Looking to the light12:05, 2nd March 2018
Gabriel Jackson talks to Matthew Power about balancing lament and ecstasy in his new Stabat Mater
I had arranged to meet Gabriel Jackson in central London on a blustery day at the end of December. He is easily spotted. A lean figure, cigarette in hand, long white beard buffeted by the wind, ambles towards me looking like a hipster Santa Claus who has just missed Christmas. We easily fall into conversation about cathedral music and his early years. Jackson was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral when Allan Wicks was Master of the Music during the seventies. ‘He was amazing. Quite unconventional, and the repertoire was different from other cathedrals, more like what you would expect [to hear] now.’
Did that training help later on? ‘Definitely. When I was auditioning, I had an interview at King’s College, London. Nicola LeFanu [then teaching composition there] said that it was noticeable how applicants who had been choristers – in those days just boys, of course – were streets ahead in terms of their aural and musicianship skills.’
Choosing the conservatoire route, Jackson studied composition at the Royal College of Music with John Lambert (following earlier lessons with Richard Blackford). He initially took organ as a second study but, after not enjoying his lessons, switched to piano. Surely that has been helpful in developing a reliable facility at the keyboard? ‘I think it is. I may not play the organ or piano any more, but I can read a score. An organist said to me recently, “Oh, but could you sit down at the piano and play through a score of the Frank Martin Mass?” Well, yes, of course I could! You don’t have to be an organist to have developed decent keyboard skills.’
That Jackson is primarily known as a composer of choral music is accidental. His repertoire list from the past 30 years reveals 80 a cappella settings, plus 31 for choir with organ or other instruments. Then there are songs, chamber music and orchestral works. ‘I have always accepted commissions as they come along. I do listen to what singers say about what they like [to sing], what is a problem for them, and why. You can’t know everything and you can always learn.’ He admits that now he wants to write fewer five-minute choral pieces: ‘I am trying to develop larger projects for choirs and orchestra that are a bit different.’
Though a high-profile composer, Jackson is still unusual in that he doesn’t pursue any other career strand, so he has to write a lot of music to earn a living. Does it come easily? ‘I’m not sure that composition is easy – I think it gets harder as you get older. The more experience you have, the more things there are [that] you want to avoid doing.’
Jackson’s new setting of the Stabat Mater lasts 18 minutes and is scored for four sopranos and double ATB; the ten-part setting is commissioned by the Marian Consort to celebrate their 10th anniversary. I ask their director Rory McCleary what attracted them to the music of Gabriel Jackson? ‘I have known Gabriel since I was a boy chorister at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. He has a wonderful affinity with renaissance vocal music (particularly in works like his Justorum animae) and with the voice, which makes his music gratifying for singers as well as for audiences – not always the case [with] new music.’
The Marian Consort is flexible in size, ranging from four to 16 voices. Jackson’s Stabat Mater includes a solo soprano line which can be sung by children’s voices, so local choirs can join in performances on the tour. ‘The programme includes Palestrina’s Stabat Mater, as well as a pair of settings of Psalm 51, the Miserere, by both Gregorio Allegri and James MacMillan,’ McCleary continues. ‘There is common ground between early and contemporary music in terms of the skillset. Superficially, the relationships between the notes may be harder in contemporary music (this is of course a generalisation: you only have to think of the extraordinary Mirabile mysterium by Jakob Handl, or indeed any number of pieces by Gesualdo or Luzzaschi). Once these are learnt, the focus is on the same things: balance, tuning, text, blend, ensemble. The two [periods] sit comfortably together, especially when modern composers are sensitive to the idioms of early vocal writing.’
Returning to my conversation with Gabriel Jackson, does he regard himself as a sacred composer? ‘No. I do like contributing to the liturgical canon though. I’m lucky that some [of my] pieces are part of the repertoire and are performed a lot.’ He doesn’t forge a close relationship with the text, whether sacred or secular, and avoids obvious wordpainting. ‘Sacred texts, and particularly liturgical ones, that have been set over and over don’t have the same function as, say, verse.’ Could we say that they transcend meaning by their familiarity to allow for a freer musical interpretation? ‘Yes, exactly.The text is a stimulus to generate music; it isn’t something that has to be explained. It’s rather presumptuous [for a composer] to say “I’m going to tell you what this means”. Sacred music is simply there to adorn the text.’ And the forbidding text of the Stabat Mater? ‘You can’t be unrelentingly grim for 18 minutes, yet there are 20 verses to set and if you take less time you can’t develop the music. There are also ecstatic elements; I hope there is a lamenting quality, but without it being unrelenting.’
Composers often find it difficult to define their style and influences. Jackson recalls a pre-concert talk at the Lichfield Festival: ‘We were asked to name our favourite composers. People were saying “Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert”… I said Tallis and Stravinsky, and the audience laughed! Why’s that funny? If I had to define my style I would probably say Tallis meets Stravinsky. I’m not trying to pastiche Tudor music but rather to reimagine it, to remake that soundworld, whether it’s a simple piece like If ye love me, or a votive antiphon from the Eton Choir Book – one of my obsessions. And as soon as the word “light” comes into a text, I love trying to create a dazzling brightness or a softer luminosity.’
Like many musicians of his generation, Jackson found a revelation in the restrained minimalism of John Tavener and Arvo Pärt in the mid-eighties. ‘I first wrote conventionally post-warmodernist- type music that wasn’t really me and I wasn’t very good at it … John Tavener was important for me as an example of how you can make a lot out of not very much. His move towards a simple diatonic style produced startling results. I like the rigour of Pärt’s music, but in his more recent pieces the process is less transparent and I can’t see what is going on. And there’s a piousness, a religiosity to Pärt’s music.’ A seriousness? ‘Yes.’ That could be said of Tavener, though? ‘Yes, but Tavener’s [music is] so batty, in a good way, that it mitigates any religiosity. There was always that flamboyant side to Tavener which comes out in God is with us, for instance; that theatrical, camp and slightly ridiculous organ chord that comes in towards the end.
‘I do think Górecki’s music is by far the most compelling, though. There is a catholic piety but it is simple, and all his music is very interesting. I like composers from eastern Europe, the Baltic. Galina Grigorjeva [born in Ukraine and now living in Estonia] in particular, and the music of Peteris Vasks.’
So does that help us to construe Jackson’s own language? ‘I don’t like music that seems messy to me; I like things to be clear.’ Does he place limits on his writing to make sure his soundworld still sounds like Gabriel Jackson? ‘Yes; not for that reason, but because it’s how I instinctively work. I like there to be symmetries – it doesn’t matter if the audience can hear them or not. I use quasi-isorhythmic passages to control what I write, to create a micro-structure.’ And what is the point? ‘Composition to me is putting musical objects next to each other in a way that will create something interesting or beautiful … To me, music is making something, it’s not about expressing yourself. Like a table. In another life, it could be a table!’ Back at the time of writing his 40-part motet Sanctum est verum lumen (2005), Jackson was asked to define his language in four words. He came to the conclusion that it was: ‘Bright, clear, simple, ecstatic.’ Does that still ring true? ‘Yes. I haven’t changed my mind.’
Rory McCleery conducts the Marian Consort in the premiere of Gabriel Jackson’s Stabat Mater at 7.30pm on 23 March in Merton College Chapel, Oxford, as part of Passiontide at Merton; bit.ly/2CSuRrw.
Matthew Power read Music at the University of London and Trinity College of Music. He was editor of Choir & Organ for nine years and works in London as a musician and writer.