Chosen One: Greg Haines
Interview with Greg Haines.
Greg Haines discusses his new album ‘Digressions’, the creative process, composition and sound, Berlin, The Alvaret Ensemble and “The Group” that features Greg, together with Peter Broderick and Casper Clausen (Efterklang) among others (coming in January 2013).
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
The British composer, Greg Haines’ latest album ‘Digressions’ is a masterpiece with wonderful shades and textures of divine neo-classical and ambient music. Over the past several years, Haines has created such emotive and engaging music. Listening to the latest master-work, that is ‘Digressions’, I am transported to an odyssey of beauty, immaculate and divine. The epic piece ‘183 Times’ contains violin strings, drenched in aching emotion. A soft piano serves as the heart pulse of this amazing piece. Words can’t describe the sheer emotion and profound effect music of this kind possesses. I have been listening to ‘Digressions’ a lot during the year and the album has unknowingly become a part of me; a soundtrack to the sunrise and sunset and all points in between. The works of Brian Eno and Christian Fennesz comes to my mind when recounting my first discovery of Greg Haines’ compositions. The new album ‘Digressions’ originated from Greg’s work with a school orchestra in Britain. The aim of the project was to get its players thinking about different approaches to composition and sound. At the end of his time with his students, the piece they had worked on was recorded, which Greg shaped further and eventually became ‘Digressions’. The subtle music that graces ‘Digressions’ is akin to Arvo Pärt. Take for example, the album closer ‘Nueblo Pueblo’. Slow and tranquil piano notes are played over an atmospheric background. This first section is similar to Sylvain Chauveau. Six minutes in, film-score strings arrive and a world of modern-classical is gorgeously created. Think Marsen Jules. The five pieces of music on ‘Digressions’ are truly captivating. The album was mixed and mastered by neighbour and friend, Nils Frahm. There are also guest appearances from Peter Broderick and Dustin O’ Halloran; the heart of the Berlin music community, where Greg Haines has lived for several years now.
Hello Greg, it’s a real pleasure to ask you a few questions about your music. Your latest album ‘Digressions’ is a masterpiece with wonderful shades and textures of divine neo-classical and ambient music. Congratulations on creating such emotive and engaging music. It’s really lovely to talk to you about your music.
Tell me please about the making of your latest album ‘Digressions’. I was very interested to read how the source of inspiration came from your work with a school orchestra in Britain, and how this led to the orchestra becoming the source material for your own compositions. I’d love to hear you explain more about this please.
A while ago I was commissioned by a school in England to create a piece of music for students to perform. This was also around the time that I was thinking it was about time to start working on a new album, and so I had the idea that perhaps I would use the recordings of the commission as a starting point in some way. Because of this, the piece I wrote was quite empty sounding, as I was more interested in collecting a library of interesting textures that I could use as inspiration. As the players were only students, and hadn’t really had any experience playing this kind of music, there were lots of interesting sounds in there created by accident, such as strange vibrations as the air passed through the reed instruments, or a lot of people all playing slightly out of tune with each other. For some reason I am always drawn to these sounds; sounds that are a little bit broken or unorthodox. When listening back to the recordings, I noticed that one of the many microphones we used was a little broken, and occasionally the sound would fracture or it would emit weird popping noises – I even ended up using that! Sometimes those sounds are much more interesting than what you would expect. For me, the hardest part of the writing process is always the first step, when the ‘canvas’ is completely empty, so having these recordings really helped to start the creative process for that album. In those textures that I created through processing the source material, I started to hear the melodies and the structures that eventually became ‘Digressions’.
You said your aim, when working with the school orchestra was to get its players thinking about different approaches to composition and sound. I can only imagine how this whole mindset must be central to your creative process. What are the different approaches you use to composition and sound and how do you achieve this?
