Evolving with the Orchestra: composer Robin Haigh on his recent orchestral works

Evolving with the Orchestra: composer Robin Haigh on his recent orchestral works

The Irish/British composer Robin Haigh is having a busy year with performances of all four of his major orchestral works. Jessica Cottis conducts Luck, his trumpet concerto for Matilda Lloyd and Britten Sinfonia on the opening night of this year’s Aldeburgh Festival on 15 June 2024 [full details], and Matthew Halls conducts the UK premiere of Robin Haigh’s Concerto for Orchestra with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on 3 November [full details] In a guest article for Planet Hugill, Robin describes his continuing evolution in writing for orchestra.

Robin Haigh (Photo: Michael Carlo 2023)
Robin Haigh (Photo: Michael Carlo 2023)

This year, all four of my major pieces for orchestra are being performed – the Irish Premiere
of SLEEPTALKER (2021) with Dublin’s National Symphony Orchestra, the USA Premiere of
Grin (2019) with the Lowell Chamber Orchestra, the UK Premiere of Concerto for Orchestra
(2023) with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and the world premiere of my trumpet concerto, LUCK (2024) with the Britten Sinfonia. Composing for orchestra is where
I feel most at home, and in the past I’ve felt LUCKy to have just one orchestral performance in
a year – to have four seems so momentous as to warrant a personal look at how my attitude
to writing for orchestra has developed over time, with special attention being paid to the two
largest works, LUCK and Concerto for Orchestra.

Grin was written for the Britten Sinfonia, in an unconducted figuration consisting of two
horns, two oboes and a string group of about 20 players. As such, it’s towards the smaller
end of what we might consider an “orchestra” to be, though it turned out for me to be a piece
of great import, introducing some musical gestures that have become a staple of my
composing since. Principle among these is the sound of woodwind and brass instruments
gradually bending pitches down by approximately a quarter-tone. I invented my own notation
(a quarter-tone accidental on the end of a sloping line above the note) to try and make this
idea as immediately comprehensible and sensible to read as possible, and it has found its
way into practically every piece written with winds or brass since. But this is hardly an
unusual musical gesture in the world of contemporary classical music, and it’s the context I
tend to use it in that has allowed this sound to prove so continually useful – it is when it is
applied to recognisable tonal chords that this effect excites me most, a kind of distortion of
the “safe” and “ordinary” that particularly works with what I want to achieve emotionally in my
music.

Grin won a 2020 Ivor Novello Award in the chamber orchestra category, and this honour
gave me confidence that the musical ideas explored might be ripe for further development
with a greater orchestral palette. When the opportunity came up to write SLEEPTALKER for
the London Philharmonic Orchestra, I was also spurred on by strong personal feelings about
the state of contemporary classical orchestral music. It seemed to me then that much of the
orchestral music being written in the 21st century could just as easily have been written in
the mid-20th. With this piece I wanted to try and make a defiant statement of non-conformity
(though whether I succeeded or not is left up to the listener!) I chose three genres of
orchestral music that I deemed entirely separate from contemporary classical music –
Orchestral Light Music, National Anthems, and modern Film Trailer Music. At this point, I
was conceiving of my music conceptually, intellectually – working on the basis that by finding
something from outside of myself and doing something to it, I would end up with an artistic
result that said something about the relationship between the materials I was using, and the
context I was using them in.

A couple of years later, I was commissioned by oneMusic Orchestra, brainchild of conductor
Yoel Gamzou, to write a 15 minute piece for their debut concert at Beethovenfest Bonn. With
the group consisting of some of the best players from major orchestras across Europe, this
seemed like no ordinary orchestral commission. Many pieces for orchestra in the 8-15
minute range fit into the category of “one movement orchestral piece with an evocative name
about some tantalising concept or other” – indeed, this is a fairly good description of both
Grin and SLEEPTALKER. Ironically, the way I was able to feel a personal connection with
the piece was by fitting it into a more established genre, rather than trying to come up with
my own new and original concept. Once I knew the piece would be a Concerto for
Orchestra, I was able to slot myself into a tradition that gave a sense of purpose to what I
was doing, leaving lots of room for my own personal interpretation of the brief. My own
perception of what it means to write a Concerto for Orchestra involved writing a piece that
shows off the virtuosity of all the players on stage, with many solos, featured moments for
the different orchestral families, and a sense that anything difficult should not be in vain – that
the virtuosity on display should somehow reward and fulfil both player and listener.

