Christopher Jackson - 35 years of Musical Rhetoricby Wah Keung Chan and Nisa Malli
/ October 13, 2008
co-founder of the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, believes
a lot of Baroque music is rather boring. “How much Vivaldi and Telemann
can one person take? My personal preference is 17th-century transitional
music. At the end of the 16th century, you find much inventiveness and
creativity.” Jackson prefers Monteverdi, Handel and especially Bach.
“You could dedicate your whole life to Bach,” he says. And he has.
Jackson formed the Studio 35 years ago, at a time when baroque or early
music performance was rare in North America and generally discouraged.
Today the Studio is Canada’s premier vocal ensemble and still a pioneer
in the realm of early music. Jackson, who originally conducted the choir,
took over artistic direction when the group focused on vocal music.
Beginnings of the
meeting with Réjean Poirier and Hélène Dugal in Paris in 1973,
at Christmas, was the founding inspiration for the group. Despite the
dearth of early music in North America, a ready public of 400 attended
the first concert. The group was originally conceived as a super umbrella
organization for early music, which would generate revenues for instrumental
and vocal ensembles. To Jackson’s chagrin, that dream never materialized,
and many ensembles have formed independently.
Born a minister’s
son in a family of musicians, music was always part of Jackson’s youth.
At 12, Jackson was a church organist. After studying with nuns in Moncton,
he moved to the Ecole Vincent-D’Indy and the Montreal Conservatory,
studying organ with Bernard Lagacé and analysis with Gilles Tremblay,
before working for Casavant in organ building. Jackson cites Lagacé’s
influence as a major factor in his later success. “It was more than
just organ lessons, it was art and life all mixed in. It was a real
experience, studying with him,” he says.
talks about Bach, his passion is palpable. “Bach was a milestone,”
he says. “After Bach, we left all the apparatus of rhetoric. Music
lost all other functions and became entertainment.” He refers to the
music of that time as Lego music, a formulaic creation. But for Jackson,
Bach is never formulaic – repetitive, maybe, and opaque. “Bach does
not deliver its secrets automatically,” he says. For Jackson, the
interest lies in the dimensions under the surface of the page, the musical
rhetoric and the unique characteristics of each key. D Major was a regal
key, associated with trumpets. E minor was a cousin of the Phrygian
mode. Jackson explains: “It was a horrible, heart-wrenching
mode. If you went there, you did it for a reason.”
returns to the notion of rhetoric, the art of persuasion, developed
in Ancient Greece and Rome. “The normal way of analyzing a fugue is
to say ‘this is the subject, this is the counter subject.’ It is
useful, but it’s like saying ‘this is a brick, this is a floor,
this is a roof’, without explaining how the components of the house
interact with each other. What is the functionality of that house?”
Instead, Jackson prefers to convince through dialogue and discussion:
“Rhetorical analysis is absolutely fundamental, especially in music
of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.” The relationship between
the different parts of a piece is rhetorical. The opening brings us
in and gradually the ideas are introduced and begin to argue with each
other. The piece culminates in a battle between the theme and the counter
subject, each trying to drive home its message to the audience triumphantly.
In the end, the theme always wins. In 16th century polyphony, the singers
have a musical discussion. Each musical idea is a contradiction, an
affirmation or a new idea. “The music is always functional,” Jackson
says. “There is not one throwaway note.” He is adamant that universities
should be teaching the principles of traditional classical rhetoric.
in a time when most composers earned a living writing for the church,
and Jackson is awed by the enormous wealth of music Bach generated during
his lifetime. Opera, the popular music of the time, was the model for
most composers’ passions and cantatas, and Bach used
this model for his masses and cantatas. For Jackson, it’s important
to understand the function of both recitative and the aria.
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio begins and ends with a passion chorale,
foreshadowing the death of Jesus. The audience at the time would have
understood the connotations of the sacred text associated with the tune.
“With Bach, especially the recitatives, what is most interesting is
under the surface,” says Jackson. “If you don’t see it, or feel
it,” or if the music is not performed with sincere authenticity, “then
it can be boring.”
man, Bach was Orthodox Lutheran in an era of Pietism and his music reflects
the artistic expression of Orthodoxy. “I am fascinated by the depth
with which Bach renders all the liturgical, biblical texts in music,”
says Jackson. “There is so much to Bach tied up in Lutheran theology.
