Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
Both of my parents are musicians, and while neither of them work in the classical world, I was always aware that music was a very valuable and worthwhile thing to make and listen to. I was certainly (thankfully!) never pushed, as evidenced perhaps by my deep reluctance to practice the trombone, my first instrument. This reluctance meant that my achievements on the instrument peaked at about grade six, though I was a lot more engaged with the guitar in my late teens. I had a somewhat healthier relationship with this instrument, which also, through various bands, led me into writing music of my own. As time went on, I wrote more and more progressive stuff for my band, meaning that when I started writing for classical instruments aged nineteen it wasn’t too much of a leap, stylistically or technically. I think I came to realise that writing the music was a lot more enjoyable for me than playing it, or, crucially, the practice time required to play it! As a composer you get to practice by just composing, and that seemed like much more fun to me.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
There are two composition teachers to whom I owe an enormous amount: Dmitri Smirnov, and Edmund Finnis. Dmitri was my first composition teacher, and a lot of the lessons he imparted upon me have stayed within my consciousness to this day, whether I decide to follow them or not! Using examples from Bach and Beethoven to Webern and Ligeti, he stressed the importance of balancing a logical, systematic method with a more intuitive approach. Edmund, who I studied with for two years at the Royal Academy of Music, taught me the importance of following my ears, and the importance of sound in a tactile, perhaps experimental sense. He was always keen to introduce me to the music of composers with a similar sensibility like Rozalie Hirs, James Tenney, and Jonathan Harvey.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I actually quite enjoy the strictures of a commission, especially when this means I end up with an instrumentation I never would have thought of or chosen of my own devices. For some examples, my piece ‘Zorthern’ for Sound and Music/NMC’s Next Wave 2 scheme, which was for the rather odd and somewhat imbalanced lineup of oboe, trumpet, horn, percussion, solo accordion and two violins, or my trio ‘Kalimotxo’ for clarinet, harp, and double bass for the Hermes Experiment. In both of these cases, I feel like the challenge of finding my own way into the world of the ensembles lead to some unexpected results that I ended up enjoying a lot. Often, writing for established, well known ensembles like string quartets or orchestras can lead to a certain comfortable (yet dangerous) sense of how things should be done, so usually I will try and find a way to approach a piece as if it’s a more unusual ensemble (for example, by having a string quartet that imitates howling dogs as in my piece ‘Samoyeds’).
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
It’s really wonderful to work with players and ensembles you know well. This particularly applies to The Hermes Experiment and The Ligeti Quartet, both of whom I worked with last year and both of whom I’ve been lucky enough to see in performance many times. This kind of connection not just to the musical personalities of the players, but also to them as people, can make a world of difference in how I approach a piece. To work with such gifted professional musicians is a real privilege, but I also really enjoy getting to write for young people or amateurs. When writing music for non-professional musicians, I put a lot more thought into how much the performer will get a sense of fulfilment from what they’re playing, which of course has to be balanced with my own musical aims. I find that writing for both ends of the professional to non-professional spectrum can really inform my work as a whole.
Of which works are you most proud?
I wrote a short comic opera called ’The Man Who Woke Up’ in 2014, and I still consider that to be my earliest piece that I’m still happy to put to my name. This felt like a very big statement at the time; more than twice as long as anything I’d ever written before at thirty minutes, my first time writing for an orchestra, and I even took on the challenge of writing the libretto myself. That original version had its problems, such as some rather inelegant orchestration, but over the years I’ve refined it a bit, and the more compact version for an ensemble of six players will be getting premiered in Chicago with Thompson Street Opera Company in April this year. Across its three versions, it’s my most performed piece, which seems paradoxical as its also my longest; I can only extend the deepest thanks to Thompson Street for continuing to champion it, and Jules Cavalie and Goldsmiths Chamber Opera for commissioning it in my undergraduate years.
The other piece would probably have to be ‘In Feyre Foreste’, a piece for five recorder players that I wrote in 2016 for a project at the Royal Academy of Music. This was my first collaboration with recorder player Tabea Debus, who I’ve since written two more pieces for, ’Twenty One Minute Pieces’ and ‘Aesop’, both with the LSO’s Soundhub Scheme. I think that ‘In Feyre Foreste’ was one of the first pieces where I started to shake off some of the very serious, no-nonsense contemporary music sensibility that I think had been dragging my music down somewhat. In this piece I was finally able to get back into the fun of composing and music in general, and this is something I’ve been trying to continue in all of my pieces since, even if they sometimes do take a more serious tone. A few weeks after completing my masters degree I got news that this piece was nominated for a British Composer Award, which was a very big shock; it was even more of a surprise when I found out the piece had won a few months later!
