Michæl Maxwell Steer’s most celebrated achievement in the first part of his life was to conduct the world premiere of Nicholas Nickleby in 1981 at the Aldwych Theatre, while London Director of Music of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
A chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, he later ran away to Paris at the age of 15 hoping to study with Olivier Messiæn but in fact began his professional life three years later as a silent film pianist at the National Film Theatre, London. In the interim he had built up a large church choir in Kingston Surrey over four years and studied privately under the guidance of harpsichordist Jane Clark and her husband, composer Stephen Dodgson. His organ teachers were Allan Wicks (Canterbury Cathedral) and Alan Harverson (RCM). His conducting with Nicholas Conran (Surrey U), included a masterclass with the legendary Sergiu Celibidache.
As a harpsichordist Steer broadcast on BBCr3 and recorded with leading baroque music performers – Roy Goodman, Nancy Hadden, Jeremy Barlow and others – performing and directing Falla's Harpsichord Concerto for Capital Radio on a specially-restored Pleyel, performed in the UK premiere of Stockhausen's Die Jahreslauf with Music Projects /London, and toured Europe and the US with several baroque ensembles.
In 1970 Michæl Maxwell was musical director for the opening of the Crucible Theatre Sheffield and also for the prototype Bankside Globe Playhouse the following year. He met his wife, designer Deirdre Clancy, on a BBC production Trinity Tales in Birmingham in 1975. From 1976-1991 Steer composed and arranged music for more than 120 drama programmes on tv and radio from BBCtv’s Greta Garbo - the Swedish Years (which won the director Fred Burnley an Emmy in 1978) to BBCr3's Mr V by Gabriel Josipovici (1989 Prix Italia nomination). During the later 70s, alongside his musical activities, Steer ran a commercial production company, directing films for corporates, including recruitment films for the TSB. One notable credit in this period was an acting debut with Hugh Grant and Julian Fellowes in a C4 drama-doc about the Elgin Marbles shot in Greece, when he was First Assistant to Christopher Miles.
In the early 1980s he was a BBCr3 producer, but from 1983 Michæl concentrated more on original writing and scripted 25 Drama /Feature programmes for BBC2 and BBCr3/r4, featuring many distinguished artists including David Suchet, Sam Wanamaker, John Wells, (Sir) Robert Stephens and Elizabeth Spriggs. The (Royal) National Theatre commissioned A Tormented God, a one-man show for Bob Stephens based on Berlioz’s Mémoires. His 1991 stage play The Watcher in the Rain, about James Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter and Jung, was produced at the Rose Theatre, Fulham Rd and reviewed in The Guardian as ‘fascinating and unpredictable ... with a wealth of theatrical invention.’
From 1986, when he and Ian Dearden received an Arts Council commission to create an interactive electro-acoustic music drama for children, Steer was much involved with experimental music technology. And as Head of 20thC Studies at the Junior Royal College of Music 1987-1991 he pioneered electro-music tuition for young people, creating the RCM’s first MIDI studio, and running a Yamaha-sponsored summer school at UEA in 1989. This phase of his life culminated in 1990 with the commission for an experimental drama programme for BBCr3, Notes from Janàček's Diary, where he was given unique access to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The Times called it ‘a kaleidoscope of subtle and bewitching effects.’ The following year the SPNM (Society for the Promotion of New Music) premiered Steer’s Elegy, a 30’ electro-acoustic work composed over the previous 2 years in the RCM studio, featuring the soprano Nancy Long as live singer and pianist, as well as a 78rpm gramophone disc of Bix Beiderbecke.
After 25 years of intense media work, Steer wanted to explore an increasing interest in alternative ideas. He left professional music altogether for 3 years, creating and editing a national green-holistic magazine for John Brown Publishing called CataList. After being invited to edit an issue of the academic journal Contemporary Music Review on Music & Mysticism, involving contributions from 17 leading musicians, therapists and philosophers, Steer organised two large conferences called Music & the Psyche at London City U in 1993/4, which led to an on-going network, and made a BBCr4 series Music As Sacred Experience. This in turn led to a documentary commission from BBC Religion to visit Sai Baba in India which resulted in two programmes: In Search of Sai Baba and another, based on a chance encounter with Dr HM Sontakke, about the philosophy behind Indian music, which aired on BBC World Service.
After the Steer family having moved to the Wiltshire village of Tisbury, piano teaching ‘accidentally’ became an integral part of the Maxwell’s life. He has pioneered many innovations, notably teaching beginners with ColourMuse, his coloured notation method which now sells all over the world. He also uses video’d concerts in place of exams, which are then placed on a dedicated uTube site for relatives and friends, and greatly stimulate pupil motivation. Over 400 videos have been uploaded since 2006, which have received nearly 400,000 viewings.
Steer has published extensively on the broader philosophical questions surrounding music, technology and consciousness in a number of journals including AudioMedia, Classical Music, NoiseGate, Diffusion, Analecta Husserliana, Music & Psyche and various Quaker journals. One piece, ‘The Creative Voice’ about the psychology of inspiration, was published in three separate journals and became a chapter in Raising Our Voices (Handsell 2001). Michæl Maxwell’s interest in the subject of ‘voice hearing’ led to a Mind Award for an audio documentary about Salisbury Hearing Voices Group. For 8 years, until its demise in 2009, Maxwell was Coordinator of the ESP (Ethics/Spirituality/Philosophy) field at the Big Green Gathering on the Mendips, which became a focal point for the exchange of progressive ideas.
The ‘main sideline’ of Michæl Maxwell’s life is composition, and he has written many large-scale acappella choral works, mostly to his own words, several of which have been recorded. He recently performed his piano duo The Fortress of Illusion at the Chethams International Piano Festival & Summer School with Richard Black. A commission for Meniscus, a harp piece to accompany a picture exhibition by the artist Chris Jennings at Kingston U’s Picker Gallery in 2001, was performed by Hugh Webb and Serafina Steer, then a harp student at Trinity-Laban.
Serafina has gone on to achieve her own success as a harpist-singer-songwriter.
Among other projects, Steer has edited and published the music of Tisbury’s most notorious resident, the 18thC author and art collector William Beckford who built the gothick follies of Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower, Bath, of which he has given several performances in Tisbury and Bath.
In 2012 he formed a duo with Canadian violinist Gisele Boll, and their performances, recorded in a range of venues from the Holburne Museum, Bath to the Savile Club, London are on uTube, as are Steer’s numerous other videos of his own scores and his recordings of Elizabethan harpsichord music.