Bachtrack is asking the same six questions to many composers this month as part of its focus on contemporary music. Here’s what Mark Simpson had to say.

Mark Simpson © Elisabeth Blanchett
Mark Simpson
© Elisabeth Blanchett

1. What influences are important to you and your music? Do you choose them, or do they choose you?

My own personal musical lineage would be: Ligeti, for his amazing control of harmony and awe-inspiring instrumental textures; Thomas Adès, for sheer brilliance, his emotional and musical intensity and craftsmanship; Julian Anderson, for harmonic clarity coupled with emotional impact, intellectual rigour and dramatic structure; Mark-Anthony Turnage, for his use of bold, dramatic orchestral gestures, tinged with darkness, a music that speaks with direct simplicity in the deepest emotional way; and John Adams for orchestral brilliance and pacing. For their overhauling of prescribed systems leading to reimagining/reinventing musical languages and sheer iconoclasm: Helmut Lachenmann, Cornielius Cardew, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono.

My influences are not always purely musical. I like to have some kind of extra-musical starting point. Poetry often helps me find the structures of my pieces. There is something about great poetry that awakens a creative urge in me. I may read a poem and jot down alongside each stanza the instrumental timbres I’ve heard or the type of emotional content I want to have. I did this with Ariel (based on the Sylvia Plath poem) and also ‘A mirror fragment…’ (based on a poem by Melanie Challenger). Painting sometimes influences me; I’ve written a work based on Goya’s etchings Los Proverbios for the Aronowitz Ensemble. Although not programmatic, I had the title sparks for my Last Night of the Proms piece in 2012 before I started the work. This helped me have an idea of the musical content of the piece I was going to write. Usually the writing process involves a stop/start trial and error process of going from purely musical to extra-musical ideas before I get a sense of the piece’s shape.

What aspects of a piece of music do we find influential? Its structure, instrumental texture, harmony, ethical approach, philosophical standpoint, its interconnectedness with other works, a broader musical discourse? Are the purely musical and extra musical ideas interlinked or can they be divorced? There are also different levels and different stages of influence. At what point do we move from the sphere of influence into our decision-making and decide to “become” a composer? And what implications does this have on the extent to which we actively engage in our awareness and understanding of our influences? It is important to be aware of how close the sphere of influence is. There are certainly composers guilty of jumping on trending bandwagons. Such is the case with many young composers appropriating the music of Helmut Lachenmann today.

The worst type of composer is the one that writes a music that prescribes to given aesthetic purely on the basis that they think they should write in this style without ever asking themselves what it is they really want to express musically. These composers are “influenced” by external forces, cultural norms, established intellectual ideals. (I refer here to composers living today and not those who had to write in a given style because of oppressive political regimes.) However, such ideas that have an intellectual stronghold over an artistic community can prove to be influential to those composers who chose to retaliate against a system, political musical or otherwise. (Pierre Boulez in espousal of the death of “Serialism” or Helmut Lachenmann in his complete reinvention of musical language.)

2. What (if anything) do you want listeners to take away from your music?

It’s difficult not to avoid talking in generalisations regarding this subject but I’d like to think that audiences want to be moved in some way. They want to hear brilliant, beautifully crafted, intelligent music with endlessly interesting textures and harmony in whatever given parameter. I don’t want to ever underestimate my audience. I want to impress them.

Does listening to new music prescribe a knowledge of its origins? Tautology no longer exists – what we have are fragments and refractions. How do we make sense of these? What we need is clear, direct expressions that are interesting and inventive, that speak to listeners regardless of their knowledge but aren’t diluted in anyway so that the artistic integrity is never lost.

