Name: Max Petersen
Occupation: Pianist, composer, improviser
Current release: Max Petersen's LiberA is out now and available via his own bandcamp store.
If you enjoyed this interview with Max Petersen, visit his official website for more information. He is also on Facebook, and Soundcloud.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc. play?
The first impulse is usually connected to projects - so I'm preparing, composing, or arranging new music. But, for sure, what's going on in my life has an impact on the music. Personal relationships are a big factor, because the people I collaborate with have a big impact on my music. This was the case with LiberA, when there were times where I mainly found myself listening to my co-musicians. Leading that group meant listening to them carefully and trying to find the right sound, for all of us.
Usually when I research new music, I'm also researching its history, the time in which it was created and the story of the people who were responsible for it. It's really interesting how the music usually reflects the human experience on every level very thoroughly. It's also interesting to look at that from a musicologist perspective, since it's also reflected in music theory and music concepts. But that's a different story …
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualization' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
When I’m composing I do that a lot! I have a lot of sketches and notes, they are very abstract and usually mean nothing to me a couple months later. They come as words, general ideas, musical phrases or concepts etc.
So, there is quite a bit of planning involved, but I try to anticipate the musical practice, which means I'm usually composing with people in mind.
For LiberA that was very much the case - the music on this album was written specifically for this ensemble.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
Usually the first idea is difficult – so, I start with defining what it is that I need to do. When I'm not working on a concrete project a lot of ideas manifest themselves anyway, this happens while I’m researching, studying or just thinking about things.
Once I land a new project, I just flesh them out on paper. Once the idea is clear with the first set of notes - most of the time it’s already the whole piece -the rest comes very quickly.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Usually that happens quickly and organically, once the idea and intention of the piece is clear to me. While composing the first thing that I often do is introduce a new compositional concept, and then I think about the orchestration or what it means to play the piece with specific musicians.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
When I work on my music or when I’m composing, there is no particular state that occurs every time … My music reflects existential themes and deals with difficult subjects. Therefore, there might be a something spiritual about it or a connection to something larger than myself.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Again, this is very much connected to projects. And it is therefore also connected to an audience and a concrete way of communicating with them -may it be through an album or single release or a video …
That's important to me, because then the question about the “endless process” is not so much about perfectionism, but about: what do I have to say? Or: what needs to be done? So, if you choose to “work on something infinitely”, you choose to say “nothing” to your audience, which, frankly, is not good. Because there are limits to what one can do, finishing a work is about finding the best way, or the right way, under the circumstances, rather than chasing after a fleeting notion of the idea of perfection.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I don't get super involved, but I care about it, of course. Especially with LiberA, we had four days in the studio for mixing, alone. But, then again, it's very much about collaborating with people.
Regarding the process of mixing and mastering of my records, I work with people who just know so much more about this than I do … so usually it's just about bringing in another perspective, that the sound engineers usually don’t have because they don’t know the compositions as well as I do, or explaining what's important for us as a group, sonically.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I don't get that. But I think what happens at times, when people release something, is that there is this hype connected to the celebration and the commercial outreach of the release, and that might make people a little less careful about their choices. I think that could be what creates a sense of emptiness.
Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?
I'm a pianist and I compose. That's mainly what I do - other sounds and influences in my music are derived from the nature of the collaboration.
In my opinion the piano is one of the hardest instruments to engage with, because there is such a vast, diverse and, at times, overwhelming history of music related to this instrument. And if you choose to learn from great pianists - as you do, when you study the piano - you're very quickly exposed to the process of composing music, because the keyboard is the key tool, next to the written score, for conceptualizing classical music.
I think that I always find myself in this role when I sit at the piano: of seeing the larger picture compositionally and in terms of how I will interact with the ensemble. Even if I don't play a lot of notes, it's just something inherent to this particular instrument …
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
It's interesting to me how, today, we tend to separate those two words in a dualistic way. I think that has to do with our relationship to language in the West. While speaking, we all improvise constantly and we do it very intuitively, yet when we write a text down, may it be a poem or any other form of a written text, we understand language as an abstraction and visualisation, which allows us to combine things and reframe things while spending more time on it.
