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Gabriel Jackson: A distinctive voice in contemporary choral music In conversation with John Quinn
Gabriel Jackson (b 1962) has become one of the most prominent composers of his generation.
His list of compositions is substantial, including significant amounts of chamber and vocal music. If you look at his website, however, the list of works confirms that he’s been especially prolific as a composer of choral music, both secular and religious. Over the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to hear a lot of his choral music and I’ve enjoyed and greatly admired what I’ve heard.
Gabriel has written for many of the world’s leading choral ensembles. His period as Associate Composer to the BBC Singers (2010-2013) produced no less than eight scores for the Singers. He was invited to write a work, Ave Dei patris filia (2012) for the Tallis Scholars which was premiered at the group’s 40th anniversary concert in St Paul’s Cathedral in 2013. I missed it then but caught up with it when it was included in the programme for the Tallis Scholars’ 2000th concert in 2015 (review). I have had the good fortune to attend a couple of notable Jackson premieres: The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ (review) in 2014 and La Musique, the previous year (review)
Recently, Gabriel Jackson came to Gloucester, where I live, for the first performance of a new work during a service of Evensong in the Cathedral and I took the opportunity to meet him to talk about his music.
His musical career began as a chorister in Canterbury Cathedral. I wondered how crucial his training there and those early musical experiences were in setting him on his way to becoming a composer. I wasn’t surprised at the first part of Gabriel’s answer: “Looking back, it was incredibly important. Singing great music, to a very high standard, in an amazing building, day after day, is an extraordinary experience for anyone and very formative for a child.” However, I was interested to learn that he hadn’t immediately set his sights on a life in music. Instead for some time he nurtured an ambition to become an architect. That never came to pass but the architectural interest still remains; even now, he says, he still thinks of pieces in a three-dimensional way.
Gabriel’s time as a Canterbury chorister fell during the lengthy period (1961-1988) that Allan Wicks was Organist and Master of the Choristers at Canterbury and it’s clear that Wicks was an important influence. He speaks warmly of Wicks, who he describes as “a remarkable person and the greatest musician I have ever known. To come under the spell of this charismatic, inspirational figure at a young age was a great thrill.” Allan Wicks was the mentor to a number of boys who went on to have important musical careers, among them Stephen Varcoe, Harry Christophers and Jeremy Backhouse as well as Gabriel himself. He is eager to acknowledge the debt he owes to Wicks who was a great champion of new music, particularly as an organist, but also with the choir at Canterbury. “He encouraged my efforts at composition and even taught me for a while – he was very good! – after I had sort of fallen out with my first composition teacher, Alan Ridout.”
I noticed that the earliest choral work that is listed on Gabriel Jackson’s website is Ah, mine heart (1987) and there’s an Allan Wicks link here too. Wicks and the Canterbury Cathedral choir gave the first performance of it in 1988. It’s the earliest choral piece that the composer still acknowledges, and one of the first he wrote as an adult. He explains that “I just sent it to Allan and, of course, he programmed it! (He didn’t actually tell me until after it had happened!)”
In the early 1980s Gabriel studied at the Royal College of Music. I was rather surprised to learn that, far from specializing in vocal music at the College, Gabriel didn’t write anything for voices while he was a student. His interests then, he says, were very different from what they are now.
That started to change towards the end of the 1980s, as Gabriel explains. “ I realized that I still wanted to be involved in the cathedral music that had meant so much to me, and the only way I could contribute (I was a terrible adult singer!) was to compose liturgical music. Michael Nicholas, another great pioneer of contemporary church music at Norwich Cathedral, was very supportive and commissioned and performed several pieces in the early 1990s.” Even then, he says, it wasn’t until about fifteen years ago that his career in choral music really ‘took off’ – most of his compositions up to that point were instrumental. It might, perhaps, be said that his subsequent rise to eminence as a choral composer is a case of success breeding success. As Gabriel says, “The reason my output has been dominated by choral music since then is because those were the commissions I was offered – it wasn’t a choice on my part, much as I love the medium.”
