New Voices: An interview with Max Syedtollan

Max (young white man in a hat) pictured at a distance swimming in the sea
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Max Syedtollan is a composer on Sound and Music’s New Voices 2019 programme, living and working in Glasgow. Max has a multi-disciplinary practice spanning music, text and image and his interests include “world-building, anachronism, affect, melody, improvisation, comedy and the naïve.

Four Assignments is a new work created as part of New Voices, which was workshopped and recorded by Plus-Minus ensemble, broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Radio 6, Resonance FM among others.

What were your inspirations for Four Assignments?

I remember spending most of 2019 in a state of indecision over what I would do for New Voices — this feeling of being paralysed by freedom. After a few conceptual dead-ends, I eventually gravitated towards the idea of making some kind of para-documentary, probably inspired by Peter Greenaway’s ‘The Falls’ which I stumbled across on BFI player. Around this time I had also been considering the relationship between modernism, post-modernism, and whatever we’re in now — and relating that to Brian McHale’s idea that these historical categories basically reflect degrees of emphasis on different areas of philosophical inquiry: the epistemological for modernism, the ontological for post-modernism… it’s a bit much to properly get into here, but I found it stimulating and decided to make something as a way of exploring it. However (as is frustratingly typical of my way of working) I more or less forgot that was what I was supposed to be doing and the project ended up accumulating all these other concerns – so all of that was really just the starting point.

What sort of people do you imagine listening to it, and what might be going through their heads?

Weirdly I don’t think I ever properly considered that when I was making it. I probably should have. In hindsight I think I might have been aiming it at an audience I perhaps imagined as being complicit in the histories of imperialism in some way, as that was my other big area of research – how systems of knowledge production/dissemination are driven by the leftover logics of empire. That all sounds really serious and in some way it is, so in complete contradiction to that I also wanted people to have fun listening to it (I always do!) and for it not to come off as didactic or over-burdened with research.
How do you feel this has changed the way you compose?

What’s behind the title?

‘Four assignments’ actually used to be ‘Five assignments’ but I cut one of the movements! I think it was useful to have a title like that to keep me on task, I knew I was *flexibly* limited to five (ok, four) chapters and was intrigued by the challenge of coming up with a slightly different approach for each of them. The assignments themselves are in this sense both the fictional missions undertaken by the narrator, and the four distinct tasks I was undertaking as author/composer. One of the great things about New Voices is the mentoring and I did a few sessions with Lawrence Dunn who suggested there was something “studentish” about the idea of an assignment. You could obviously take that in a bad way but I think he (and I) both found it kind of interesting – the specific badness of a bad student piece, like a tendency towards overwroughtness or trying too many things for no good reason. In a perverse way I’m kinda into that, and as a self-taught composer it’s also funny for me to consider.

How do you feel this has changed the way you compose?

This is probably a terrible thing to admit but before this piece I literally didn’t understand how to use time signatures. Like the different ways of organising stuff in bars depending on whether it’s simple or compound, groupings and all that… grade 4 stuff, before this I was basically just not doing any of that properly. So it was good to finally nail it ten years after everyone else, lol. Other than that I guess I hope this piece has lain the groundwork for future text-image-music-uniting enterprises as it seems to have achieved that quite well.

Following your experience of putting this work together – what is one piece of advice you would give to your younger self as a composer?

Other than the time signatures stuff which, really, someone could have explained to me in like 5 minutes – follow ur heart, f**k the haters, don’t get too worried about what ‘experimental’ means as it literally doesn’t matter just ‘do ur thing’.

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