This Life in Music: Composer and Pianist Maxwell J McKee

Composer and Pianist Maxwell J. McKee

Composer and Pianist Maxwell J McKee

The first time I ran across Maxwell J McKee was at a recital of student work at Bard. The first half of the concert closed with McKee’s Double Helix for string quartet, “captivating,” I wrote at the time, “from the opening breath of violin played at the edge of its sound.” Double Helix has since garnered McKee an ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award and the Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle’s composition prize.

I later heard the world premiere of McKee’s Contemporaneous commission, Double Quintet with Percussion. It was in McKee’s introduction to Double Quintet that I first learned of a common malady among composers known as “Ligeti’s Syndrome.”

Of Double Quintet, I wrote:

McKee demonstrates, as he had with his student recital piece Double Helix, a gift for graceful melodic line. Double Quintet begins with a series of gently falling notes. McKee knows how to take his time, how to let the music develop its meditative point. On a flutter of winds, the music turns its face toward a lovely, lilting rhythm, and plucked strings carry us along its joyful path.  The music builds, in a gently rocking motion, toward an ecstatic end.

In addition to composing, McKee is a fine pianist. I’ve heard him perform on various keyboards in Contemporaneous concerts, including a toy piano and harpsichord. Most recently, as part of an excellent quartet that he assembled for his senior recital, he turned in a wonderful performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

I’m delighted to present Maxwell J McKee on Prufrock’s Dilemma.

Q: When did music first come into your life? Can you tell us about an early musical experience that has significance for you today?

Taking the question literally, I would say that music first entered my life before I even left the womb. Since my dad is a jazz bassist, he used to play his bass against my mom’s swollen belly, surrounding me with warm musical vibrations even in my earliest days. But as I was growing up as a young kid, I really hated jazz. I think that as a toddler, I was just traumatized by too many late night concerts and jam sessions where blazing trumpets and saxophones offended my sensitive young ears. So, turned off by jazz, I turned to rock and so-called alternative music like any other skinny white boy coming up in New Jersey at the time. I went through various phases with the music, starting with a deep love for the band Incubus, then for Alice in Chains, and even including a two-year stint as a bassist in a metal band in high school! It was only later in high school, when I began really studying the piano more seriously, that I was called back to jazz and then to classical music.

I recall the instance when classical music first had a major impact on me. I was on a snowboarding bus trip to a nearby mountain with a bunch of other kids from my high school. On the way there, I was listening to my iPod, and by some unknown impulsion I decided to listen to the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, which I had presumably acquired from my dad at some point. And what more can I say? Any person who has a deep appreciation for classical music has probably experienced it before: the power, the excitement—the awe and revelry—the intimacy with which the music fills you up and makes you feel so deeply human. And from that point I was captivated, driven toward the music, to create it in every way I know how. Here’s a link to the first movement of the Double Concerto on YouTube.

Q: You’re both a composer and an accomplished pianist. Can you talk a little about how each of these roles informs or influences the other?

To tell you the truth, balancing the two is probably the most difficult artistic challenge I have ever faced. I have found that it is really impossible, at least for me, to simultaneously do both on as high a level as I demand of myself. For this reason, I tend to go through phases in which one or the other dominates my creative life so-to-speak. That is, I focus intensely on one or the other for a span of a few months or more before switching back again. As for their relationship to each other, I feel that being deeply involved in both performance and composition has led me to the conviction that notated music (i.e. what is on the page) is imperfect.

A teacher of mine once said “Don’t ever make the mistake of believing that you write music. You only write instructions for someone else to make music, and you’ll only ever be as good as your instructions.” This is critical information from both sides of the composer-performer relationship. As a composer it is important to make your “instructions” as detailed and precise as possible so as to optimally communicate your musical conception to the performer. As a performer, it is important to understand that the page is not the be all end all of performance—that to execute everything exactly as written is not to create music—that it needs to have life breathed into it by the human spirit, your own spirit.

Q: Would you name for us a figure in music you particularly admire and tell us a little about why?

Oh geez. How to tackle this one? I mean, obviously the first answer is my teachers, since they are the “figures” that I am the closest to and have actual experience with. I feel that particularly Joan Tower and Blair McMillen have shown me what it means to lead a life in music—the art of spreading joy, love and compassion. Then there are the historical figures, and the list goes on and on. I’d say in terms of the music itself, composers who have had a big impact on me include György Ligeti, Steve Reich, John Luther Adams, Brahms, and many more. In terms of philosophy and thinking about music, the writings of John Cage and Steve Reich have been particularly influential to me. I know I’ve kind of skirted around this one, it’s just that I could never choose a single influence!

Q: For your senior recital, you and fellow students Stefany Sarmiento (violin), Noemi Sallai (clarinet), and Rastislav Huba (cello) turned in an excellent performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. I’m suspecting you like a challenge, as I learned from two of your professors just how hard it is to play the pianist’s part in this piece (which they both felt you nailed). Would you tell us how you came to select this piece, and what it was like to prepare for the performance?