It’s not, perhaps, the most original question to put to a composer but nonetheless I asked Gabriel which composers he most admires. “Tallis and Stravinsky” was the response, and Gabriel expanded that by saying that he’s very enthusiastic about Tudor music in general. He greatly admires Tallis for his inspired polyphony and both Tallis and Stravinsky for their sense of structure. I was delighted to learn that Gabriel also loves Rachmaninov, not least for the way he structures his music. He specifically cites the Second Symphony and the Second and Third Piano Concertos as examples of Rachmaninov’s sureness of touch when it comes to structure – all these works “build to an ecstatic release right at the end.” He also loves Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto - “such a good piece.” I found it very interesting that a composer for whom a sense of structure is so important in his own music should find and value that in the music of the Russian master
I was keen to explore with Gabriel the issue of the words that he sets to music. Many of his pieces set existing texts, though some of the works I’ve heard use bespoke words. He explained that he enjoys setting existing texts but that it’s also nice to use a new text because then “I can tell the author exactly what I need.” A request to set a text that has already been written can be challenging but rewarding. Gabriel recalled one such occasion. “A few years ago I did a piece, Rigwreck, for Donald Nally and his wonderful Philadelphia-based group The Crossing, who have become great friends and collaborators, and I had to set a text by Pierre Joris that was specially written for the project; initially I thought it was unsettable, but it made me do all sorts of things in the piece that I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of, so that was a very exciting experience.” Gabriel adds that because he writes music in sections a text with a strong structure of its own can be useful. In the case of longer pieces like Airplane Cantata or Spring Rounds he likes a collection of texts that differ in period, in style and, sometimes, in language.
Gabriel Jackson is now so firmly established on the musical scene that virtually everything he composes nowadays is the result of a commission. Among the benefits that flow from that is that he’ll usually know for which artists the piece is intended. “When I know the performers I do try to reflect their personality, their soundworld, their abilities in the piece. Even where I don’t know them or haven’t heard them, I imagine those qualities.”
Standards of choral singing have probably never been higher than is the case today and Gabriel is quick to acknowledge the excellence of choirs in many countries. He singles out not just British choirs for praise but also choirs in some of the countries of Northern and Eastern Europe, where there are fantastic singing traditions. He’s also keen to point out how enthusiastic choirs are about new music. He’s worked extensively with several such groups.
One ensemble with a formidable reputation in the field of contemporary choral music is the BBC Singers with whom Gabriel spent a period as Associate Composer (2010-2013). They subsequently recorded several of the works that he wrote for them. I wondered if the association with such a virtuoso vocal ensemble which is so proficient in contemporary music had encouraged him to experiment but that wasn’t quite the case. As Gabriel explained: “I didn’t experiment in the sense of trying things out with them, but it was very nice to be able to write exactly what I wanted, knowing that they would always sing it brilliantly. My Choral Symphony was an attempt to write a piece even the BBC Singers would find hard, and I succeeded! But their premiere performances in Sweden and Denmark were absolutely astonishing and received lengthy standing ovations.” The Choral Symphony is among the works that the BBC Singers recorded on their Signum Classics disc of Gabriel’s music (review).
The choir of Merton College, Oxford is another group with which Gabriel has worked closely as part of the Merton Choirbook project. I first heard them sing his piece In the Beginning was the Word on disc (review) and shortly afterwards something significantly more substantial followed. This was The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Since that work made a great impression on me at the first performance (review) I was keen to find out more and I asked Gabriel how the composition came about. “I have known Ben Nicholas [The Director of Music at Merton] since he was a chorister at Norwich and he has been a great collaborator, first with his choir at Tewkesbury Abbey and now at Merton. We had talked about my writing a Passion for Merton for a couple of years before we were able to make it happen. I can’t remember now whose idea it was – mine or Ben’s. It’s the longest piece I’ve written to date, and the first in what I hope will be a series of large-scale pieces for voices and instruments (in varying combinations). The Chaplain of Merton College, the Rev. Dr Simon Jones, put together a wonderful libretto and it was something of a coup to be able to use part of TS Eliot’s Little Gidding as the final section.”
The choir with which Gabriel Jackson has been associated for the longest period of time is the choir of Truro Cathedral. They’ve just recorded a disc of his music, including several pieces written specially for them (review). From the notes in the booklet I learned that the connection came about after Gabriel Jackson’s parents retired to Cornwall some 16 years ago. The resulting relationship has really flourished, as Gabriel explained. “I have written pieces for them under three Directors of Music – first Andrew Nethsingha, then Robert Sharpe and now Christopher Gray. They keep getting better and better! There is something very special about the choir, I think – an honesty and integrity that is very compelling. The back row is terrific and the boys are absolutely brilliant! And now that there are girls at Truro, I am sure they will be absolutely brilliant too – after less than a year they are already very good”
One of the works on the disc – and one of several recorded for the first time – is the set of seven so-called Great ‘O’ Antiphons for Advent. The first of them ‘O Clavis David’ was written for Merton College Choir (review) and subsequently the relationship with Truro Cathedral created the opportunity to add the other six antiphons. With a couple of years separating the composition of the first antiphon and the writing of its companions I wondered if it had been easy to return and compose companion pieces some time later. Gabriel admitted that it had been quite hard to go back. He says “I had to try and make sure that the new Antiphons breathed the same musical air, as it were, and that ‘O Clavis David’ didn’t stick out too much, by being of different weight and length. In addition, Advent Antiphons need to work as a sequence but also as self-contained pieces that can be performed on their own. That’s quite a hard balance to get right.” Having listened to all seven of the antiphons on the CD in connection with my review I feel that the existing antiphon was worked into the larger whole most successfully.
