Mark Simpson 43 BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE outwards. I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum. I’ll see and feel the whole piece in its essence before I’ve written anything. It’s dark. It’s like a dark, deep expressive thing. It’s there, and I don’t know what it is, but it cries out with pain. That’s the emotional rawness I need before I even get going.’ A traumatic work cycle, borderline paralysing, but over the past decade Simpson has come up with strategies to overcome it, and the strength of the music is proof that those strategies work. One is to find material that puts him in the requisite frame of mind. ‘I’m drawn to subjects that are of an otherworldly, almost transcendental nature,’ he explains. ‘Things that are beyond the human realm. That’s the kind of music that works best for me. When it ceases to exist in a realm where you can put language on it. That’s what I’m after.’ ★e pummels me with examples. The Exegesis of Philip K Dick. The 18th-century Swedish Lutheran mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. The 16th-century Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila. Van Gogh. Dostoyevsky. Instances of hypergraphia (compulsive writing) or hyper-religiosity (disturbingly intense spiritual feeling) – neither of which Simpson himself has experienced, but accounts of which provide him with a springboard ‘into a place where music becomes transcendental’. The Immortal is a notable product of such a line of investigation. Simpson’s oratorio of 2015 is an immense orchestral séance that plunges us into the late Victorian fetish for occultism and communications with the dead. The libretto (by Melanie Challenger) is based on transcripts from actual séances and the ‘automatic writings’ of the 19th-century Society of Psychical Research. The subject matter became a genuine obsession for Simpson – he shut himself away for eight months to write the piece – and The Times called the outcome ‘the most thrilling new choral work I have heard for years. With this piece, [Simpson] and his librettist match the grandeur of those epic avant-garde choral pieces produced half a century ago by the likes of Penderecki, Stockhausen and the young Tavener.’ For the Guardian, it was ‘…a blazingly original oratorio… If the purpose of art is to pose existential questions, then the piece is concerned with what might be the most fundamental question of all: is anybody there?’ But composing for Simpson is not only about finding the right trigger subject. A painstaking but seemingly inescapable part of the process requires him to turn his gaze inwards. By way of example, he tells me about the initial sketches for the cello concerto he wrote for Leonard Elschenbroich and the BBC Philharmonic, premiered in 2018. ‘Page one,’ he recalls, ‘was all questions. Who am I? What is music? ★ow do I manage to find a way through it? Broadly philosophical, probing questions about what music is actually for, what it means to express the self – what even is the self as a concept?’ Sometimes Simpson types up the notes in a separate word document. In this particular instance he sent that document to the composer Robin ★olloway, whose response (says Simpson) was along the lines of, ‘Oh God, you’re crazy!’. The premiere of the Cello Concerto was delayed by a year due to a tough period in Simpson’s life. ‘My relationship deteriorated. I moved back to Liverpool; my mum got ill; my cousin committed suicide; I was in financial problems; I got sick. My whole world turned on its head. There’s a moment when life offers these crossroads. I thought at that point maybe I should just stop everything and reboot.’ So why didn’t he? Take a couple of years out, confront the persistent questions headon, return with some answers and a clear head? ‘Because,’ he interjects, ‘it was all too much to let go of. And anyway, they’re not solvable questions. That’s the point. They’re not going to disappear.’ If they did, an essential ingredient of the creative struggle would go with them. Somehow, from the thicket of questioning, the music starts to take form every time. ‘By the way,’ he stresses, ‘my thinking isn’t just to do with the nitty-gritty of my own pieces. It’s about all of classical music in the 21st century. Neoliberal ideologies subtly dictating the shape of cultural institutions. The notion that creativity is bound up with capitalism and money making. Fitting into conveyor belt systems. If writing music today means just filling a slot…’; he trails off, looks up, suddenly aware that he’s reached the crux of the matter and unsure whether to say it out loud. ★e does. ‘OK. Look. I kind of see classical music today as this big keg full of holes with water spewing out of them. Everyone’s trying to plug the holes. Trying to keep it afloat.’ ★e grins. ‘But if we were to just let it all pour out, what would ‘I’ll see and feel the whole piece in its essence before I’ve written anything’ Three-part score: Simpson at Great Missenden with pianist Richard Uttley (left) and composer Mark Bowden
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