> ROBERT HAIGH: DISCIPLINE AND SPACE, An Interview by Lucas Schleicher (2010)
Robert Haigh’s 30 year long musical career has spawned an impressive and uncommonly diverse catalog of sounds. He has released records under his own name, as Truth Club, Sema, Fote, and as Omni Trio, collaborated with Nurse with Wound, and recorded multiple drum ‘n’ bass club anthems, some of which were inspired by Philip Glass. His work has been released by labels such as United Dairies, L.A.Y.L.A.H., Crouton, and Dom, and his music has even appeared in video games like Grand Theft Auto 3 and Midnight Club 3. He is currently completing a trilogy of solo piano records for Siren, of which Anonymous Lights is the most recent. Robert recently took the time to talk to Brainwashed about his past work, improvisation, collaborations with Nurse with Wound and Hafler Trio, the role of silence in music, and much more.
Lucas Schleicher: Who are you, where are you from, and how would you describe what you do?
Robert Haigh: My name is Robert Haigh. I was born in Yorkshire, England and I lived in London for many years. I now live in Cornwall.
Simply put, I create music. But in a way (and at the risk of sounding cheesy) it’s truer to say that I uncover music. Everything comes out of a degree of improvisation.
LS: Are you currently working on any non-musical projects?
RH: I don’t really have the time at the moment.
LS: When did you begin writing music? What was your first release and who released it?
RH: As a teenager in the mid ’70s I was is a rock group in South Yorkshire. I wrote songs, played guitar, and even sang!! We also did covers of Bowie and the Velvet Underground. My first release was as Truth Club on the Hoisting the Black Flag comp released by United Dairies.
LS: How did you meet Steven Stapleton and become associated with United Dairies?
RH: In the early ’80s I worked with Trevor Reidy (Truth Club/Fote/Monochrome Set) at Virgin Records in a basement off Oxford Street in London. It was a bit of a gathering place for post-punk/experimental musicians. Steve worked just down the road in a little artist’s studio and he used to hang out at the shop.
When the manager was out we would play all of Chance Meeting over the shop’s sound system and drive all the customers out. Steve was interested in what we were doing and asked us (Truth Club) to contribute a track for Hoisting the Black Flag.
LS: Who else showed up in that Virgin Records basement? Did any other notable projects emerge from there?
RH: Jim Thirlwell (Foetus) worked at the shop for a while. He hooked up with Steve, too. Just about anyone doing interesting stuff in London passed through that basement at some point. And a few Australians too.
LS: Tell me a little more about Truth Club. How long did it last and who was involved (besides Trevor Reidy)?
RH: Initially it was just me and Trevor, but later we invited a few others to help out. Deborah Harding did vocals and clarinet, Trefor Goronwy (later of This Heat) played bass. We stayed together for about a year and a half. We supported a few bands around London, including Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA, This Heat, and The Associates.
LS: And how did your Sema project begin? Who was involved with that and what was the impetus behind it? What about Fote?
RH: Sema was just me. I wanted do do something more atmospheric, more layered and textured, without the constraints of a group format.
Fote was the Truth Club without Trefor Goronwy. We made two EPs.
LS: What was it about tape collage and atmospheric sounds that appealed to you? How were you drawn away from rock ‘n’ roll?
RH: The album that introduced me, and turned me on to an alternative way of hearing music, was The Faust Tapes. In an attempt to promote the group, Virgin put the album out at 50 pence and my sister (who’s a few years older than me) went out and bought a copy.
She hated it and gave it to me. I wasn’t so sure at first (I was about 14 at the time), but I only had a couple of albums in my collection so I persevered with it. After a while I found it compelling. It opened up a whole new way of hearing and thinking about music. I was especially drawn to the juxtapositions (discordant sounds alongside melodic, etc.).
LS: Are there any plans to re-release your early records? If not, why not?
RH: Unfortunately all the master tapes for those releases are lost.
LS: In 1986 you released an album on United Dairies called Valentine Out of Season, which shares its title with a composition by John Cage from 1944. Beyond being works for solo piano, what’s the connection between them, if any?
RH: No connection apart from being a big fan. I liked the title and being a bit lazy, I ‘borrowed’ it. I think that it may have also had something to do with the fact that my previous album was called Three Seasons Only.
LS: Some of the early records you released under your own name had a “classical” flavor to them and you’ve returned to that style in the last few years. Were you trained in classical performance, or did you go to school for it?
RH: No training. I’ve always had an ear for classical piano music, especially Chopin, Satie, Debussy, Bach. And then Schoenberg, Cage, Glass, etc.
