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Lessons From Buena Vista: An Interview With Composer Andrew Maxfield

“There’s a dynamic vibe supported by a lot of mutual care and respect. It’s a good place to make music.”

By Zach Collier

When I first approached Andrew Maxfield for an interview, I wasn’t sure if he’d remember me. He taught my Intro to Music Business Class at BYU years ago, and I loved it. That class is one of the main reasons Provo Music Magazine exists today. It’s certainly why I’ve been able to have any sort of financial success in my music career. Regardless, I wasn’t a remarkable student by any means, and I tried to keep my head down and power through school.

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But Maxfield’s got this warm, welcoming demeanor that immediately put me at ease. When I mentioned that I took a class from him, he replied with an immediate “Of course I remember you!” It made me feel like a million bucks.

Many in the Provo music scene are familiar with Andrew’s brother, Stuart Maxfield. Stuart works in the scene as a producer and audio engineer. He’s also a founding member of Fictionist and releases solo music as S2cool.

Andrew Maxfield is no less impressive. A renowned composer, ensembles all across the United States and Europe have performed his work. He is a recent winner of the King’s Singers New Music Prize (which is a pretty big deal), and his pieces have been praised by conductors and professors the world over. The realm composers operate in is vastly different from a touring band: it’s less about bars and clubs and more about classrooms and concert halls. But he’s got some street cred when it comes to contemporary music as well. Maxfield worked with Fictionist during their time with Atlantic Records and he’s currently working with Ryan Innes on a genre-bending album.

Composer Andrew Maxfield
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Inspired by Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back and Joni Mitchell’s Travelogue, the project blends Innes’ vocals with Maxfield’s songwriting. “The songs tend towards art rock,” says Maxfield. “It allows me to mix my composer chops with my songwriter’s heart.” Some of the songs have large string sections and elaborate arrangements and feature some of the best performers he’s met in Boston and New York City, among other locations. He says Innes is pushing his vocal talents into new territory on the project. “Ryan is taking his voice in really warm, personal, vulnerable directions, interpreting the songs with so much soul. It’s very exciting and we can’t wait to share music in coming months.”

I approached Andrew to discuss his recent experiences in the tiny town of Buena Vista, Virginia and what the Provo music scene can learn from them. Buena Vista (or “BV” as everyone calls it there) is 1% the size of the Provo metropolitan area. It’s home to Southern Virginia University, a school that shares a spiritual kinship with Provo’s own university, BYU. While not an official school of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (like BYU Idaho or BYU Hawaii), the school has been heavily influenced by Latter-day Saint ideals since a new board of trustees took over in 2000.

“SVU invited me to become their Composer in Residence in summer of 2021,” says Maxfield. “I’m doing it for this academic year (through May 2022) and we’re expecting it to continue the following year also – maybe longer.” Apparently SVU had some unmet needs in their music department and reached out to him. “So we invented the opportunity together. I think that’s how opportunity happens sometimes!”

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Maxfield has been an adjunct professor a few times in his life, but teaching has never been his main gig. He’s enjoyed the opportunity so far, though. As Composer in Residence, he teaches counterpoint and composition to students, workshops student compositions, and he’s writing new works for SVU’s ensembles. “Certainly choral stuff – and maybe other things,” he says. He also works with Dr. Kyle Nielsen, Director of Choral Studies at SVU, whom he’s known for several years. “It makes me happy to associate with creative, energetic students who are less jaded and boring than my middle-aged contemporaries and their bowling leagues,” he jokes with a wink.

The Main Hall at SVU

He’s focused a lot of his lectures and workshops on the importance of experiential learning. “I stress with my students the fact that a composition doesn’t really exist until it’s performed. Before a performance, it’s just symbols on a page. The art is what happens when the performer interprets the symbols, sends energy out to an audience, and the audience leans in, sending energy back to the stage. That ‘reciprocal flow’ is what I call art. It’s not fair to students to ask them to work on the symbols if they don’t also get to experience the reciprocal flow. The flow is the best teacher anyway, since that’s what shows you the gaps between your intentions and the interpretation. Between your old ideas and your new skills and self. The process is the reward.”

