Earlier this year a prestigious and poignant honor was bestowed upon Jackson Hill, professor of music, Emeritus at Bucknell University and director of music at St. James Episcopal Church in Muncy. Hill received a commission from Europe's oldest annual music festival, the Three Choirs Festival, for a commemorative choral work marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "The festival wanted to commission an American and since I had done a commission for Lichfield cathedral in England, my name was known to the conductor. I had also attended the festival in the past," Hill said.
In addition to his Lichtfield commission, Hill has undertaken past commissions from the London-based sextet The King's Singers, the ensemble New York Polyphony and the San Francisco-based ensemble Chanticleer. Hill's widely performed "Voices of Autumn" was part of Chanticleer's Grammy nomination in 2003. His most recent compositions have been a commission for a new work of solo voice and string quartet for Paris-based countertenor Ryland Angel and a commission from British baritone Roderick Williams for a BBC recital that was broadcast in May 2011 - it included selections of War Poetry by American composers.
After receiving his new commission earlier this year, Hill went to work. He began by reading different books for inspiration and lyrical ideas that linked emotive and spiritual motifs to the events of September 11, 2001. As the shape of his musical vision formed into notes and chords that fit around the words, thousands of miles away a new tragedy struck, this one not from the hands of man but from nature itself. A violent earthquake and tsunami ravaged Japan.
Like 9/11, this catastrophe also hit him deeply. Hill had a long-time connection to the land of the rising sun. In the 1970s he studied Buddhist chant as a Fulbright Fellow there and Japan's traditional music has strongly influenced his composing style. This new disaster added another, fresh layer of sorrow to his composition. He felt it was important to remember the fallen. "Still, In Remembrance" seemed an apropos title for the new commission.
"I wanted the theme of remembrance to dominate the work," Hill said. "I used the word 'still' to indicate that the victims are still being remembered from the 9/11 tragedies. It was also from the opening words from scripture 'My soul hath them still in remembrance,' which is from the book of Lamentations."
In addition to Lamentations, "Still, In Remembrance" takes its lyrical inspiration from diverse texts, including the Book of Revelations and poetry by Williams Blake and John Henry Newsome. The written words Hill selected were very important to him. Once the text was chosen, he tried to make the music as true to the words as he could.
"The music and choice of the texts I used are a direct personal reaction to the lives lost in the attacks," he said. "Writing 'Still, In Remembrance' was a highly personal and emotional process for me. The texts were the emotional anchor and centerpiece that I constructed both the music as well as themes of remembrance, brutality and redemption around."
He finished "Still, In Remembrance" in the days following the Japan disasters and while contemplating the numerous wars and catastrophes of the past decade and century. In particular though, Hill's cornerstone of the work was the memory of the victims of the 9/11 attacks in New York City, Washington and near Shanksville.
Musically, "Still, In Remembrance" is a choral, or evensong composed of three distinct yet interconnected sections. A choral is music sung by a choir with each musical part sung by two or more voices. "Still, In Remembrance" is 14 minutes in duration and composed for the combined choirs of the three cathedrals, altogether about 70 singers. The piece uses its three distinct movements to reflect, in musical terms, the themes of remembrance, destruction and redemption that are expressed in the written works Hill selected. Throughout "Still, In Remembrance," Hill makes references to remembering the fallen, to the brutality of human rage and completes the choral with an expression of hope in the transforming and redemptive power of faith.
A composer since 14, the Alabama native has put a doctorate in musicology to good use composing solo and chamber music, as well as church music, a chamber opera and three symphonies over his career. His rich music legacy also includes numerous awards and prizes for his music. Chorals however, have a special place in Hill's repertoire.
"I've always been drawn to choral music because of the repertoire that I learned while in college at Duke and as a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina," Hill said.
Hill has been composing choral music for more than 40 years - cutting his teeth at Bucknell, where he began writing choral songs for their two college choirs. "There were two college choirs, both of which were more than willing to perform music written for them," Hill said. "A lot of my earlier music came about simply by writing for Bucknell students performing on the Bucknell campus."
In addition to the U.S. and Great Britain, his music also has been widely performed in Europe, Asia and the Edinburgh festivals in Scotland.
The Three Choirs Festival is a more-than-250-year-old music festival held each August alternately at the cathedrals of the Three Counties (Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester). The 2011 festival takes place in Worcester until Aug. 14.
"Still, In Remembrance" premieres at this year's festival in Worcester Cathedral Wednesday. The piece, conducted by Adrian Lucas and featuring the Three Cathedrals Choir closes the Choral Evensong and will be broadcast live on BBC Radio. The stateside premiere of "Still, In Remembrance" takes place in Philadelphia on 9/11 this year.