It’s the same for classical music, at least traditionally, as all the older “classical styles” were also, in practice “spoken”, meaning “improvised”. It is a phenomenon of the 20th century classical music, that the script dictates everything. And the constructivist’s notion of making music more “spontaneous”, by including what we today call improvisation, is not only a postmodern phenomenon, but is also somewhat limited in its effect, as it can't replace the language that evolves when music is practiced without a score or is connected to the human experience.
Having said that, on LiberA we had a lot of space for group “improvisations”, which we later cut down and combined with composed sections to arrive at the final tracks. Today, when you play in an ensemble, the words “free” and “improvisation” just trigger certain attitudes, styles, and ways of expressing the music, which is why those words work for us, and we find ourselves “improvising freely” a lot.
Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?
That will follow … But this perspective misses an audience.
I don’t just play music for me and my co-musicians, but I do it mainly for my audience. That’s important, because even if we improvise, a lot of the concepts and aspects of the music don't just communicate our personal decisions at a particular moment in time. Music is a lot more complex and it reflects more narratives, voices, experiences etc.
An obvious example would be me playing two voices on the piano, which creates the narrative of two characters, that are not connected to me the pianist, the musician.
Playing solo is very different from playing in a group - playing with a rhythm section changes everything. But the piano is a very potent instrument, that can emulate a lot of sounds and aesthetics simultaneously …
I think that what changes the most for me while playing with my trio, with drums and bass, is that it's very much about what the others try to express, rather than my personal vision.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind for your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I have a lot of ideals, but being creative is not one of them. I try to be helpful, useful, caring – just a good neighbour, really … that's also true when I prepare, compose or study music. I think the concept of the “ideal state of mind” comes along with the notion, that one can find truth in themselves, rather than engaging with the world. This idea is very popular these days (and btw. subliminally present in identity politics, the Western esoteric and the neoliberalism of our times …).
Rather than thinking of strategies on how to isolate the self and avoid distraction, I like thinking of virtues and good ways to engage with the world. As a composer I usually try to include some new concepts that I have been studying (that includes extramusical concepts), and write new music for new projects.
As a pianist I'm mainly preparing concerts. I spend a lot of time thinking and studying things thoroughly, which is important and fulfilling. If the intent of the projects is good, and I'm collaborating with people that I truly believe in and trust, it makes me happy - that would be an “ideal state”, so to speak.
Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting?
There are many factors, but to me, personally, good preparation is key. I also care about the audience and try to understand who I'm playing for … This has an impact on decision-making while playing.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
That’s something I'm trying to get better at. I try to get used to the instrument once I arrive add at a new venue. Putting the focus on understanding what the room brings to the music and the performance could be the key to the quality of the show … if you can anticipate the acoustic and sonic qualities of a space, you can change the setup, and the way you play, whether it’s the choice of pieces or how you approach the instrument. Still a lot to learn here …
How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?
LiberA was the first album that I created with a producer. Valentin Liechti had a big impact on the music. This body of work was formed by him as much as by every musician who took part in the recordings.
Traditionally, in jazz and in classical music, the studio experience is somewhat similar to the live experience, because records are a selection of takes with mild edits, and this was also the case for my former records.
LiberA was made differently, and the studio experience was very different to the live experience. Some of the freely improvised sections on LiberA were edited together and there are some overdubs in there as well. Plus, the arrangements, and even the names of some tracks, were created in post. In a concert setting, arrangements are predetermined before the concert, or they are a part of the “language” and musical practice.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
There were a few of those, but all of them were connected to meeting or hearing or engaging with certain people who inspired me and became important for me, personally and musically.
Recently, this happened while hearing the premiere of Liza Lim’s piece for the piano and orchestra, played by the Serbian pianist Tamara Stefanovich, at Donau-eschinger Musiktage. She's an Australian composer whom I find very inspiring, and this piece was extraordinary! This was one of those pivotal musical moments for me …