“I like that moment of alienation: the moment of something I’m used to [being] so strange. The more you think about it, and the more you learn about it, the more it’s like it’s from another planet.”Robin Fiedler
Robin Fiedler is a composer currently based in London. Originally from Neuburg an der Donau, Germany, Robin’s compositions have been described by The Guardian as “strikingly original”, and have been performed by ensembles such as the London Firebird Orchestra, London Contemporary Chamber Orchestra, Allegri String Quartet, Mahan Esfahani and Fenella Humphreys, Arc Project, and London Bel Canto Festival, among others; she is an alumna of Cheltenham Composer Academy 2022, and is on the roster of Sound and Music’s Adopt a Music Creator 2023, writing for Regent Brass and Camden Brass Band. Robin currently studies composition with James Francis Brown.
We sat down with Robin in a pub in Brixton, south London, and spoke about her recent premiere with Arc Project, unbalanced ensembles, sentimentalism, organic processes, and the “everyday alien”…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Robin! Hope all’s well with you. How are you — and what pieces have you been working on recently?
Robin Fiedler: I’ve recently premiered a piece with Arc Project. That was a lot of fun, because of the weird ensemble; I had the violin, clarinet, and bass trombone! I feel like I got way more worried about it than I had to, because I thought the balance was much harder to achieve. But then when I went to the rehearsal, it was actually fine. The trombonist William King was always like “I think I’m too loud!” — and I was like “no, you’re fine!” -laughs- Which is really weird, I did not expect that. But they’re all fabulous players. I’m sad I’ll never get to write for that combination again.
Well, you never know! What was the concept of the piece, and how did you approach writing for such an unconventional ensemble — particularly with the bass trombone?
The piece is called ‘A Day in the Life of a Lichen’. I always wanted to write a piece about lichen, because I think they’re awesome; but this ensemble was really a good chance to do this. You know how lichen are symbiotic organisms, and they consist of two or more different species? So I had these three instruments from different groups, and it was like a symbiotic organism that has to somehow work together to make one single thing. I was like “there’s my chance!” -laughs-
How did you explore this idea of symbiosis with the instrumentation?
My main workaround was the register. [In] very black-and-white talking, you have two options. The straightforward thing would have been to do the comical thing, and I didn’t want to do that. So I felt like I had two options, either register or colouring. Either, the clarinet and the violin [would] come through in the higher register, and the bass trombone can do what they want downstairs… just living their life. -laughs- Or [if] you have the same notes, you use the instruments for colouring. If you double the bass trombone with the clarinet, you can use the clarinet for colour, essentially — it’s not gonna do much more. Or you have very far apart registers, and the treble instruments still come through because of the frequencies. It’s easier than I thought.
It’s like overcoming the challenges of such a strange ensemble ends up leaning into the concept of the piece.
Yeah. But then the other thing is, you have so many more possibilities with that. Because [if] you say “write a string quartet”, everybody’s written a million string quartets and everything has been done, pretty much; you’re asked to write for this weird combination, everything is wide open, because there isn’t really a precedence for it — and if you have one, you have to work really hard to find it. So it’s a different kind of being restricted. But you need restrictions to be creative, right?
Speaking of creative restrictions: how have you used this approach in work for solo instruments? I understand you have a solo clarinet piece being premiered soon…
That was actually really fun. Poppy Beddoe, who’s premiering [the piece] in June, [is] an extremely good player. So I was very, very lucky to, essentially, be able to do whatever I want. -laughs- I know she will be able to do it.
Obviously, you’re restricted with writing [on] a solo melody instrument. But I like that, because you then need to think about motivic things. It’s much more focused on the architecture — details of the form — than other pieces, where you can just work with harmony (but not necessarily functional harmony) to form an architecture. You don’t have that in a solo piece.
For this piece in particular — how did you approach that, in both concept and aesthetic?
So the theme for the piece — ‘Cryogenesis’ — is an organism that grows in a very cold environment. It tries to reach beyond that, towards a connection, but it can’t really “get out” until the end — or not, because the end is relatively open. But it keeps trying. It’s [a] very fluid piece, but also circulating around trying to achieve something, but being sort of trapped. Circulating around yourself, finding different approaches to go beyond your situation.
I’m not a fan of attaching a “linear” narrative to a piece, but that came out of the idea. Most of the time, the “narrative” comes later, when something has already crystallised musically.
If the narrative is not so important for you in a piece’s gestation — on a more larger level, what inspirations do you start with in your compositional process?
