In three years as the BBC Singers’ Associate Composer, from 2010 to 2013, Gabriel Jackson wrote for them eight works (including a bilingual work for two choirs, written for a joint concert with the Latvian Radio Choir). This disc collects the four secular ones with English texts – Ruchill Linn, Winter Heavens, Airplane Cantata (also featuring pianolist Rex Lawson) and the Choral Symphony – and prefaces them with an earlier BBC commission written in 2007, The Voice of the Bard. Roughly coinciding with a decade in which Jackson has impressively consolidated his reputation as a choral composer (he has been shortlisted seven times in the Liturgical and Choral categories at the British Composer Awards since 2003, winning three times, and this is the fifth disc devoted to his choral music released in the same period), these five pieces exemplify his approach to the medium, as well as setting the seal on a relationship which began with Jackson’s first BBC Singers commission, Cecilia Virgo, in 2000.
At the same time, they contain stylistic and technical features, and express themes and ideas, that he began to develop as early as the mid-1980s, a period when his work was primarily centred not on choirs but on small chamber ensembles, and often related to visual art (sometimes physically as well as conceptually, being presented in galleries and installation spaces as often as in concert halls or churches). It was an aesthetic of radical simplicity which won him the friendship and support of composers as seemingly different as Steve Martland and John Tavener; and its essential elements first found expression in a short piano piece, Angelorum (1987), of which Jackson declared at the time in a brief programme note – almost more like a mission statement – that it
has a key signature of E flat major. Apart from a momentary modulation at the climax there are no accidentals. There is no counterpoint or polyphony, only block chords, simple diatonic melodies and pedal notes in the left hand.
With only slight modification, much of this could equally be said of the music on the present disc. Already characteristic, too, is the suggestion (contained within the title of the piano piece) of a spiritual or metaphysical dimension even to pieces which are ostensibly secular. And perhaps the roots of the aesthetic go even further back, to Jackson’s time as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, where he developed a deep love of the English Tudor composers. Like theirs, he has said, his music is ‘not about conflict and resolution; even when animated, it is essentially contemplative’. It moves, but it stands still.