Interview with Composer Noah Max

Noah Max credit Liz Isles

Noah Max came to the notice of the wider public this year when his opera A Child in Striped Pyjamas, based on the book, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, premiered at the Cockpit theatre. He was interviewed on Radio 4 and his opera received glowing reviews.

Max is now set to premier his String Quartet No.2 at the Thaxted Festival this summer. The Essex town is famous for its Gustav Holst connection and 2024 will be Holst’s 150th birthday.

Karine Hetherington from ArtMuseLondon went to talk to Noah Max.

You are quite prolific and have many connected interests and talents. You must have been brought up in an artistic household …

Yes – My parents were both musicians and I’ve written for both on numerous occasions. They were always putting my siblings and I in touch with interesting artistic influences. We travelled around London to see what was on offer. We did crafts days at home. They never insisted that I take an artistic path, but they gave me the tools to connect with that world. I am grateful for that – they did a grand job.

Did you always think you would be a musician – composer?

Growing up I really wanted to be a film director. I was making movies from the age of 9 with a basic camera. I was editing shorts and putting them on YouTube. It set me apart from the academic environment I was in. It also set me apart from my parents. At that time, I had become increasingly disillusioned with typical school academia. I ended up going to the Purcell School of Music for sixth form, not with the aim of becoming a musician, but because I wanted to be surrounded by similarly minded creative people, who, like me had been doing the music thing since a very early age.

At what point did you decide to take up music as a career?

I had injured my back during an orchestral project. I was sat down in rehearsals watching the orchestra play Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade and I just remember thinking, how can I not be part of this world. I’m completely in love with it. I had been composing pieces since my pre-teens. I decided to invest myself in composing because it struck me that the activities, I succeeded in, were the ones where I could create something from scratch.

When you wrote your opera, ‘The Child in Striped Pyjamas’ – did you get involved in the direction of it as you had been a filmmaker?

I did at first, but for the premier I didn’t direct – I’m not a theatre director. That job involves working closely with actors, that’s not my forte. I worked with a director who was very music minded. But certainly, I love drama!

Yes – that’s very evident in your music. I’ve been listening to your String Quartet no 1 online, which you based on the book The man who planted trees by French writer Jean Giono. I was particularly interested in it as I am a fan of the writer. Do you have any links with Provence where Giono was from? Your music seems to conjure the high airy plateaus very well.

I don’t but I remember reading Giono’s book when I was young, and it made a deep impression on me. It has an ecological resonance right now but for me it was more about a man who achieves the impossible. About a man who changes the lives of others, those around him and strangers. It’s an inspiring story which made me write that quartet.

Giono says that despite everything, “humanity is admirable”. Is that what you believe?

No. I don’t believe it is. It can be and we should strive to be. My opera and Boyne’s book is the antithesis of Giono’s short story and shows how much barbarity we are capable of.

Your Quartet no. 2 receives its world premiere at the Thaxted Festival. The quartet was inspired by sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, and painter Miro, particularly his work entitled ‘The Ladder of Escape’. Can you talk more about this …

The title particularly appealed to me. And some of my music takes in these very important biblical influences which come from my background growing up as a modern orthodox Jew. The Ladder of Escape title has the Jacob’s ladder quality to it. Some of the artwork is present to some degree in my quartet, but the music isn’t a straight depiction of those artists.

What keeps you constantly creative and what tips would you give budding composers?

The most practical tip I can think of – is simply to do your work. It’s one of my mantras. The hardest thing to nail is a robust daily schedule. If you have a daily practice of actually making stuff, it’s like training in the gym, it makes you leaner, fitter, faster, more efficient. I don’t like to romanticise the process. Obviously, you need the days off to daydream, to think – you don’t want to self-cannibalise as a composer.

You learnt on the cello. Writing for other instruments. How do you write for the flute for example?

One of my favourite parts of the job is the fact that I have friends and colleagues who play so many different instruments. We spend a lot of time together and talk through the technical issues. If I am writing for a specific performer, I may ask them about technique they particularly like using – I love the workshopping and the collaboration with others.


Thaxted Festival

Season Preview:

Noa Max will exhibiting his art at the Naze Tower until the 18th June 2023:

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