Mark Simpson’s Geysir

Inside Geysir
Mark Simpson in conversation with Benjamin Poore

Benjamin Poore: How did you write Geysir?
Mark Simpson: It was conceived as a companion piece to the ‘Gran Partita’. Initially I had wanted to explore the ensemble by dividing it into two symmetrical groups of six – an oboe, clarinet, basset horn, bassoon, and two horns – with the double bass at the centre and using that as a basis for a piece with palindromic structure. I gave up on this idea after some time working through it. I relistened to the ‘Gran Partita’ in an attempt to provide a new direction for the piece and it was the sensuousness of the instrumental writing and the sheer sound of the ensemble that eventually provided the springboard into a creative flow.

BP: How did the piece come together out of that?
MS: I took two very basic textural ideas from the Mozart as a starting point: the glorious B flat major homophonic chord at the outset of the piece, and the ‘bubbling’ clarinet parts in variation five of the Serenade’s sixth movement. Gradually it opened up and ended up being a flurry of colour and harmonic shifts.

BP: You dedicated Geysir to the composer Simon Holt. What’s his relationship to the work?
MS: Simon is someone whose music means a great deal to me – I conducted a piece of his whilst I was a student for oboe and ensemble, called Sparrow Night. I’ve played quite a lot of his clarinet music and later he wrote a basset clarinet concerto for me, Joy Beast, which I performed with the BBC Philharmonic. I just wanted to show him some gratitude, from one composer to another.

BP: What are the challenges of writing for an ensemble like this?
MS: I’m a wind player, so it was an instinctive thing – it never felt like trying to overcome any limitations. By the time I’d written the piece I’d played and directed the ‘Gran Partita’ several times. I remember that I really wanted to showcase the horns as they don’t get that much to do in the Mozart. I’d not written for basset horns before, and when I was re-listening to the ‘Gran Partita’ I wanted to try and use them in a more soloistic way.

BP: You began work on the piece in 2013. How does it look to you now?
MS: Normally after I’ve written something I just want to leave it for a while and have nothing to do with it, perhaps if I don’t feel like I’ve succeeded in getting it to where I want it to be. But I don’t think I feel that way about this piece. I think it sits well alongside the Mozart. The ‘Gran Partita’ gets performed so much these days – just search on YouTube for performances of it – and I’d love to see Geysir joining it on the concert platform more often.