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.

What’s on your schedule right now?

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.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the city you are currently living in?

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.

Overall, it appears that the opportunities to learn about myriad musical cultures here are limitless.

When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?

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.

What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your work and/or career?

There are many to choose from. Here are three that come to mind:

A consultation with theorist David Lewin, and a course on the music of Stravinsky with musicologist Sarah Fuller, provided practical fuel for my compositional ambitions that endures to this day.

The adventure of making a composition for meruvina - my name for the software and hardware I use - using full-length raga form for the first-time was unforgettable. That was Pink Moon, based on Raga Nand Kedar, from 1995.

An early aesthetic influence was the poetry of William Butler Yeats, introduced to me by a Judy Collins recording, and an extraordinary course given by Therese Law, who studied with A. Norman Jeffares in Ireland. I have long felt that the profoundly musical sounds and constructions Yeats created with words transcend poetry, and place him in terms of sheer ‘sonic invention’ with the greatest composers.

More recently, I have developed a great admiration for ancient Chinese poetry, where the challenge is finding translations that work.

What are currently your main compositional challenges?

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.

What do you usually start with when composing?

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.

How do you see the relationship between timbre and composition?

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.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?

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.’

I think it is possible to think of improvisation as a conventional chess game, and composition as a chess game where you are challenged to create an encounter taking on both sides of the board.

There is a common misnomer that jazz and Indian classical music are automatically more spontaneous than Western classical music because the first two are improvised, and the later is interpreted. In truth, many improvising musicians perform previously worked-out ideas, almost like playing rehearsed etudes, and relatively few extemporize in the true sense. Likewise, the most engaging Western classical artists are those who recreate each performance fresh to the spirit of the moment.

My music is always played in real time, without any use of the multi-tracking or overdubbing that is available. This approach allows me to express my connection to both improvised forms and interpreted compositions. At the time I shifted my focus from improvisation to composition, the challenge was to develop a musical language and form that was real, as opposed to the fashionable, academic, or pastiche.

What gradually emerged was the idea to have samples of acoustic timbres performed in real-time by a computer, and not attempt to imitate live musicians, which would be pointless. Instead, I sought to develop personally meaningful expressive mores. My search for an appropriate musical form arrived unexpectedly in the ancient ragas of South Asia, including their crucial concept of tuning. My musical language itself is a tincture of jazz, Indian classical, and European classical dialects that converged into one. (The influences of rock and folk music are so pervasive as to be rendered invisible.)

Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?

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.

It is also true that much music defies easy comprehension, and requires education in order to be enjoyed more deeply. Actually, I have some anxiety about this because it was only after a great deal of private study that I was able to begin appreciating Indian classical music on a significantly deeper level, and if that’s the case, I imagine many Western listeners will have no connection at all to what I am doing because they have only a superficial exposure to Indian forms. Likewise, lovers of Indian classical music may be unreceptive to my non-traditional use of ragas, but there is no point in my dwelling on things beyond my control.

Regarding the second question, I agree with Charlie Parker that clarity is perhaps the most essential element of music, and I do my best to achieve this through all the various elements: melody, rhythm, form, expression, articulation, dynamics, etc. That is the best one can go to make the processes and ideas behind a work ‘transparent.’

How would you define the term “interpretation”? How important is it for you to closely work together with the artists performing your work?

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.

A while back, I did have the opportunity to work with Ray Manzarek, Kala Ramnath, Suhail Kaspar, and some other musicians, who performed improvisations based on themes from compositions of mine inspired by various ragas, and while I enjoyed the interaction, I do not feel my presence was required.

The role of the composer has always been subject to change. What's your view on the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of composers today and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?

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.

How, do you feel, could contemporary compositions reach the attention of a wider audience?

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.

Composers have traditionally found it hard to secure a living with their art. What are the financial realities you're living with and in which way, do you feel, could they be improved?

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.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?

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.

Selected Discography:

Emerald Anklets (Azure Miles) 2012
Amethyst Labyrinth (Azure Miles) 2011
Peridot Pond (Azure Miles) 2011
Summer Morning (Azure Miles) 2010
Bhairava (Azure Miles) 2010
Todi (Azure Miles) 2009
Natabhairavi (Azure Miles) 2007
Dhani (Azure Miles) 2003
Mian Ki Malhar (Azure Miles)  2002
Puriya Dhanashri (Azure Miles) 2002
Bhimpalasi (Azure Miles) 2001
Kaunsi Kanada (Azure Miles) 2000
Sagarmatha (Azure Miles) 1998
The Listening Earth (Azure Miles) 1998
Chinese Legend (Azure Miles) 1997
Rainbow Thunder (Azure Miles) 1996
Hamoa (Azure Miles) 1995
Fire Monkey (Azure Miles) 1994
Robinson Gardens (Azure Miles) 1994
Sea of France (Azure Miles) 1991
Trembling Flowers (Azure Miles) 1991

Michael Robinson

tokafi is a German music publication