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The BBC Singers continue their series of releases featuring works by their official Associate Composer—a unique chance for some of the most talented artists to create compositions for the ensemble—with a new collection of world premiere recordings of works by British composer Gabriel Jackson. The central work of the programme—Airplane Cantata—explores the early days of aviation through the journals, news reports and accounts that surrounded this world- changing era. Featuring characteristically precise performances from the BBC Singers, they are joined on this disc by the world-renowned pianola player Rex Lawson.
At the same time, they contain stylistic and technical features, and express themes and ideas, that he began to develop as early as the mid-1980s, a period when his work was primarily centred not on choirs but on small chamber ensembles, and often related to visual art (sometimes physically as well as conceptually, being presented in galleries and installation spaces as often as in concert halls or churches). It was an aesthetic of radical simplicity which won him the friendship and support of composers as seemingly different as Steve Martland and John Tavener; and its essential elements first found expression in a short piano piece, Angelorum (1987), of which Jackson declared at the time in a brief programme note—almost more like a mission statement—that it
has a key signature of E flat major. Apart from a momentary modulation at the climax there are no accidentals. There is no counterpoint or polyphony, only block chords, simple diatonic melodies and pedal notes in the left hand.
With only very slight modification, much of this could equally be said of the music on the present disc. Already characteristic, too, is the suggestion (contained within the title of the piano piece) of a spiritual or metaphysical dimension even to pieces which are ostensibly secular. And perhaps the roots of the aesthetic go even further back, to Jackson’s time as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, where he developed a deep love of the English Tudor composers. Like theirs, he has said, his music is “not about conflict and resolution; even when animated, it is essentially contemplative”. It moves, but it stands still.
The clear lines and contrasts intrinsic to this approach fit Jackson well both for larger-scale choral works—in which he likes to construct an array of texts appropriate to the subject matter—and for short to medium-length pieces like the three included here, which each take a single poem and set it using a single span of music with clear internal subdivisions. Jackson typically responds to his chosen text both on the level of detail and as a structure to be elucidated musically. Thus, The voice of the bard opens with a great choral cry of “Hear”, lasting a full fifteen bars (words referring to music or to listening are often elaborately set by Jackson, as by another of his composer-heroes, Michael Tippett). The stark, imposing octaves of this opening invocation give way to chordal writing for the second line’s “present”, “past” (hushed, remembering…), and “future” (another elaborate figure, drawing attention to the most unique of the Bard’s qualities). Jackson finds a new texture or idea for each line, while also establishing larger-scale contrasts and recurrences, as if the music had its own “rhyme-scheme”, parallel but not identical to the poem’s. It is a form of attentiveness to the text that can include the bringing out of structural features which music can realise perhaps even more successfully than words alone: the contrast of “calling” and “weeping” in the first two lines of the second stanza, for instance, which the lower voices repeat expressively underneath the decoratively melodic, divided soprano lines.
As in Angelorum, Jackson’s style does not involve a high degree of modulation, or even of chromaticism in the harmony—indeed, all of the pieces on this disc, however complex their textures, are remarkably diatonic in harmony—but occasional “side-slips” into neighbouring tonalities are characteristic, and these too serve both a structural and an expressive function. Notable here is the sudden shift from E minor into E flat major for the third stanza, representing the poem’s shift into direct speech. The two tonalities then briefly coexist to colour “Night”, a minute or so later, before E minor is reasserted at the beginning of stanza four, effectively a modified return of the piece’s opening. The closing lines contain another typically Jacksonian conceit—“starry” and “watery”, the first set with dappled ecstasy and the second as a flowing, liquefied version of the same music—before “break of day” provokes a final turn to the tonic major.
In the Scottish poet Robin Bell’s exquisite Ruchill linn (“linn” is a Scottish dialect word for “waterfall”, and here describes a location in the poet’s native Perthshire), by contrast to the Blake, the poem’s syntax does not coincide so tidily with its rhyme-scheme. Jackson treats the text as heightened prose, following its punctuation rather than line breaks, and yet the music again provides its own, subliminal yet ingenious structure. Although the listener is unlikely to notice this beyond the second line or so, every verbal “sentence” up to and including the pivotal two-word statement at the poem’s centre begins with the same three notes: E, F sharp and G. (In the second stanza the key changes—again to E flat major, as it happens—and the first two notes are flattened to E flat and F natural.) A more directly audible unity comes from two strongly pictorial elements—the curlew, with its distinctive downward glissandi, and the waterfall, a series of overlapping descents in multiple voices.
That central statement of “Ruchill Linn”—the invocation of the place by name serving as a sign under which the poet’s contemplation takes place—is set off from the prevailing (and for Jackson unusual) contrapuntal textures, in a sequence of chords filling out the whole registral space and framed by silence before and after, not unlike the way Tudor composers often set the words “Jesu Christe” in the Gloria section of their masses. Jackson says it wasn’t a conscious allusion in this case, but it’s nonetheless characteristic of his approach and aesthetic: while he rarely quotes directly from specific pieces by other composers, he thinks of all his work as, in the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s Stravinskian phrase, “music about music”. Even if it is subconscious here, it might also be heard as confirming a spiritual dimension to the work, one that fits and enhances its magical sense of place.
