By Andy Beta November 09, 2022
If you’re the kind of music fanatic who studies liner notes, you might already know that there was a Robert Haight who released contemplative modern classic albums – which at times swung into dark ambient territory – in the 1980s on Nurse with injuryof the United Dairies brand. You will also know that it disappeared from view at the end of the decade, only to reappear in the 21st century with more evocative piano music.
But did you know there was also an “R. Haigh” who dropped a furious drum & bass 12″ string from the 1990s under the handle Threesome Omni, and who was a major player on the influential label Moving Shadow? At the end of the 20th century, Omni Trio – if it was really more than one person – disbanded and disappeared. Stylistically, they couldn’t have been further apart on the musical spectrum from Robert Haigh, the classical pianist. They couldn’t be the same person… could they?
“Basically it’s all connected,” says Haigh from his home in England, nestled in a Cornish village near Truro. “With drum & bass there has been an obvious shift towards experimenting with new forms of technology and production. But many of the harmonic, polyrhythmic and atmospheric concerns are in a similar vein to my earlier (and later ).
From tracks meant to amp up underground dance floors to hushed, meditative morning listens, Haigh has been restless enough throughout his career to escape easy categorization. To look back on a career that spanned the early 80s underground in the UK to the heyday of drum & bass and jungle and then to 21st century ambient is to realize that Haigh’s core genre is hallucinatory, auditory sleight of hand – a sound that reveals even more with each listen.
As a young man, Haigh, like most British teenagers of his generation, was first struck by the “futuristic sounds and alien looks” of David Bowie and Roxy Music; see them play top pops left him stunned. “Brian Eno, of course, became a massive influence as I followed him through his solo career,” says Haigh. Equally crucial was the moment his older sister gave him her copy of The tapes of Faust. Young Haigh was taken aback by the German krautrock band’s hijinks, which were both disconcerting and rambling, until one day “it opened [for me] a whole new way of hearing and thinking about music. I especially liked the juxtapositions – jarring/noisy alongside melodic/atmospheric.
Haigh went to London for school, but dropped out to take a job at Virgin Records in the basement of Oxford Walk, where he met the likes of J.G. “Fetus” Thirwell and future teammate Trevor Reidy. Steve Stapleton of Nurse With Wound worked nearby and hung out at the store on his lunch breaks. Soon after, Haigh and Reidy’s artsy rock band, Truth Club, was playing gigs with artists like Cabaret Voltaire and This heat, soon finding himself alongside Nurse With Wound and Whitehouse on the loud 1980 compilation Raise the black flag. (He also contributed to Nurse With Wound albums like Insana Spiral and The Companion Hi-Fi Sylvie And Babs.)
Returning to Eno’s touchstone, Haigh soon realized that his musical interests had changed: “I wanted to develop a different side that reflected my interest in minimal and ambient music,” he says, “something more atmospheric, more layered and textured, without the constraints of a band format.He began releasing ruminative piano and minimal music through Nurse With Wound’s United Dairies label during the remainder of the decade.
He also left London in the summer of 1989 and opened a record store in Hertford, putting his own music aside as he focused on the business. “Immediately it was clear that the kind of stuff I used to sell in London didn’t work well here,” he recalls. “Instead, the kids arriving were in a whole other world of obscure house, rave imports and white labels.” Playing catch-up, Haigh immersed himself in acid house, beep, and more. He heard the echoes of the groups in which he had cut his teeth, from Cabaret Voltaire to Kraftwerk and Band.
A client told Haigh that he made a track on his home computer, which further piqued Haigh’s interest. It was a breakbeat track from Syko and Makwhat online commentators would now call “the right rudeness”, and Haigh liked the track so much that he set up his own Parliament label to release their 1992 EP. Murda. “It really appealed to my post-punk and DIY outlook,” he says. “I immediately got myself an Amiga and started merging some of my layered ideas with the new sequencing and sampling possibilities. Omni Trio was born from this experimentation. Haigh’s role in Britain’s drum & bass underground blossomed on six albums and dozens of 12″ over the decade, not to mention the music he released on Parliament and its sister label Candidate. .
