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Maxwell Steer back next composer index


Born St Cecilia's Day 1946, my career has combined the worlds of music, drama and journalism.

audio ico to come

Biographical Notes

A chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, I later ran away to Paris at the age of 15 hoping to study with Olivier Messięn but in fact began my professional life three years later as a silent film pianist at the National Film Theatre, London. At this time, despite being offered a place at Durham, I prefered to study privately with, and under the guidance of, harpsichordist Jane Clark. My studies included conducting with Nicholas Conran (Surrey U) and his teacher Sergiu Celibidache in Stockholm, and organ with Allan Wicks (Canterbury Cathedral) and Alan Harverson (RCM).

As a harpsichordist I have broadcast on BBCr3 with leading baroque music performers - Roy Goodman, Nancy Hadden, Jeremy Barlow and others - recorded Falla's Harpsichord Concerto for Capital Radio, performed in the UK premiere of Stockhausen's Die Jahreslauf and toured Europe and the US with several ensembles.

For a time I was a BBC Radio 3 Producer. Between BBCtv's Greta Garbo - the Swedish Years (Emmy award 1968) and BBCr3's Mr V (1989 Prix Italia nomination) I composed music for more than 120 drama programmes on tv and radio, was musical director for the opening of both the Crucible Theatre Sheffield in 1970 and the prototype Bankside Globe in 1971. Later, in 1981, while London Director of Music at the Royal Shakespeare Company, I conducted the world premiere of Nicholas Nickleby.

During the 70s I maintained a dual career, composing and recording drama music while also producing and directing film commercials. When a First Assistant Director to Christopher Miles in Greece on a C4 drama-doc about the Elgin Marbles I acted in scenes with Hugh Grant and Oscar-winning scriptwriter Julian Fellowes.

Between 1983-89 I concentrate more on original writing, and scripted 25 Drama and Feature programmes for the BBC featuring many artists including David Suchet, Sam Wanamaker, John Wells, (Sir) Robert Stephens and Elizabeth Spriggs. The (Royal) National Theatre commissioned A Tormented God, a one-man show for Bob Stephens based on Berlioz's Memoires. My 1991 stage play The Watcher in the Rain, about James Joyce's schizophrenic daughter and Jung, was reviewed in The Guardian as 'fascinating and unpredictable ... with a wealth of theatrical invention.'

From 1986, when Ian Dearden and I received an Arts Council commission to create The Glass Tower, an interactive electro-acoustic music drama, I was much involved with experimental music technology. As Head of 20thC Studies at the Royal College of Music Junior Department 1987-1991 I pioneered electro-music tuition for young people, creating a Yamaha-sponsored summer school at the University of East Anglia with Denis Smalley in 1989 called Soundscape.

In 1990 I was commissioned by BBCr3 to create the experimental drama Notes from Janącek's Diary, which I created single-handedly in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that summer. The Times called it 'a kaleidoscope of subtle and bewitching effects'. I subsequently presented the BBCr4 Kaleidoscope documentary MIDI Magic. The following year soprano Nancy Long premiered my Elegy for the SPNM (Society for the Promotion of New Music), a 30 minute electro-acoustic work that had been composed over the previous 20 months in the RCM studio.

This marked the end of a chapter in my life. Feeling unable to evolve within the conceptual constraints of establishment music and broadcast drama I relinquished my post at the RCM in 1991 and for a time pursued my interests in green issues in journalism and publishing.

I created a national listings magazine for John Brown Publishing called CataList and also edited a double issue of the academic journal Contemporary Music Review on Music and Mysticism with contributions from 17 leading musicians, philosophers and psychologists, as well as presenting a BBCr4 series Music As Sacred Experience.

Also during this period I was commissioned to visit India for the BBC radio, which resulted in two programmes, a feature In Search of Sai Baba, and a documentary about the philosophy of Indian music.


Subsequently, Denis Smalley, now Professor of Music at City University, London invited me to organise the first Music and the Psyche conference, which led to its establishment as a regular event, and culminated in the appearance of the Music and Psyche Journal.

In 1994 my wife and I moved to the Wiltshire village of Tisbury, and I began to reconnect with live music-making, returning to composition with works in a variety of mediums, including a graphic colour score which was selected for performance by the SPNM and published in Music and Mysticism. I also recorded Bach's French Suites on the harpsichord, and began playing with a range of ensembles from Ghanaian musicians to Bath Baroque Orchestra.

The genius loci of Tisbury is William Beckford, an eccentric polymath who built the gothick Fonthill Abbey nearby at the beginning of the 19thC before building Lansdown Tower in Bath, and whose one novel, Vathek, influenced both Byron and Scott. Discovering that his compositions were in the Bodleian in 1998 I set about editing and publishing the first complete edition of his music; and have written articles in a variety of journals as well as contributing the chapter on music in The Reception of William Beckford in Europe (Continuum 2003).

Drawing these wide-ranging interests into a coherent musical focus was my principal activity during 1998/9 and resulted in a variety of compositions including another SPNM selection The Cruelty of Dreams for violin solo, and Spectral Music for flute and piano, premiered at a concert in November 1999. For this occasion I formed a choir, the Beckford Singers, with whom I successfully premiered and recorded two cycles of unaccompanied Dylan Thomas poems, one with the tenor, Lynton Atkinson.

2000 saw the completion of two further works: Images in Smoke for full orchestra, entered for the Masterprize Competition, and The Spy In The Mirror, a 'dreamatic scenario' for mezzo and ensemble. This is a significant work for me as I also give workshops in dream imagery and over recent years have been allowing my own compositional process to arise from dreaming rather than conscious intention. The text of the scena is based on a dream of my own which unfolded like a thriller, and which I have matched with the sound-world of an imaginary film-score.

Our younger dauter, Serafina, being by now a harp student at Trinity College of Music, it was a happy coincidence that she was able to take part in the premiere of Mensicus, a six movement work for harp commissioned to accompany a painting exhibition of the same title by my friend Chris Jennings at Kingston U with fellow harpist Hugh Webb in 2001. Later she gave the London premiere of my Grovely Wood. There followed Sonnets to Orpheus, a 50' song-cycle to 12 of my own translations of Rilke Sonnets. Scored for soprano, saxes, percussion, piano and bass, it embodies most effectively to date, my synthesis of a palette of styles that varies from rhythmic expressivity to hard rock.

Alongside these activities I find my services increasingly in demand for piano and composition lessons locally. as I encourage concerts to take the place of exams. Developments in 2002 included teaching music part-time in a state school - eye-opening but horrendous - and coordinating the Spirit Zone of the Big Green Gathering - heart-opening but arduous.

My writings on the broader philosophical questions surrounding music, technology and consciousness have been published in a number of journals including AudioMedia, Classical Music, NoiseGate, Diffusion, Analecta Husserliana and various Quaker journals.

In 1997 a tape I produced in which members of the Salisbury Hearing Voices group explained their condition won a MIND award. This encounter led me to study the psychology of voice-hearing in relation to creativity and resulting paper, The Creative Voice, has been published in a variety of journals and as a chapter in the symposium Raising Our Voices from Handsell Press.

Maxwell Steer is creating an online archive of his writing and composition on his Website


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