Every time you turn a rock over there are a hundred different things
also interested in historically contextualizing early music and analyzing
how a piece was received and what inspired the composer. He works closely
with musicologists and music historians, transposing scores and working
backwards to analyze their context. “I am always looking
for a degree of authenticity,” he says. “You have to understand
what they believed in at the time, to bring you closer to knowing what
was going on in that music. There has to be a natural sympathy for that
kind of expression and for what is being expressed.”
A Choral Evolution
interesting to see how Christopher has evolved over the years,” says
Marie-Claude Arpin, a 25-year veteran of the Studio, and the ensemble’s
Production Coordinator. For works that the Studio has performed several
times, Arpin finds the interpretation has deepened. Working with 12
singers in eight- or 12-part writing, Jackson doesn’t consider himself
a choral conductor in the purist sense. For Arpin, who also sings in
the Opéra de Montréal and the Montreal Symphony choruses, this kind
of singing is a different kind of challenge. She finds it rewarding
because “you have to blend and be a soloist at the same time.” The
Studio’s sound has been carefully cultivated by Jackson over the years.
“We tune, as we rehearse,” he says. It is surprising to hear him
say that he is not a fan of a “baroque” white voice. “I like warm
mature voices that are adaptable and singers that become invested in
the works,” he says. Arpin has noticed that the sound of the group
has developed more colour. On the lack of vibrato in early music, Jackson
says that it is hard to stay in tune with voices that have large vibratos.
The ensemble uses vibrato only on certain passages for a particular
rhetoric is only one dimension (of early music),” says Jackson. “There
are so many others.” One such area is the relationship of totality
to modality notions of meaning. “The hot topic right now is... notions
of meaning and other dimensions of music that have not been accessible.
In the 1750s, after Bach, we lost a lot of traditions. I think that
going back and trying to understand those things in new ways is the
next step.” Jackson works closely with musicologists and music historians
to recreate music unearthed in archives and libraries. Many of the scores
are written in [old style] clefs or separated into part books. Every
year the Studio performs music that hasn’t been played in centuries,
publishing the scores so other ensembles can have access to the music.
Outside the Studio
to the Studio, since 1973 Jackson has been on the Music faculty at Concordia
University, where he was department chair for four years. His tenure
as Dean of the Faculty of Fine-Arts (1994-2005) has resulted in the
opening of the state-of-the-art Integrated Engineering, Computer Science
and Visual Arts Complex in 2005. He is currently Director of the Grey
Nuns Project, a long-term initiative that will transform a heritage
building – the Mother House of the Grey Nuns Order – into a gathering
place for Concordia’s artistic community, making it the first totally
integrated arts school in North America.
begins its 35th season of 5 concerts on October 26th. In October, they
will tour Canada with Les Sacqueboutiers de Toulouse. This December,
Le Studio is producing Échos de Rome, a performance of polychoral
music from Rome and the Vatican, much of which has never been heard
by modern audiences. Rome adopted the poly-choral form from Venice and
made it its own. Despite being overshadowed by its more famous neighbour,
“some of them are great pieces, they are great discoveries.” says
Jackson. Also upcoming is Back to Bach, co-produced with Les
Boréades de Montréal in February. In April, Tallis & Cie: Voices
at the Summit, a co-production with The Tallis Scholars of England,
celebrates the 35th season of the Studio with a bouquet of great works
from the 16th century. The Studio will also participate in La Scena
Musicale’s next benefit concert on February 14, 2009, at Pollack Hall.
The Studio’s last concert of the season wil feature french music with
the Ensemble Caprice.
As for Jackson,
to celebrate his turning 60, he has taken up sailing. Born in Nova Scotia,
Jackson grew up looking longingly at the ocean. “We never had boats,
but I always dreamed of having one... It’s quite inspiring to view
land from the sea,” he says.
-Les Ors de Saint-Marc
October 26, 2008
Église Saint-Léon (metro Atwater)
-Échos de Rome
December 14, 2008
Église Saint-Léon (metro Atwater)
-Back to Bach
February 1, 2009
Église Saint-Irénée (metro Lionel-Groulx)
-Tallis & Cie: Voices at the Summit
April 5, 2009
Église Immaculée-Conception (metro Papineau)
-Le Faste de la France
May 3, 2009
Église Saint-Léon (metro Atwater)