I’ve known about the Quartet for the End of Time for a few years now. Having been to several live performances, I knew that it was an incredible piece, and when I received the score and parts as a gift last year, that basically sealed the deal of performing it—it then became a simple question of when, and a senior concert seemed like as good a time as any. Preparing for the concert was quite a journey. I’ve never really played the role of “band leader” as much as I had to in preparing this piece. In other chamber groups I’ve been involved with, rehearsal was always a very collaborative process in terms of discussing what we did with it musically and what parts of the piece we were going to work on in a given time. With the Messiaen project, it was a different story. When everyone showed up to rehearsal, I was expected to call the shots. Of course the others made musical contributions, and I don’t mean to dismiss or undermine that in any way. But I did make most of the judgement calls on which movements we would rehearse on a given day, and how much rehearsal was needed for different sections, which for a 55 minute piece is no small challenge! All in all it was a tremendous learning experience, for organizational and music-making skills alike!

Q: You don’t “just” play piano and compose music, but also study biology. How did you come to choose that course of study? Have you found any synergies between biology and music? If so, can you tell us a little bit about that?

I had always been a science wiz, but it all really culminated in my junior year of high school when I took AP Biology (an accelerated course). The teacher, Mr. O, was fantastic—he really knew the material and presented it in an accessible manner, and I ate it up! Between some very high test scores in biology and a good recommendation from Mr. O, I managed to win myself a merit-based, full-tuition science scholarship to Bard, and that’s how I’ve ended up here studying biology. The funny thing is that I was also taking AP Music Theory alongside this high school bio course, so I really saw the two disciplines as co-developing interests. When I arrived at Bard, I knew that I didn’t want to give up either one, so I planned from the very get-go to be a double major.

If only I had known what I was in for!! And since this seems to be the “outside of music” portion of the interview, I may as well mention that in addition to working toward two degrees in biology and music, I also joined the Bard College Swim Team this year. I am a firm believer that one of the keys to a healthy, happy life is the unity and balance of mind, body, and spirit, and I had been feeling for some time that I was not giving my body enough attention. That’s why last September I made it an express goal to get in touch with my body and be reunited in myself. I started swimming, going to yoga, and becoming more active, and by November I had joined the team! I can’t tell you how much more focus and determination it brings to the rest of my work. Every single day I re-learn the ever important lesson: When you don’t feel like you can take any more, you’re tired and down, just keep going. You will always surprise yourself with the things you can accomplish.

Q: With all you’re involved in, it’s hard to imagine you have any free time, but if you manage to squeeze some in, what do you like to do with it?

As a matter of fact, I’ve burnt myself out enough times to know that you can’t work all the time without growing weary and jaded, so I make a point of making down time. And I like to use it in a number of ways. For one, I am an avid reader. I would say that unless it is an exceptionally busy day or week, I try to set aside at least half-an-hour every night for reading. I tend to fixate on one author at a time, and right now I am in the throes of a year-long obsession with David Foster Wallace. (Although it is true that I have cheated on him a couple of times with other writers! Don’t tell!) If you haven’t read him and you like a good challenge, you should consider adding Infinite Jest to your reading list. I also try to read the New York Times at least a few times a week. And of course, I enjoy spending time with friends in a number of contexts like hiking, or playing board games, or just making dinner together and talking. One thing is for sure though: you will never catch me in front of a television screen!


About Maxwell J McKee

Born to a modern dancer and a jazz bassist in the suburbs of New Jersey, Maxwell J McKee has had a longtime love and appreciation for the arts. Though he began playing piano at the age of six, he didn’t come to composition until later in his teen years. McKee is currently a full-time student at Bard College where he studies composition with Joan Tower and George Tsontakis and piano with Blair McMillen. “Studying at Bard has been a rare opportunity. The professors with whom I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working have become like a family to me—mentors of the highest order.” In 2012, McKee was a recipient of the prestigious annual ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award and the Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle’s composition prize for his 2011 string quartet Double Helix. McKee currently resides in Red Hook, New York, where he is at work organizing a solo piano recital and composing an orchestra piece that will be played by the American Symphony Orchestra in 2014.


Listening List

Half-Life (performed by the composer)

© Maxwell J McKee. Reproduced by kind permission.

Half-Life earned its name only after the completion of the piece—that is, the name was not the inspiration or foundation of the piece but rather a label that could only be given retrospectively (i.e. when the piece was done, I looked at it and said, “What does this look like?” and the answer: Half-Life). That being said, the words “Half-Life” refer to a process of radioactive decay by which certain molecules and atoms are transformed over time. In the piece, the “molecule” is a melody which recurs several times, each time becoming transformed in some way, until finally it is interrupted by a series of dissonant chords which cascade to the low register of the piano in a stormy climax. Half-Life has been performed numerous times at Bard, as well as at Bargemusic in Brooklyn, NY, by Blair McMillen.

Double Helix

© Maxwell J McKee. Reproduced by kind permission.