Even amid these frenetic trappings and crude pauses, Haigh never ceased to make fragile and considered piano music; “It’s just that a lot of it wouldn’t fit the d&b tempo.” But at the turn of the new century, his interest in dance music began to wane, and he again found himself drawn to the quieter end of his catalog. New piano albums began to surface from 2007, wrapping up Haigh’s work.
On the surface, frenetic dance fans and introverted vibe fans may seem at odds, but Haigh’s discography reveals that they’re just different sides of the same coin. “I don’t really see a big difference between my recent work and my work from the 80s,” he says, looking back at his work. “Nearly 40 years later, I’m obviously a different person: I have more life experience, production skills and knowledge to draw on. So, in that sense, my expression has matured and evolved, but my musical preoccupations remain pretty much the same.
We asked Haigh to walk us through selections from her vast, stylistically hectic catalog.
“Omni Trio started as a side project after the record store opened,” says Haigh. “Unexpectedly, it really started to take off. I was on a roll, ideas were flowing and it was a really creative time. But towards the end, he started to feel a bit claustrophobic and limiting. By the time I was done Rogue Satellite I was looking forward to trying more things, experimenting with time signatures and different compositional approaches, using space and silence more. I considered doing all of these things as the Omni Trio, but at the time it felt right, albeit scary, to make a clean break and, in effect, start all over again.
“In 2012, Moving Shadow did a very low-key release of rare tracks that already existed,” says Haigh. “But Above the treeline is a whole other project. These tracks have been reconstructed from stems and fragments salvaged from old DATs, minidiscs and floppy disks. They were in various stages of completion, ranging from near-complete restoration work to completed restoration work. Most of them were in progress at the time I delivered Rogue Satellite. It was quite a cathartic experience, revisiting this material and bringing it back to life. But it’s also important in the sense that there’s no more material lurking. This is Omni Trio’s last transmission.
Notes and crossings
“Even with the success of Omni Trio, I never stopped writing bits and pieces of piano material,” admits Haigh. “I do it almost every day, it comes out of improvisation. So I was basically building a body of piano material that I could later draw from and develop into the tracks that would come out on Siren Records. With this hushed album, Still from 2007, Haigh returned to the sound he first explored in the early 80s.
Strange and secret things
“I’m self-taught and all my music starts with improvisation,” says Haigh. “I’m going to mess around for a while, and if I hear something that I like the sound of, I’m going to focus on it and play with it for a while. As I riff with it, I try different keys, alternate phrasings and additional progressions until something really starts to make sense. I followed Eno as he ventured into his more adventurous and ambient music, later working with artists such as Jon Hassell and Harold Bud, who became a huge influence. Budd’s spirit and distilled approach to the piano are on full display in this 2011 release.
Creatures of the Deep
“As I work and come across something I like, I save a rough version of it so I don’t forget it,” says Haigh. “Then I could put it aside and focus on its further developments – approaching it from other angles. But there is no set rule. It’s just experimentation. More often than not, I’ll end up scrapping it, or maybe saving a fragment as something I can use in a different piece later. From 2017 creatures of the depths, it was an evolution from solo piano tracks – with occasional washes and electronics – towards a more deliberate use of arrangements, textures and layers. There are still a number of solo tracks on those albums, but there’s also this move towards what you might call a more cinematic sound.
“On first listen, Black Saraband may sound like an ambient piano album,” says Haigh. “But listen more carefully, and other little sounds emerge: ambient washes, field recordings, unidentifiable quiet sounds. These kinds of considerations became more and more important to me. They are often almost like secret layers or subliminal messages. This all adds to the room’s atmospheric depth and another level of subtle interest.
“In a way, these three versions of Unseen Worlds work together like a trilogy,” Haigh notes. “In terms of releasing full albums under my name, I call it a day. I feel like I’ve done what I had to do with this format. I love writing and making music, so I will continue to work occasionally on low-key projects and collaborations, but at a different pace. I also want to get back into painting and visual arts. I have a lot of ideas in this field that I would like explore.