LS: But in the 19 years between A Waltz in Plain C and Written on Water you released a lot of electronic music under a few different aliases. What precipitated your move away from the piano and toward the drum ‘n’ bass sounds of Omni Trio and London Steppers?
RH: I never really moved away from the piano. All the riffs, melodies and arrangements were done at the piano and keyboard. Some of the tracks started life as extended layered piano workouts. The original sketch for “Renegade Snares” sounded a bit like Philip Glass.
You have to bear in mind that there was no such thing as drum ‘n’ bass at this point, just a load of producers playing around with keyboards, samplers and sequencers. It was very exiting and very fresh.
LS: Was PM Recordings (Parliament Music) connected to all that? Was it a label or a shop?
RH: In the ’90s I ran a record shop in Parliament Square in Hertford. We started a label to release music by a bunch of talented producers that frequented the shop.
LS: What do you think about current beat-driven electronic music like Burial or Four Tet? Is there anything out there now that you feel is as fresh and as exciting as the music from the early and mid ’90s?
RH: I’m not really following that sort of stuff at the moment. I occasionally get to hear some dubstep which can sound quite experimental.
LS: Omni Trio was an especially popular, succesful, and influential project (The Deepest Cut is counted among the earliest jungle records). Why did you end it?
RH: After Even Angels Cast Shadow and especially the minimal structures of Rogue Satellite, I felt that perhaps my work was done in this particular area.
Meanwhile I had been sifting through the piano and counterpoint pieces that I’d been composing alongside the Omni Trio stuff. There was a strong compulsion to just throw myself into developing this material.
All along the intention was to do the Omni Trio stuff alongside producing and releasing piano based material under my own name. Then the Omni thing blew up much bigger than I had anticipated. But throughout the ’90s I also kept writing piano and minimal themes. By the early 2000s the time seemed right to put the emphasis on developing this material.
LS: How do you feel about the inclusion of Omni Trio songs in video games like Grand Theft Auto? How did that happen?
RH: That’s down to my publisher. I’m very happy with it. My son loves those games.
LS: Do you think there’s a connection between your current work and what you were doing earlier in your career?
RH: I suppose the thread that runs through everything (from my ’80s and ’90s stuff to the present) is a love for the minimal or the economic use of sound materials. I like to make the most of limited elements, be that instruments, musical phrases, repetition, gradual development, or whatever else.
LS: Your return to the piano was Written on Water, which starts with a very metered, very rhythmic song reminiscent of Steve Reich and Harold Budd. “Ten Form” and “Eight Form” (from the same album) also share that quality. Do you feel a kind of kinship with either of them musically?
RH: Very much so. They are two of my favorite composers.
Ls: I sometimes think of Reich’s music as being a music of mathematics. It almost sounds geometrical, if that makes sense. What kind of advantages do you think writing in that mode has over other approaches? Do you have a method of writing you prefer?
RH: Well, I have two main approaches. One is based on shifting patterns, the other is more organic, coming straight out of improvisation. I like both approaches.
At the risk of stating it too simply, Reich works with shifting patterns, but his music is not at all dry or intellectual. For me it overflows with inspiration. He is a true creative force.
LS: What attracts you to minimal composition like that? Your recent records, like many of Reich’s and Budd’s, have a directness about them that I think more complex works either obscure or miss altogether. Why do you think that is?
RH: In some ways there is an imposed discipline which provides a certain amount of focus, which I appreciate. I suppose that composing with limited materials creates something more exposed and open-ended, stark, vital.
LS: What difficulties does working in a minimal setting present to you? How difficult is it to find and develop a unique voice when the piano is practically your only instrument?
RH: I prefer having the discipline of the minimalist. Some choices are predetermined, the rest is wide open. You can’t expect to reinvent the piano every time you write. You work with what’s there in a way that speaks to you.
I do like to bring a freshness to what I’m doing but I’m not interested in being unique or radical just for the sake of it.
LS: Your solo piano pieces are sometimes compared to those of Erik Satie and Claude Debussy. Are they conscious influences?
RH: I can’t deny the influence and my love for their music. Satie is the most criminally underrated composer in the history of classical music. The depth, subtlety and inventiveness in his music, not to mention mood and intelligence, is surpassed by few. And his music never dates.
LS: What do you think distinguishes your music from theirs?
RH: It’s not as good!
I’m not really sure. I suppose that my stuff is informed by later developments in music, like Reich, Glass, Cage, Nyman, Eno, and Budd. As I said earlier, things like Faust and the German scene were an influence, too.
LS: Notes and Crossings is a fantastic record, and one of the best records I’ve heard in the last couple of years. When did you start writing it and what was your inspiration?
