Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Artist Spotlight #1: Max Keenlyside

Since stumbling on his work (via YouTube), I have been a huge fan of Max Keenlyside. It was refreshing to see/hear such dedicated, focused work from someone, and I was struck by his wide range of musical skills. For more about Max, head over to his site and read his bio & certainly listen to his compositions.

For those reasons and more, I knew Mr. Keenlyside would be a fantastic way to start my new series of interviews. Without further ado, enjoy this first Artist Spotlight...

[Background / Influences]

1. Is there some moment you can pinpoint growing up where the 'lightbulb switched on' and you set your sights on becoming a musician?

Sure. “Growing up” as a pre-teen musician I kind of lived in a bubble; I learned about the world of music through reading dusty old books and faded sheet music. I didn’t really get much opportunity to be exposed to—and interact with—other musicians until a few years later, when I started to seek out music at live events. I remember being about fifteen years old and hearing this great little group called the Apex Dixieland Band in my hometown outside of Ottawa. Hearing these fantastic musicians made me think, “hey, I want to do this too!”

 2. Favorite pianist?

Depending on the day, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, or Sviatoslav Richter.

3. Favorite composer?

I’m torn between Scott Joplin and Antonín Dvořák.

[Your Work]

1. You do a lot of different things: perform at ragtime festivals, write and record your own compositions, music engraving, piano tuning/restoration. Out of these, is one aspect your favorite?

It depends on which of my projects currently excites me most—I’m sure you can relate!! Fickleness, thy name is Keenlyside.

2. Do you find it a necessity to diversify your skill set, as you have, in order to make a living, or has the diversification come about as a natural byproduct of your many interests and talents?

Most of us in the music world start pretty young, and so our passions for what we do are often formed out of pure interest rather than practicality. Out of all the job categories, I think we are the luckiest; we get to find really cool, interesting subjects that we like, build dedicated knowledge/skill set around them, and then later, find ways to translate that into a paying income. Personally, my obsession with all things piano-related blossomed into a love for ragtime, then composing, then engraving, and then piano repair. The dilemma is this: how do we keep up varied professional activities, but not lose focus on our professional development? I’ve learned over the last couple of years that balancing my various professional activities takes a great deal of organization—it’s an ongoing thing that I am still working on.

3. What does a typical day look like for you? Do you follow a routine or workflow that allows you to do so many things and lead a creative life?

Given the nature of my multiple jobs, the work portion of any given day is often quite different. First, the constants: I’m a terrible night-owl, and not much of a morning person. I try to work out at least a couple times a week, whenever fits with my working schedule. I make sure to get in some quality time with my lovely girlfriend, Lydia, and our guinea pigs (Gary, Gerry, and Charlie). I tend to cook whatever is most convenient for me because I’m more preoccupied with whatever projects I have going on.
Now the varied work parts: My schedule is dictated by my appointments, whether they are performance gigs, piano tunings, or otherwise. The other projects (transcriptions, engravings, composing, arrangements, etc.) happen whenever they can in the in-between hours. If it’s a project I’m really interested in, or on a tight deadline for, I have no objections to working on it into the night. I’m sure that will catch up with me, but it works for now. One of my greatest goals for this year is to get on a very good, regular, early sleep schedule.

[Using technology/internet as a musician]

1. Sibelius or Finale or something else?

Sibelius – Sibelius a *thousand* times over. That said, I believe that one’s thoughts on this matter are formed in much the same way as one’s thoughts on religion or PC operating systems; what you’re brought up is usually what you will defend, sometimes blindly. With my custom fonts and replicated house styles, I do some rather complex work in Sibelius, but my friend Tom Brier has done everything that I do and more in Finale.

2. How does social media (or other technological tools you use) come into play with your life as a 21st-century musician?

Of course, it’s a necessity. That said, I really need to do something with my Facebook page. Again, it’s a question of branding and figuring out how you’re going to present the various walks of your professional activity. In my case, I must present myself in three different categories of work: piano servicing; piano performing/recording; and music services. I’m currently figuring out how I’m going to represent these categories in each social medium.
Of course, for any of these ventures to be profitable, I have to make some kind of a name for myself. I think the sincerest form of advertisement is putting bits of your work “out there,” whether it’s uploading a music video of some musical stunt you can do onto YouTube, or coming up with schemes to promote your activities to friends and fans on a Facebook page. Social media are great, but people want to be impressed by what you do; they don’t want to be begged to buy your stuff or hire you.

3. Compositional workflow: do you start with paper and pencil, or straight from your head into a notation program?

The usual operation is Mind --> whatever tools I happen to have at hand, whether it’s a napkin and pen, Sibelius, manuscript paper, or a piano. Often I will have none of these things handy, so I will just work out the idea fully in my head and keep it there until I get around to writing it out. That’s how I write a lot of my piano rags. My girlfriend and friends love to tease me because, apparently, I somewhat frequently bring up the fact that I have absolute pitch. That said, I have to say that having AP [absolute pitch] is an immeasurably helpful tool for working out musical pieces mentally. It also helps with remembering them; I can recite every measure of all nine Dvorak symphonies note-for note, and probably know a few hundred rags, but am embarrassingly forgetful in all other walks of life.