As I mentioned above, I often approach compositions from a really strange angle – often the weird noises and strange processed sounds come before the melody, rhythm, or any of the ‘conventional’ elements of a piece. For Digressions, I would often I would take a note or chord and then process and stretch it beyond recognition, then in listening back to that really destroyed sound I would begin to hear melodic patterns in my head, or perhaps as the sound gets more processed, hiss starts to build up in certain areas and that can be the beginning of a structure. If there is a certain mindset I suppose it is to try to focus on every tiny detail of the sound, whether its a violin or radio static, try to work out whats interesting about it, and then try to exaggerate or isolate those elements.
What are the central themes for you on ‘Digressions’?
I think I was trying to take the same source material and take it in five different directions. Whereas the album before (Until the Point of Hushed Support) is meant to be considered one long composition, the tracks on Digressions are meant to each have their own individual characteristics. I am not sure I really succeeded with that but I think that was my initial idea. I suppose another theme of the album is a crazy amount of layering in the sounds – there is just so much going on, so much hidden. But even if you can’t really hear a lot of the layers, without them it would definitely sound different!
My favourite piece is ‘183 Times’. The ambient world is created so wonderfully with drifting piano notes and emotive strings. Can you give me an insight please into the title ‘183 Times’ and the use of instrumentation in creating this stunning piece.
I don’t really like to discuss the titles much, as I prefer to keep the names of the songs pretty abstract so people can interpret them how they wish. But if you search around on the internet a bit, it shouldn’t be too hard to work it out. The piece is basically made of 4 chords that repeat, except at one point there is an additional lower chord entering, so its really very simple. All of the movement and emotion in the track comes from the violin, which was played by Iden Reinhart in quite a freeform way, and then the chords were placed around when she reached certain parts of the score – so thats why the length of every chord is completely different. In terms of other orchestration, you can find the (heavily processed) school ensemble in there, along with piano, organ, bass guitar, synths, bells and Peter Broderick doubling the chords by layering his voice.
I was fortunate to talk to Nils Frahm recently, who mixed and mastered ‘Digressions’. In terms of recording, he said “For some reason I find my way around in sounds very easily” and how it’s a very natural process. I can imagine making music must be the same for you, as a composer. Tell me please about how you developed an interest in sound? Can you recall certain memories you have that triggers this close connection you share with sound?
Yes, it all seems so effortless for Nils! I don’t really think music is as natural to me as it is to Nils and Peter and those kind of guys – it always seems like such hard work to create anything, almost like I have to start from scratch every time. But I get there in the end, and I suppose in general it just comes from a love of sound. It gets a little easier all the time, but I also would be worried if it seemed too easy. I am not really sure where all this came from – I am not from a musical family or anything like that. Maybe it just comes from growing up in a small town, where you have to develop some kind of hobby otherwise you would just be incredibly bored. I never liked sports, so I guess I just became a musician!
In relation to the cello instrument, how have you developed your cello playing? Listening to your music I can feel such emotion pouring from the cello strings. What are the range of possibilities you see when playing cello?
There is no cello on the new album, except maybe a tiny bit played by a member of the school ensemble, but its so processed you probably can’t hear it. On the album before, I played a little bit of cello, but just for additional sounds in the background – the main cellist was Anna Müller. So there hasn’t really been any of my cello playing on my albums for a long time. I never play cello live anymore – I have basically given up. I do love the cello, but thats why I thought it was best to leave it to the people who are really passionate about playing it.
Your music is subtle that builds wonderfully, blossoming into something of large scale depth and emotion. You cite Arvo Pärt as a major influence. Please give me an insight into how his music inspires you? Are there certain albums that you see as having a significant impact on you?
I think all the ECM albums are favourites, but the first thing by him that I heard was ‘Passio’ on a cheap Naxos CD. I had just bought it as I had heard the name around from various people, and I put it on loop very quietly as I was going to sleep. Throughout the night I kept waking up to certain parts of the piece and listened in a kind of half-awake way. By the morning I was obsessed, and I knew that this music was going to be something really important to me. The finale of ‘Passio’ is just amazing, and hearing that for the first time really sticks with me. If I had to try to explain what it is about his music that I am drawn to, I would have to say its something contradictory like its the complexity of the simplicity. Its so refined, its as if music has been distilled to its emotional core, but there is still so much nuance left.