Jackson has described powered flight as “the great technological miracle of our time”, and it is the subject of several of his works, including his first string quartet (1992; subtitled From Schiphol to Shannon), Luna 21 in the Sea of Serenity (2003; for the unusual mixed chamber line-up of the ensemble OKEANOS) and the saxophone quartet LM-7: Aquarius (2006) as well as the earlier choral work A Vision of Aeroplanes (1997), also premiered by the BBC Singers. Airplane Cantata is his most ambitious treatment yet of the theme, and if its choral aspect inevitably gives weight to the quasi-spiritual dimension here too (a dimension which is perhaps further underlined by the use of the word “cantata” in the title), then the choice of pianola as accompanying instrument—motivated primarily by Jackson’s admiration for the incredible sensitivity as well as virtuosity of Rex Lawson, as well as his efforts in almost single-handedly reviving the pianola as a serious concert instrument—also evokes the instrument’s original lifetime, which coincided with the early development of the aeroplane. In the second section of the cantata, indeed, the instrument gives the impression of itself being some vast whirring machine of unprecedented power, operating on the edge of human possibility.
Preceding this section is a setting of a 16thcentury poem about Icarus, which thus establishes the symbolic weight of the work’s theme—life and death are at stake here, and immortality is the potential reward—as well as the long history of man’s fantasies of flight. Throughout the work, Jackson alternates literary texts from various periods with documentary reports of the early history of flight (a newspaper report of the Wright brothers’ first flight, a telegram from one of the brothers, and accounts by other early pioneers Louis Blériot, who crossed the English Channel in an aircraft in 1909, and Amelia Earhart, who in 1932 became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic). The most telling juxtaposition comes in the sixth section, where an astonishingly clairvoyant prediction from the 19th-century British engineer Sir George Cayley is juxtaposed with the evidence of its realisation: a series of spoken announcements, as if by a newsreader, detailing further milestones in early aviation beyond the Wright brothers and Blériot. (A neat incidental touch here is the jazzy style-allusion in the pianola at the first occurrence of trans-Atlantic travel in 1927, as if Lindbergh had brought the jazz of the period across the ocean with him. Note, too, how Earhart’s lyrical description of her own experience of flying is given to the chorus as an insertion before Cayley’s final sentence, and how Jackson ensures that the “newsreel” mention of Earhart is timed to coincide, further cementing the connection between exposition and reflection.) A hushed final setting of lines by Hart Crane despatches us back into the realm of the imagination, and “the gleaming cantos of unvanquished space”.
Like Ruchill linn, Winter heavens describes and explores a spiritual apprehension of a scene from nature. This time the text is traditionally prosodic, with the fixed line lengths and rhyme-scheme of a sonnet, and unlike Bell’s charged simplicity, the language is high-flown and the expression convoluted—in fact it’s the sort of poem that Eliot, Pound and their English contemporary T.E. Hulme were reacting against around the same time as airplanes were being developed. But again, Jackson can clarify in music what in words might seem obscure, and his setting gets past the complex syntax to the poem’s expressive core by means of both clear large-scale textural contrasts—as when the sopranos and altos fall silent and the texture is built up from eight solo male voices in lines 3-6—and apposite word-painting. The canonic overlapping when the female voices re-enter suggests both “waves” and, a few bars later at the climax of the phrase, “bursts”. Both texture and key change for the sonnet’s final sestina, and the work rises to a high-point on “radiance”, another key word in the Jacksonian vocabulary, before subsiding to an equally typical ambiguous closing chord.
And so to the Choral Symphony, written in the summer of 2012 as the climax to Jackson’s Associate Composership, and premiered by the Singers on a tour to Denmark and Sweden in October of that year. The work is a glorious homage to Jackson’s adopted city of London, as well as a tribute to the extraordinary group of singers also based there, and with whom he had now worked closely for three years. It has texts from every century from the sixteenth to the present day (plus a line from Tacitus—the only non-English text on this disc), and Jackson arranges them into the substantial four-movement shape that the title “symphony” implies: a mostly brisk opening movement (though Jackson’s setting of the short third poem is unexpectedly slow, investing the text with a hushed expectancy that is special indeed); a nocturnal slow movement (three texts, all late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century); scherzo (a single text, twenty-first-century, with a setting to match its wry blend of humour and social commentary); and synoptic finale. But a “choral symphony” implies virtuosity as well (the term is arguably parallel to “Concerto for Orchestra” rather than to the usual instrumental “Symphony”), and—like all the works here—the piece is beautifully tailored to the Singers’ individual and corporate abilities, whether in the breathtaking precision of the first and third movements, the weaving of solo lines with the slow movement’s closing chorale, or the gradually increasing activity of the finale as it moves from the central “Londinium” episode inexorably towards its jubilant conclusion.
Ending as it began, with a bright burst of E flat major, this first piece written after Jackson’s fiftieth birthday is still identifiably the work of the twenty-five-year-old composer of Angelorum. Like the individual pieces which comprise it, Jackson’s prolific output is both animated and contemplative, a dance around a still centre. It stands still, and it moves.
John Fallas © 2014