Meet the Artist – Paul Max Edlin, composer

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Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I always wanted to be a musician. My grandparents on my mother’s side were both opera singers – my grandmother was a soprano and my grandfather a tenor, both were principals in the D’Oyly Carte and sang with Carl Rosa. My mother was an artist, an outstanding painter. So I was brought up surrounded by music and art, a lot of it surrealist. I went to some dreadful prep schools, but my mum got me to a Rudolf Steiner School, and there, at Michael Hall, I met the inspiring Mr Masters – Brien Masters. He was a wonderful teacher, musician and poet. He urged me to compose seriously and taught me how to notate, so I have him and that beautiful school to thank especially.

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

Many people and things have influenced and inspired me and I have seriously eclectic taste. My childhood and grandmother’s stories about Gilbert and Sullivan productions no doubt triggered my passion for opera. Oscar Peterson inspired my teenage years. As a trumpeter, I initially wanted to be a jazz musician, then turned to the baroque natural trumpet and was hooked on Maurice Andre. My student years at the Royal College of Music were the best musical years of my life! Edwin Roxburgh had a profound impact on me, and every lesson was a masterclass in composition. So too did John Wallace, who was an utterly inspirational trumpet teacher and support. But I also learned much from Joseph Horovitz and Richard Blackford, and Michael Finnissy at Sussex – all very different composers. In my twenties I became obsessed with the art and architecture of South East Asia and spent a good twelve years writing pieces directly inspired by Angkor and Javanese temples. I could instil a clear design and adorn it with colourful fantasy – just as the temples are so direct in proportions yet so ornate in final result. In a curious way, that ties in with my love of jazz and spontaneous and effervescent lines. Symbolism too. I love saying things in music that I cannot dare to say in public.

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

I remember Ken Russell’s film about Delius. Towards the end, Delius grumbles that his music is only played on BBC radio once a fortnight when it had been on every day. It said at a stroke that composers/musicians/humans can often be unsatisfied with their lot – even lucky Delius! Personally, I have a hugely fulfilling creative life, which encompasses so many aspects of musical endeavour. However, I always wish for more time to compose. That is a general frustration. I would also say that the contemporary music scene can be too closed. When I ran Sounds New, I believe we broke the mould. We embraced contemporary music of a wide variety and were proud to do so. As a result we attracted ever-growing and increasingly engaged audiences. I think that in an attempt to appear ‘modern’ and ‘of the moment’, too many contemporary music platforms favour hard, gritty and sometimes ugly and dull music. Other more ‘mainstream’ organisations can choose the ‘soft focus’ and ‘easy listening’ approach, which achieves little in the long term. I don’t say that as a fuddy-duddy, traditionalist or dye-hard, just as an aficionado and devotee of all types of contemporary music who wishes to see it more widely appreciated, understood and regularly incorporated into concert life. I know very many who quietly agree with me.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I am impelled to compose, irrespective of whether or not a work is commissioned. And… Commissions are not always easy to fulfil. They can be for forces or subjects that doesn’t immediately get the creative juices flowing. So one has to ‘make’ inspiration out of that challenge. That said, my last serious commission, for the London Chamber Orchestra and around 150 young people (performed May 2017), was something I’d always dreamed of doing – a substantial piece of music that was uncompromising yet totally ‘educational’. That was exceptionally rewarding to do, but hugely challenging in that I had to be totally flexible and continually write a range of parts that embraced the easiest possible – a challenge for us ‘complex’ souls.

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

Working with a special musician, artist or ensemble in mind can be deeply inspiring. To be able to take into account a specific human voice, for instance, understand its most special characteristics and incorporate those into the creative process, can be a beautiful thing. However, I would say that I think of particular musicians even when I am writing for personal pleasure. And when writing operas (my crazy passion) I do think of specific voices as I compose, indeed create a character or role. I think it’s fair to say that every mezzo-soprano part I have ever written has had Sarah Connolly in mind. Hers is the mezzo voice of perfection!

Of which works are you most proud?

At the time, I was very proud of my first opera, ‘The Fisherman’, which was (and I believe remains) the only full-length student opera that the RCM produced in many decades. I was told since Vaughan Williams. That said, VW’s first opera was written after he left the RCM, so I can’t work that out. Maybe it was someone else? However, I now see shortcomings in that early piece. Of other works, there are two specific operas: ‘Bayon’ (totally impractical, in five acts with an enormous cast and vast orchestra) and ‘La Belle et La Bête’ (just completed one act opera, for two voices and another foolishly large orchestra). Both are unperformed and may probably remain so, but I’m most proud of them. Of performed works, I’d cite ‘Three Old Gramophones’ (highly autobiographical, and not without humour) and ‘Don – a Cello Concerto’.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

People tell me that my music is strangely accessible. Often they say that in a surprised way, because it is often so complex, and they had anticipated it to be daunting. That pleases me. I like complex musical webs, yet I like music to be understood and to directly impact on people. Fundamentally, I believe that so-called hard-edged contemporary music can be beautiful and can beguile. I don’t ascribe to compromise, yet I do want the listener to be absorbed ‘within’ a musical voyage that has an effect on them and – for want of a better expression, ‘moves’ them.

