Saturday 16 October 2021

Freedom and balance: I chat to composer Noah Max whose work is in the Clements Prize for Composers at Conway Hall

Noah Max conducting the Echo ensemble (Photo Liz Isles, Dec 2020.)
Noah Max conducting the Echo Ensemble (Photo Liz Isles, Dec 2020.)

The Conway Hall has revived the Clements Prize for Composers as a way of supporting young musicians and new music. The final takes place on Sunday 17 October 2021 where seven pieces will be performed by members of the Piatti Quartet. Included in the list is Sojourn by Noah Max (written in 2017), and earlier this week I met up with Noah to chat about composition, conducting, playing the cello, painting and more. [Update: Sojourn won first prize in the competition, read more in Bernard Hughes' article on The Arts Desk]

If you look at Noah's website there seems to be not one but several Noah's, conductor, founder of the Echo Ensemble, composer, artist and more, and I was intrigued to find out which was the real Noah, how did he want to be remembered? Noah's path has been somewhat varied, he concentrated on the cello whilst he was at the Purcell School, going on to develop as a conductor and as a composer, but it is only recently that he has come to realise that he is a composer foremost. Whilst this is, to some extent, a more ephemeral career he has come to realise that he needs to create something from scratch. Music is his first language, he grew up with music and he enjoys the way composing moves from a solo activity, when writing the music, to being far more collaborative when it comes to working on the new work with performers. By contrast, his painting is a purely solo activity, no-one else is involved, and he sees it as an outlet for the immediate expulsion of emotions.

Noah Max at Wigmore Hall (Photo Quentin Poole, Dec 2019)
Noah Max and Endymion at Wigmore Hall (Photo Quentin Poole, Dec 2019)

Conducting also features his love of collaboration, but he also refers to it as an unusual job adding that he cannot understand why anyone would want to do it! And of course, there is also the philosophical question, what exactly does it mean to be a conductor? Yet, when there are sufficient musicians in a room it is evident that a conductor is needed. 

He sees music as abstract and strange, it deals in emotions not ideas and his hope is that his music will endure, and his aim as a composer is to 'tell the truth'. Much of Western classical music is based around the tension between consonance and dissonance, and he sees this as an abstraction of the same conflict in real life. And with any work of art, he feels that you know you have created something valuable when it means something to someone else.

It was Simon Speare, his composition teacher at the Purcell School, who helped Noah come to terms with the fact that he had a composer in him, and Noah admires Speare's approach as he takes students as they are, rather than moulding them he provokes them. Another great compositional influence is Edwin Roxburgh, whom Noah describes as the UK's greatest living composer, and for Noah, Roxburgh's music is entrancing on so many levels. After the Purcell School, Noah went to study at music college but left after a term because the highly structured environment did not suit him (this topic of not fitting in is one that we came back to a few times during the interview) and Noah studied privately both as a conductor and a composer, including studying with Roxburgh.

His work being played on Sunday, Sojourn, is 'quasi-serial'; it was written in 2017 in memory of the composer Melanie Daiken (1945-2016). But when writing music he is usually drawn to some kind of tonal centre, often with complex harmony. He feels that there is so much to be said, still, about tonality as well as bitonality and polytonality, and comments that whilst experiments in bitonality and polytonality were common in earlier 20th-century British music with composers such as Gustav Holst, it seems to have rather dropped out of the current compositional lexicon.

Noah Max and Echo Ensemble at Royal Albert Hall (Photo Liz Isles, June 2019)
Noah Max and Echo Ensemble before making their Royal Albert Hall debut premiering Noah's Immolation Dances (Photo Liz Isles, June 2019)

During the pandemic, Noah had a series of instrumentalist friends ringing him up saying that they felt that they might quit, so to give them a challenge he would quickly write them an instrumental piece. The fruits of this process developed into an online series with his Echo Ensemble [on YouTube]. Noah admires versatility and admires a composer like Hindemith who wrote music for everyone. In his own case, a wide variety of instruments creates a wide variety of styles. Noah doesn't have the concept of writing in a particular style, when composing a new piece and faced with a blank piece of paper, he constantly reinvents what it means to create a piece of music and he admires artists such as Beethoven and David Bowie who constantly reinvented their style.

