothing will happen’ otherwise. This problem is compounded in this orchestral piece by the addition of so many instruments (and, of course, the three pianists!!). Today I will definitely try to find out what the piece is all about and narrow it down. Yes. I’m on it…

In other (exciting!) news; Platform 4 http://www.platform4composers.co.uk have struck a deal with pianist Philip Thomas to collaborate and produce two concerts of new work this Autumn; (provisionally Thursday 17th October St Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield and Saturday 19th October Upper Chapel, Norfolk Street, Sheffield). If you don’t know Philip, have a look at his website: http://www.philip-thomas.co.uk He is, as they say these days, ‘a well good piano player’ and I am now trying to write a piece for him which is worthy of such a well good player. (This, as well as the orchestra piano six hands piece that I’m having massive panic-attacks over… Hmm… Oh, and all this whilst next-door’s are having their kitchen rebuilt… Everything will come with a drone. ‘Hmm’ indeed…).


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

So; I have been commissioned to write a new piece for Sheffield’s Endcliffe Orchestra http://www.endcliffeorchestra.org.uk 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 https://soundcloud.com/jennyjacksoncomposer/sets/desire-lines-2 but with the added excitement that is an orchestra. The three soloists will be Tom Owen, Chris Noble and Tom James (fellow composers; see http://www.platform4composers.co.uk).

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:

 Image

 

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…