Having heard Gabriel’s take on in-depth collaborations with choirs I thought it would be interesting to get a “consumer’s” view so I turned to Christopher Gray, Director of Music at Truro Cathedral since 2008. Christopher was previously the Assistant Director of Music at the cathedral (2000-2008) so he’s been closely involved in the choir’s work with Gabriel Jackson from the outset. I asked him for some insights into what it’s like to have such a relationship with a leading composer of choral music. In particular it’s clear from things that Gabriel says in his booklet note for the new CD that he’s very much had the sound of the choir in his head – and also the sound of the cathedral’s ‘Father’ Willis organ – when writing music for Truro Cathedral. I wondered, therefore whether the pieces arrive in Truro ‘fully formed’, as it were, or if adjustments are ever necessary once rehearsals get under way.
Christopher told me that it has been fascinating to see Gabriel at work behind the scenes over the years. He said: “He has a honed sense for what will work well for a particular combination of performers, venue and occasion and is really quite practical about selecting an appropriate text and deciding on the exact scoring. Once those things are thrashed out, he gets to work and you don’t really hear from him for a bit. He will then send the new work through, and my experience has been that this will not fundamentally change (except for the most minor corrections to spelling of words etc).”
A comment that Christopher made was particularly telling, I thought: “Gabriel has a genuine interest not just in cathedral choirs, but in the human beings behind those choirs – he has a deep respect for the tradition and those who dedicate their lives to maintaining it. I think this brings a sincerity to his music and a special connection for the performers.”
One piece on the new disc, That wind blowing and that tide caught my attention because the Truro Choristers were involved to an unusually close degree in the actual composition. I asked Christopher to tell me how this had come about. He explained that Gabriel made a trip to Truro in order to work with the boy Choristers on a piece to mark the World War I centenary. “The boys all brought in different things relating to the War that had personal significance for them or their families. Having looked through everything, Gabriel chose to set a Kipling poem one boy had brought in, My boy Jack. He then spent an hour showing them how he would go about setting the text to music, asking them questions along the way and taking on board their thoughts. The resulting piece, like the poem itself, uses the most economic means to convey a powerful, thought-provoking message, and the boys love it!” That involvement in the compositional process must have given the Choristers a real sense of ownership when the finished piece arrived. As I said in my review of the disc, it is in a very real sense their piece, so it’s not surprising that they sing it so well.
In fact, the Truro choir sings everything on the CD very well. The singers sound completely at ease with the music and I wasn’t surprised to learn from Christopher Gray that the pieces have all been well and truly absorbed into the choir’s repertoire. “We worked intensively at the pieces for all of last year, performing most of them two or three times. “ He explained that the Great ‘O’ Antiphons, which can only be sung liturgically during Advent, were also fitted into concert programmes. “We like to live with the music we record so we can perform it with it “in the blood” as much as possible.”
Perhaps the most encouraging thing that I heard from Christopher, however, concerned the public response to Gabriel Jackson’s music. “The feedback from the congregation, and from concert audiences, is universally positive. I think the music’s colour, drama and sheer beauty make it appealing to all. And it always fits in so well with the liturgy.” The Truro Cathedral choir has clearly taken Gabriel’s music to its collective heart but it’s equally gratifying to learn that the Truro public has embraced this contemporary choral music.
With the Truro Cathedral Choir disc now released I wanted to know if any more Jackson recordings might be in the offing. Recently I came across a disc by a superb youth choir from Latvia, named Kamēr… (review). Subsequently I’d learned that Gabriel wrote a major piece last year for their 25th anniversary. The piece was entitled Spring Rounds and I asked Gabriel if there was any prospect of that achieving a recording. The answer was pleasingly positive. He told me that there are various recording projects under discussion including, he hopes, a disc recorded in Riga that will include Spring Rounds. Inevitably, though, funding is always the issue. The relationship with this Latvian choir is clearly important to him: “I felt very honoured to be asked to write a piece for the 25th anniversary of Kamēr… - I was the only non-Latvian person to contribute to their celebrations. They are one of the great choirs of the world, in my opinion, and I love them.”