Like Half-Life, Double Helix got its name after it was finished. In this case the name refers to the spiraling passages of interlocking arpeggios that occur throughout, and with increasing frequency toward the end of the piece. This piece was written for the Deer Valley Music Festival in Park City, UT, and it has received additional performances at Bard. Double Helix was the recipient of two 2012 music awards including the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award.

Double Quintet with Percussion

© Maxwell J McKee. Reproduced by kind permission.

The Double Quintet with Percussion is exactly what its name implies. Largely a study in texture and orchestration, the piece makes frequent use of tremolo, pizzicato strings, and other textural devices.

30 thoughts on “This Life in Music: Composer and Pianist Maxwell J McKee

  1. Jane and Lance Hattatt

    Hello Susan::
    We are, of course, in total awe and wonder having read this interview with Maxwell J. McKee for here is another example of an exceedingly talented and gifted young musician and one who, in this instance, is both composer and performer. And as if it were not enough to compose, to be an accomplished pianist, we note that he is also a biologist and, additionally, finds time to read and has learnt to relax..

    We really do envy you, Susan, your contact with these young people, your proximity to Bard College and the opportunity to hear so much music, not least that of the Contemporaneous concerts.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Jane & Lance: though you seem to have a lot of wonderful events your way, too, no? But, yes, I feel lucky indeed to be close enough to get up to Bard so often and hear the latest from talented people like Max.

  2. angela

    A wonderful interview, Susan. As I read, I listened to Double Helix and am in complete awe of its ‘silent’ beauty. I dare say if I were in the face of the storm your way, it would match the enviro fabulously in my mind – it invokes the thought of ice, snow and wind ~ a

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Angela: Max does know particularly well, I think, how to give his music time, space, and silence. He’s not in a rush, and the lyricism shines through. The mind of winter does certainly come into this piece, doesn’t it?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: perhaps by now you’ve listened to the video of Max explaining Liger’s syndrome. I couldn’t possibly do better, so I’ll just point you to that!

          1. peculiaritiesandreticences

            Absolutely not. As we speak I’m watching the videos from the sound design course. It’s week 3 of 4 and I finally feel like we’re getting somewhere. I feel like soon I’ll have enough tools at my disposal to start playing.

          2. peculiaritiesandreticences

            Here’s my responses so far:

            I’ve tried to use what, for the lack of a better phrase, I’d call “anti-Ligeti syndrome.” Ligeti has a huge influence on me (I especially hear it in “Tides”), but I can completely relate to what Max is describing about trying to measure up to Ligeti’s near-perfection. So, I do the opposite- I don’t even try to make something “good-” (because the impulse will tie one up in knots, and I end up trying too hard. I just do- and better yet if I can let chance be in the driver’s seat. Granular synthesis helps me do that, even if the results are weird.

            They’re very weird, but they are me.

  3. czandra

    many thanks for this, Susan. I plan to use this in my “science and spirit” class. Hope I can find it again on Wednesday!

  4. Britta

    Dear Sue,
    such a gifted young man – and he knows to work with his time and so can follow more than one interest. I loved that he is in the swim team now (what he does, he does profoundly)

  5. shoreacres

    I’m sure I’ve mentioned to you before one of my favorite sayings – “Play the music, not the instrument”. What that means, precisely, I still can’t say. But I did hear echoes of it in McKee’s comment that, “As a performer, it is important to understand that the page is not the be all end all of performance—that to execute everything exactly as written is not to create music—that it needs to have life breathed into it by the human spirit, your own spirit.”

    Very nice interview, and an intriguing take-away.

    1. David

      I had to read on to understand the Olympic look in the top photo – not unlike our own heartthrob diver. I’m always amazed by how articulate your young composers are: after all, music rather than words is their medium, but they know so well what they want.

      McKee has written a fine vehicle for his own outstanding pianistic talents there. Maybe he still needs to find his own voice, but no doubt that will come.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        David: What struck me particularly about Max’s music from the first time I heard it is something I’ve noted to you before: he’s not afraid of beauty. I hope (and I expect, given what I’ve heard so far) that he’ll never lose that capacity, whatever direction his music takes him. I, too, am enormously struck by how thoughtfully articulate Max and everyone else who has participated here has been. It gives me enormous faith in the future of classical music.

  6. Mark Kerstetter

    The way McKee describes “writing” music – I really appreciate that. I get very bored with classical music when the playing is not inspired; in fact when that happens it’s hard to see – sorry, hear – the point. Really enjoyed ‘Half-Life’.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I really appreciated that insight as well. I think there’s no question but that making music is a team effort. In this regard, I was also struck by Max’s description of his “band leader” role in the Messiaen. I can only add that the results were terrific.

  7. hilarymb

    Hi Susan .. living a full life – that’s wonderful he’s realised the way to fulfil his life … and especially not watching that dreaded box … and so brilliant to have such talent and ability to communicate at his age … wonderful post – thanks so much .. cheers Hilary

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Hilary: How nice to hear from you! Max, like all the other young men and women who’ve graced these pages, are an inspiration, to be sure. I’m proud to have come to know them and look forward to what comes next, like Max’s piece for orchestra coming up in 2014.

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