Progressions: An Interview with Gwilym Simcock [BBC Proms 9 August 2008]

Written by: Ben Hogwood

Gwilym Simcock. Photograph: Mary Dunkin

By his own admission, Gwilym Simcock sits at the meeting point of classical and jazz music – wherever the listener perceives that to be. As if to stress that fact he has been commissioned by the BBC to write a piano concerto for a BBC Concert Orchestra Prom, number 31 in the calendar, that also includes works by Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Stravinsky. This new work, Progressions, provides a good starting point for a discussion with the composer and pianist.

Our chat comes in a break of rehearsing for the 27-year-old Silcock. I begin by asking him how the practising is going. “It’s going fine, really well – and I’m really looking forward to the experience of performing in the Proms for the first time. Writing the piece was the really difficult bit, and now it’s done I feel I’ve been able to enjoy the music more.”

Phil Donkin. ©Chris Stanbury

The two other members of his jazz trio, Phil Donkin on bass and Martin France on drums, will join Simcock. “Progressions is a concerto for the trio and orchestra, and is written as such. The main difficulty we ran into in that sort of scoring was the classic thing of making everything work together, and in particular getting the orchestral percussion to slot in with the jazz drums and bass so that it sounded right.”

Much of Simcock’s work is a blend of classical structure and jazz-inflected improvisation, a technique he applies once more in Progressions. “It’s about half and half, the balance between the two – the trick being that it’s halfway between jazz and classical. There’s a form and shape to the instrumentation though.”

Progressions also marks a significant debut for the pianist. “It’s the first time I’ve written for full orchestra, and it was a real honour to be asked to do it. First of all the way I approached it was to do a lot of studying before I wrote, to see how it was done. To begin with the piece started off as a traditional piano concerto, with three movements, but then gradually it became one. It builds from a serene beginning, and gradually takes on more of a rhythmic form.”

Gwilym Simcock, as part of Tim Garland's Northern Underground Orchestra

To whom did Simcock turn in his study of orchestration? “One of my close friends is a guy called Tim Garland, who was a great help in this, and he introduced me to several things but also the music of Henri Dutilleux.” This seems especially relevant, as previous encounters I have had with Simcock’s music have revealed a subtly definable influence of Ravel. He agrees. “Totally, and in terms of orchestration I’ve looked at everything from the Russians right through to Dutilleux, and have looked at his approach to harmony also.”

Exploring the Dutilleux connection further, I ask if any specific pieces were examined. “I looked at the First and Second Symphonies, and managed to get hold of the scores somehow, which wasn’t easy! I also went to see a Prom of his music last year, which was a performance of The Shadows of Time. I didn’t get to meet him, but got an awful lot from listening to his music.”

The use of classically derived orchestration and harmonic influences sits well with improvisation for Simcock, who is keen to link up the two types of music. “I think people see jazz and classical being different but I feel there’s a very strong link between the two. The trick for me is to make sure the improvisation fits in with everything else. Throughout, though, I’m a believer in having a strong melody. I’m also aware that jazz, although it comes from America, has a strand that’s very much more European, taking into account the Scandinavian composers especially. It’s something that should take on more and more with the development of jazz education.”

Progressions is not the first instance of Simcock writing for classical performances. Another piece, Contours, had its first performance at the City of London Festival in July, for the combination of piano and string sextet. Simcock greets my observation that its coda behaved like an extended Harlem nocturne with interest. “It’s funny, that, as it was a bit of a nightmare with the music, as during the performance we had the building site starting up next door! When we rehearsed it the sound outside was palatable, but it was very difficult to hear properly during the concert. We got through it but I certainly didn’t feel it was a massive success at the time.”

Gwilym Simcock. Photograph: Mary Dunkin

This is an occupational problem, along with the notion of playing jazz-inspired music in less obviously intimate venues. “I love playing in concert halls and large venues, but if you are doing things which are very rhythmic it can be hard to keep it all together.” Here again Simcock applied the principle of fixed structural signposts and improvisation. “I wanted to do that especially in the last section, and I wanted to get the classical players to improvise – which sometimes they’re scared of, but they’re usually brilliant at. In the end we didn’t do too much, and I was still looking to utilise the musicians to do what they do best.”

Does he find room for improvisation among the orchestra in Progressions? “No. To be honest it’s more of a time thing. You want it to work well and not go wrong, especially with it being live on television and not a massive amount of rehearsal time, so that would be too much of a risk.”

When asked to write Progressions, was he aware of the company it would take in the concert? “When it first came about the programme hadn’t been finalised, so I was very conscious of something that fitted in with everything else, and so I tried to write the piece with strong strands of melody. You want something that’s going to appeal to people who might not normally come to this sort of concert or tune-in to this sort of thing on the radio. As a musician you become very aware that you want people to get into your music. And you’d be surprised – or maybe you wouldn’t – how many people don’t!”

The trio of Simcock, Donkin and France communicate easily during performances. “In the case of Martin he was on a lot of the CDs I listened to when growing up, and when you listen to someone so many times you get used to their style, so that when we played for the first time I was able to understand a lot of what he did. With the three of us though, it’s something you can’t describe – like a football team that plays together a lot. We’re also really good mates, and hopefully it shows across that we’re all enjoying ourselves when we play.”

Gwilym was the first jazz artist to be selected for BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists scheme, and is keenly aware of its benefits. “Aside from doing this concert, it’s been great having the amount of airplay I have had. Tom Arthurs (trumpeter and composer) is going on after me, too, and hopefully that will continue to introduce new people to jazz. I’ve been on first name terms with Roger Wright and made a lot of contacts through the New Generation scheme, people I will really want to stay in touch with.”

  • Progressions is given its first performance during Prom 31 on Saturday 9 August beginning at 7 o’clock – live on BBC Radio 3 and BBC 2
  • BBC Proms

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