[Now & Near-Future]

1. What current projects are you working on?

I have just finished recording an entire CD of the brilliant and difficult rags of Vincent Matthew Johnson, soon to be released on the Rivermont label. I’m also still tinkering with the last movement and orchestration of my first symphony, which I have “finished” and then scrapped several times over the last few years. I’m currently trying to come up with the second half of a new rag. The rag is temporarily called “Pretty Pansy Rag”, and it started out as an elaborate prank—a story for another time. It’s meant to sound as much as possible like late-era Joplin. A lofty ambition, to be sure.
A couple ragtime composers have brought some fascinating music of theirs to me to typeset in the replica ragtime-era fonts—lucky me! I am also revising and expanding my essay on Joplin’s “The Silver Swan”. 
I have several piano restoration jobs on the go: I’m finishing a rebuild of an 1848 upright and a 1928 grand, both of which I gifted to my parents. I’m also restoring some various sets of piano guts for a few clients; a new set of keytops here, a new set of damper felts there.

2. What inspires you today?

Today? The endless generosity and support of my parents and family. I honestly don’t know what I have done or possibly could do to deserve them. Whether it’s my parents and sister supporting my musical activities, or Lydia being my go-to person, their positive influence encourages me to do what I do and to make something of myself.

3. For someone just discovering your work, what composition of yours would you suggest they listen to first? (OR: Which composition are you most proud of?)

I’m really proud of the last rag I finished from last year: The Kettle Black. I put more work into this piece than any other rag I wrote. It’s in an unusual key for ragtime, and I tried my very best to make it different at every turn, but still approachable and appealing.

[Music-theory-nerdy stuff / other]

1. Do you have a favorite [key / particular chord / voicing / anything like that]?

Oh, YOU BET. I prefer playing piano in the flat keys, since they are idiomatic to the early jazz styles of playing. That said, I prefer composing in sharp keys, because they have colourful sonorities that aren’t usually explored in ragtime and related forms. I *adore* all open voicings (I think they are called “drop voicings” in pop music?) If a note is in the bass-voice, I do not care to see it doubled in the upper textures. Interlocked textures are just the best: say, a D+G in the bass and F+B in the treble for a G7 chord, etc. The critical concept is economy and avoiding doublings where possible. Harmony is a fascinating thing, and I cannot divorce my every thought from it.

2. Least favorite of any of the above?

I’m kinda sick of the key of C minor after having struggled with it for a few years in Symphony No. 1. I also *hate* when composers put the 7th of a chord in the bass and then also double that 7th in other voices. That’s just bad composing. I also * hate* when people take well-constructed pieces with good bassline-motion and inverted chords (like “O Holy Night”) and create bastardized versions with simplified chord progressions, usually with all the chords in root position. Those arrangers deserve coal in their stockings. Maybe this is why people tell me I’m an old curmudgeon…

3. How did you prepare (if at all) for your video of playing the Maple Leaf Rag in two keys? I found that mind-boggling and incredible to watch! What inspired you to do that?

Haha, well thank you! The genesis of that video spanned about three hours from idea to completion. I was tuning the littler of the two pianos to concert pitch, and happened to have it in the same room as the 1898 piano which was a semitone flat (I sold it later that Fall, actually). With the two pianos side by side, I wanted to see if I could play them at the same time, and thus sparked the idea for the video. See, the thing is, I’ve been playing Maple Leaf Rag for fifteen years now. The notes aren’t just muscle memory—the bones and guts of the music itself is permanent brain-memory, so putting the right-hand line on auto-pilot is actually relatively easy. That allowed me to focus on transposing the left hand part as I played, and things that’s all chordal, that was very doable. Of course, I still goofed it up in many parts, but that’s all part of the fun. You mess up one phrase, you just make up for it by doing something interesting in the next one.

4. Any other thoughts you’d like to share (about anything)?

Wonderful readers, please check out Mr. Thering’s compositions and give them the devoted attention that you would to the things that interest you most in this world. They exemplify all of the very specific things I have just written about that I like the most, and I doubt they will disappoint you. Luke and I haven’t really gotten to “talk shop” before this, but I’ve been an admirer from afar from some time. I really recommend starting with his “Impromptu in B Minor,” which uses voicings that I think are the mark of true genius. I am currently getting acquainted with “The Egg Suite,” and it is leaving a similar impression. Outside, I would like to thank you for taking the time to read my pontifical postulations, as well as to Luke for so graciously asking me to take part in this. Cheers!
My thanks to Max Keenlyside for the thoughtful answers, and for being the first participant in this 'Artist Spotlight' interview series! Be sure to check out Mr. Keenlyside's work, especially you ragtime enthusiasts out there.

P.S. All links were added by me, Luke, with the aim of leading the reader to all relevant listening materials & works referenced in Max's responses. I hope you can find the time to click some of them! Thanks for reading.


  1. This was fun to read, thanks Luke for creating it and thank you Max for your thoughtful responses! I liked that it was a pianist interviewing a pianist. (Looks like you have somewhere to visit in Canada, Luke!) ;)

    I have to challenge the "Of course, it's a necessity" answer about using social media as a musician. My favorite writer, Alexandra Franzen, uses none (which she writes about here.) Most notably, though, remember that every musician EVER, prior to 2000 let's say, didn't use any social media. It's a very new thing, relatively, and musicians can always connect with people through live performance and albums, no matter where technology goes next. :)

  2. Thanks for reading, Rebe. On your second point, that's true. But I do think social media can help reach an audience it might not otherwise reach. So no, it may not be a necessity, but I think it can still be helpful.

    1. Yes, of course! I didn't mean to suggest it shouldn't be used at all, just wanted to challenge the idea that it's a must-have. :)


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