First published in The Herald on 19 October, 2016
Sound — Scotland’s festival of new music, a two-and-a-half-week series of concerts in and around Aberdeen — has announced John De Simone as its inaugural Composer in Residence. What that means in practical terms is yet to be worked out; mainly, it seems a welcome statement of support for a composer whose music is courageous and singular and very much worth hearing. This year’s festival features De Simone’s solo cello piece Misremembrance (performed by Robert Irvine on October 22) and his string quartet Intimacy (performed by the Edinburgh Quartet on October 27). It also features a new piece for Red Note Ensemble, to be premiered on October 29 alongside Louis Andriessen’s epoch-defining 1970s work De Staat.
The pertinence of Andriessen’s music in general, and of De Staat in particular, becomes increasingly evident during our interview. Andriessen has explained that he wrote De Staat (The Republic) “as a contribution to the debate about the relation of music to politics. Many composers view the act of composing as somehow above social conditioning. I contest that.” De Simone contests that, too, wholeheartedly, and much of his music looks for ways to demonstrate exactly the opposite.
The name of his new work is The F Scale — not some music theory in-joke, but a reference to a 1947 personality test devised by the cultural theorist Theodore Adorno. Essentially, Adorno wanted to expose levels of authoritarianism among ordinary Americans (the ‘F’ stands for ‘fascism’) and he came up with a series of statements to which interviewees responded with ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’. An example: ‘The true American way of life is disappearing so fast that force may be necessary to preserve it’. De Simone’s piece sets ten of these statements to music, and he felt it was only fair to try out the questions on himself. “Turns out I’m not very fascist,” he concluded.
Which doesn’t come as much of a revelation. De Simone’s grandfather was John MacCormick, a founder of the SNP, and in 2014 the composer wrote a piece called Independence that premiered in Glasgow the night before the referendum and told a very personal story about his own family and political identity. “Every other artform had something to say about the referendum but the classical community was hardly talking about it,” he recalls. “The piece wasn’t a rant or anything. It was about how we belong rather than where we belong.”
Belonging is another recurring theme in our conversation. Despite his SNP roots De Simone grew up in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, as a tuba-playing heavy metalist: try that for early identity crisis, he jokes. His mother was a nurse who had moved to England to study; she met his father, an Italian immigrant from Naples, when he got a job cleaning hospital floors. De Simone senior was a self-taught violinist who had spent the 1950s playing tangos in Neapolitan cafes. He couldn’t make much sense of contemporary music but was proud when his son started composing. “He always asked why I couldn’t just write a beautiful tune,” De Simone smiles. “Actually, I can see that.”
De Simone started playing violin when he was two — “I wasn’t hothoused or anything, but my parents bought me a tiny violin because they noticed me listening so intently. My dad had a record of the Bruch and Mendelssohn violin concertos. Apparently I responded amazingly to the Mendelssohn and really negatively to the Bruch. It would probably still be my reaction.” By 8 he wanted to be in the brass bands he heard at his local music centre and his parents bought him a trumpet. “But I couldn’t hit the top notes and I was a big lad, so the band put me on the tuba.” Turned out tuba players were a rare commodity in Buckinghamshire and he found himself in high demand: marching bands, silver bands, brass bands, dance bands, wind bands, orchestras.
Music was always a participatory thing for De Simone: “I used to hate any music except for the music I played.” When his ears were duly blasted open by Guns N’ Roses at the age of 15 (“I got a tape of Appetite for Destruction and thought Sweet Child of Mine was written for me”) he scraped together £80 to buy a shoddy Les Paul copy and a DiMarzio super distortion pickup and relaunched himself as a guitarist in the Aylesbury band scene. “Although I wasn’t very good,” he shakes his head, ”and I got kicked out of the band. Actually, they split up and reformed without me.” Creative differences, though he suspects it also had to do with the fact he couldn’t grow his hair long because his job at McDonalds made him cut it, and he couldn’t afford a leather jacket.
The tactile connection with music was always important. He would sit at the piano and bash out Bach scores — “it would take me about an hour to get through a piece, but really all that hacking through stuff that was way too hard for me was my way of trying to get into the music in a tangible way. I’m not a listener. I love to be involved at my own pace. I didn’t realise that actually I was training to be a composer.”
He moved to Edinburgh to study at St Mary’s Music School then went to Cardiff University. By this point he was composing in torrents — “composing like it was mainlining into me,” he says. “I was staying up until 5 in the morning. I composed trumpet concerto, a symphony.” The heavy metalism had dissipated when grunge came along in the 1990s (“and matured us metal-heads into something more socially acceptable”). Then came techno and he started going to clubs. “Clubbing until 2, composing until 5. Sleep was rare. I wasn’t a good student. Sometimes your best teachers are your friends.”
He discovered Andriessen’s music in 1998 and loved the energy and directness — so much so that he would end up moving to The Hague for four years. “The politics was what got me,” he says. “The fact this music was grounded in the community. That a composer could be an active participant. That the music I wrote could have agency. That a grass roots musical movement could express the ideology of the 1960s. Until then I hadn’t known any of that was possible. After four years my teacher told me I should go home and find my own version of the Holland School.”
Which brings us back to the Sound residency, and to The F Scale. “We are all politically articulate in a way we never were before,” De Simone says. “It is viscerally important right now. As a musician I have to have a part of that. The parameters of what art music or contemporary music are? That’s irrelevant. I’m a creative person and these are difficult times. I think my music should engage. Right now we’re in the thick of it, and there are things that need to be said.”
Sound festival runs October 20 – November 6