How would you characterise your compositional language?
I would say that I have a preference for simplicity of sound, though this often manifests itself in music which is still difficult to play! I try and make my music clear in terms of what’s going on where; I have a great admiration for composers who create incredible complex textures by layering things up, but that’s not for me. My philosophy is, would there be genuine musical value in dividing the violins into eight independent parts, or could I make music that is just as good with a solo, or the section in unison? Much of my recent music has taken the form of fast dances, usually jigs; this is something that just crept into my music around 2016 when I wrote ‘In Feyre Foreste’, and it has just stuck around since. In the last year or so I’ve simplified my harmonic palette a bit to mostly triadic chords, dominant 7ths, diminished chords; essentially the makeup of common practice harmony. This is usually to try and evoke a memory of some other kind of music, which I’m really interested in. Harmony made by spinning hexachords around is great when used by great composers, but it’s difficult to use that kind of harmony to evoke anything that doesn’t relate to 20th and 21st century classical music.
How do you work?
Almost all of my composing is done on the computer, on Sibelius. A very small amount might be done on a big of loose paper; a structural diagram for example, but other than that the entire process takes place within my laptop. Sometimes my music is based on transcribing things, so I might begin by transcribing something onto Sibelius and then just mess around with the material until I find something interesting and go on from there. The actual moment to moment work once I get down to it consists of me putting things in, listening to them on playback, and then changing them until they sound or feel ‘right’. This is exactly the kind of composition process that lots of professors tell their students specifically not to do, and that is probably very good advice for someone new to composing. I’m quite happy to work like this now because I’m confident I know how it will sound played by real performers, and because I know I’ll write better music this way than I would if I was just working on paper.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
These days, I’m really into composers like Gerald Barry, Cassandra Miller, Richard Ayres, Sky Macklay, and Andrew Norman. These are all people whose music has a close connection to triadic harmonies, but always executed in a way that turns things upside-down somehow. I’m also really into orchestral light music composers at the
moment; David Rose, Angela Morley, Clive Richardson; it’s such joyous, spirited, rhythmically charged music for orchestra, which is not something we hear a lot of nowadays, and always wrapped up in a neat three minute package! I also have a huge admiration for the multi-genre multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier, whose music can be profoundly complex in its rhythm and harmony but always in service of an appealing sonic exterior. I really like that idea of there being so much going on “under the hood” which you can’t see, all for the purpose of (in this complex and extended automotive metaphor) making the “car” run as efficiently as possible.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
For a piece to be successful means, to me, that I like it, and that other people like it. A lot of composers say they don’t care what anyone else thinks about their music but for me, it has almost always been about a desire to write something that people would connect with and want to listen to again. This isn’t to say that I sit there thinking “how do I appeal to this or that demographic?”, rather I write music that is as much as possible what I like, and hope that there are people out there who value what it is that I as an individual have to say.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Something I always try to do as a composer is think about whether the way I’m doing something is in service of the music, or a result of fitting within a certain norm of the genre. Have I used that rhythm because it’s the rhythm I really want, or just because it’s the rhythm that’s expected of me? Did I pick this chord because it’s makes the most compelling musical sense, or did I do it because it’s like the chords I’m used to writing, that I spent a lot of time analysing in my early twenties? It can be really hard to sit down and question those moment to moment decisions, and I know I should do it more, so I encourage all composers to try doing the same.
My advice for performers is, simply, to play music by living composers as much as possible! This probably is an obvious and expected piece of advice coming from a composer, but I still want to get it out there. And you don’t have to get the money together to commission new things, while that’s a great thing to do, as one of the biggest hurdles can often be raising those funds; composers have tonnes and tonnes of existing pieces which have never been played past the premiere just itching to be taken for a spin. I know if I were a performer I’d get great fun out of browsing through composers’ websites looking for interesting repertoire. With pieces like that, you have the opportunity to really put your stamp on what could be a great piece of music that you then get to introduce to your audiences as well.
Robin Haigh is a composer from London. In 2017 he became one of the youngest ever recipients of a British Composer Award at the age of 24. As well as being commissioned by the UK’s most prestigious ensembles and institutions such as the LSO, Britten Sinfonia and Sage Gateshead, he has collaborated closely with leading ensembles of his own generation including the Ligeti Quartet and The Hermes Experiment.