I’m interested in what led me to become a musician in the first place. I’m a very passionate person and when I like something, people know about it! (Similarly when I dislike something!) I also have a lot of non-musical friends and family, some of whom I drag along to concerts in an effort to experience what I feel when I listen to a great piece of music. But even after the blazing finale of the Berliner Philharmoniker playing Brahms’ First Symphony; the emotional punch, dramatic clarity and sheer brilliance of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin or the beautiful choral ending of Britten’s War Requiem, all works that leave me in some rampant physical or emotional state, I’ll turn and ask “Well, what did you think?” to which I’m greeted by a shrug of the shoulders and a nullifying “humph”. Nothing is more disheartening (and mind-boggling) to me, but it happens. The brain must be wired in such a way as to be receptive or not, to these kinds of experiences. I’d be very interested to be part of an experiment in which composers are put into an MRI scan to see the activity of the brain when they listen to music that makes them feel like this. Whatever is happening in the brain when that happens, that’s what I want my listeners to feel when they listen to my music!

3. Is there a composition of yours which you are most satisfied with? What makes it successful?

Barkham Fantasy – a work for solo piano written for pianist Richard Uttley – exemplifies the kind of thing I’m attempting to realize when I write my music. It has a very clear and simple but bold idea that reached a new level of sophistication and expression in my writing.

Performance by pianist Richard Uttley

4. How important is new technology to you as a composer?

At this stage not at all. I’ve worked in a purely acoustic medium up until now (except for one piece for clarinet and voice that used a pre-recorded part played over a PA system, but that’s hardly anything new). This may change though. I’ve got a few ideas for pieces that may require an electronic element, or more work with pre-recorded material (either instrumental or otherwise). I love to collaborate, it provides me with a great stimulus to work from. I’ve ideas for video/projection collaborations that may prove fruitful but other than that not much. I’ve been told by people who work in electronics not to get lost in trying to learn it all, but if I have an idea for an electronic component I try and imagine only in that sound.

5. What music do you enjoy listening to?

My very first musical experiences were physical ones. Ones that would overtake my body. One of my first memories as a child was dancing round the front room to a Rod Stewart LP or playing air piano along with Rhapsody in Blue. Later on when I started to avidly attend concerts at my home town orchestra nearly passed out during a performance of Eine Alpensinfonie because I forgot to breathe! The overarching emotional content of a work of music is something that speaks to me in a way which I often have trouble verbalising.

There are composers whose music I listen to but don’t necessarily find the listening experience “enjoyable”. However understanding how a given composer has come to the realisation of a given musical language through a series of intellectual choices and decisions often overwhelms and excites me. For instance, there are works of Pierre Boulez I may find “difficult” to listen to but not necessarily “unenjoyable”. I’m not so keen on the length of Boulez’s Dérive 2, for instance. But I love the sound world and the energy. Often the difficulty lies in the level of concentration and this in turn is enjoyable for certain people. Some people enjoy the intellectual rigour or the moral aspect of performing a work despite disliking it, then growing to love it. Once you recognise some of the musical gestures you can start to build foundations by which to recognise other works.

On my CD shelf at the moment are CDs of music by: Benedict Mason, Matthias Pintscher, Morton Feldman, Berio, Lachenmann, Anna Clyne.

I love going to live music and opera and try and get to as much as I can – there is so much here in London. As an artist, that’s literally the only good thing about living in London, but it’s good enough to keep me here... for the moment!

I like other music too… My favourite band is Incubus – I think Brandon Boyd is a god. Annie Lennox IS my mother, even though my actual biological mother denies wholeheartedly – I know I was adopted. I also like to think of myself as the secret fourth member of the Human League when I’m not pretending to be a backing singer for Beyonce in the shower and/or any other room in the house at any given moment in time. White Noise by Disclouse is the dance anthem of 2012.

6. How is composing changing, and where do you want new music to go in the future?

The themes and ideas that form the backdrop to this discussion are difficult, far-reaching and require a lot of time and contemplation. They are more to do with philosophy, theoretical and critical ideas, politics and, most importantly, education. Making sense of where we are today is a difficult and almost insurmountable task. If we are to go forward it must be attempted however. For this I look towards writers such as Fredric Jameson, Tony Judt, Niall Ferguson to help understand the world we live in, where we have come from and where we could go. This answer requires the following: a quick summation of where I think we are in contemporary classical music today, what the role of the composer is and how it is changing to keep up with the pace of the modern life, my opinions on both, and a forecast for the future. Right, so give me 4 years and I’ll get back to you!