How do you work?

In blocks of weeks – ideally uninterrupted, usually in the summer months as university work allows. I create in the morning, setting a rigorous routine. Then in the afternoon and often long into the night, I refine, orchestrate, develop the material I established at the start of the day. Ideas flow that way, and there is continuity to the creation. During the period of composition I am basically totally lost to all others! I write very quickly as a result.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Mahler, Messiaen, Takemitsu, Strauss, Mozart and Bach are among the composers I most adore and whose sound worlds continually inspire me. Exceedingly close behind are Beethoven, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel and Xenakis. Oscar Peterson is at the top of the first list too. If a genie ever granted me one musical wish, I’d choose to be able to play the piano like that. ‘OP’ had a profound influence on my development in my early years and I never tire of listening to him.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Creative fulfilment and the ability to make a positive impact on others.

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

Be open minded, hard working, focussed, creatively ambitious and giving. We are all vessels through which art passes, and we have a duty to nurture it, support it, create it, foster it and develop it. In other words, be a full part of the creative cycle.


 

Paul Max Edlin has a career that combines composing, conducting, trumpet playing, lecturing and artistic direction.

His compositions have been performed both nationally and abroad by many leading artists, ensembles and orchestras. He has a particular interest in opera, and his first opera, The Fisherman, was premiered to wide critical acclaim in a production for the London International Opera Festival. Opera Magazine described Paul as ‘our latest operatic prodigy’. His most recent full-length opera is an adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding in the translation by Ted Hughes. In 2013 he completed an operatic monodrama, Frida, a setting of the diaries of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Recent commissions include a new work for Sarah Connolly (Wigmore Hall, 2014), the UK Society of Recorder Players (Kings Lynn, 2015). In 2015 he completed a new work for orchestra, Five Illusions. In 2016 he succeeds Cheryl Frances Hoad as Composer in Residence for London Chamber Orchestra’s Music Junction programme.

Edlin’s works have received broadcasts on BBC 2, BBC Radio 3, as well as on Radio and Television abroad.

He was a founder member of the Artistic Group of Sounds New Contemporary Music Festival, of which he was Artistic Director from 2007 to 2013, a period in which it flourished. In 2005 he was asked to become Artistic Director of the Deal Festival of Music and the Arts, following on from the cellist Steven Isserlis and composer David Matthews. He stepped down in 2010, but was once again asked to return to this role in 2014.

He has many years of experience in university lecturing and teaching and is currently Director of Music at Queen Mary University of London, one of the country’s leading universities and in the Top World 100 (THE 2015). Formerly, he was Professor of Music at Canterbury Christ Church University from 2009 to 2012 having worked there in a series of roles for almost thirty years. In 2011 he was elected President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians.

As a conductor, Edlin tends to focus on contemporary repertoire. He has conducted many premieres of new works as well as UK premieres of such pieces as Beat Furrer’s Ensemble II and Ernst Krenek’s Sestina. In 2010 he conducted the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Malta, allowing him an opportunity to explore the more romantic repertoire of Puccini and Verdi. As a trumpet player, he particularly enjoys the ‘clarino’ repertoire of Bach, Handel and Purcell and has played in many performances of works such as the B Minor Mass, Christmas Oratorio, etc.

Paul Max Edlin studied at the Royal College of Music (composition with Edwin Roxburgh, Richard Blackford and Joseph Horovitz; trumpet with John Wallace and Richard Walton, and conducting with Christopher Adey). He has won many composition prizes including the IX Premio lnternazionale Ancona. He received a Leverhulme Studentship for further postgraduate study at the RCM. He continued his studies with Michael Finnissy at the University of Sussex where he took his doctorate.

A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Fellow of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, he has served on the boards of several music and music education organisations and charities, including Cantoris Charitable Trust, which supports Canterbury Cathedral choristers. He is Chair of the Board of Ora, one of the UK’s most prestigious vocal ensembles, and he sits on the board of the newly formed East London Music Group. Paul Max Edlin has two musical sons. Peter, an artist, photographer and designer, plays lead guitar in the progressive rock group The Boot Lagoon, while Timothy is a bass-baritone.

paulmaxedlin.com