Composing Outside His Comfort Zone: Nathaniel Maxwell’s “Piano Quintet”

Nathaniel Maxwell

A lot of people wish they could play the violin. Nathaniel Maxwell’s ambition was to write music for it.

Maxwell, who is graduating with majors in Mathematics and Music and a minor in Statistical Science, is an accomplished pianist and trumpet player who has performed in the Duke Symphony Orchestra, the Duke University Marching Band and the Chamber Music Program. Throughout his time at Duke, he has also studied piano with Professor David Heid.

“I'd done a lot of playing and even some composition in high school,” he said, “but one thing I did not have experience with — either playing or writing — was strings.”

As part of his major in Music, Maxwell took music theory and composition classes with Professor Anthony Kelley. He wanted to challenge himself by composing music unlike any he’d written before. “I knew I wanted my project to include string instruments, whether it was a quintet, or quartet, or even a small chamber ensemble. Professor Kelley suggested I write a piano quintet. I was like, ‘okay,’ because piano is something I’m very familiar with.” Composing for piano quintet gave Maxwell a way to combine the familiar with the new.

What began as a one-movement piece grew into a three-movement, 30 minute work that is the centerpiece of his Distinction Project in the Major: “Full Recital of 18th to 21st Century Music for Piano, Including Original Chamber Work for Piano Quintet.”

Composing the Piano Quintet required Maxwell to expand his musical thinking. “One thing I can do without too much trouble is come up with an initial idea, like a harmonic progression. The thing I struggle with is connecting and developing ideas. In the first movement of the Quintet, I came up with a first theme with no problem, but when I had to do the contrasting ‘B’ theme I was really struggling. Professor Kelley suggested I could work with what I already had, instead of coming up with something completely new. So, the second theme is just playing the first theme backwards and twice as slow. That trick is something I ended up using a lot throughout the rest of the movements.”

Another challenge Maxwell overcame was his tendency to think as a pianist, rather than as a string player. “I tend to think of piano first and then translate into strings. That was something I had to work on. By the time I was composing the last moment of the piece, I was much better at being able to think from a string player’s perspective.”

The payoff for Maxwell’s hard work came when he presented the completed Piano Quintet to the musicians — all fellow Duke students —who performed it with him at his Distinction Recital: violinists Justine Shih and Jaewon Jung, violist Gabrielle Lee and cellist Jacob Egol. “When we actually got to put the music in front of players and hear it for the first time, that was for me the most rewarding part of the compositional process,” Maxwell said. “We had a fun time playing it, which was really encouraging because, as a composer, there’s always the fear of how people will receive your work, both audiences and people who are actually performing it.”

Maxwell hopes to find time to continue composing next year at the University of Oklahoma, where he will be working on a Master's in Music in Piano Performance and Pedagogy. “I'll be spending two years taking a deep dive into piano,” he said. “I realized if I wanted to do anything more with music, now is the time to do it. Full throttle. I’ll see what happens, how I progress, and also what opportunities graduate school opens for a potential career in music.”

As he prepares to graduate, Maxwell shares some advice with other students: Don’t be shy about approaching the faculty. “I think there are a lot of professors who are just waiting for a student to come and pick their brains. Go one-on-one with them. Really engage. Music is a great way to form relationships.”

Nathaniel Maxwell’s distinction recital is available on YouTube. His Piano Quintet begins at 1:06:30. View his distinction recital program.