Maya-Leigh Rosenwasser, performer, improviser & composer

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

The biggest influences in my childhood were my mother and grandfather’s love of classical music. My grandfather was essentially my father growing up and we would spend a lot of time conducting the world’s greatest orchestras…from our living room. He also used to talk me through the plots of his favourite operas in a way which was accessible and exciting. My mother was and is the most supportive person in my life and I was very lucky to grow up in a loving and creative environment. Later on, my undergraduate conservatoire teacher (and world-renowned pianist) Jonathan Plowright had a huge impact on my artistic identity at a time when I really needed guidance. He had a profound effect on my performance technique and taught me how to make strong, dominant sounds and gave me the confidence that I needed to take ownership of my piano playing.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

My greatest challenges were largely connected to my mental health, which inevitably affected my career at times. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression throughout my life and when I was feeling low, trying to stay creative and perform in a meaningful way has been difficult. However, over time I’ve started to view practise and performance as an escape from when I’m feeling anxious. It quietens my mind and allows me to get back to focusing on one thing at a time. I’m not saying that I never get anxious before performances! But I do turn to music now as a way to help with my anxiety which is great.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

In the last two years, my improvisation trio Equinox released our debut album, ‘Ascending’ and I am really proud of our work on that album. Particularly my piece Attack is something I am really proud of. It was my first recorded composition and I felt that it was a milestone in terms of my compositional output. Also, my contemporary woodwind trio New Woods Collective are in the process of recording our debut album. We commissioned six composers to write pieces specifically for our ensemble and we premiered and recorded the first three of them before lockdown. Our first recording is of a piece called ‘Structure Restructure’ by Michael Clulow, which I’m really proud of. It’s a demanding piece technically and I think we did a really great job. It’ll be released later in 2020 so hopefully you can have a listen and see if you think I’m right to be proud of it!

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

That’s a difficult one! My repertoire choices differ a lot and I’m still at a stage where I’m learning about who I am as a composer, performer and improviser, so this might change a lot during my first year after graduation. However I am really drawn to Baroque music and have created original interpretations of works by Scarlatti, Clementi and Bach. Music by these composers often works beautifully paired with contemporary music and I’ve created a fair few programmes that combine both styles. Additionally, as I say later on about loving to decipher strange and difficult scores, I’m good at performing complex minimalist pieces by composers such as John Adams and Graham Fitkin. Recently I’ve been obsessed with Messiaen and Crumb and if you ask me in a year’s time I might say completely different things!

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Poetry and literature often provide sources of inspiration on stage, particularly when I’m improvising. I find that little snippets of poetry that I’ve been reading pop into my head when I’m on stage improvising. This isn’t always ideal, but it definitely influences and inspires my work! I’ve also written a few pieces that take inspiration from various books that I’ve loved reading.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I often like to base a lot of my repertoire choices on areas of contemporary repertoire that are new to me. For example during my masters, I chose a lot of pieces that use graphic scores/notations and extended techniques. Before that I performed a lot of long, intense minimalist works. Amongst all of this I almost always include improvisation in my programmes. I find it interesting listening back to how the improvisations differ according to the kind of repertoire I’ve chosen at that time. I really like pieces that feel like a game or a puzzle to decipher.

Recently I’ve been choosing repertoire that involves live electronics or soundtracks as well as pieces for talking or moving pianist. They’re as fun to learn as they are to perform, and I love performing pieces that challenge the notion of what the role of a ‘classical’ pianist is, or how they should behave during performances.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I’m still in the early days of my career and (hopefully!) I’ll be performing in lots of wonderful venues. However since coming to Trinity Laban I’ve had several opportunities to perform in the Old Royal Naval Court Chapel in Greenwich and it’s been an incredible experience. The acoustics are amazing, it almost feels like you’re having a duet with the architecture itself. As it is so ‘boomy’, I wouldn’t say it’s the best place to perform in to get the best quality of sound, but I really love the feeling of playing there.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

