He’s only 26, but Mark Simpson is already a leading light of the contemporary music world. Mark’s big break came in 2006, when he won both the BBC Young Musician of the Year, playing the clarinet, and the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the Year. He has since pursued parallel and equally successful careers. As a clarinettist, he appears regularly with major orchestras and chamber groups, and is an ardent champion of new music, not just his own. His compositions cover a wide range of genres and ensembles, and, through a series of recent major commissions, have increasingly focussed on music for symphony orchestra. His virtuoso showpiece Sparks opened the Last Night of the Proms in 2012, and he has since written for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Britten Sinfonia and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Earlier this year, the BBC Philharmonic appointed Mark Composer in Association. He also has an opera project planned for 2016, commissioned jointly by Royal Opera, Opera North and the Aldeburgh Festival.

Mark Simpson © Kaupo Kikkas
Mark Simpson
© Kaupo Kikkas
But before that, Mark has another major work to unveil, The Immortal, which will feature at the 2015 Manchester International Festival. The oratorio explores obsessions with the occult in Victorian England and follows the story of Frederic Myers and his attempts to prove the existence of life after death. It will be Mark’s most substantial work yet, employing large orchestra, double choir and baritone soloist. Here, and in the Manchester International Festival podcast, Mark discusses this unique project, what attracted him to the story, and how he plans to draw the audience into this macabre and unsettling world:

“The starting point for the piece was John Gray’s book The Immortalization Commission, which is about the human obsession with cheating death. The first part is about the phenomenon of occultism and séances around the end of the Victorian era. I really felt I knew the characters, but more importantly I felt I could hear something. I wasn’t sure what I was hearing, just that there was a lot of possibility here to do something.

“Frederic Myers was a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research. He, and the people around him, Edmund Gurney, Henry Sidgwick, a famous ethics professor, and Arthur Balfour [later Prime Minister], were scientifically trying to prove that there was existence beyond death. They would do séances and each séance was recorded meticulously. Every single piece of paper that was written on in the act of semi-trance automatic writing was archived and exists today in Trinity College, Cambridge. I went to Cambridge to look at the texts, called cross correspondences. They are fascinating: sprawls of craziness, in Greek, in Latin, in pictures, in different-sized handwriting, in perfect calligraphy, in scrawls. They are so beguiling and so interesting, they seemed so raw in potential.

“John Gray got into the reasons why these people were doing what they were doing, and it basically came down to deep personal tragedy or deep personal loss. In the case of Frederic Myers, he lost his childhood sweetheart, Annie Marshall. She drowned herself. When Myers died, he left an autobiographical sketch called Fragments of Inner Life, essentially a confession. He confesses that the reason why he pursued this his whole life was because he was searching for Annie Marshall, his long-lost love. That became the main thrust for the work, that and these swirling texts.

“I thought it would be interesting to try and create an experience for the listener where you feel as though you are in a séance. These texts are swirling around you, and you are lost. And also Myers’s emotional state, I wanted to make the listener feel the frenzy, feel this crisis. It was a real crisis: a crisis of faith, a crisis of love, he has a crisis of everything. But deep down he’s searching for his long-lost love.  

“I wanted to get the essence of some of the ideas that John Gray has in the work. I approached Melanie Challenger, who is a librettist, poet and writer I have worked with before. She had read The Immortalization Commission and she was doing similar work in her own writing at the time. I couldn’t believe my luck! We started to look at possibilities of what we could do. We honed in on Frederic Myers and his story, and the texts from the cross correspondences.

Seance with Eusapia Palladino; Leviation of a table, 12 November 1898 © Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris FranceArchives Charmet/Bridgeman Images
Seance with Eusapia Palladino; Leviation of a table, 12 November 1898
© Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris FranceArchives Charmet/Bridgeman Images
“To represent or recreate a séance, I didn’t want what you might actually hear: tables crashing, knocking, voices and whatever. I wanted to create an orchestral palette behind the voices, this kind of swirling. I wanted the music itself to feel lifted, to make you question where you are. On top of that I superimposed the texts from the séances themselves. The semi-chorus recites and sings simultaneously. There are several séance moments and each is different, there isn’t necessarily one moment that is the séance. I wanted it to be constantly in flux between these two ideas, so the listener has an empathy towards the protagonist, but also feels that they are themselves in this crazy supernatural world.

“I knew I wanted to use voices in this piece. I’ve always wanted to work with EXAUDI [the London-based contemporary music chamber choir], I think they are an incredible ensemble. Knowing that they can do this type of singing, I really relished writing that. It is very virtuosic, almost instrumental and there is a lot of recitation. They’ve got their work cut out, but I’ve no doubt they will rise to the occasion.

“I’ve recently been appointed BBC Philharmonic Composer in Association, starting next season. The first season they will perform existing orchestral music of mine then after that I am going to write an orchestral piece a year. I’m in an incredibly lucky position at the moment having so much orchestral music to write. It is rare that a composer gets to work with one orchestra over a period of five years, it will hopefully be a fruitful experience and I’m really excited about getting to grips with an orchestra on a personal level.

“Growing up I was obsessed with contemporary music, and people who really inspired me were composers like Thomas Adès, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Simon Holt. Mark and Simon have been hugely encouraging. I have a tendency to intellectualise what I do, to try to understand the process, what chords I use when, and what I want the listener to feel. When I get into those sorts of states, I tend to close up but Mark and Simon would say that you need to trust yourself and your instincts, that is something that I really value. When people you look up to say to you to trust your instincts, just trust yourself, you can do it. That kind of affirmation is really helpful. There are times when I need to listen to that voice, and know that I can do what I do, just by doing it.”

This article was sponsored by Manchester International Festival.