Writings about Music

Fence Sounds

Springtime in Los Angeles is just as dramatic as the East Coast, even if the seasonal changes here are much more subtle. It had been well over two years since my last composition, and beginning a new piece filled me with all kinds of apprehension. Finally, a solution presented itself. I would proceed very slowly and calmly with pure alap, a form translated to mean evocation, conversation and meditation, yielding music with barely a discernable pulse.

Sitting in a large room in the back of my new home, with windows wide open to a sea of green, mostly created by large fica trees with a sprinkling of fuscia bougainvillea, I was enchanted by low, gentle, softly-powerful vibrational murmurs that I soon realized were coming from the wooden fence richly embroidered by the fica trees. This friendly and uncommon fence music was prompted by lovely intermittent breezes, and it seemed to welcome my presence and companionship. There was a new audience for it’s song in addition to the birds, squirrels, and whatever else noticed it sounding like a mysterious-spirit, slow-motion giant guiro!

Suryakanta is the joyfully beautiful Karnatic mela I selected for composition, and it is related to Ananda Bhairava from Hindustani music. The melodic structure features all pure swaras except for the dramatic inclusion of komal rishaba. Rishaba is believed to have originated from the sound of the cow calling her calf, a bull, or a particular bird that is no longer identified.

For the main voice, I chose a favorite piano timbre shaded with the vivid colors of Indian bells, rotating drum and rainstick. All this is framed by three distinctive tanpura patterns moving at slightly different layas to achieve a timeless feeling: the void that existed prior to earth and life. The swaras uttered by the tanpuras are shadja (peacock), panchama (kokila), and gandhara (goat).

After completing the piece, I was inspired by my environment to name it California Spring, and I still felt the need to warm-up some more, so I proceeded to compose another alap composition. That too finished, I now felt awakened and prepared enough to add another dimension: rhythmic fraction exploration by percussion timbres – that’s one way to phrase it – an area of music I enjoy equally to melodic exposition. Both melody and percussion are complete by themselves, including possessing each other's essence, and the challenge of combining the two is thrilling for me.


This led to finishing two compositions with percussion, and for a change-of-pace, I returned to the pure alap format with four more new pieces, then two more with percussion. I had begun an eleventh new work – all this took place between March and September 2009 including some interruptions – when I suddenly felt the need to leave the world of pure composition for the realization and production phases of the creative process in order to allow the new music to exist in the corporeal world of tangible sound.

I remain surprised that to my knowledge, no one else has remotely followed the musical path I’ve taken, using the combination of music technological instruments I employ, and collectively call meruvina, together with ancient South Asian raga forms.

In one of his last published books, Alain Danielou makes musical reference to “the mysterious spirits that inhabit electronic machines.” Numinosity, in musical instruments, is an ancient concept shared by Africa and South Asia, and, I am rather certain, everywhere else. It’s not something I’ve thought of very much with the meruvina, and that’s why Danielou’s comments intrigued me.

When I delved back into the complexities of compositional realization with the meruvina after several years, I felt some intimidation with the unconventiality of the whole thing, but shortly thereafter something clicked, and I knew that this was my true instrument: the ball was swishing through the net.

In painting bamboo the spirit must be transmitted;
whoever said it’s a matter of being realistic?

- Michael Robinson, February 2010, Los Angeles

The new compositions referred to above after California Spring are:















The Girl In The Photograph (Karunapriya)



© 2010 Michael Robinson All rights reserved.

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).


Poetry by Yang Chi (Jonathan Chaves)