Talk me through the composition of ‘Caden Cotard’ please, the second piece on your album. It feels as if there’s three separate movements, where piano becomes more prominent after the opening strings. I love the dynamic range and feel to this piece of music.
There wasn’t really any conscious decision to create something in three movements or anything like that, thats just the way the piece naturally developed – it felt like thats what had to happen. I try not to over-intellectualize what I’m doing when I am making something. I think about it a lot, maybe too much, but I am not really asking myself the question “why” anymore. It just gets way to complicated, and often it just gets in the way. ‘Caden Cotard’ is a pretty dense piece, with a lot of different stuff going on. Depending on what I muted, or how I mixed it, this track could have been so many different things. In the end section, there is even a violin and mandolin part really quietly in the background – if this was in the foreground it would really sound like some kind of moonshine-swigging country song. So its probably lucky that its not!
You have lived in Berlin for a few years. What is the community like there for making music? You have all these wonderful like-minded musicians from Peter Broderick to Nils Frahm. It must be a dream place to be immersed in sound and to develop your skills?
There are a lot of great musicians around, and more every day it seems – I wonder when it will reach saturation point. Its great to have people like Peter and Nils in town, partly to make music with but mainly because they are friends and its great to hang out. But I wouldn’t say it was a ‘dream place’. Don’t get me wrong, its a great city, but its just that – a city. There are a lot of problems with Berlin, just like anywhere else, and by moving there it certainly doesn’t mean your music or art or dance is going to get better, or you are going to become more successful. The truth is that most musicians living in Berlin are making their money elsewhere, as there isn’t really much work in Berlin at all. But its definitely a great place to meet people, see music or go to a club. Its getting pretty good now for food also!
What albums are you listening to most lately?
I’ve been away in Italy for quite a while now, so haven’t been able to really listen to my records, but some Cds that have been on in the car are:
Efterklang – Piramida
Daft Punk – Homework
Ligeti – String Quartets
Four Tet – Rounds
Paulo Angeli – Tibi
Ryuchi Sakamoto – Discord
Please tell me about The Alvaret Ensemble? I have read there is a debut album coming in December.
The core of the Alvaret Ensemble is myself, Jan Kleefstra, Romke Kleefstra and Sytze Pruiksma, but there are usually other musicians performing alongside us. Our self-titled debut album is a 2xCD/2xLP that was recorded in a church in Berlin along with Iden Reinhart on violin, Hilary Jeffery on trombone, Peter Broderick on violin and Martyn Heyne, who played a bit of church organ. It was recorded, mixed and mastered by Nils Frahm – mixing this was incredibly painstaking, but I think you can hear in the end result that a lot of effort when into this. Maybe Nils wanted to kill me at some points, but thats ok as I probably wanted to kill him at some points! All part of the fun. It will be released on Denovali Records in December, and we will be touring a bit in the beginning of next year.
What’s next for you Greg?
Well, quite a few different things. In January, Peter Broderick, Casper Clausen (Efterklang), Francesco Donadello, Martyn Heyne and myself will premiere a new group/collective/experiment simply called ‘The Group’ at HBC in Berlin. More on that soon. In May, Denovali will release a 6xLP wooden boxset of all my previous albums, along with some extra material, and then in the same month will release my next solo album, which is really something pretty different. Things are really going in a different direction, which I am very excited about and I hope that people can get excited about too. I’m also already confirmed to create the music for three dance pieces next year, one of which will be at the Royal Opera House with the Royal Ballet and David Dawson choreographing. It will be a work for a full orchestra. Thats going to be a lot of fun. There are all kinds of other things coming up too, but they will be announced when the time comes…
‘Digressions’ is out now on Preservation.
The self-titled debut album by The Alvaret Ensemble can be ordered now from Denovali Records: