Name: Robin Hayward
Nationality: British / German
Occupation: Composer, Tubist
Current Release: Tonaliens on Edition Telemark. Bite of the Orange on Sofa Music. Robin Hayward's unique tuning vine software is available here.
Recommendations: The work that has left the most vivid impression on me in recent years is W. G. Sebald’s last novel Austerlitz.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Robin Hayward, do visit his personal website for an expansive biography, discography as well as essays.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started trying to compose when I was about 9, though without much success. I remember being puzzled as to why two chords on the piano could each sound pleasant played separately, but unpleasant when played together. I tried composing again when I was about 15, when I started studying at the junior department at the Royal College of Music. I showed my attempts so some fellow students and they laughed at them, so I felt discouraged and gave up again. Four years later in my second year at university I had to deliver and original composition, and I opted to do composition in my third year. Although I got the degree I was unhappy with what I’d done, and afterwards experienced a complete artistic block that lasted until I was 23. I then started improvising and composing jazz tunes, and these are the first compositions that I can still stand behind.
One of my very earliest musical influences was Ivor Cutler’s Who tore your trousers? LP, which was among my parent’s collection. It was pretty much the only alternative record we had as their tastes were mainly classical. When I was 9 I was ill for three weeks with pneumonia, and there were some Gilbert and Sullivan records in the room I was in that I listened to over and over again. A few years later I discovered Wagner, and listened to the entire Ring cycle at the time when most of my contemporaries were listening to Culture Club. I actually avoided pop because I resented the idea that you reach a certain age and automatically listen to a type of music, as it felt so programmed and manipulative. Now I have more perspective I can see that I was shooting myself in the foot, both musically and socially, by being so stubborn.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
The person who influenced me most directly was the trombonist Radu Malfatti, as it was playing with him that gave me the confidence to trust my instincts to play quietly. I had started working on very quiet playing in the late ‘80s, especially after having attended Luigi Nono’s summer course at Acanthes in 1989, but the new music tuba player the music college proposed I study with then suggested to me it was boring to play quietly. Actually I felt deeply frustrated playing the tuba as it seemed so limiting, and in a way, most of my original work has come out of searching for ways of overcoming these limitations. Historically, I suppose both John Cage and Harry Partch would be strong influences, the former due to opening my ears to noise, and the latter in reviving the use of Just Intonation, the tuning system I have been exploring since developing the microtonal tuba in 2009.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
When I started composing I was constantly asking the question ‘What does music really mean?’ and I can see now that this was not a very helpful question in this context, as it made me self-conscious regarding the relationship between sound and meaning. In retrospect I can see that the main challenge was developing tools to make music with, and at least as much time and energy has gone into developing these tools as to actually making music with them. The most significant tools I’ve developed so far are the noise-valve, microtonal tuba, tuning vine and SoundGrape notation for Just Intonation. Right now I’m studying half-valve acoustics in order to gain a better understanding of how they influence pitch and timbre. This half-valve research together with teaching myself the microtonal tuba fingerings are currently taking up pretty much all my time outside actually playing concerts and giving tuning vine courses.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
I have a soundproof cabin in my flat, which is large enough for two people to rehearse in. I can work very effectively in it and it’s saved a lot of travelling time. I work more effectively in a fairly ordered environment so I try and keep it reasonably tidy. I don’t have a very fixed schedule but I do try to cover each of the areas I’m currently working on each day. Technology, in terms of of electronic technology, has becoming increasingly important to me since I invented the tuning vine, which is currently only available as software. My main priority once I’ve finished my half-valve research will be to develop the tuning vine into a physical interface in which ergonomics and haptic feedback will be top priorities. I also want to continue exploring how the microtonal tuba can interact with live-electronics.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I try to get up reasonably early in order to get most out of the day. I then spend up to an hour doing yoga and meditation. I started doing this every day around 15 years ago, when I had a series of health issues and realised I was going to have to change some aspects of the way I was living. Then I spend as long as it takes answering emails and doing organisational stuff, and it’s only after that that I get to actually working on things that have artistic content. What I work on depends very much on what I have coming up – if it’s a tour then I’ll spend quite some time on tuba warm up routines and technique. If it’s a deadline for my doctoral research then tuba playing has to take a back seat for a while.
I don’t think I consciously separate music from my life. It’s just part of what I do each day. If I could be granted a wish it would be to need less than 8 hours sleep each night, as I’d love to have more time to listen to other people’s music for example. But by the time I’ve worked on the things I need to work on each day, and made time for everyday things that also need doing, I currently have very little time for this. Sometimes I’m reminded of Tolkien’s short story about an artist called Niggle, who only ever manages to paint a single leaf as he’s constantly being distracted by everyday things. At times I do resent the time these things take away from what I really want to focus on. But I’m aware I’m very lucky to have as much time as I do for what I really want to do, and try and remind myself of this when I get impatient having to deal with everyday things. I certainly don’t anymore make a conscious effort to treat everyday life as if it were music, as I did in the late ‘90s when I was so heavily into John Cage.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
It’s a state of play, combining openness and dreaminess with remaining clearly focused. The main distraction is hurry, which is fatal. That’s why I try and get everyday things done before I start working, and particularly since the era of the internet, be strict with myself about not looking up things up that are on my mind. The main thing I’ve learnt is never to try and force the creative process, as this closes down the interaction with the ideas and material. I actually think this is what led to my complete artistic block when I was still studying.