Jenny Jackson

Jenny successfully completed a PhD in composition at the University of Sheffield in 2009 following an exploration into the relationship between notational possibilities and resulting performance outcomes.

This, as well as an enthusiasm for the visual and dramatic arts and literature, has prompted an ongoing investigation into the theatricality of musical performance.
She often chooses to exploit the visual aspect of musical performance in her concert pieces so that there is a tension in the work between what the eye perceives and what the ear hears, sometimes using specific stage placements of the musicians to create perspective in both sound and image.

The balance between audio and visual elements of performance has been developed further to create two fully staged pieces of music theatre and other collaborative multidisciplinary projects with visual artists, sculptors, writers and choreographers.

Jenny directs the Sheffield Viola Ensemble.

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List of works

Instrumental & Vocal

Focus Pull

(2017) for string quartet 

Composed as a companion piece for Haydn’s string quartet Op. 33 No 1 in B minor (one of the six ‘Russian’ quartets). The relationship between the two pieces relies heavily on three bars taken from the first violin melody in the 3rd movement, which is used as a kind of tone row for the entire piece. Apart from sharing the same DNA, however, the piece is rather like the exuberant distant relative and, although the quartet strives hard to pull focus and reveal its identity, an erratic display makes the family resemblance hard to perceive.

Premiere: Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield (Ensemble 360) 8th May 2017.
Commissioned by Music in the Round for performance as part of the May Festival (Russia in the Round 2017)

You can read two blogs about the process of composing this piece:

Composing 'Focus Pull' - Blog 1
Composing 'Focus Pull' - Blog 2

Listen to a Podcast of Jenny in conversation with Ensemble 360’s clarinetist Matt Hunt discussing the Music in the Round commission, and her working practice.

Torque

(2010) for string quartet

Torque n. Necklace of twisted metal; the twisting or rotary force in a piece of mechanism. In this piece the conventional grouping of the string of quartet is driven through a number of different moods in a single movement. Performance directions include ‘glassy’, ‘as if remembering’, ‘irritable’, ‘aggressively’ and other indications of an underlying tension.

The homogeneous nature of the strings is both acknowledged and challenged as the piece moves between light and dark shades while retaining a sense of unease and instability.

Self Portrait

(2009) fl, ob, cl, perc, pno, hp, mand, gui, vln, vla, vc, db.

I. II. III. IV.

Inspired by a long-term interest in portraiture in the visual arts and, more recently, the work of David Hockney – in particular his self portraits – this collection of four short pieces reflects the paradoxes of expressing the ‘self’ in any art form. The self that is expressed is a product not only of the intentions of the artist, but also of contingent elements such as time, place and context. The music, then, explores the tension between the composer’s vision of self and its realisation.

Premiere: Musiekgebouw aan’t IJ , Amsterdam 19.11.09 (Nieuw Ensemble): broadcast live on Dutch National Radio
Second performance: Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 23.11.09 (Nieuw Ensemble)

Kraal

(2017) for massed voices

Kraal was commissioned by Classical Sheffield for the Classical Weekend 2017. It was first performed by members from five choirs:

Sheffield Chorale
Sterndale Singers
Sheffield Chamber Choir
Viva Voce
Abbeydale Singers

on Sunday 19th March 2017 at the Cathedral Church of St Marie, Sheffield.

‘Kraal’ is an Afrikaans and Dutch word for an enclosure for cattle or other livestock, located within an African settlement or village surrounded by a fence of thorn-bush branches, a palisade, mud wall, or other fencing, roughly circular in form.

In this piece, the audience experiences the feeling of being enclosed both physically (by the performers), and aurally (by experiencing the slowly evolving and changing sung harmonies as pitches travel around the circle).

[S]pan

(2015) for flexible ensemble

In this piece, performers are placed apart so that the listener experiences a live panning effect as the sound spans the entire performing space.

Premiere: Winter Gardens, Sheffield October 2015 (Platform 4)

Teeter

(2016) for low strings

Teeter was originally conceived as a solo cello piece but has been revised, developed and augmented in order to expand the possibilities in creating greater density and textural complexity. Written for low strings (requiring three or more players in any combination of viola, cello and double bass), the ensemble is treated as one slightly cumbersome, lumbering instrument, rather than a collation of complimentary lines or parts.

The piece is loosely based on a short poem by Lisa Verdon; ‘Do You Feel Me’, and follows the poem’s structure marked by the words Teetering, Groping, Clinging and Drowning.

Premiere: Firth Hall, Sheffield March 2016 (Platform 4)

[S]urge

for horns (2) & flexible string ensemble

This piece exploits the relationship between physical and musical space as experienced by the audience.

It grew out of experimentation with the notion of perspective in both audio and visual terms, so that there is a tension in the work between what the eye perceives as foreground, for instance, and what the ear hears.

