Why you should care

Because this teenage composer shows how good friends can bring out your inner genius. 

For years, Max Lesser felt split in two. He’d wax poetic about the feverish spontaneity of improvisation, thrilling over things like the lightning-quick meter changes of jazz. But he also sank deep into analytical thought, mulling over mathematics and pondering philosophy. Today, Lesser has at last found the thread to stitch his two selves together: composing classical music. It lets him be creative and cerebral, to turn a piece over in his mind, to shape and refine it methodically.

All this, and the 18-year-old was still living at home with mom and dad.

This profile is the fourth in an OZY series on young geniuses.

It’s not what anyone would have expected from this child of two veterinarians. But less than two months after foraying into classical composition, and with barely any training, Lesser was chosen to be one of four students in the Hollywood Bowl Composer Fellowship Program. His teachers there describe his talent as “insane.” The Los Angeles Philharmonic has performed eight of his pieces and he now occupies a coveted seat in the Harvard-New England Conservatory joint degree program.

His mentors tout the rarity of his accomplishments: The Composers Fellowship Program has never before taken anyone with such little classical experience (Lesser began composing in earnest less than a year ago), as well as the “strange beauty” of his music. “It’s lyrical and expressive but it has this brainy edge that makes it fresh and exciting,” says Jim Matheson, composer-in-charge for the fellowship program.

Jazz’s spontaneity was a struggle. Studious and contemplative, he’s more at home nose-deep in Hermann Hesse’s novels.

Lesser Skypes from a cozy, slant-ceilinged bed and breakfast in Paris, on spring break with his parents. He looks like a little adult — slightly built, with cornflower-blue eyes that peer through thick tortoiseshell glasses, and a serious, square jaw. Talkative, he speaks in paragraphs, every now and then sipping water from a wineglass his mother stops to refill.

Lesser grew up in Palos Verdes, outside Los Angeles, with nary a drop of musical blood. He played saxophone but didn’t care much about music until middle school, when he tagged along with his mom to a jazz concert. While Googling “jazz music” beforehand, he stumbled on a recording of Charlie Parker playing “Cherokee.” Its twisting melody moved him, and from then on he made a serious commitment. He learned improvisation from jazz heavyweights Aaron Parks and Dayna Stephens, and won first place at the prestigious Music Center Spotlight Awards. But inside, Lesser struggled with jazz’s spontaneity. He was terrible at sports, or anything requiring quick, intuitive thought. He’s failed his driving test, twice. Studious and contemplative, he feels more at home nose-deep in Hermann Hesse’s novels or debating philosophy with his father.

One day, he bumped into eccentric, Nietzsche-obsessed Milo Talwani in the halls at his school, the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. “You play baritone sax, right?” Talwani asked. “I want to write a piece for you.” Later, Talwani introduced him to composer Morton Feldman, a hulking Brooklynite with a delicate style. Entranced, Lesser scoped out other 20th-century classical composers. “They’re almost writing their pieces to me,” Lesser says, his reedy voice rapt. “I’ve never experienced that in music.”

A Hollywood Bowl Composer fellow, Talwani encouraged Lesser to apply. Having never composed anything, Lesser drew from his improv roots, jotting down whatever came to him. Each instrument had its own melody, and nothing meshed together. Talwani suggested that Lesser stop and meditate on his piece’s intent — “radically different from jazz,” where thought can paralyze, Lesser says. He took his friend’s advice and submitted his second piece. Not expecting much, he didn’t even formally respond to an invitation for the final interview round. The judges said this year’s competition was the most competitive yet — before announcing his acceptance.

Since then, Lesser has composed six more pieces, using what he calls a “three-pronged process” that starts with settling on a purpose. For example, with his latest piece, a piano prelude called “Flowers IV,” he wanted to emulate the cascading sequence in Erik Satie’s “Sarabande No. 3,” but using his own “harmonic vocabulary.” A piece can steep in Lesser’s head for weeks before he sits down at his piano to shape the inchoate sounds into music, scribbling notes on scraps of paper as his own voice surfaces. Finally, he plugs his messy shorthand into notation software.

Of course, music is a subjective art, and not everyone is taken with the boy genius’s compositions. Although Lesser shows “strong potential,” his methodical style can come across as “not interesting,” says Martin Rokeach, a composer and music professor at St. Mary’s College of California.

Lesser, though, has no interest in interesting. He cites a passage from Feldman’s collection of writings, Give My Regards to Eighth Street, in which one of his composition students asks him, “How do you make your music so interesting?” Outraged, Feldman responds that he tries to make his music not interesting, but beautiful. Lesser recalls a performance of Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” at the Ojai Music Festival, which he says made even the trees take on an unearthly glow. “I’d love to one day make music that puts somebody in a totally different space,” he says.

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