15 Questions: Michael Robinson - tokafi interview and commentary
Interviewer: Tobias Fischer
For quite a while during the middle ages, theoretical perception of acoustic phenomena strikingly differed from ours today. Musica instrumentalis, a term used to describe 'audbible sounds produced by men' - and therefore pretty much what we today simply refer to as 'music' – was considered nothing but a vague reflection of higher, truly meaningful values. Only musica humana, the science explaining the harmony of the cosmos through acoustics, could be precisely measured and verified. And so, students at university weren't taught the art of playing an instrument, but the principles behind the organisation of sound, an art which aimed not at sensual pleasure, but at a deeper form of understanding. Intriguingly, similar concepts developed not just in Western music, but in a variety of cultures. The work of composer Michael Robinson, for example, is based on the dual Indian concept of anahata nada (unstruck sound) and Ahata nada (struck sound). It has proved a fertile source of inspiration: Today, Robinson's oeuvre encompasses almost one hundred full-length albums exploring the subtle and less subtle nuances between the two approaches. While the latter corresponds with aforementioned musica instrumentalis, only slightly expanding the term to include all sounds produced by men, animals and living nature, the latter is a brother of musica mundana, denoting the vibrations experienced within – a thought very much in tune with the more recent scientific insight that our senses of hearing and touching are closely related or even, strictly speaking, identical. While many artists have tried to attain the state of anahata nada through their music, none has taken it quite as far as Robinson. Having decided at a young age that his calling lay in electronic composition, he quickly developed a personal style in which the colours of acoustic instruments still formed the heart of his work (as he puts it: "I find that the wide world of acoustic timbres remains unmatched in terms of pure beauty and variety") but were now guided and organised by new principles. It was a lecture by Ravi Shankar in 1997, which opened his eyes to the formerly hidden connections between his approach and the said concepts contained within ancient Indian music. He would never look back: The encounter with Shankar marked a break in his work and resulted in a paradigm shift, as a result of which he now considered computer composition as the ideal medium for representing anahata nada. After all, the sounds produced inside an algorithm or software tool are indeed as close to the ideal of being "unstruck" as one may ever get, therefore conveying a greater sense of purity. It is a purity which may strike some as bewildering and unnatural even: "The resulting music may seem closer to the movements of a rabbit, squirrel or bird as opposed to a person", as Robinson freely admits, "This is one example of how computer-performed music taps into areas inaccessible to traditional performers." And yet, it is one which undeniably has the power of leading the listener along with it. Organised like ragas and involving a small set of timbres per piece, this is music of a great tranquility, sounds consciously breaking the routines and expectations of daily life to allow for a clearer glance at what lies underneath – as, for example, on 2003's composition Dhani, a blissful raga-dream spanning four full CDs. Of course, this music still needs to be heard to be appreciated. But the silence that follows in its wake occasionally seems just as beautiful as the composition itself.
Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I'm well, doing my best to keep moving outward, or inward, depending on the circumstances. I am home in Los Angeles, in a neighborhood that has at least seven names I know of: Miracle Mile, Museum Row, Fairfax, The Grove, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills Adjacent, or Los Angeles. I suppose it would be possible to ascribe one of the seven swaras of the saptaka - the Indian word for the cluster of seven tones that form an octave - to each name, with Los Angeles being the obvious choice for shadja. By chance, there are seven different color clay pots in the room where I compose, and I once figured out a similarly speculative assignation.
I recently completed the composition phase of a new work based on Raga Kirvani, and am currently in the realization phase, to be followed by recording, and then production.Two ongoing projects involve making my scores available for the first time, and recording a large number of compositions made for my first computer music system. In addition, I am currently looking for a video artist to collaborate with for live performances, something that has been neglected in recent years.
The educational and cultural exposure to the classical music of India here has been priceless. None of it was remotely known or planned before moving here, yet I ended up studying privately with Harihar Rao, Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, and Kala Ramnath, and hearing and meeting many of Indian classical music's luminaries, including private and public performances, and interviews I conducted with Pandit Jasraj, Shivkumar Sharma, and Zakir Hussain.
Prior to meeting my Indian teachers, I was introduced to Arabic classical music by Ali Jihad Racy. The extraordinary tunings found in that tradition began to influence my music immediately, including North Africa and Aqaba, both from 1994.
Recently, I wished to hear the Brahms German Requiem performed by the LA Philharmonic, but the ticket prices were breathtaking. With all the wealthy people here, I don’t understand why they can’t get more support so that access is reasonable.
When I was in my early teens, I recall initially improvising at the piano, and later on deciding to notate the music I was playing so it wouldn't be forgotten, and forever lost. I seemed to have an instinctive identification with Bartók, even though I never got around to studying, or even listening to his music in any depth. Perhaps this has something to do with my ancestry, which is part Hungarian.
Jazz became a consuming passion in high school, and the first few years of college, and then there came the weighty realization that my abilities were better suited for composition, as opposed to improvisation. During the time of this sometimes-painful shift, I was mesmerized by Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Kindertotenlieder.
There are many to choose from. Here are three that come to mind:
I have been putting off finding new timbres to work with, partially because I wish to avoid the tendency in electronic music to be distracted by newer and newer technology at the expense of exploring existing instruments in more depth. On the other hand, I know that fresh timbral personalities may lead to new formats and dialects, so I will get around to it. Finding an effective way to make more use of dynamics is also an interest. Overall, the constant challenge is to keep evolving, and not repeat the past.
A new piece is sprung from an aesthetic insight appearing either unexpectedly, or as the result of deliberate searching. This can be something from nature, as in the recent Amethyst Labyrinth, or a musical phrase or rhythm I hear or imagine. From there, I search for a raga that promises to illuminate my desire to invent.
This pairing is as crucial as the texture of food to the actual taste, or the temperature of wine, again to the actual taste. Even with some music by Bach, where the particular timbres are not specified, one must find a synergistic and colorist balance. Finding the precise timbre among myriad possibilities for each compositional voice is a key to unlocking a work's full potential.
Lee Konitz touched on an important distinction in a handwritten letter he sent me in response to Hamoa (1995): ‘Very nice – swings good! It’s great doing the whole thing yourself. I just go in and play, and the rest is out of my hands.’
Regarding the first question, listeners have a visceral response to music they are hearing for the first time, and if they are attracted to the music, they may be motivated to listen repeatedly, or even pursue learning about the technical, expressive, and conceptual components. I do not believe it is necessary for a listener to go beyond the level of their initial visceral response, and deduct the processes and ideas, unless they have the ability or interest to do so. Ideally, music will speak for itself, even if it requires repeated listening.
In the realm of composition, where all the music is notated, ‘interpretation’ is the act of bringing that music to life by performing it. As mentioned previously, my music is for meruvina, and to date, no one else has interpreted it, partially because I have not yet made the scores available; something I intend to do soon, as mentioned above. It would be fun to see how the music would sound with different realizations. Much of my music is not remotely possible for live musicians to perform, of course, but the compositions may be interpreted using computers and digital instruments. I don’t know how important it would be for me to interact with someone doing this simply because I have not had that experience to date.
Music is a common, yet mysterious entity. I believe that evolving forms of music are necessary for the world to overcome and survive challenges because they contain, in addition to the ability to impart beauty, and varying forms of enjoyment and stimulation, kernels of new ideas and concepts in an abstract form that stimulate persons in other disciplines, including science, medicine, politics, and everything else. I do my best to forge new works, and share them with the outside world.
One way would be for Hollywood, independent film, and television composers to insert excerpts of music by contemporary composers into their scores where the context is appropriate. That way they would add variety to their scores, and introduce listeners on a much wider scale to music they may be inspired to pursue on its own.
John Cage once invited me to visit his loft along with my scores, and we spent a winter afternoon discussing myriad aspects of music. He felt that the most important thing for a composer was to have time to compose, and in that regard I have been fortunate. I am very interested in sharing my music with new listeners, and finding various ways that can be achieved, including entertaining ideas from other people that may include improved finances.
I hope to approach each new composition as if it may turn out to be the best thing I ever wrote, and I don’t think much beyond the present, including how future music may sound. In terms of scope, Bhimpalasi is about 3 hours, and Dhani is about 3 ½ hours long. At the time I conceived of those extended compositions, I think the idea of ‘magnum opus’ was probably there, but that idea was also there for Kaunsi Kanada, Mian Ki Malhar, Puriya Dhanashri, and Charukeshi, so I think my initial sentence is most accurate. More recently, my pieces have been less than an hour-long, but the possibility of working on a grander scale is there. In the past, I have sometimes thought of any composer’s entire oeuvre as being a single utterance punctuated by moments of silence.
tokafi is a German music publication