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Interview with Max Reinhardt: creating the music for Kubla Khan

12 September 2017

As Musical Director and co-founder of Oily Cart, Max Reinhardt has written and arranged the music and songs in all of the company’s productions, and performed in many of the shows. In this interview, he tells us about the creative process, collaborations, and KUBLA KHAN…

How did you get into music?

It’s always difficult to say, isn’t it? I mean, I was a 4-year-old who always sang on the toilet… But I’m not from a family of musicians. I had piano lessons when I was 5 for a couple of years, and then when I went to secondary school I just started playing again when I was about 12 or 13. I think that was something to do with music I heard on the radio, and something to do with the fact that I knew that people were writing music who couldn’t read it - they were just making up songs and I thought ‘Yeah, I could do that’. As a teenager, I fell in with other kids who were into being in a band and writing stuff, and from then on I was in bands. When I left university, I thought that was what I was going to do. But that isn’t what happened.

So, what did you go on to do?

I was in a band called Industrial Injuries, and we were very serious but it didn’t happen and I left. So, then I went into other things – earning a living, having a little child, but also drifting into alternative education, which was a big thing in the early ‘70s. I went to Canada to teach in what was known as a ‘free school’ – a school in which the curriculum was chosen by the kids, in concert with the teachers. It was there that I discovered that I could write songs with kids.

When I came back from Canada, I got a job with the Inner London Education Authority doing music and drama with parents and children, particularly under 5s, at Battersea Arts Centre. It just so happened that there was someone called Amanda Webb doing Kids Club and holiday projects there, and I started to work on the music. She introduced me to her husband, a man called Tim Webb, and at one point we all worked together on a show – Tim directed it, Amanda designed all the costumes, and I did the music. At the same time, I was writing music for a children’s theatre company that were housed in the theatre, and for the first time in my life I was getting paid to write music, rather than to play it, and Tim also worked with them, writing a show. So I suppose the Oily Cart developed out of that, and we’ve been together ever since.

What was your role in the early days of Oily Cart?

I was a performer, a composer/musician, and the administrator as well. Tim wrote the scripts but was also the stage manager and looked after the props. We would improvise our way through the rehearsals, and wrote everything on the floor – the show, the songs, everything.

How often are you a musician in the shows now?

I don’t really do it much anymore. The last time I was properly in a show was the first time we did SOMETHING IN THE AIR (2009) – there were two musicians and I was one of those musicians, I’d be playing harmonium, electric keyboard, stringy things and drums. In DRUM, I played the drums – we went right back to our roots for that show and wrote everything in the rehearsal room.

Which instruments do you play?

In the early days, it was piano and guitar. Then during Oily Cart, computer instruments and digital instruments came on board – in our first show we had a pocket synthesiser and a 12-string guitar. I’ve taken up various instruments for shows – the accordion, the banjo at one point, the ukulele. I forgot for many years that I had a whole thing about playing the harmonica as a 14-year-old, and when we were doing BLUE I re-discovered I could play it. In some shows, I drummed, though I’m not really a percussionist. It just demonstrates that it is the essence of the show and the spirit of the show that carries you on and inspires you.

How do you write the music and songs for Oily Cart shows?

Originally, I would be playing chords on guitar and improvising melodies to that, but one of the things that I started to do in the last ten years is have melodies form in my head - I wrote a lot of songs just walking places. I thought ‘if I can’t remember this tomorrow then it’s not worth remembering’ – that’s not necessarily true, but it’s quite a good thing to do! That’s certainly how we wrote DRUM.

How did you decide which instruments you wanted to use for KUBLA KHAN?

We wanted a bass instrument for KUBLA KHAN because of the version of the show for audiences who are deafblind, and because for a lot of the children, the bass can be the most penetrating and secure sound that they hear – quite caressing but also quite moving, in the physical sense. We had worked with musician Sheema Mukherjee before, on our most recent tour of IN A PICKLE. We put a pedal on her sitar which drops it two octaves, which meant we could choose how much treble sitar you hear, and how much bass sitar you hear. She also plays tabla, which are very bass-y, so that worked well too.

What was the process for collaborating with Sheema on KUBLA KHAN?

Somewhere in the early ‘90s, I started to think that the musicians I knew in other parts of my life might like to play some of the music we were using in our shows. I began to work with other people, and though the process changed for each show, eventually it became that myself and the other musician would sit down and knock out chords and melodies and songs, mostly with Tim’s lyrics but sometimes writing the lyrics as we went along.

The collaborative creative process for KUBLA KHAN was very organic between me and Sheema. We didn’t decide in advance who would work on which bits, and we didn’t really know at the beginning of each day which songs we were going to cover. We never said ‘I’m bringing in this song’ or ‘I’m bringing in that song’, though each song would begin with one or the other of us, and then we’d make suggestions about the stuff that the other had brought in. An important part of the process was that we went to the text and would sing it: the melodies that we’ve got in KUBLA KHAN come directly from Coleridge’s poem.

KUBLA KHAN is touring in Autumn 2017 and Summer 2018. You can find more details about the show here