I have a very mushy brain, in terms of: stuff tends to sit on a heap. Sometimes I read about something, I see something, and it makes me feel a certain way — mostly, it starts with a feeling that excites me. And then, I want to find the colours of that. That can be provoked by anything; and then it circles back, at some point, to where it came from. But I can’t really pinpoint where it starts. It’s a very cumulative process. I would have textures — I love textures, I love making webby things — and then [I] almost always have melodic material. I know that’s a bit backward of me…
Is it backward, though?
I’ve been told that. But I feel like it’s necessary to have a “main” character, and side characters also.
I love this analogy of thinking of melody — as protagonists and deuteragonists…
It’s then a little bit like a film, or something, where you zoom in. Sometimes you zoom in on the detail, and you have a close-up; and then you have a wide shot. With larger forces, I often have a day where the melody — or that sort of linearity — pulls me in a certain direction — and sometimes I have a day where I’m like “okay I wanna make this colour like this with the tuba, what do I do?” It’s sort of very cumulative, and then I try to strip it down. Often there is this moment where I’m like “do I really need this doubling? Why do I need this doubling?”
It’s the danger of over-orchestrating something, right? When you’re working with huge forces, it’s so tempting to use everything at once…
Often, I just do a lot of stuff, and then I go into detail and say “Okay, do I really want five trombones here (as a total exaggeration)? Which line is necessary?” Maybe just three, or maybe I want one at the top, one at the bottom, [and] one sneaking through both… Maybe [I] throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. -laughs-
To be fair, that’s never a bad way of composing! You can discover so many new things by doing that.
Yeah, that’s true. Mostly, I’m guided by serendipities where I’m like “let’s try that…” And then I’m like, ooh, I’m gonna leave that there — and pretend I’ve actually written it, and it didn’t just happen. -laughs- [I like] the fact that I get to try things out, as a composer — rather than, as a performer, you get that one moment on stage and that’s it. You can’t go back and be like “sorry guys, I’m gonna play bar 58 again because I wasn’t happy with it!” And everybody sits there with their popcorn and their chips, like… oh shit. Not that bar again. -laughs-
“I like that moment of alienation: the moment of something I’m used to [being] so strange. The more you think about it, and the more you learn about it, the more it’s like it’s from another planet.” ~ Robin FiedlerTweet
A lot of your music is inspired by organisms and biological processes; what is it about organic characterisations that inspire you?
It’s a thing that I call the everyday alien. You go outside, and you see insects everyday; or there is not a day where you don’t walk past a lichen, for example. So these things are just occurrences — they’re nothing special — and then you look at them, and you think “actually, they’re kind of insane.” [They’re] so strange when you look at them close-up, and nothing like us. Like, having an exoskeleton, or being three things at the same time… Or being able to fly, but not really having a brain. -laughs- I like that moment of alienation: the moment of something I’m used to [being] so strange. The more you think about it, and the more you learn about it, the more it’s like it’s from another planet.
I don’t really like thinking of my music as environmentalist, because I’m not a fan of having a political thing come before the music. [But] these things make me infinitely happy — I just love learning these things, and thinking “look at that, I can just walk outside my house and have my brains blown out!” What I do want, or hope, to achieve, is to direct peoples’ attention to those organisms, illustrate them in a beautiful and poetic way. Because if your attention is on something, you’re gonna take care of it. So in a way, there is the hope that the attention and the care towards these lifeforms will be increased, and people do less things that kill them.
That’s so important at the moment — highlighting the significance and importance of these creatures in our ecosystems, that many people don’t care about because they’re not “pretty”…
I also love the notion of grim fascination. Because fascination doesn’t have to be beautiful; it’s sort of something captivating, but it can be absolutely grim. If you observe a dragonfly hunting, it’s terrifying. If you were the thing that they eat, you would not be having a good day. -laughs- There’s this absolute precision, and cold-bloodedness… If a human being did that, it would be horrifying, because there’s a consciousness that decides to do that — but for them, that’s just the way they are. They just survive. I feel like insects are so “cold”, in a way; they have their skeletons on the outside, and they don’t experience empathy — at least, not to my knowledge — but we need them to survive. Everything needs them to survive. I love thinking about all these contexts, and finding a sort of “cold poetry” that illustrates that.
How has this idea of “cold poetry” manifested itself in your work?
Mostly by making cold colours, and textural things. I feel like the warmth doesn’t come from the actual material, it comes from the fact that I love these organisms. Someone told me once that my music is cinematic without sounding like film music — as in, that plays into it, like an observer. But I’m not trying to fabricate that; it’s just a feedback that I kept in mind.
I get that. It’s not a cruel coldness, it’s just a clinicality; like there’s a divide between the subject and the observer.