This question is kind of linked up to what I consider to be the most important ideas and concepts for aspiring musicians. The music venues that encourage genre-blurring performances that combine styles, disciplines and a relaxed, welcoming concert etiquette are the ones which are going to attract wider audiences/listeners. Some of my favourite concerts have been in pubs and bars, art galleries, museums and community centres. These concerts were packed with audiences who wouldn’t traditionally listen to contemporary or contemporary classical music. However in this setting they were some of the most responsive audiences. People are open to new experiences if they are made to feel that they belong there and I think this is something that classical musicians and institutions have not done enough of and need to encourage.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I think one of the most memorable concert experiences I’ve had in the last couple of years was at Trinity Laban’s New Lights Piano Festival in 2019 where I performed Nicole Lizeé’s Hitchcock Études for piano, soundtrack and film. It was my first time performing a piece that includes multi-media in this way and it was an incredible feeling playing along with the all-encompassing, beautifully crafted soundtrack. I played this piece along with Carolina Saddi-Cury and Chiara Naldi (masters students at TL), each of us having in-ear monitors and quickly switching places to play several of the études each. This was on the last day of the festival and we had a full house. The Hitchcock Études are sinister, comedic and eerily serene; It was one of those wonderful performances where I felt completely absorbed by the atmosphere of the film and the audience, who were very welcoming.

The other most memorable performance was just before lockdown at Deptford Does Art: an art gallery and performance space in SE London. I performed one of my own pieces ‘Ours’ for an exhibition called Queer(ing) Space. Queer(ing) Space explored the experience of Queer people in London and the environments that they exist in/the environments which they can express themselves. I was asked to write Ours for the exhibition and the art gallery (which is tiny!) was packed with a wonderful, loving crowd. It was my first time performing a composition which entirely consisted of electronic music and I felt honoured to be part of an event that I felt was meaningful for the Queer community in Deptford.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

If I’m effectively communicating what I want to say to someone musically, that’s when I’m happiest. So I think that my definition of success is when I’m performing, or working on something, be that composing practising or improvising, with the knowledge that I’ll be able to communicate it to an audience.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Something that has really struck me throughout my career so far is that the boundaries between genres – electroacoustic music, contemporary music, classical music, improvisation, popular music etc – don’t really mean anything, or that they don’t need to limit your music making. You can combine any and all of these styles, you don’t need to create work that fits a specific box. I’ve created work that appeals to pop music listeners that also appeals to people who tend to listen to classical music. Especially in music education, it often feels like these genres are incredibly distanced from one another and that once you’ve started on a path pursuing one thing, there’s no way to go back and use different styles. So I would say to aspiring musicians that if they’re ever curious about experimenting with different genres and styles, they should do it without worrying about ‘what kind of music it is’. When I was younger, I spent far too much time worrying about how my work would be defined. Without sounding cheesy, I think that the undefinable things are often the best.

What is your present state of mind?

Lockdown has been a really strange time for everyone, and I am no different. I’ve been socially distancing in my small flat with my partner and my cat…which has been both wonderful and challenging as we have so little space! In the last few months I’ve gone through (admittedly brief) periods of feeling really productive and then periods of feeling like it’s impossible to create anything. Something that has been a real positive, driving force, however, is curating and preparing material for Trinity Laban’s New Lights Piano Festival (Online edition). It’s been so inspiring to see TL students creating innovative contemporary performances and improvisations from their homes. The festival has given me something I can work towards and has continues to give me ideas about what we’re going to do in 2021, when we can put on the festival again to a live audience. The festival will be running from the 6th– 12th July 2020 and each video will be released at 5pm.

Maya-Leigh Rosenwasser is a co-curator of Trinity-Laban’s Preludes to New Lights Festival, which runs from 6-12 July online. Maya-Leigh will be giving a multi-media performance of Norbert Zehm’s Prelude in Turquoise, improvising alongside Norbert’s live action painting. Full details of all events

Maya-Leigh Rosenwasser is a performer, improviser and composer, specialising in performing and composing new works for piano (solo and chamber), live electronics and multi-disciplinary ensembles. She has participated in numerous venues and events across Europe such as Greyfriarks Kirk (Edinburgh), Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Piano Festival 2016-2018, soloist with St Bartholomew’s Chamber Orchestra (London), Tanthem Live (immersive & improvised theatre, London), solo performance to the ambassador of the EU (Brussels), Bozsok Music Festival (Budapest) and in the Steinway Gallery (Cyprus) where she was also featured on national radio. Maya-Leigh is one of the founding members of Equinox & THIS THUS, two multi-disciplinary improvisational ensembles, and New Woods Collective, a wind trio specialising in specially commissioned repertoire for bass Clarinet, flute/piccolo, piano and electronics.

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