Alastair Simpson: BSO hurdy-gurdy man

Alastair as Diggory Venn

It comes as no surprise to find a man whose Twitter profile describes him as ‘librarian, organ, trombone, hurdy-gurdy, guitar, tin whistle, conductor, composer, folk & choral singer, actor, bellringer, knitter, dog-walker’ is bemoaning a general lack of time to simply play.

‘Musical instruments are logical and with a few exceptions I can get something out of most, but what you really need if you’re going to master them is time to just play,’ explains Alastair Simpson, a 24-year-old son of Dorchester who’s as steeped in his home county as anyone his age could be.

‘If I had my way I’d never leave Dorset, certainly not for any length of time. I got my degree in music at the Royal Holloway, leafy Surrey, but it was a wrench.’

Clearly it’s rare, if ever, that Alastair is stuck for something to do. When he does have a few hours spare he likes to put to sea with Portland Gig Rowing Club, but his principal passions relate to music and as assistant librarian at Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, every working day he’s thrilled to be surrounded by music – music,
music everywhere.

‘For a music graduate in Dorset the BSO is fantastic, obviously, and while I’ll never be good enough to be in the band, which is fine, without the library there’d be no band – after all, someone has to collate the music for them. I keep finding little surprises, lost gems, pieces that haven’t been taken out for decades.

‘Seeing how the masters write is amazing. I love Vaughan Williams, for instance, and to see the way he writes his strings in particular is enormously useful to me as a composer. There is something very special about actually seeing how music I’m very familiar with actually looks on the manuscript.’

The inspiration proved particularly telling last summer as Alastair composed the original score for the New Hardy Players’ acclaimed production of The Return of the Native, seen at various venues throughout Dorset, in which he also played Diggory Venn.

‘Yes, it was a busy summer,’ he nods. ‘I was able to tailor the parts to each individual musician so because the violins were very accomplished, as was the flautist, so I could push them harder. As a musician you want to be pushed by the music you play – I’ve a feeling I might have pushed them quite hard at times…’

Playing with the band of the New Hardy Players, Alastair is very familiar with the remarkable Hardy tune book that was handed down by Hardy’s father and grandfather before him. The band also has frequent recourse to the arguably even more extraordinary Benjamin Rose tune book – from 1820, a volume of tunes and songs known to a North Dorset farmer and alehouse keeper.

Alastair marks up a score in the BSO library

‘The Hardy book is our Bible, but the Ben Rose book is every bit as incredible. It’s not that all the tunes in them are Dorset songs as such, but they were all obviously known in Dorset in the 19th century. The Hardy tunes don’t work so well with the hurdy, but I play tin whistle, guitar and trombone. Some would argue differently, but I see folk music as an evolution – it’s the music of the people so you could make a case for the music of the contemporary pop charts or for club dance music also being folk music.’

Not so controversial perhaps, but no less traditional, bell-ringing has exerted a pull on Alastair’s time and skill since he first rang at the tender age of eight. Today, he rings all over the county and further afield, but St Peter’s in Dorchester is his home tower.

‘What else but bell ringing can you do that means you can go to any town or village in Britain and immediately join in? It’s a good workout, it makes you think, it’s a team pursuit and anyone can do it. Most people have a sense of rhythm, even if it’s only that they can hear when it’s not right, so you learn how to pull the ropes and when to release and the more you do it the better you get.

‘I don’t know if my appreciation of these traditional crafts is driven by my desire to live in the 1800s but there’s no escaping it. That said, we’re not doing badly at St Peter’s for attracting younger ringers, but wherever you go bell ringing is always in need of new blood. There’s a move to have bell ringing accepted as a sport, which has upset a few people, as competitive ringing, or striking, is judged on rhythmic and melodic accuracy.’

The bells and organ pipes may often be at opposite ends of the church, but it seems a relatively small step for the more musically inclined to go from one to the other.

‘It is and it isn’t,’ says Alastair, patiently. ‘I was very lucky in that Salisbury diocese started a programme called Pipe Up to encourage young pianists to learn to play the church organ and it really took off in Dorchester under the direction of Dr Richard Godfrey. I found the hands were OK; it’s the feet that are the tricky bit.

Playing the hurdy-gurdy at a house party

‘What I love about the church organ is the idea you can deafen a congregation just by playing a single note – that and the Captain Nemo power play, I suppose there could be something in that!’

And what about the knitting?

‘Well, knitting is incredibly useful; it’s practical and good for the brain. As a trombonist in an orchestra you get to play a short burst of notes then you have a long rest. I’m pretty good at following the music so now that I can knit I get a sock at the end of rehearsals, it’s playing music but with a little bonus!’

• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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