Writings about Music
A Stranger Nobody Sees
Music is a stranger nobody sees. It exists in a unique realm between the physical and metaphysical worlds shimmering with infinite manifestations. We become close to it, and love it, but there is nothing to actually see beyond performers and instruments and scores. It operates according to laws of its own.
Without any doubt, I feel that American jazz seized the intellectual, spiritual, technical and expressive realm of those qualities previously owned by European (including Russian) composers around the time of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, etc., followed by figures including Lee Konitz, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Jackie McLean, Alan Dawson, Richard Davis, etc. Its important to keep in perspective that the innovations of these would not have been possible without the earlier underpinnings constructed by Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Lester Young, etc. This does not invalidate those earlier forms of European classical music, the greatest works of which will always be immortal. But they are of an earlier time, and other powerful forms and artists have emerged that are at least equally deserving of our attention and freedom to be educated.
And then, I absolutely believe that American rock, rhythm and blues, soul, and other so-called popular forms (a limiting misnomer), along with British rock, of course, similarly superseded jazz (with some overlapping) with artists like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Laura Nyro, Bob Dylan (skyrocketing out the of the folk music tradition), Michael Jackson, etc., again with essential earlier contributions along these lines from Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, James Brown, etc. (I don't have time to write an entire book here!)
Since rock and pop peaked, it's truly up in the air what form or what artists may have risen to such luminous realms. Following customs and patterns of the past (including one's own) in a formulaic manner doesn't qualify any more than one's racial or cultural heritage. Myself, I missed rap almost entirely, yet now recognize artists from that discipline whose music has been breathtakingly profound.
With advances in information and technology, we here in the West have been irrevocably and forever transformed by music from India, Africa, Indonesia, Japan, China, Korea, the Middle East, etc, and there is no doubt that myriad artists representative of the traditional music of these equally priceless cultures exist on the same level as our great European composers of the past.
There are tricky algorithms involved. When I developed an interest in Indian classical music, it was apparent that only Indians had been able to master that tradition. This insight led me to step back for a broader perspective and solution. My plan was to do my best to absorb principles and details of both technical and expressive essences rather than attempting to copy superficially, endeavoring to get just the right amount of nourishment required for myself to join with influences from jazz, "popular" forms and Western classical too, growing a personal musical language and form connected to others yet beholden to known. This approach has been at times both easy and frightfully challenging, seeking to find the divine balance between conceptual understanding and specific utterance within the complex prism of the life of an American composer whose music is entirely notated. Once again, finding common approaches unsatisfactory in terms of both relevance and mastery, I developed a way of coalescing composition and performance with the meruvina. This is how I find things are best put together and organized for prepared ceremonies of spontaneous creativity expanding upon uninhibited impulses and intuitions embodying underlying symbolisms.
Even the most astute observers have been surprised to learn that my music is completely notated because they find it to sound improvised. This is gratifying for me to learn because this is my musical intention. American jazz and Indian classical music are the forms that have touched me most deeply, and being that they are based upon improvisation, it as a naturally organic consequence that my music should take on that essence. Some have even thought that I myself perform the music, which is quite a compliment because much of it is beyond human capability.
Within predetermined structures filtered and weighed individually to match the content of any imagined composition, I only begin the compositional process after I feel the work is already finished in my mind and body, and thus ready for notation in the manner of a composed improvisation. I never change a single note of my scores even though many are an hour or more in duration encompassing up to eighty thousand notes or more. I use pencil to allow for misstrokes that may be erased and corrected. Both slow and fast and brief and lengthy compositions are equally challenging, each presenting its own mystery I do my best to present.
Aaron Copland, by way of Nadia Boulanger, touched upon something pertinent when he hypothesized about the "long line" in music. Copland was wise and astute enough to observe that the "long line" transcended all forms of music throughout time, irrespective of race and culture. It has nothing to do with specific techniques or form or intention. It is something indefinable and always mysterious. It never wants to become the establishment to its in the moment spark, the reason why Bob Dylan isn't attending that ceremony, unless he changes his mind.
Bob Dylan and Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Thanks to Bob for words included in my title and opening sentence. They're taken from his opus Mississippi. My secret hope for what he'd do with the prize money is have my full album catalog sent over the net to different schools, libraries and colleges all along the watchtower and the world. Lily would like the idea.
- Michael Robinson, Thanksgiving 2016, Los Angeles
© 2016 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).