The conflation of the visual (including what is hidden) and the aural is explored in this work, suggestive of the theatricality of musical performance.

Hooting, not Drinking

(revised 2017) for solo flute (doubling Alto) with blown bottles & flutes ensemble

This piece was originally written in 2016 as a response to John White’s bottle-blowing piece Drinking & Hooting Machine (1968) which concerns itself with the gradual evolution of a continuum of sound from high to low. I wanted to write a piece that uses blown bottles in a more ‘musical’ way, by controlling combinations of high to low sounding bottles to provide a distant, harmonic backdrop for the flute solo. In this revised version, I have expanded the breathy bottle ensemble to include flutes, enabling a more colourful exploration of the sound world, and a heightened spatial experience.

Premiere: Sheffield Cathedral Lunchtime Recital 03.02.17 (Platform 4 & Sheffield Flute Choir) Rachel Shirley – flute solo

Lament

for solo cello with off-stage viola, double bass & voices

This was the first piece of work I completed following the large and unwieldy Moot for orchestra & piano, six hands. Working on a smaller scale was refreshing, allowing me to work organically with a focus on pure sound in context and space, with the cello at its heart. Lament is a short piece which expresses emotions embodied in these lines from ‘The Wife’s Lament’, an Old English/Anglo-Saxon poem from the Exeter Book (in the modern translation by Michael R. Burch):

“I draw these dark words from deep wells of wild grief, dredged from my heart, regretful & sad”.

Desire Lines

for piano, six hands

Desire Lines I
Desire Lines II
Desire Lines III
Desire Lines IV

These four contrasting miniatures are an exploration into the drama and textures of having six hands playing at one piano. The close proximity of the three players gives rise to a theatricality of performance, the concept of which informed the compositional process.

The number of hands allows for a density, complexity of texture and greater coverage of the keyboard than when played by a single pianist, while the limitations of physical space and access mean that the players have sometimes to negotiate and sometimes fight for their pathways through the pieces.

These routes though the terrain of the pieces are like ‘desire lines’ – paths chosen to achieve a particular goal; and in the same way the composer must force a creative pathway through the composition and the practicalities of the performance.

Sanctum – a private place from which most people are excluded.
A refuge,retreat, hideout.

Surface Tension

for bass solo and mixed voices.

This is a setting of one of three poems by Keith Green which explore the idea of histories beneath the surface of things: the buried life of the present.

Famine Pits by Keith Green

Along the famine pits
Small bodies in the whirring still.
They carve their sticks like bone,
And peel away the skin of bark.

The heat lingers until
Its clinging fingers slip into darkness.
Clothes, bone and flesh are grass
In the children’s stained hands.

They dance and play where
Those were once cast down.
Now with branches for their arms
And tendrils for their hair.

Hot Flush

for string quartet

Rather than adhering to the traditional roles of the instruments in the standard repertoire the quartet is treated as one, monochromatic, instrument.

Inspired by the scores of Lutoslawski and Penderecki, blocks of texture internally evolve before changing register or dynamic abruptly. As the intensity of the opening loses strength, these blocks of textures are cut with much thinner, linear material – almost like connecting threads.

There is a warmer passage towards the end of the piece in which the viola has a more melodic line, high in register and like a cry for help, which travels across swelling chords before the opening material dramatically resurfaces, but only for a short outburst.

Fluxus Boxes

for flexible wind orchestra

I composed Fluxus Boxes in 2007 when I was exploring the inherent theatricality of musical performance, and non-linear forms of notation. The initial idea for writing the piece came from a visit to an exhibition of art work by members of the Fluxus art movement, most active during the 1960s. George Maciunas described his work as “…a fusion of Spike Jones, vaudeville, gag, children’s games and Duchamp.” I liked the sense of fun and the idea that even the smallest event could be turned into a performance.

In keeping with the ethos of Fluxus, the wind orchestra players in my piece follow descriptions of performance events which are sometimes bizarre and non-musical. Many result in a musical outcome, however. It is a tongue-in-cheek piece in which the ‘wind’ players may not get to ‘blow’ a note, and it also pokes fun at the stereotype of wind players who may only get a few bars to play in a piece.

One of four short pieces, each written as a response to a watercolour painting by Lisa O’Brien as a part of a collaborative project with Platform 4 and Lisa for www.remoteperformances.co.uk Broadcast on resonancefm.com on 6.8.14.

Vent – Jenny Jackson
Hut Ritual – Tom Owen
Changeable, Out – Chris Noble
Remote Location I – Tom James

Lisa O’Brien Biography
Lisa O’Brien is based on the North West coast of Scotland. Her practice over the years has encompassed, performance, composition, video, sound, and installation. Her practice has been influenced by living in one of the remotest parts of North West Scotland for the last 10 years and is often linked to the environment and weather conditions. Her work explores the idea of temporality, and she strives to capture the essence of fleeting moments so that they can be re-examined, to some extent re-lived and this also links with how we experience memories. She is interested in how the link between time, place and sound contribute to a specific moment in time. For remote performances Lisa will make field recordings of perceived silence in the rural setting and she will continue her exploration of developing a graphic notation to record nothingness, or what we think of as silence.

