Spotlight: Tilman Robinson

M4H Spotlight with Tilman Robinson


I've had the pleasure of knowing Tilman Robinson for a long time now, whether it be stumbling through uni halls, crossing paths at gigs or wines in pubs years later. One benefit of such a long acquaintance is having seen him grow, bend, twist and turn into the prolific, well sought-out artist he is today. His music toes the line between beauty and disagreement, challenges as it transfixes, whilst always provoking thought. It's simply too easy for me to feel physically present in whichever scene he's created and not my own. I was rapt when he agreed to answer some personal questions on each of our favourite topics music & hearing, even teaching me a thing or two on the way. 

Tell us a little about yourself & what you do...

I’m a composer, sound designer and producer creating electro-acoustic music across a range of genres including classical minimalism, improvised, experimental, electronic and ambient musics. I tend to work on my own projects and those of others as either a composer, producer or arranger. This can take form as writing/producing my own works to film scoring to multi-speaker installation works to recording with singer/songwriters and everything in between.

What drew you to a profession in music?

I feel like there has never been another option for me other than a career in music. This isn’t to say I don’t have other interests but I can never think of a time, even when I was young, that I ever thought I’d be doing something else. I have worked as a freelance musician for my entire adult life and while it is often grueling, exhausting, terrifying, financially unrewarding and frustrating, I can’t imagine doing anything else. My role within the music industry has changed significantly over the years and I constantly strive to learn new ways of making music or helping others. I can’t think of many other employment situations that could offer me this kind of creative fulfillment and ongoing fascination.

There seems to be an ongoing machismo in the music industry that belittles people worrying about their hearing.... The insinuation is always “toughen up”. No thanks

What does music mean to you?

There’s really no good way to answer this without just saying ‘everything’ in lofty ways so let me rephrase the question as ‘What do I think music means to society?’. It’s often a tired cliche that ‘music is the international language’ but I really believe it’s true. Music has the ability to cross linguistic and cultural divides and unite humanity if only for the briefest of moments. It can make complete strangers on the opposite sides of a political gulf grin and smile at each other while dancing at a Beyonce concert, or can make angsty teens feel connection while they get sweaty in a thrash-pit or in da club. In its supporting roles (as in underscoring film, theatre and other art forms) music has an almost subliminal effect of manipulating our emotions in various ways. Think of the phrase ‘tugging at the heart strings’ in reference to Barber’s Adagio for Strings or imagine Inception being anywhere near as exciting without Hans Zimmer’s brilliant score for it. Music, and the arts in general, are human expression and, in my humble opinion, I think that means a lot to us all.

If you could share a sound with someone for the first time, what would it be?

Ha. Well I guess my immediate response would be to play them something “beautiful”. A magpie singing, the sound of a small child’s heartbeat or the sound of the ocean on a windy night, maybe? Personally I find a lot of difficult and dissonant sounds beautiful though, so why not take the opportunity to play them something deemed “ugly” and see what their response is to it when they have no preconceptions? Are nails down a chalkboard really as bad as everyone thinks they are? What about the opening to Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima?

There’s a kind of romanticised notion around Beethoven going deaf
and continuing to compose, but in reality it would fucking suck.

What is your favourite piece of music and why?

Oh man that’s impossible…. How about we limit that to some stuff I’ve loved in the past 6 months? Jóhann Jóhannson’s film score to Arrival (minus the Max Richter interjections that cost him an Oscar nomination) was phenomenal - super minimal and moving. Friendships’ Nullarbor 1988-1989 is probably the best Australian electronic album I’ve ever heard. Jenny Hval’s Blood Bitch is an amazing album about vampires and menstrual cycles. serpentwithfeet’s Blisters EP really floored me last year with its honesty and no-holds-barred lyrics. There’s just too much good stuff.

Why do you believe hearing is worth caring for (if you do)?

I think if you’re a musician and you’re not at least a little bit concerned about protecting your hearing then you’re kind of…. what’s a nice way of putting this? There’s a kind of romanticised notion around Beethoven going deaf and continuing to compose but in reality it would fucking suck. In the past hundred years, the amplification of musical sound (and the volume of sounds in general - especially in the city) has risen consistently to levels the human ear never evolved to hear. Hearing loss and ailments such as tinnitus are real and affect many musicians I know, all of whom lament not doing anything about it when they had the chance.

If you could change/suggest one thing on this topic (hearing & music), what would it be?

There seems to be an ongoing machismo in the music industry that belittles people worrying about their hearing. I can think of many conversations I’ve been a part of or overheard where someone has laughed at another person’s interest in protecting their hearing. The insinuation is always “toughen up”. No thanks… 

If you could give one piece of advice to young musicians and music lovers, what would it be?

For the musicians: support your scene, be involved, learn skills that give you a point of difference and always be creating. There are thousands of people that want to be musicians and so many of them are blinded by a notion that luck, a TV show or a certain radio station are their tickets to success in the music industry. The reality is that forging an ongoing career in the music industry is unbelievably hard work. For the overwhelming amount of musicians there is no shortcut. Work your ass off. Oh, and watch this.

For music lovers: support your scene, be involved, broaden your listening palette and above all, pay for the music you listen to. It’s increasingly difficult to make any kind of money as an artist. Don’t be fooled: to the average artist, Spotify/YouTube plays don’t really translate into any kind of income worth talking about. The best thing you can do is buy merch (a physical album, a t-shirt, a coffee cub) directly from the artist. Even if you don’t have a CD or record player or don’t intend to wear the shirt, the artist is going to thank you for the $20 they now have in there pocket more than the 30 times you listen to their song on Spotify. Plus, having a sweet album on vinyl so you can read the liner notes and touch the music with your hands is pretty awesome.

Any exciting things coming up for you musically?

Plenty! In my own world, I’m working on a little collaboration with a guy from Kansas that’s coming out as a 10” vinyl only release. Each record will have a hand painted cover by Gregory Euclide the artist behind Bon Iver’s self titled album artwork. It’s a lovely project he’s put together as THESIS. Other than that, I’m performing around the traps, working with a couple of great songwriters on new work, possibly scoring a documentary in the second half of the year, production managing a project that is cataloguing and performing the past hundred years of indigenous contemporary music, and starting to think about my next record. You know…. The usual….

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By Siobhan McGinnity