Ask me a question with composer Robin Haigh
In an excerpt from the May/June 2022 edition of our bi-monthly magazine Music Journal, ISM member and composer Robin Haigh talks to us about his career so far, and how the COVID-19 pandemic presented him with some unexpected opportunities.
Tell us about your work in music
In my work as a composer, I’m always trying to find something special or unique to express in music. I love working with orchestras and large ensembles because I find the expanded palette of sound really speeds up my work process. Smaller scale stuff is a great challenge too, because it forces me to search for a sound or an idea that will stand up to scrutiny and stick in people’s minds.
Who (or what) has most influenced you and your career?
Jeremy Peyton Jones was a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London while I was doing my undergraduate degree there. I knew I wanted to be a composer but really didn’t know what I was doing, and Jeremy showed me a lot of kindness and support when I felt like an outsider to the world of classical music and composing.
Equally important was Dmitri Smirnov, who was my first regular composition teacher and provided a technical foundation for all of my work that has followed. I always felt it to be a great privilege to be able to study with someone whose pedagogical lineage went back to Webern and Berg.
What would you say is your greatest achievement to date?
I was recently voted joint-winner at the Composer Slam European Championship. I consider this a big achievement mainly because this was probably the first time in my composing career that I’ve really made a concerted effort to change my musical direction. My piece AESOP 2 felt like a very big risk because it was my first major piece to incorporate electronic sound. I also made myself a soloist, standing in front of the incredible Orchester im Treppenhaus and playing on an instrument I’ve never received a lesson on or performed to an audience with.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
The biggest project is probably my piece THE DREAMERS commissioned by Britten Pears Arts for Aldeburgh Festival 2022. It’s a twenty-minute quadruple concerto for four trombones and large ensemble that’s being played by Slide Action Trombone Quartet and Britten Pears Contemporary Ensemble, conducted by Jessica Cottis.
What else do you want to achieve in your career?
Accessibility is really important. I want my music to be open enough that it could introduce people to things like microtonality by embedding it in an accessible context, rather than being compelling only to people who already know about those concepts. I think the sound of an orchestra is super accessible. Millions of people will listen to the soundtrack to a Marvel film, it’s not like people are horrified and shut off by the sound of violins and flutes. It’s a big ambition but I’d love to be able to write music that can bridge that gap and get people going to orchestral concerts who haven’t been to one before.
How has your work been affected by the pandemic?
I’ve been really lucky in not having any major pieces cancelled. There were even unexpected benefits, like having pieces streamed or recorded that wouldn’t otherwise have been. My piece No One for solo harp had its live performance at Presteigne Festival replaced with a high quality video recording that went online for free, and as a result of that, a performer in America saw the piece and will be performing some of my music off the back of it - that wouldn’t have happened if the piece just had its live premiere.
What piece of advice has helped you most in your career?
The late great Oliver Knussen gave me some advice that changed the way I compose forever. He listened with great concentration to the pieces I brought him and eventually concluded that my music ‘needed to dance more’. This simple statement had an incredible impact on the way I composed. Practically the next piece I wrote, a rather wild recorder quintet, was essentially my answer to his statement. That piece went on to win a British Composer Award, my first real public success, which I think shows how much my music was affected by those few words!
Is there an artist or musician that you are really enjoying listening to at the moment?
I love the Swedish metal band Meshuggah (a favourite among contemporary classical composers I think). I’m also a big fan of Dua Lipa, particularly her album Future Nostalgia.
Finally, what is your ISM membership to you?
It means a great deal to me to know that a respected institution like the ISM is ready to help and support me if I should ever need them to, and for this reason I have never regretted joining up.