Composer Mark Simpson on his creative process and his new role with the BBC Philharmonic
Thursday, March 5, 2015
Last week it was announced that I will be the next BBC Philharmonic Composer in Association. And this morning Manchester International Festival revealed that my first major orchestral work will receive its world premiere, performed by the BBC Philharmonic, this July.
I’m particularly thrilled that I’ll be working with the BBC Philharmonic who are based in Salford, just down the road from where I grew up in Liverpool. They are committed to supporting musical talent from across the North of England, and my role is part of that ambition.
The appointment, which runs right up to 2019, brings with it a certain amount of exposure and with that, pressure. Of course I try to make every piece as good as it can be, but there are some instances when heightened expectations make you compose in a different way. Some of my best works have been written when the commission was of notable importance. My piece sparks for the Last Night of the Proms 2012, for instance, or A mirror fragment… written for the RLPO in 2008, are examples of where the event helped me push my own artistic creativity to new levels. I know that all eyes and ears will be on me over the coming years so there is only one thing to do. Deliver.
But getting to the stage where you really trust and believe in what you’re doing is hard and you need a fair amount of self-confidence, which only comes with practice. I used to spend a long time thinking about big overarching issues to do with my approach to composition, such as the role of the composer in society, what ‘truth’ can be found in artistic expression, what’s good and bad, etc. It used to be a barrier to getting notes on the page. This happened most recently with a piece for the Britten Sinfonia, Geysir, for 12 winds and bass. I spent too much time laying out strict rules to adhere to, thinking about the essence of what I wanted. But after a few failed attempts I went back to the drawing board, listened to Mozart’s Gran partita, and just let the music come. I’m not sure exactly what psychological process was going on here but there was definitely some kind of connection to an inner music. As a composer you should always be in touch with this, and try not to let it become clouded. When it happens like this, the piece almost always seem to be a success and, because of this, I’ve come to view the best works of music as being utterances of the self.
You can see how character and thought are reflected in music when you listen to Mozart. I hear his zest for life, his wit, his ingenuity, his passion, his ambition, drive and pathos. The music twists and turns and you’re always with him. With Mahler, you’re overwhelmed by the possibility of life and death and with Wagner, well, we’re up in the stratosphere. Even in works by Thomas Adès, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Simon Holt, Julian Anderson and John Adams (just a few of my favourites) we hear THEM! Their ideas. If I was going to say what the most worrying thing about the state of contemporary music was today, it would often be the lack of a strong identity in the work of young composers. A lot of what I hear today is imitation. So much of being a composer comes down to psychology: you have to really know yourself and in turn, trust yourself. But I think these are not mutually exclusive.
When I write I use pencil and paper, scrawling across page after page. I write words before I write music - banal words usually, but they’re reference points for the atmosphere I’m seeking. I try to feel, see and hear the piece. It’s a very physical, emotional experience. I have to be humming it, running round the room singing it, conducting it, screaming it. It becomes an obsession. Then the notes start to come - there’s always some foggy ground where things don’t exactly mix as I heard but that’s fine. I usually have too many ideas, so sometimes structures take strange turns just when I least expect them to. I’ll add a bit here, take away there. Superimpose this, or that. Then when I have a more detailed sketch I will go into full score and start orchestrating. A final layer of creativity happens here when I sometimes hear things as I’m writing and let them come. Then there’s the slog. When you know the piece in its entirety and you’ve just got to get it out!
I try my best to keep a strict schedule but it’s never that simple. Sometimes I wake up early and just go straight to work. Sometimes I overwork, which leaves me exhausted the day after. The last piece I wrote was for four months solid from October to the end of January, with no Christmas or New Year break. It was very intense. I expected to go straight into the next piece but had a slump for nearly two weeks and slowly had to get myself back into the running. In general I try to listen to my mind and body and rest when I need to. But as the pressure starts to increase and I work on more projects of different sizes I’m at a stage now where I understand my work ethic more and how to manage that. I’m not doing so much playing at the moment because I don’t have concerts until June and July, but I’m starting to do bits here and there and as the dates get closer the balance will shift. My schedule is always in flux.
I am indebted to the BBC for supporting my career as a musician and, it is fair to say, without them I wouldn’t be where I am. I have benefitted greatly from many opportunities offered to young musicians. In 2006 I won both the Young Musician of the Year competition as a clarinetist and the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the year competition which launched my career. In my gap year I had the help of the BBC Performing Arts bursary (then the Fame Academy Bursary) to help support a year in Berlin studying and writing. I have been commissioned three times by the BBC - sparks, Night Music and Israfel - and last year finished a two-year period as a New Generation Artist performing with most of the BBC orchestras broadcast live on Radio 3. And now comes the new composer appointment offering a huge sense of trust and belief from the teams at the BBC Philharmonic and Radio 3. I am eternally grateful and hope I can live up to their expectations!