He does not always write with a particular audience in mind, and he feels that it is important to get out of the way and simply let the music flow through you, as a channel. But music is also a service-oriented genre, it is very much a generous act to put on a concert yet you want people to engage with the music, to have a fully rounded experience. He feels that a lot of 20th-century music was experimentation, and not all of it is completely suitable for the modern concert hall. But he adds depreciatingly that he can get a bit vain if he thinks too much about the audience, and that there is a lot to be said for simply having a regular music writing routine.

And when he's come down off the cloud and is actually rehearsing something that he's written, he can easily think 'how the hell am I going to manage this', and this has led him to become obsessive about typesetting, as clarity in the parts makes the rehearsal processes easier, so improving the layout of the music on the page makes everyone in room happier.

His Echo Ensemble began when he was at the Purcell School and has continued, performing both his own music and that of other composers. So, Noah has known some of the performers for 10 years, and the ensemble allows him and his colleagues to collaborate on great music and perform it live. Also, many of the players are freelancers, performing whatever music comes along and Echo allows them to concentrate on music that is meaningful for them. Whilst there are other composers on Echo's programmes, Noah loves writing challenging works for the ensemble to create a focus for the programmes. Echo's pandemic contribution was to go online, creating four series of videos on YouTube [series 1, series 2, series 3, series 4] including a 25-episode Advent Calender, and they drew feedback from listeners worldwide. Going forward he is unsure what will happen to online content as part of the concert experience, but he feels that the work Echo put in had a strong effect on helping people get through a challenging time.

With so many strings to his bow, I wondered quite how Noah balanced the different aspects of his work. He admits that until recently he had not thought about this, but as a result of the wave of anti-Semitism which grew up in the last year he decided to write a 75-minute opera set during the Holocaust and he realised that he needed to map his time. He continues to do this, having writing days (when he writes 9 am to 6 pm and has no appointments), rehearsal days (when the musicians deserve his full attention) and more free-form days. For Noah, unstructured time is important as a creative artist, it is when he makes creative discoveries (including when on long walks). His creative life requires him to be outside the room, but actually writing the music requires the opposite, and again balance is required.

This idea of freedom comes up in the larger context of Noah's working life, he admits that he often feels that he does not fit inside existing structures and wants to push whatever boundaries are placed around him. This means that despite some highly meaningful working relationships, the things that he is often most proud of are often things that he has done himself. He finds it difficult with the rigid walls of an institution around him, no matter how well-meant these walls are, and admits to a tendency to have friction with authority.

Noah Max: Naked Forms (Aug/Sep 2020)
Noah Max: Naked Forms (Aug/Sep 2020)
Looking ahead, besides the Clements Prize tomorrow, the pianist Thomas Kelly will be recording a programme of Noah's piano works for The state51 Conspiracy, and Kelly will be performing Noah's music at St Gabriel's Church, Pimlico on 22 November [tickets from TicketSource]. 

On 11 November 2021, Echo Ensemble is joining forces with Epiphoni Consort, conducted by Noah, to perform a Remembrance Day concert at Holy Trinity Church, Prince Consort Road, which includes Durufle's Requiem, plus music by Noah, David Bednall (whose music Epiphoni has recorded for Delphian, see my review) and Brahms [tickets from EventBrite].

The Clements Prize at the Conway Hall, 6.30pm, Sunday 17 October 2021 - music by Jacob Fitzgerald, Alex Groves, Vivek Haria, Noah Max, Emily Pedersen, Alexander Verster, Dominic Wills and Joseph Phibbs - Piatti Quartet. Further details from Conway Hall.

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