I’m not a big fan of sentimentalism. It irritates me. I feel like if I did it, it would be disingenuous, because that’s not how I function. I try to make a clear distinction between sentimentalism and genuine emotional responses. It’s also music that I’m not particularly interested in. I listen to late Romantic music, and I’m like “actually, that kind of annoys me” — not to discredit it, I can appreciate the mastery of it, but it does not appeal to me. -laughs- [But] I hope that people I love perceive me as warm towards them, because that’s what I want to give people; but not in a way where I’m playing a role that doesn’t fit me, [or] performative romance. I find that pretty unbearable. -laughs-
It’s interesting you’ve mentioned this disdain for romantic sentimenalism, because you’ve set some text that’s quite “romantic” — how have you reckoned this dichotomy in your text-setting, particularly in pieces like ‘Stardust’?
The text for ‘Stardust’ was very existential in its nature. It was literally about dissolving into and becoming part of the universe as a notion of freedom. The person who wrote the text — Ken Querns-Langley, who commissioned me — he is very spiritual, and I’m a Christian. So it was mostly for me, focusing on finding the intersection of those two things, where I can understand what I have to do as a composer to do the poetry justice, but also not deny myself; because it needs to be you and them both. And then I ended up reading about quantum physics, because that was sort of the common ground. -laughs- That helped me to find my notes, in a way; that’s something I could get very excited about, that made me feel a lot of things. [In] other romantic poetry… I’ve set Emily Bronte, for example. That’s ‘To a Wreath of Snow’; that was [inspired] by nature, where I could bond with the feeling of seeing snow, and the calming, silencing, [and] almost eerie thing — but also the symmetry. I also [set] Anne Bronte as a religious piece.
I understand what you mean now when you’re talking about “romance” — because romantic poetry and music mean such different things to what many people see them as.
I often find some common ground, because if I try to feel romantically, I probably couldn’t write anything sensible. -laughs- I need to find something that makes me as excited as they are about romance. There is a thing that I relate to, because romance is a connection at its core. I feel like society always overreacts to it a little bit; it’s so big, so important, but there are so many connections that are just as important. Hollywood has just not made a fuss about them, so we don’t value them as much.
And in terms of text-setting — I heard you’re working on an opera, as well?
That’s a really interesting one. The librettist — Crystal Koo — she describes herself as very emotional and expressive. Obviously, there are several examples in music history where the words are really blank, and all the emotion is in the music — Wozzeck, for example — and I’m not saying I’m writing “emotionless” music or anything, [but] I’m looking forward to finding that approach where I can complement her temperament, rather than bring it down.
There are definitely ways of doing that — and that sounds like a fun challenge. How are things coming along with it, and what’s the concept behind the opera?
We’ve been working on [it]. She’s writing at the moment, so I’m waiting for some words to set. But we’ve had several meetings to really drill down to the relationship between the characters so that we’re both on the same page. But I can’t really share [or] say anything yet… -laughs-
Finally: I understand you had quite a varied background before coming into composition. What is it about being a composer that inspires you?
I took a long, strange time to find myself in music. I tried all sorts of things, and was still looking and it was very frustrating for me. -laughs- And I remember the first time I came to the front after a premiere, and took a bow, and it was that strange feeling of peace: “I am home, I have arrived.” That was the moment; I found it, [and] I never looked back, because nothing (else) makes me feel like this. And [there’s] also the work itself. Obviously, the “successful premieres” are the highlights, they don’t happen every day. If I only lived for that and didn’t enjoy the actual work as much as I so, I wouldn’t get much out of it. But making a shape is so satisfying. The architecture of a piece is very important to me, because it satisfies me to make a thing that stands, self-referential. It’s like a little animal.
Is there anything in particular that motivates you to continue to compose?
Part of it is me thinking “I have to catch up!” — [thinking] I can’t really afford to not do something. Even if something is not gonna be performed, or I don’t have someone interested, I can still do it to become a better composer. Right now, I’m in the lucky position where I have some stuff in the books; but I’ve also done some large-scale works, just because I wanted to see if I could do it. It’s always nice to explore new things without the pressure. This year, I have a lot of chamber orchestra projects [coming up], which is nice — and a big brass band [project] for Sound and Music’s Adopt a Music Creator, which I really look forward to. If I hadn’t started doing big orchestral stuff for the hell of it, people wouldn’t really know I’m up for that.
I was really lucky, because James Francis Brown — my teacher — gave me a chance when I wasn’t the “normal” composition student. And also, he just let me be myself. He never tried to make me into anything else. He always just supported me in what I wanted to do, and helped me be better at that. That was a godsend, in a way. I feel like you just know when you’re in a place that feels right, and I found that place in composition.
More of Robin’s work can be found below:
- Emily Bronte – To a Wreath of Snow (1837)
- Alban Berg – Wozzeck (1925)