Q&A: Mark Simpson

First published in the Guardian on 16 May, 2015

What’s the idea behind The Immortal, the new oratorio you’ve written for Manchester International Festival?

I was reading John Gray’s book The Immortalization Commission, about occultism and the paranormal. The piece is based on Frederick Myers, who founded the Society of Psychical Research; Melanie Challenger based the libretto on the Society’s automatic writings. You realise that what these people were searching for in occultism was lost love. They were grieving. The idea of the piece is to make listeners feel as though they are in a seance themselves. It’s kind of a requiem, kind of a sound installation with these mobiles of text. It’s symphonic, too. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done.

The MIF website says the piece “explores the obsession with death that lies at the heart of the human experience”. Is that true? Is this music obsessed with death?

If anything, it’s more about that search for love I mentioned. In Frederick Myer’s case, it was his long-lost childhood sweetheart who drowned herself. I’m intrigued by the supernatural, I’m intrigued by deep personal tragedy. Maybe I’m using the backdrop of death as a way to give the piece an eerie quality. But obsessed with death? I couldn’t be further from.

You were on TV a lot aged 17 when you won both the BBC Young Musician and the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the Year. Do you get daunted by anything?

I have this restless ambition. I have an overactive brain. Sometimes I need to meditate to calm myself down. There’s a million things I want to do: set up a contemporary music festival in Liverpool, perform all over the world, write the best possible music I can. I used to throw myself into everything that came my way; sometimes I’d stop and be like, ‘oh crap’, but once of I told myself I was doing it I’d be off. Now I want to be a bit more thoughtful about things.

Does contemporary classical music have an image problem?

I am on something of a mission to present music in a way that will appeal to a range of people. There’s a sense of alienation when you don’t understand something, whether that’s music or science or whatever. There’s a potential class barrier, but to say classical music is only for an elite part of society? I don’t buy that.

Is venue part of the problem? Are concert halls off-putting?

I love hearing music in a venue where it was designed to be heard. I’m not interested in putting concerts on in car parks or bars; I’d rather hear one of my orchestral pieces in a great hall. As young classical musicians, I don’t think we should be ashamed of saying that.

What got you started?

I was given a recorder by my headteacher at primary school. If it hadn’t been for her enthusiasm for classical music who knows if I’d have ended up down this path. I started playing clarinet in the Liverpool Youth Orchestra aged 13, and because we were in the youth orchestra we got £2 tickets to Liverpool Phil concerts. Me and my friend went to everything, and we’d sneak into the Royal Box, right by above the double basses. The rest of the audience must have wondered who the hell those two cheeky little kids were.

What happens to you when you listen to music?

I’m convinced that if there was some kind of neurological study into the part of the brain that makes a person spiritual and the part that makes a person musical there would be similar things going on. If a concert really grabs me, the hair on the back of my neck stands up and I have chills going down my body. It’s a totally physical experience. I can literally feel the part of my brain that’s on fire. There have been moments when I’ve stopped breathing in concerts.

When’s the last time that happened to you?

George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin. It really rang true to me. The clarity of the narrative, the commitment of the performance…

When did you start composing?

I was about 12, messing about with manuscript paper and a piano. A couple of years later the ensemble Psappha was giving some workshops around Liverpool. One of the other kids turned up with the percussion part to Finlandia and pretended he’d written it. I turned up with a 32-page, four-movement piece called Space.

Have you ever felt the need to choose between being a composer and clarinettist?

It was at the back of my mind for a while. Time is so precious, and when I’m composing I work flat out every day. I can’t play the clarinet during that time. But when I pick it up again, sometimes after months, it seems to be ok. I have to keep playing because I am a performer at heart.