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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 2

Christopher Jackson - 35 years of Musical Rhetoric

by Wah Keung Chan and Nisa Malli / October 13, 2008

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Christopher Jackson, 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 Studio

Jackson’s 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.

Musical Beginnings

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.

Bach Milestone

When Jackson 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.”


Jackson often 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.

Liturgical Lyrics

Bach lived 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.”

A religious 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 underneath.”

Jackson is 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

“It’s very 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 effect.

Musical Detective

“Musical 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

In addition 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.

Unearthed Ideas

The Studio 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.

Upcoming Performances:

-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)



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