Noah Max, composer

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Having never quite fitted in anywhere, I’ve always admired those rebels who managed to sustain themselves as ‘outsiders ’- Leoš Janáček, Charles Ives, Michael Tippett… The two best examples I can think of also happen to be two of the most influential composers of all time: Ludwig van Beethoven and David Bowie. Both musicians reinvented what it means to make music with each work they wrote. In an interview promoting his album Heroes in 1977, Bowie revealed that he saw himself as ‘a person who tries to capture the rate of change’; I feel that he and Beethoven are similar in that regard.

My late mentor John Whitfield was a truly original thinker. By the time we met he was already unwell and it was my privilege to help take care of him during the last few years of his life. We pushed one another to keep promoting positive change in the music world, even when doing so was an almighty struggle.

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

‘Challenge ’is the term I prefer because it implies that adversity can be overcome. Each new project presents its own unique challenges; writing an orchestral commission is hard, and writing a solo sequenza is equally hard in a totally different way. I am currently working on a chamber opera, which is presenting the most significant hurdles I have yet encountered. Despite their complexity, these hurdles are lighting the way ahead and allowing me both to learn and to write the best piece I possibly can. As a teacher of mine once wrote in an email, ‘real composers face real challenges’ – a wonderful motivational maxim which I strive to live up to.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

After months of lonely toil, exploring a new work with other musicians is always a very special privilege. Once a piece is written, composers morph from being a‘ creator’ figure into a ‘mechanic’ working in service of the players. Music lives and breathes just as human beings do. The people we make music with are crucial to our experience of the music itself. Echo Ensemble is formed of extraordinary artists; however, their awe-inspiring talents are not what make them natural collaborators. What makes the Echo family a joy to collaborate with is the volume of authentic passion, joy and love they exude when they come together to share music. We all trust one another completely.

Of which works are you most proud?

All the ones that are finished! To some extent, writing a piece is analogous with giving birth. After a few performances the work’s personality and maturity develop more and more independently of its creator. I cherish that my pieces sounds so different each time a new performer explores them and feel immensely proud if it earns an accolade or further performances. Such achievements belong more to the piece than they do to me.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Great novelists are virtuosic in their use of language to animate characters, or the ‘character ’of a situation. I aspire to that versatility when writing music. It is hard to articulate what characterises compositional language because, broadly speaking, literature deals with ideas while music communicates emotions. That said, one feature I have discovered in almost every piece I have written is the emergence of some form of tonality, however obscured. This may spring from my belief that tonality is not an arbitrary system for organising sounds, like so many of the alternatives dreamt up to replace it in the 20th century. Tonality is our way of describing a naturally occurring phenomenon, the harmonic series, which is as much a part of the natural world as the air we breathe.

How do you work?

With discipline, when required – such as while writing this chamber opera. At other times my schedule can be more erratic and impulsive. Either way, I must write first thing in the morning. Writing music is a difficult task to stare down and the longer it is left the more difficult it gets. An ounce of bravery at dawn always pays off by the evening.

You are also a conductor. How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?

To most people a ‘conductor ’is a material which enables a flow of electrons or heat. Similarly, a conductor on public transport checks your ticket, enabling you to flow from where you are to where you want or need to be. To conduct an orchestra, then, is to enable a flow of everything, between everyone. Conductors too often frame themselves as Joseph Campbell’s mythical hero from The Hero With A Thousand Faces when in fact they are the hero’s guide, supporting the performers as they undertake a perilous quest in bringing music off the page.

As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?

I avoid doing so as much as possible, even when I have developed strong feelings about a work. Allowing the orchestra to first communicate their ideas through their playing helps us nurture a new interpretation into existence. Often the players have their own powerful ideas about how a piece should sound or feel. Telling people‘ how to play ’depletes the potential energy in the rehearsal room, while inviting manifold contributions and experimenting with the most exciting options maximises it.

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

Painting. I just adore everything about it.

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

People go to events not for those putting them on but for themselves. In a city like London you can hear world-class performers playing live for free. Image, not cost, is the barrier keeping people away from the concert hall. Classical music’s image has become self-reverential and we must make music an other-focussed pursuit if we want wider audiences to take our creations into their hearts. There are infinite ways we can do this providing we first decide to commit.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

As a composer, success means capturing something in music which is true. As a conductor, it means achieving things together beyond what we dreamed was possible while we were apart.

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

Concepts and ideas are important, but they are secondary to action. Play as much chamber music as you can, go to as many concerts as you have time for, write about music and artists you love or hate – figure out why you feel the way you do. Put on events if you feel driven to do so; if you don’t, support your friends when they do. If you are a composer, make sure you hear everything you write played by a real person. If you are not a composer, try orchestrating and collaborate with people who compose. Do not just sit alone in a practice room all day, every day – anything but that! Go out and make something happen, however tiny. If you decide to make your contribution to the very best of your current abilities, the world will be a better place for everyone.

Where would you like to be in 10 years ’time?

Wow, I’m not certain. I have numerous ideas about it and they are all very different! Ten-year plans tend not to pan out how we expect because as we project further forwards in time, errors accumulate exponentially. I prefer to think in stretches of three years, planning around the projects and interests currently fuelling my creativity.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfection and happiness are two formidably complex ideas and I don’t claim to understand either of them. What I do know is that I experience the greatest fulfilment I can imagine while pursuing meaning, truth and hope through making art.

What is your most treasured possession?

The majority of what I love and value most in this world are people, not things. There are a handful of books on my shelf and several paintings I have done which I really do treasure with all my heart.


Noah Max inspires hope through creativity and envisions a world where everyone feels connected through art. He champions process, facilitates collaboration and strives with every creation to discover worlds we never knew existed. Noah sheds light on every corner of the Arts and the human experience as a conductor, composer, painter, writer, speaker and Creative Director of the Echo Ensemble.

noahmax.net

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