I like to see musical works as a reflection of the world we live in. And that we can pinpoint these reflections and their relation to society. Obviously that is easier to do in hindsight. However what I think the problem is today is that there is an overwhelming proliferation of styles and ideas surrounding them. Making sense of them is a near impossibility. In the sense that the iconoclastic composers of the mid 20th century had clear musical or political systems they were retaliating against, I think what we need to retaliate against today is the proliferation of mediocrity, banality and nothingness.

We need daring, exciting, fearless artists who are not afraid to push boundaries in intelligent, inventive and innovative new ways. In the same way we need politicians that have interesting new ideas that they believe in and are presented in a truthful, believable way that inspires people and gives them hope! If as an artist or composer you have no standpoint on where we are in the world today, if you have nothing to say other than to appropriate the styles and techniques of the people who have suffered and worked for their art then what’s the point in writing? The interesting thing for me however is to try to identify how these theoretical approaches can seep into the musical substance of a piece.

I’d like to see institutions engage with artists who are interesting, bold and have something to say and make difficult decisions without alienating their audiences – a difficult task, but this would be in an ideal world. This is because classical music is fighting an image war. It will always be compared with pop music and shouldn’t be. It’s different. Leave it at that. Because it feels as though it has a death sentence it is constantly striving for the new, hyperbolic, superlative other. And what it gets at worst is nothing but diluted drivel.

What is most important is music education. That we educate young people and give them the opportunities and experiences of hearing classical musical that they so desperately need.

Composers work in different ways, and have different methods of creating their music, but what there no longer seems to be is a stronghold of overarching musical systems and ideas that composers think that they must work in. What we are ultimately left with is the postmodern paradigm: a sheer overwhelming sense of utter “whatthef*ck”ness.

Born in 1988 in Liverpool, in 2006 Mark Simpson became the first ever winner of both the BBC Young Musician of the year and BBC Proms/Guardian Young composer of the year competitions. He studied clarinet with Nicholas Cox at the Junior School of the Royal Northern College of Music and now studies privately with Mark van de Wiel. He read Music at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, graduating with first-class honours, and in 2012 completed an MMus in composition with Julian Anderson at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama supported by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust. In 2012 he was selected for representation by YCAT.

As a clarinettist Mark made his Wigmore Hall debut at the age of 17. He has appeared as soloist with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Vasily Petrenko), Northern Sinfonia (Yan Pascal Tortelier), BBC Philharmonic (Gianandrea Noseda), City of London Sinfonia, Manning Camerata, BBC Concert Orchestra, Oxford Philomusica and the Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2008 he was a soloist in the BBC Last Night of the Proms in Hyde Park.

Further afield, Mark has given recitals at the Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, BeethovenFest in Bonn, Denver Colorado as a Lakewood Music Scholar, and toured the Middle East. During 2009/10 he was artist in residence with the Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Mark is deeply committed to the performance of new music. His debut CD was released on the NMC label and saw the culmination of five years of working with composers Mark-Anthony Turnage, Gary Carpenter, David Horne, Kenneth Hesketh, Gavin Higgins, Emily Howard and Stephen Pratt, developing new works for the clarinet and basset clarinet.

As a composer Mark has had works performed by some of the country’s leading orchestras and ensembles. In 2008 he wrote Threads for the National Youth Orchestra, Nur Musik for oboe and ensemble commissioned by Ensemble 10/10, and ‘A mirror-fragment...’ for orchestra commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. ‘A mirror-fragment...’ received its German première in Meiningen last year and in April received its London première by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican. He has also written for the Mercury Quartet, pianist Richard Uttley and the Aronowitz Ensemble who performed his piece Los Proverbios in the Royal Concertgebouw in 2011.

In 2010 Mark won the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Award for which he wrote Lethe for trombone and ensemble, which was performed at the Royal Festival Hall. He was commissioned by the BBC to write sparks, the opening work for the 2012 Last Night of the Proms, and is a fellow on the Jerwood Opera Writing fellowship scheme. In 2013 he was awarded a Sky Arts Futures Fund bursary to enable the composition of a new work for an ensemble of instruments and voices.

Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes

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