Robin Haigh on composition - Britten Sinfonia

Robin Haigh on composition

Robin Haigh is a British composer from London who in 2017 became one of the youngest ever recipients of a British Composer Award at the age of 24. Robin is being commissioned to write a new piece for Britten Sinfonia to be performed in November 2019. Robin’s piece, entitled Grin, will be performed during evening main-stage concerts in Norwich, Saffron Walden and London, with celebrated pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.

We had a chat with Robin and got to know a little bit more about him, what his influences are and his career so far…

Robin Haigh © Jonathan Slade

Robin Haigh © Jonathan Slade

What’s your earliest musical memory?
As I child I had VHS tapes of both of Disney’s Fantasia films, and I remember particularly enjoying The Firebird, Rhapsody in Blue, and especially The Rite of Spring, due in no small part to the fact that I also adored dinosaurs. I also had a compilation of Bugs Bunny cartoons which all referenced classical music, called “Overture to Disaster”; one of them, “What’s Opera Doc” is a parody of Wagner’s operas, which I remember finding quite dramatic if somewhat baffling. I also can’t fail to mention the music from the video games I enjoyed at the time (Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Pokemon), which I think has since, in some subliminal way, formed a very serious part of my musical consciousness that lingers to this day.

What has inspired you most recently?
‘Inspiration’ is a difficult concept but I feel lucky that it has struck on the odd occasion. This is usually due to a chance encounter with something that seems strange, special, or individual. For example, I was quite inspired for my piece Samoyeds for string quartet, when by complete chance this video appeared on my Twitter feed. I was immediately shocked at how this video was simultaneously beautiful, sad, funny, and pure. In a Cageian sort of way, the dogs are absolutely creating music; but also by pure chance, the dogs are making genuine tonal harmony, if only for a few seconds. Even more unlikely is that someone was able to catch this moment on camera. When I introduce the piece that I wrote alongside the video that inspired it, people are often surprised because they expect that I would pair the humour of the video with a humorous piece, when in fact I tried to write something quite tragic. I generally try to see my music through a lens of naivety and joy, so that even a piece which is meant to be profoundly sad can come from a place which is quirky and a bit absurd.

What advice would you give to aspiring composers?
This is hard, as I feel I was an aspiring composer myself not too long ago. My biggest bit of advice is to be yourself. This realisation really changed the way I think about music, even if it seems very obvious from the outside. The things that will make your music worth hearing are the things that are particular to you and to only you. What I see it a lot in young composers, and I absolutely suffered from this myself for a very long time, is that you can get caught up in wanting to emulate the people at the top of the field, in a way that completely erases your originality from the equation. It’s like there are some guidelines to how you become “the best composer”; you have to spin your hexachords around in these fantastic ways, you have to divide up the strings enough to show you know what you’re doing, you have to put this big exciting climax with lots of brass just at the right point, and then maybe you’ll be allowed to sit at the grown ups’ table. I really believed all this and it can be quite painful, because when there’s such a specific goal that everyone is aiming for, the chances are you’ll almost immediately run into someone who’s better at all that than you.

It was such a relief when I started looking at things in a different way, and realised that I could try and find my own way through the world of music rather than having to live up to all these specific expectations. I think my personality is quite centred around my sense of humour, so I now try to write music about how that can be shown in music, and how things I’m interested in can take shape in my pieces. My only other piece of advice is to try to be relevant to the time you’re living in. For a long time, I tried to write music in the same style that people in their 70s and 80s are also writing. Wouldn’t we find it strange if people in their 20s were trying enter the world of pop music by emulating The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
Composers are prone to answering this question with a very flippant “there’s no such thing!” type of response, but in an attempt to find a more interesting answer, I will instead list some bad listening habits that I am guilty of in contemporary classical music:

-Skipping past the first quiet minute of the piece to the bit where it “gets going”
-Falling asleep while listening to albums
-Focussing too much on reading the score of a piece, which changes the listening experience completely
-Pausing a piece or album half-way through and never finishing it

If you turned your iPod on now, what would be playing?
Some albums I’ve listened to recently include portrait CDs of Edmund Finnis, Michael Zev Gordon and David Fennessy, a new release by the Riot Ensemble, the soundtrack to Green Book (which, despite not deserving an Oscar for Best Picture, includes some very charming music), Jacob Collier’s Djesse (Vol. 1), and lots of orchestral light music by people like David Rose, Angela Morley, and Clive Richardson.

Which musical instrument do you wish you could play, and why?
I quite regularly have dreams in which I am able to play keyed woodwind instruments like saxophone, clarinet and bassoon with great facility immediately after picking them up. I fear the same would not be the case if I attempted this in real life, but I think that this must reveal some deep desire of mine to be able to play these instruments; something about all those complicated looking keys, levers, and buttons gives these instruments a lot more “mystery” than, say a violin, where it’s immediately clear what all the moving parts are there for and how they make the notes come out.

If you hadn’t been a musician what might have happened, or not happened, in your life and career?
I think I would absolutely have to be involved in something creative, and as I have no visual artistic capability whatsoever, I imagine this would come down to writing. I could see myself writing stories for film, TV, or video games as I think I would better be able to express myself through a narrative that is enacted in some way, rather than through the written word alone.

Career highlight?
I have been unbelievably lucky to be able to work with some ensembles and performers who I admire very much, like the LSO, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Berkeley Ensemble, Ligeti Quartet, The Hermes Experiment and Tabea Debus. But right now, one career highlight I’m particularly looking forward to is working the Britten Sinfonia! I’ve seen so many memorable performances by these players over the years, including Birtwistle’s Yan Tan Tethera and multiple evenings with the late great Oliver Knussen. Getting to write a piece for these players, directed by Thomas Gould is an unbelievable privilege.

You can be among the first to hear Robin’s new piece in our concerts with pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, 12-26 November 2019 at Norwich’s St Andrew’s Hall, Saffron Walden’s Saffron Hall and London’s Milton Court Concert Hall.