RH: Thank you. It’s hard to say when I stared writing it. At any one time I have a load of half improvised material on tape/disc. I then go back into this material and see which ones I feel inspired to develop. A couple of pieces were a bit older: “Tomorrow Never Came” was written in 1989.
Initial inspiration always comes from the moment of improvisation at the piano.
LS: You’ve mentioned improvisation a couple of times now and claimed that you “uncover” music more than write it. Can you say a little bit more about that? What is it about improvised performance that is so inspiring? What does it offer you that composed or non-improvised writing doesn’t?
RH: I would think that most forms of composition start with some degree of improvisation. Just to sit down and start from nothing is itself the position of improvisation. Playing without too much thought or strategy is the key. In my case I think that it frees me from falling into obvious chord structures and harmonies. It throws up unexpected twists.
My initial work happens at the keyboard and is purely improvised… an unmediated flow. I don’t decide to start in A minor or whatever: the fingers do the work. It’s only later that I edit and impose structure, unless I leave it [as an improvised piece].
LS: Your most recent record, Anonymous Lights, sounds busier and less introspective than either Notes and Crossings orWritten on Water. In your mind, what distinguishes them?
RH: I think you are right to say that Anonymous Lights is a touch less introspective. It has a couple more pattern based contrapuntal things on it. Written on Water is even more interested in patterns and counterpoint. The material I am working on now (for a third in a series for Siren) is leaning more towards the organic and intimate.
LS: Silence frequently plays a part in your most personal recordings. Tell me more about that. Why is silence important in your music?
RH: There is a legacy in classical music that is still going strong: the veneration of the virtuosic. It’s a throwback to the past where technique and skill were considered so important. This probably one of the reasons for the snobbishness against Satie. He never played nine notes where one or two would do.
I don’t have a compulsion to fill space. A note is defined by its relation to another note and to the space around it. Giving space to notes seems to create more openness, more harmonic suggestiveness.
LS: Are there other modern composers or musicians writing in the classical genre that you admire?
RH: I like the stuff that I’ve heard from Goldmund, Hauschka, and Max Richter. They might be regarded as contemporary classical. Again, with these musicians there is no concern with virtuosity.
LS: I expected you to mention ballet a little, because ballerinas show up on at least two of your records (Valentine Out of Season and Juliet of the Spirits) and some of your songs exhibit a dance-like quality. Are you at all interested in ballet or dance?
RH: I’m not sure how that came about, I’ve never really been exposed to ballet. The lonely ballerina is a powerful almost mythic image, though.
And yes, there is a rhythm element to some of my music. I especially like the rhythmic folk influence that can be heard in the work of Ravel, Satie, Debussy, Bartok an in later things like Reich’s Tehillim.
LS: Have you ever considered moving further into the classical field by writing music for larger groups? What about writing a sonata or a concerto or working in other traditional forms?
RH: I would consider working with another instrument, possibly a cello or maybe an oboe. I think that so much could be achieved with just two distinct voices. There’s really no need for further orchestration.
I’m not too keen on the piano concerto format, though. I’ve never heard one that didn’t sound a touch overworked or contrived.
LS: I’ve seen articles online mention a collaboration you did with The Hafler Trio, but I’ve had a hard time finding any further information about it. What can you tell me about that?
RH: Ah ha, the mysterious Cold Pieces project. It was progressing as a release for Crouton, but then Crouton folded. We’ll have to wait and see what happens with those tapes. Andrew is not a man to rush!
LS: Can you tell me a little more about that? Is it focused on piano, too, or are you moving back in the direction of tape manipulation and sound collage?
RH: About three or four years ago I received an email from Andrew, he told me that he had a cassette tape of solo piano improvising from an old session at a studio with Nurse With Wound that he had attended. It was me just messing about at the piano with the tape still running. I had no recollection of this and didn’t know that it existed.
Anyway, he said that he was interested in manipulating/experimenting with this material for a release on Crouton. After a few more conversations it was decided that I would supplement that material with some fresh improvisations, so I sent him a couple more DATs of stuff. About a year or so later I received a few MP3s of Andrews productions. I was very pleased with his treatments.
Due to illness and other practical problems the project kept getting delayed. At one point I received a mock-up of the cover design and it seemed to be going ahead as a release for Crouton under the title Cold Pieces. Six months later Crouton folded. I have had no contact with Andrew since this time – I’m happy to leave it to Andrew to decide what to do with these recordings.
LS: I know you have another album coming out on Siren, but are there any other projects you’re currently working on?
RH: There are a couple of projects being discussed. One is a soundtrack to a British film, but I’ll wait to see what happens with that. Meanwhile I am happily immersed in producing that third release in the Siren trilogy of piano music.
Many thanks to Robert Haigh for his time.