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When asked to describe the differences between Provo and BV, he said, “BV is the quintessential college town. People call Provo a college town, but it’s really a university city, don’t you think? In BV, campus is the locus of activity, and it’s a cozy, tight-knit locus. When I was a kid, I assumed college meant going to a big university, which is what I did — and I blended in fairly anonymously with 30k people.”

Dude. Same. But at SVU, no one disappears – in a good way. “I once watched Dr. Nielsen shout across the campus quad to greet a student by name,” he says. “The student wasn’t in any of his classes and there was no reason they should know each other! What are the odds of that happening on a big campus like BYU or UVU?”

Composer Andrew Maxfield and Dr. Kyle Nielsen, Director of Choral Studies, with students at SVU.

As a touring musician, I’ve often lamented the fact that Provo is at least six hours in any direction from other major cities to perform in. We also don’t have the major, corporate presence to push our music on the world (yet, anyway). Artists here really have to be scrappy and fight for any sort of success or recognition. BV isn’t the center of anything, either. “But I don’t know how much that matters,” Maxfield says. “In music, eventually you need connections, which means places bigger than BV – or Provo. But in music, much of what you need depends on your ability to study, think, practice, focus, and make stuff (including mistakes).”

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Maybe he’s been eating too much ice cream at Brooker’s Founding Flavors, but Maxfield draws upon American history to illustrate his next point. “It’s a little like Abraham Lincoln teaching himself law in frontier Illinois,” he says. “Maybe he would have benefitted from attending a big law school (he never did), or maybe what he really needed (borrowed law books) was right in front of him. I tend to think the community of a place like SVU is as good as any place to hone your chops.”

I love that thought. Sometimes I worry that in focusing on what we don’t have yet in Provo, we miss out on the “borrowed law books” we have right in front of us. I think we’d all do well to look at Provo the same way Maxfield looks at BV. Our local culture should break free from what The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins calls “that strange, pathological impulse to constantly put down their own state as if to signal that they get it, they’re cool, they’re not like those other Utahns.”

“I had no prior experiences with small liberal arts colleges,” says Maxfield. “But my impression now is that I wish I would have gone there myself. There’s no question that I love the bigger facilities, connections, and opportunities of the bigger schools I’ve attended (BYU, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Boston Conservatory at Berklee, University of Bristol), but the SVU community is something really profoundly special, and I can see why it’s exactly right for the students who are there. Lucky dogs.”

Andrew Maxfield and Dr. Nielsen working with an ensemble at SVU.

Having spent ten years in the Provo music scene, I’ve often felt the same way. Just like Maxfield enjoys the nicer facilities of bigger schools, I’ve definitely enjoyed nicer gigs in Seattle and Portland and experiencing their bustling bars and crowded clubs. But being a part of a group of dreamers who have to struggle together, who have to support each other and lift each other up has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. There’s something so particularly Utahn about the whole thing: working together to make something beautiful in the middle of the desert.

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“There’s a dynamic vibe supported by a lot of mutual care and respect. It’s a good place to make music,” Maxfield says about BV. I think the same could be said of Provo.

Beyond his work in BV, Andrew Maxfield is working on a ton of new projects. He just finished a commission for Utah Opera: a fifteen minute work that will be performed by their Resident Artists. He also just won the USA category of an international composition competition, and he’ll be finishing a new orchestral piece for that project shortly. “So many projects in the works,” he says. “But I’ll let them speak for themselves, one at a time!”

To learn more about Andrew Maxfield, you can visit his official website or follow him on Instagram here. You can hear his composition Nightsounds – I. Dusk as performed by Sundance Scoring Orchestra and directed by Conner Gray Covington below.

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