Constructing a life in music

The life and career of Maximiliano Amici, who joined Duke Kunshan as a music professor last year, has taken a long and winding road, but the path can be traced back to his early years in Rome, where as a child he played in the hallway of the family home while listening to the tinkling of piano keys from the next room.

Amici grew up an only child in a large apartment, a stone’s throw from Vatican City, where he was raised by his mother Hilda Carrena, an Argentinian piano teacher and his aunt Graciela Carrena. His father, Eugenio Amici, was an Italian lawyer and died when he was very young.

Maximiliano Amici with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra

Much of his childhood was spent alone in a long corridor of the house, making improvised structures from his Lego sets, while his mother played, or taught piano, in the next room. The young Amici wanted to be an engineer when he grew up, but with music in his ears from an early age, he gravitated towards it, and aged six began to play, taking up the violin.

“In the house I had a lot of space to myself, which I think is relevant to the kind of work I ended up doing, because composition is a solitary occupation,” he says. “People were coming and going and playing piano. I would play, listen and absorb the music.”

Despite his background, he began to lose interest in music at around 12 years old, and by 14 had dropped playing almost completely.

“I went through high school doing other things and then to university to study philosophy,” says Amici. “I assumed I would become an academic, a philosopher, or a perhaps a journalist. I didn’t have a clear view of my future.”

Duke Kunshan music professor Maximiliano Amici

However, two years later he dropped out of university, having decided that he must follow a career in music. The draw towards it was gradual, he says, but there were two events that proved a final straw in his decision. The first was a class in jazz harmony at a local music school, where he became fascinated by the way the music almost spoke words through chords and the second was a musicology lecture where he first heard a recording of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony.

“Retrospectively, I acknowledge the importance that the discovery of that piece of music – one of Beethoven’s best – played in my decision to pursue music. I now see how that music influenced me, but at the time I just felt fascinated,” he says.

“I understood that I could not conceive of a life without music being the central part of it, so I said to myself, ‘Okay, if I must follow my passions, I might as well go all in,’” he adds.

Amici set about changing the course of his life, but at 20, “starting from scratch” and suffering from tendonitis in his hands, he feared his dream might be out of reach.

Amici with the Imani Wind Quintet

“It was pretty tough. Most professional musicians start around three to six years old and by the time they’re 15 or 16 they are either extremely proficient or most probably they won’t go anywhere professionally. I was very aware of my age, and I was also recovering from a physical injury – tendonitis. I had doubts and concerns, but I decided not to focus on what others were doing or how long the trip would take, but on where I wanted to go. To do this I determined to spend time building my knowledge,” he says.

Daunted but undeterred, Amici joined the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome, with the ambition to become a composer, a musical career that is more forgiving of age or injuries, because it is a “purely abstract activity and involves a series of mental processes that require a certain maturity and culture, beyond practical skills,” he says.

His tendonitis subsided, paradoxically the recovery aided by the hand position of playing piano, and he spent the next decade working on himself, developing his skills as a composer and musician.

“I had doubts during that time. There wasn’t a moment when I wanted to give up, but there were moments when I feared not being good enough, or not having the right characteristics,” he says.

He persevered nevertheless and in his early 30s was called to Turin in northern Italy: The Italian Symphony Orchestra wanted to record one of his compositions for a national radio station. It was to be a defining moment of his career, both the first time he would hear his work played by a full orchestra, and an introduction to a nationwide audience.

Amici recording his Ph.D. dissertation at Duke University

For three days the orchestra practiced his composition, called “Flowing”, before a team from the radio station came to their auditorium to record it. Some weeks later the piece was played on a national Italian radio station.

“It was probably the single most important moment of my career,” he says.

On the day of the recording Amici sat alone in the empty auditorium, behind the conductor, surrounded by empty seats, as he listened to the orchestra play, while the radio team recorded from an adjoining studio. Afterwards, he wandered out into the streets of Turin to relax after the stress of the previous weeks and climbed the Mole Antonelliana, a landmark tower in the heart of the city. It was the culmination of years of hard work backed by the influence and encouragement of his mother and Luciano Pelosi, his conservatory music professor.

“It felt like a huge achievement,” he says. “It was a very happy day. Afterwards I allowed myself a rare carefree afternoon.”

“Flowing” was composed around a year before the recording, over a period of two months. Like those childhood days in the long corridor in Rome, it was a solitary endeavour, one that involved locking himself away for long periods at a computer and piano while he constructed the composition.

“Composing a large piece is a moment of the greatest concentration. It requires an isolation not dissimilar to those experienced during COVID lockdowns,” he says. “You really need to be totally focused on what you are doing.

“I first had an idea of what I wanted to say emotionally and aesthetically. The piece goes from pure noise to a sinusoidal, pure sound. Then I developed an idea of the structures I wanted to use. Afterwards, themes started coming.

“It reflects on the timbral possibilities offered by a large percussion set and on how different layers of expression can coexist together,” he adds.

Amici with his Ph.D. supervisor Stephen Jaffe

A few years later, in 2016, Amici left Europe bound for the United States and Duke University, where he would live for the next five years working on his Ph.D. There, Mary and James H. Semans Professor of Music Composition Stephen Jaffe, who was his Ph.D. advisor, had a major influence on his musical development, he says, as did music professor Scott Lindroth, who helped him navigate the initial difficulties of adapting to American culture.

Duke was also the beginning of his journey to Kunshan, as it was there that he made Chinese friends and first developed an interest in Chinese culture. That led to him learning about Duke Kunshan, which was launched in 2013 as a joint venture between Duke University and Wuhan University in China, and eventually applying for a faculty position.

Now at DKU, Amici continues to establish himself as a composer and is organizing a series of chamber music concerts to take place on campus throughout 2023. The series is called ”Through Time with Music” and aims to present concert music of all periods and in a wide gamut of styles.

Besides his research and composition, Amici says he has also discovered a love of teaching, which may be a reflection on the great musical influences he has had throughout his career.

“I’m so very grateful to my teachers, so I hope to be a similar influence on students at DKU,” he says. “Leaving a mark on or contributing to other people’s development is a great thing. I want to give something back.”

He is also working on a piece of music based on the ancient Chinese divination book “I Ching” that will be performed later in the year.

“I am trying to translate the expressiveness of the images in the book,” he says. “I’m taking hexagrams from it and writing pieces of music inspired by them.”

“I Ching” contains 64 hexagrams, which in the context of the book are figures composed of six stacked horizontal lines, some solid and others broken, that were traditionally used for divination. In some ways they are much like the Lego blocks Amici used as a child in Rome, and he is back to constructing and listening, while he interprets the combinations of broken and unbroken lines to build new music.

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