Music Theatre, Dance & Installation

Madam Adam

(2017) Sop., Ten., Bass & Pno.

A mini opera based on palindromic word-play (commissioned by Opera on Location for Classical Sheffield festival 2017)

Premiere: Upper Chapel, Sheffield (Opera on Location)

The libretto is a concoction of single-word palindromes and palindromic sentences which have been forged to create a single scene. The scene is set in Dr Awkward’s consulting room – a tired old shrink. He and his secretary – Madam – prove themselves to be less than professional in the care of a slightly mad young man calling himself Adam – “’Tis Ivan on a visit; drab as a fool, as aloof as a bard!”.
Cast:
Madam – Jenny Carson
Adam – Alex Grainger
Dr Awkward – Thomas Hopkinson
Patient – Aiden Edwards
Piano – Tom Owen

Folies

(2016) solo dancer, sop, fl, cl, B. Cl, hn (2), sop. rec, vln, vc

Choreography – Hannah Wadsworth
Performed by Hannah Wadsworth, Andrea Tweedale (sop) & Platform 4, University Drama Studio, Sheffield

The selected text is taken from a poem by the Italian Futurist poet Aldo Palazzeschi; E Lasciatemi Divertire! (Let Me Amuse You!) which explores the nature of what it is to be a ‘creator’, and the conflict between artistic freedom on the one hand, and the oppression of (perceived) criticism and judgement on the other. The original poem contains many nonsensical words which implies the collapse of sense but the words begin to suggest their own meaning as we try to interpret the inflections and phonetic sounds (“it’s like when someone gets to singing without really knowing the words”). The piece demonstrates how fine the line is between artistic freedom and madness: one is fun, and acceptable to society, and the other is worrying, perplexing and traumatic for others to observe.

Premiere: Saturday 24th September 2016 University Drama Studio, Sheffield as part of ‘Embodiments’ presented by Platform 4.

Tableau vivant: ‘a living picture’ or ‘a motionless performance in theatre’.
A light-hearted sequence of five ‘sounding’ tableaux.

Parabola

( 2012) for 2 horns

performed at the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield as part of the Platform 4 ‘Underscore’ collaboration with sculptor Gillian Brent)

In this piece the musicians move around the performance space threading sound through the gallery and, at times, becoming part of the sculptural form themselves. The position of the performers, and the resulting audio effects, impacts on how the sculpture is perceived and suggests possible connections between the two elements.

By removing the visual aspect of musical performance (by placing the musicians out of sight) the focus naturally becomes the sculpture and so the music becomes an underscore to it. As the musicians enter the gallery space, however, they become part of the foreground and the sculpture is a static, silent underscore to both music and performers.

The performance is loosely structured into three contrasting sections (which can also be performed in reverse order) in which characterised musical material is manipulated and exchanged by the two horns. There is a sense of friction as the lines attempt to stretch away from a central point.

Five Dances

(2012) cl., hn., pno. & three dancers

– a collaboration with choreographer Sue Lewis and Ffin Dance – a professional dance company based in Abertillery, Wales.

The five short pieces are intentionally contrasting in character, texture and tempo and the choreography imitates this and, at times, relates directly to the relationships between the instrumental parts.

Five Dances was included in the Connections Tour 2012 by Ffin Dance with the music performed live by Platform 4.

Works for amateur & student performers

Cloudscape

(2017) for flute choir

Commissioned by Sheffield Flute Choir for the Classical Sheffield Weekend 2017. I am fascinated by the sound of the flute choir which can be equally sweet and brash, and is reminiscent of the flute sound on a fairground organ. In composing the piece, I chose to celebrate the sameness rather than trying to find differences between the instruments, and to treat the choir as one big instrument.

To achieve the effect of masking and clearing clouds, the flute choir is divided into three groups with four different parts in each. Each group has its own unique set of pitches which are often combined to create blocks of sustained chords that fade in and out. I wanted to capture the feeling of a drifting and evolving cloudscape.

Leading Lines

(2016) for viola ensemble

Premiere: Workshop performance 17.4.16 Huddersfield (BVS)
Commissioned by the British Viola Society

Moot

(2014) for orchestra & piano, six hands

Commissioned by the Endcliffe Orchestra, Sheffield, and was first performed by them on 28th June 2014 at the Victoria Hall, Sheffield.

The pianists were Tom Owen, Chris Noble and Tom James

Conducted by Martin Lightowler

Tom James

Tom Owen

Jenny Jackson

Chris Noble