Catching up with Gabriel Jackson

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In honour of our current Gabriel’s Angels crowd funding campaign, raising money towards a new commission by Gabriel Jackson, we caught up with the composer to discuss cathedrals, his new piece and all things R&B! We’ve raised £1,621.50 towards the commission so far but we’ve still got a way to go. If you like what you read, why not donate a fiver via our JustGiving page and support the creation of new music!

You were originally a chorister – what lead you to pursue a career in composition? Was there anything specific?

For a long time I wanted to be an architect – I probably didn’t realise that it was going to be far too much work. I think you have to train for years to be an architect so I lost interest in that. Then I wanted to be an organist but I’d been composing since I was very small so, in the end, that seemed to be something I thought I could do.

Did you have any specific breakthrough moments within the music industry?

No, not really. It took a very long time to become busy. Eventually, through perseverance I suppose, more and more things started happening and I became busy but there was no one piece that really got everyone talking about me.

Are there any composers that you are influenced by?

One of my biggest interests is Tudor music, particularly early Tudor music; the florid music of the early Sixteenth Century, the choir book composers, early Taverner and some of the early Tallis pieces. This repertoire is something that I’m very interested in and some of my pieces quite specifically relate to this repertoire – they are attempts to re-imagine the sound world in those pieces. That’s a hugely important area for me and goes back to whole cathedral thing where I sang as a child.

Stravinsky is quite an important composer for me in terms of two things; the use of block structures and the fact that the music is non-developmental (in a Nineteenth Century sense) and also the deliberate allusion to other music, which you see throughout Stravinsky’s work, like Pulcinella, that was specifically using Eighteenth Century material. The idea that it deliberately alludes to something else, I think is very interesting and something that I try to do in different ways in all sorts of pieces.

What is it that attracts you to choral music? Is it about working with the voice?

Well, it also seems to be attracted to me. Part of the reason I do so much work with choirs is because these are the commissions I tend to receive. I think it is a fantastic medium and my favourite sound is unaccompanied voices in a resonant acoustic.

The other thing that I think is really important, and I always say this to young composers, is if you can write music that people want to sing and listen to, you will have your work performed. In reality, choirs are much more new-music orientated than many other types of ensembles. Professional and amateur choirs perform lots and lots of new music, they commission works left, right and centre and they’re very committed to new music. With the choral community, there’s a real enthusiasm for new compositions.

On that note, you’ve written a new piece of music that City of London Sinfonia are going to perform on our Faure Requiem Tour called Countless and Wonderful are the Ways to Praise God. We have launched our crowd funding campaign Gabriel’s Angels to raise money towards it. Could you tell us a bit about the piece and where you took inspiration from? Where does the text come from?

The text is by an Estonian poet called Doris Kareva, who I’ve set before, and she’s one of Estonia’s most important literary figures from the post-war era. She’s an amazing woman, I think she’s an amazing poet and this poem is an English translation by an American/Estonian translator. I have a big folder on my computer with all sorts of texts that I’ve found over the years that I thought could be interesting for something further down the line. When I was thinking about the ideas behind this piece, and Stephen Layton’s interest in Baltic culture that I also share, I thought that this poem could be the right thing for this project, and he agreed. I was really pleased to have opportunity to find the right vehicle for the poem. It’s a very optimistic poem and it’s about the world and creation. The last line is “every day is a holy day” which seems to be not just a specifically Christian idea but also a rather nice idea about how one might approach one’s life.

The writing for strings is quite exuberant, it’s quite intricate but in a static way – it’s probably a bit Tippett-ish. It’s quite florid and ornate but not necessarily going anywhere. Particularly in the earlier parts of piece where the first line is set for the trebles only, for about a minute, and the strings are weaving this little filigree stuff around these ecstatic words.

We’re very excited about hearing it.  We’ll be premiering your new piece at Durham Cathedral and then we’ll be performing it and ten cathedrals around the UK. What are the best things about hearing your music performed in a cathedral as opposed to a concert hall?

For voices, the resonant acoustics of a church really do work better. These are amazing buildings and I think being in an extraordinary building is a special part of any project. I think the programme will sound better in a cathedral acoustic as a lot of the repertoire is designed for the space. The Poulenc organ concerto needs a decent space for the organ to resonate in, particularly given the nature of the organ writing in the Poulenc. It think it’s great and I’m really looking forward to going to Durham because I’ve never been to Durham Cathedral and everybody tells me it’s amazing.

I think a really interesting and inspiring space is a bit better than a concert hall.

We noticed that you’ve expressed an interest in R&B on your Twitter account. What kind of music do you like to listen to? Are you quite eclectic?

The only music on my iPod is Soul and R&B from the 70s through to today, partly because I don’t enjoy listening to Classical music on the bus, whereas any kind of Pop music is great in that kind of environment. I am a big R&B fan but I don’t have time to listen to these records at home so that’s how I listen to them – when I’m out and about.

Do you have any favourite R&B artists?

Well, the greatest vocal group has to be the Temptations, although I’m more interested in the 70s Temptations. All those great groups; The Temptations, The O’Jays, Gladys Knight and the Pips but also some of those self contained bands, such as Earth, Wind and Fire. I’m also really interested in a lot of the Neo-Soul artists of today, in fact, what was I listening to on my over here? Patti Austin! Think it was a record from the late 80s called Love is Gonna Getcha. She’s such a great singer.

I really like singers and that’s the reason why I’m interested in R&B music – I like singers. And I really like the voices.  I find the voices interesting, I find the echoes of the Gospel tradition eventually go back to liturgical music. The idea of the call and response relationship between a soloist and a choral group, be it Aretha Franklin and Sweet Inspirations or Gladys Knight and the Pips, and also the way that the chords are voiced, I think is something that I translate into what I do. I like the vibrant sound that you get from voicing chords in very close position. So it’s not just a pleasure – there are other things that I listen to on a more serious level.

One last question, Do you have any interesting hobbies outside of music?

No really. Just the usual things – eating, drinking, movies. I like hanging out.  I like sport, although I don’t play it, and I have to admit I haven’t been to a football match for about a year, although I used to go every week.

And I like going Eastern Europe, which is something else that Stephen Layton and I have in common!

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