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is probably the most well known and most often performed
piece that bears this name, though not the first. In an unintentional homage to the Hungarian
composer, my own piece begins with a “Bartok pizz” (a percussive snapping pizzicato) in the
double basses and cellos. Stravinsky’s Concerto in D was another influence, and at 12
minutes long gave me confidence that not all concertos for orchestra needed to rival Bartok’s
38 minute behemoth in sheer scale. The most recent work that I took note of was George
Benjamin’s 2021 Concerto for Orchestra, which gave me a good sense of the extent to
which a skilled orchestra can be pushed technically in the modern day.

In my prior orchestral works, the musical material was often chosen to create artistic friction
with the musical techniques used. For example, by layering extended techniques and
microtones onto Orchestral Light Music as I did in SLEEPTALKER, I was creating a clear
separation between materials and techniques, and signifying a modernist tendency to want
to manipulate and control my music. I approached the music of my Concerto for Orchestra
with a far greater sense of unity between material and technique – disparate styles of music
are not viewed through a distorting lens as in SLEEPTALKER, but embraced and
assimilated into the overall musical language. While SLEEPTALKER distorted Light Music,
National Anthems and Trailer Music, Concerto for Orchestra absorbs an even greater array
of styles – including Anime Music, Modern Pop, Jazz, Metal, Electronica, Film Scores – into
what I hope is something like a unified musical language.

Almost immediately after completing the Concerto for Orchestra, I moved on to LUCK:
Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra. Both pieces were written within the space of a year,
and so getting 40 minutes of orchestral music written in this time feels like something of an
achievement, not least because my daughter Marnie was born shortly after beginning work
on LUCK.

Very much continuing where Concerto for Orchestra left off, in LUCK I continued to work in
the influence-absorbing mode, this time with the soloist, Matilda Lloyd, acting as a point of
concentration for the music. LUCK is my first concerto in the most well known sense of a
substantial piece for soloist and orchestra, though it is territory i’d navigated on many
occasions before, having written many smaller scale pieces with soloists as well as a
quadruple concerto for four trombones and large ensemble, THE DREAMERS (2022.) I was
glad to get a chance to work closely with Matilda on a short creative retreat in Aldeburgh
where, while staying on the grounds of Benjamin Britten’s Red House, we spent each day
testing out possibilities for the piece.

This took the form of a set of short miniatures that were performed to a small private
audience in Britten’s library – it made sense that I shouldn’t put too much pressure on myself
during this short stay, that rather than “begin writing the piece,” I would simply try to create
something in its own right that would hopefully feed into the real thing once I began in
earnest. While none of the miniatures found their way directly into the finished piece, their
links and influence are clear to me – virtuosic passages that were tested in Aldeburgh gave
me confidence to write similarly virtuosic music later on, which otherwise I might have
omitted for fear of overdoing things.

While each of the other works I’ve spoken about have been characterised by introducing
some new or different aspect to my work, to me LUCK represents a culmination, hopefully, of
what I have been trying to achieve with my music for several years. There are some
composers who would choose their largest scale project to date as an avenue to explore
something entirely new, a stance I have a lot of respect for, but I saw this piece as a chance
to finally realise what I had been testing out in smaller projects over the preceding years. I
think my next large-scale work is likely to be another departure, building on my previous
ideas while seeking another new mode of expression, hopefully quite distinct from the music
of LUCK.

When an audience hears a piece by a living composer in concert, it is not unlikely that it will
be their first exposure to that composer’s music, especially if the piece is included alongside
works from the canon. By contrast, an unfamiliar piece by Mozart, Brahms, or Stravinsky is
held up against those composers’ most famous works, giving a very clear context to the
listener. In writing about all of my own orchestral works, I hope to have provided a bit of
context to the new audiences who will experience my music this year, while giving those who
already have some familiarity with my work a chance to gain a greater insight into the
connections between these four pieces.


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