I wasn’t surprised to learn that Gabriel is bursting with ideas for future pieces. He says he is “developing some interesting projects including two large pieces for choir and orchestra, and an hour-long a cappella piece. Later this year I am writing a substantial work for alto saxophone, strings and percussion.” Even more tantalizing are some of the ideas that he hopes to bring to reality before too long. “There are loads of things I would like to do – I would love to get off the ground the chamber opera I have been talking about with Latvian poet/librettist Kārlis Vērdiņš; I would like to do a big Vespers setting for voices and ensemble, a kind of re-imagining of the great Venetian Vespers rituals (Venice is my favourite place in the world, along with New York City); I would like to do more chamber music…lots of things, really.”
My chance to meet with Gabriel and talk about his music came about in July when he visited Gloucester. We were able to sit in the cloister garth outside the cathedral and chat in bright sunshine. He came to attend a Sunday service of Choral Evensong in Gloucester Cathedral at which the choir of St Luke’s Episcopal Church, Evanston, Illinois gave the world premiere of his new anthem, All shall be Amen. It’s great that a visiting American choir should present a Jackson premiere in Gloucester. Naturally, I wondered how Gabriel had come to write a piece for this particular choir.
“A few years ago I wrote a piece – in the half-light of dusk – for the Chicago professional group Bella Voce. Their director, Andrew Lewis, is also Director of Music at St Luke’s Church in Evanston. Two lovely people who I met on that occasion, one of whom sings in the choir at St Luke’s, brought about the commission of the new piece. I am so excited they are premiering it during their visit to the UK to sing services at Gloucester and Lichfield cathedrals.”
With that we went into the cathedral for Evensong. The St Luke’s choir, in which male and female voices are pleasingly mixed, had been singing the services in the cathedral all weekend and chose a discerning programme for their final service, including Gabriel’s setting of the Preces and Responses and, in a graceful compliment to their hosts, the Canticles were heard in Herbert Howells’ magnificent Gloucester Service. The new anthem, All shall be Amen is a piece for unaccompanied choir, lasting about five minutes. The words are a prayer of St Augustine of Hippo.
The music begins quietly with simple block harmony for the choir before opening out into more complex part-writing, achieving a radiant polyphonic climax. Then, with an extended reprise of the opening music, the anthem comes to a hushed and prayerful end. The piece requires considerable control from the choir, especially in the slow opening and close and I thought the St Luke’s choir made a fine job of it. They may be the first choir to sing it but I’m sure they won’t be the last. This beautiful piece, which the St Luke’s Director of Music, Andrew Lewis, rightly described on Twitter as “heartfelt”, is surely music that will find its way into the repertoire of many choirs.
Remarkably, this was the fourth world premiere of a Gabriel Jackson choral piece in July. I asked Gabriel about the other premieres. The first was Yes, I am your Angel which was commissioned by the Philadelphia-based choir, The Crossing. Gabriel’s involvement with Donald Nally’s choir goes back a few years and he clearly admires them greatly. He says he was honoured to be one of fifteen contemporary composers invited to contribute pieces to a unique collection, The Jeff Quartets. These are works, all deliberately ‘restricted’ to four-part writing and designed to be sung as a full-evening programme. The Jeff Quartets project was devised in memory of Jeff Dinsmore, co-founder with Donald Nally of The Crossing and a tenor in the group, who died very suddenly in 2014 at the age of just 42. The collection was premiered in Philadelphia on 8 July.
The very next day, 9 July, Joy Hill and the Royal College of Music Junior Department Chamber Choir premiered Three Shakespeare Songs for unaccompanied SATB choir. Gabriel told me that in selecting the Shakespearian texts he sought lines about music. The words are from Cymbeline (‘Hark, hark, the lark’), The Merchant of Venice (‘The man who hath no music in him’) and Sonnet 98. This is a joint commission with the Oslo Cathedral Youth Choir. Both these songs and the piece for The Crossing specified four-part writing. As Gabriel admitted, for a composer who loves choral textures a ‘restriction’ to just four parts is something of a challenge but one which he came to relish.
The third premiere was something very different: Flying Solo, a work commissioned by Newham Music, an organization which, Gabriel says, does great work in providing music services to London’s highly diverse Borough of Newham. Each year the schools that work with Newham Music put forward their best singers to be part of Extraordinary Voices and it’s for this group that Flying Solo was written. The young singers were closely involved in the provision of the text that Gabriel compiled. The three-section work is about the three stages of an airplane journey: preparing to set off; the flight; arriving back. Gabriel said that the young Newham singers were a very lively bunch and he clearly loved the experience of working with them.
Gabriel Jackson can reach out to and connect with a very wide range of people. He’s adept at writing music to meet the differing needs and abilities of expert professional groups (The Crossing), a good parish church choir (St Luke’s), a choir of children from a London borough, cathedral choirs or singers from an elite institution such as the Royal College of Music. No wonder his music is in such demand and so widely appreciated by those who sing it and those who hear it.