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Airplane Cantata


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”.

from notes by John Fallas © 2014


Jackson (G): Airplane Cantata & other choral works
SIGCD381Download only


Movement 1: Overture: Icarus  Love feathereth my wings, and bold desire
Track 3 on SIGCD381 [2'18] Download only
Movement 2: Take-off  The problem of aerial navigation
Track 4 on SIGCD381 [2'51] Download only
Movement 3: Flight  Give me the wings, magician! So their tune
Track 5 on SIGCD381 [2'41] Download only
Movement 4: Landing  I am alone
Track 6 on SIGCD381 [3'29] Download only
Movement 5: Toccata aeronautica
Movement 6: Newsreel – Narration  An uninterrupted navigable ocean
Track 8 on SIGCD381 [3'20] Download only
Movement 7: Chorale-Coda  Breathe deep, mine eyes
Track 9 on SIGCD381 [3'42] Download only

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