Jackson Hill (b. 1941). Symphony No. 3 (1997)

Listen on SoundCloud Listen on Spotify

From Alabama and North Carolina, through Japanese court music, Buddhist chant, Oxford, and Renaissance polyphony, it is music from the center of Pennsylvania.

Jackson Hill (credit: Terry Wild)

Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection.

In Fleisher Discoveries, we uncover the unknown, rediscover the little-known, and take a fresh look at some of the remarkable treasures housed in the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Fleisher Collection is the largest lending library of orchestral performance material in the world. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast up every month on SoundCloud and on Spotify; search “Fleisher Discoveries” and find every one of our podcasts.

Last month, for the 100th anniversary of Ned Rorem’s birth, we looked at his Third Symphony, and I alluded to the difficulty of using a symphony to summarize Rorem’s music. But leaving aside the fact that Rorem is known mostly as an art song composer, it’s most often true that you can’t summarize any composer in just one piece.

And so let’s leave summarizing behind. In any case, it’s certainly true in the varied career of Jackson Hill. There’ll be no attempt to wrap his music into a package but we’re again going to a symphony for this Discoveries, and again, we’re going to a Symphony No. 3.

Jackson Hill was born in Alabama, grew up in North Carolina, and spent most of his career in Pennsylvania, at Bucknell University. Lewisburg, where Bucknell is, rests on the bank of the Susquehanna River’s West Branch. About a three-hour drive from Philadelphia, three and a half from Pittsburgh, and two hours from either the New York or Maryland borders, Bucknell sits in almost the exact center of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The central Susquehanna Valley is a land of wide vistas floating between the northeastern-sweeping waves of the Appalachian Mountains. The Susquehanna’s West Branch starts almost as far west as Punxsutawney, wriggles its way to the Little League capital of Williamsport before dropping down, under the I-80 east-west truckers’ conduit, past Bucknell and into Susquehanna’s main branch, whose own journey began at that other baseball mecca 200 miles to the north, Cooperstown, New York.

Since 1968 this is where Jackson Hill has lived. He taught at Duke University for two years before then, and received his PhD in Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his dissertation on Dutch 20th-century 12-tone music. His interests are wide-ranging; he’s juggled composing and the music of other cultures throughout his life.

In the 1970s several experiences affected his own music. He had already by then abandoned the use of 12-tone procedures in his composing, although dissonance still played a part. But on a 1977 Fulbright Fellowship he moved to Japan to immerse himself in Japanese Imperial Court music and Buddhist chant. This experience profoundly influenced him. In contrast to 12-tone, he began to embrace the limited notes of pentatonic modes and how the element of timelessness might be expressed through music, or as he’s called it, “suspending time in mid-air.” Sparked by Chanticleer’s championing of his piece Voices of Autumn, three more choral works based on Japanese poetry on the seasons of the year appeared. His choral works have been sung around the world.

In that decade Hill also went to Exeter College in Oxford, where he was a choral assistant and sang countertenor, and was a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University. These choral studies augmented his love of Renaissance polyphony, which found its way not only into his own choral music, but into his orchestral music as well.

Jackson Hill taught for 40 years at Bucknell, retiring in 2008. In that time he taught composition and other subjects. He’s worked alongside composer William Duckworth, he’s been Associate Dean, Presidential Professor, Chair of the Department of Music, and for a time he also conducted the University orchestra.

He’s produced three symphonies, the last of which, from 1997, we’ll hear now. It’s in three tightly built movements, using the spinning and weaving counterpoint of polyphony. But it’d be too pat to read Renaissance composers into this. Hill’s love of the orchestral repertoire, and his own experience as a conductor, guide his orchestral composing. It’s music of long, searching lines, of evocative fanfares and chorales, of ancient modes, in this case the deeply expressive Phrygian mode, and of an intense contentedness that values the character of the instruments and the creation of vivid musical drama.

On Fleisher Discoveries, then, the Symphony No. 3 of Jackson Hill. Christopher Para conducts the Kushell Sinfonia.

[Jackson Hill (b. 1941). Symphony No. 3 (1997)]

Music of Jackson Hill, his Symphony No. 3. The Kushell Sinfonia out of Bucknell University was conducted by Christopher Para. This is Fleisher Discoveries and I’m Kile Smith.

Jackson Hill, as we’ve seen, has had wide experiences in many kinds of music, 12-tone, Japanese court music, Buddhist chant, Anglican choral music, Renaissance polyphony, and the standard orchestral repertoire. For his own composing he’s quite humble. He calls himself “eclectic” and has said, “I simply write what’s needling me at the moment.” And for my money, that’s a pretty good definition of a composer!

The Fleisher Collection is on Facebook, and I’m on Facebook, so you can like us there. I’m also on Twitter, @KileSmithMusic, and on Instagram I’m kilesmithmusic. And you can always drop an email to kile@kilesmith.com and I’ll get right back to you. And remember that all of our podcasts are available all of the time, so do check us out anytime for what we hope are the enlightening stories and wonderful pieces we uncover for every show. Stay tuned for more Fleisher Discoveries podcasts coming to you every month, right here.

And thanks for joining me on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well, and I’ll catch up with you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.