PA Choral Composer: Jackson Hill

Fred Hooper

Interview published in Polyphony magazine
American Choral Directors Association of Pennsylvania
Volume XII, Number 2, Winter, 1996

Jackson Hill studied composition at Duke University and the University of North Carolina with Iain Hamilton ane Roger Hannay. He has performed as a violinist, pianist, and conductor. He served as choral assistant in England at Exeter College, Oxford, where he sang countertenor and conducted. He has also made a specialty of Japanese traditional music. Since 1968 he has been employed at Bucknell University, where he is Professor of Music.


Your degrees are in musicology. What attracted you to composing choral music?


I had always been drawn to choral music because of the repertoire that I learned when I was in college and graduate school. In particular, sixteenth and seventeenth century polyphony struck a very responsive chord in me.

After I got to Bucknell, there were two college choirs, both of which were more than willing to perform music written for them. A lot of the music that I wrote for chorus has come about simply by writing for Bucknell students performing on the Bucknell campus.

But the choral bug really bit when I was singing countertenor at Oxford. I spent the largest part of a year singing lots of Byrd, Gibbons, Palestrina, Tye, Taverner, and Tallis. It was just a wonderful experience. It really gave me a shot in the arm to write more choral music, particularly SATB unaccompanied music.



What composers, styles, and traditions have influenced your work?


In particular the Renaissance polyphonic composers have influenced my choral music.

That's much less true of my chamber or orchestral music, which is often more angular and dissonant. In the 1970's, much of my instrumental music was very strongly influenced by Schönberg and Webern. But I've veered away from that. I write in a much more tonal/modal idiom now.

My interest in Japanese traditional music has also strongly influenced my work. Very often my music incorporates Japanese scales or Japanese forms of ornamentation. Voices of Autumn, a piece of mine that the Hilliard Ensemble has been singing, has a very strong Japanese influence, as does my choral setting of Hodie Christus Natus Est.



How would you characterize your personal style?


Very eclectic. I simply write what's going on in my head; I allow my internal ear to stimulate ideas. I simply write what's needling me at the moment.



How has your approach to choral composition evolved over the years?


Certain skeletal features have been present all the way through: the interest in polyphony, an extensive use of rich, quasi-chromatic harmony, a fondness for seventh and ninth chords. But as the years have gone by, the vocal style has become more fluid. It's more closely tied to the words of the text. And I've developed a fondness for writing melismas; the prosody is much less syllabic.



What factors guide your choice of texts?


The text is very important to me. Once the text is selected, I try to make the music as true to the words as I can in my own imagination.

The text commands the way in which the words are set, whether the words are obscured polyphonically or made very clear in a homophonic declamation. Often the atmosphere of the poem will govern my harmonic vocabulary, the mellowness or brightness of a particular sound.

On the other hand, in some instances I want something extremely abstract so that the text doesn't interfere with what the music is trying to convey just on musical terms. That's why I used a Japanese text for Voices of Autumn. The audiences for which that music is mostly performed will not understand the words; they hear it as an abstract concatenation of syllables. That's what I wanted in that particular instance.

In the case of commissioned choral works, I am usually directed to set a specific text. This is the case with my most recent choral work, a motet for the centennial of the church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York.



Is there a particular type of work that you would like to write but haven't gotten around to yet?


I would like to write an oratorio, possibly based on a specific modern translation of William Langland's Piers Plowman. This particular version of the poem is very felicitous, and has wonderful inherent musicality.



What compositional projects are you working on now?


I'm working on the commission for the new Episcopal Cathedral of Western North Carolina. It's a choral setting of Ephesians 4: 11-16, scheduled for premiere in November.

I'm also working on the sketches for Symphony #3. 1 have a sabbatical coming up, and its main focus will be completing Symphony #3.



What opportunities did you have for choral studies during your recent trip to London?


My wife and I were in London for four months with sixteen Bucknell students Because the students were doing an intensive experiential course in theater and music, we went to two or three concerts a week, one or two plays a week, and numerous performances marking the Purcell Tercentenary. We also spent a week at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, and attended many services at Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral. I also had a chance to hear a complete performance of my Latin Mass at an Anglican church in Chelsea. All in all, a wonderful experience.


Two Polyphonic Miniatures

1965 SATB


O Bless the Lord, My Soul

1970 SATB/Org

Abingdon (OP)

Agnus Dei

1971 SATB


Psalm 67

1972 SATB/Org


Magnificat and Nunc dimittis

1973 SATB/Org


The New Age

1972 SATB/Band


Beloved, Let Us Love

1973 SATB/Org


O salutaris Hostia

1973 SATB


Most Glorious Lord

1974 SATB/Org

Worldwide Music

Psalm 117

1974 SATB/Org


All Ye Who Seek

1974 SATB


O Lord of Love

1974 Unis/Org


In Mystery Veiled

1974 SATB/Org

NYC AGO Prize '79

Think, O Lord in Mercy

1974 SATB/Org


English Mass (Rite II)

1974 SATB/Org

Worldwide Music

Tantum ergo

1974 SATB

Peters Edition

Missa brevis

1974 SATB

Peters Edition

O God, Beneath Thy Guiding Hand

1976 SATB/Org

Bicentennial Anthem

A Festal Gloria Patri

1976 SATB/Org


Almighty Father Who Dost Give

1976 Unis/Org

Flammer (OP)

Three Motets
In monte oliveti
Tristis est anima mea
Ecce vidimus

1977 SATB

Peters Edition

Song of the Sea

1977 SATB


Arise, Shine

1977 SATB/Org

Hinshaw (OP)

Seek the Lord

1977 Unis.

Hinshaw (OP)

Corpus Christi Mass (Rite II)

1979 Unis/Org


Three Tennyson Lyrics
Calm Is the Morn
Ring Out, Wild Bells
Tears, Idle Tears

1981 SATB

G. Schirmer

Voices of Autumn (Aki no ko-e)

1982 SATB


Hodie Christus natus est

1982 SATB


A Triune Harmony

1983 Mez/SATB/Org


Medieval Lyrics

1985 SATB/Brass


Love Is Life

1985 SATB


God's Grandeur

1986 SATB/Org


Surge, et illuminare, Jerusalem

1987 SATB/Brass


From Heaven Above

1988 SATB/Org

Augsburg (OP)

Sacris sollemniis

1991 SATB


Home of My Soul, How Near

1992 SATB


O Light Invisible

1994 SATB


Populus Sion, ecce Dominus

1995 SATB


By Water and the Word

1995 SATB/Org


A Song of Pilgrimage

1997 SATB


The complete list of music by Jackson Hill, including organ music and music for solo voice, is available from the composer. You can contact him at:

Department of Music
Bucknell University
Lewisburg, PA 17837
(570) 577-1494 (office)
(570) 577-1215 (fax)