Writings About Music
Meruvina: Composition and Performance Coalesce
Michael Robinson holding an Indian tamboura, one of myriad instrumental colors voicing his music.
"There's something very special and very historically different that takes place when you have one computer and one person."- Steve Jobs
In December 1997, I was invited to attend a lecture-demonstration given by Ravi Shankar and his daughter, Anoushka, at the University of California at San Diego. As it turned out, I practically risked my life getting there, driving on the 405 Freeway from Los Angeles through one of the biggest downpours on record, at times seemingly sailing on water.
Given our complex and multifaceted world, where information and technological advances abound, creative artists may be overwhelmed by myriad choices and possible directions, yet finding a form and medium to work within is paramount to realizing our potential.
Having decided to make music composition my life path in my early twenties, after about five years of focusing on saxophone improvisation, I feel fortunate that a series of seemingly random events led me to choose pure computer-performed music as my realization medium of choice, and Indian ragas for the musical form used as a basis for composition. Prior to using ragas, my compositions were based on a variety of musical forms, including some now seemingly anticipatory of ragas.
Joel Chadabe with Michael Robinson. The dazzling innovative music of Salvatore Martirano, Joel Chadabe and David Behrman illuminated for Robinson the potential beauty and power of computer-electronic instruments.
Regarding the title of this essay, it was my desire to name the musical instruments (software and hardware) I compose for in a manner that reflected the individual way I create music. Vina is the Sanskrit word for musical instrument, used in a range of South Asian instrument denominations, including the rudra vina (plucked string instrument), and the gatra vina (human voice). I first thought of Compu Vina or Digi Vina, but quickly dismissed those overly technical sounding names. Then I thought to use the initials of my full name, Michael Eric Robinson, and combine them with a Sanskrit or Hindu word or name. Fortunately, I recalled Meru, as in Mount Meru, the heavenly mountain Hindus believe is the center of the universe. Combining meru and vina seemed both poetic and fitting for the ever-developing and seemingly limitless capabilities and potential of the music technology used. Since I compose directly for the meruvina, which may be thought of as an umbrella term or name, and program it to perform my compositions in real time, I am creating both the composition, and the performance. This makes me the composer and performer at once, and that is the reason for the word "coalesce" in the title.
Shivkumar Sharma with Michael Robinson. Santoor giant Shivkumar Sharma's vision of raga form and content, together with his instrumental approach, have all been a great source of inspiration for Robinson, the meruvina sharing some technical similarities with the santoor.
My compositions begin with solitary meditation on the overall mood (rasa) and thrust of my desired musical utterance. This process may take anywhere from a few hours to a few years, depending on how my body, spirit and intellect, not to mention external events, and influences beyond my control, react to a particular raga. In addition, I also consider how my feeling for the raga relates to the capabilities of the technology I use to realize my musical vision, finding that the extraordinary, relatively unexplored, and highly unique expressive and technical capabilities of pure computer-performed music are wonderfully qualified to assist me in making the inward search for meaning within the realms of music composition and performance.
Since my beginnings in computer-performed music, I have been attracted to the detached, ethereal, and abstract expressive capabilities of the medium. Most recently, I was stunned to realize that the expressive quality that attracts me is none other than the ancient Indian concept of anahata nada. Ahata nada describes the sounds we experience here on earth, including all the sounds produced by people, animals and nature. Anahata nada is the silent, pervasive vibration that yogis seek to gain union with in their meditations, believed to be the metaphysical principle that all physical manifestations in the universe are made of. Using a computer as the performer, without any participation from live musicians, may be the closest medium there is for reflecting the state of anahata nada through music. Live musicians, whose range of nuanced expressive characteristics are very beautiful and effective in the proper context, are instruments of ahata nada, and that is why they are antithetical to my compositional vision. Persons interacting with computers and electronic instruments in any manner during a performance definitely fall into the category of live musicians. "While many artists have tried to attain the state of anahata nada through their music, none has taken it quite as far as Robinson." (tokafi)
Those who know me are familiar with the way my thoughts sometimes jump rapidly from one subject to another without any conventional or obvious connection even though there are linkages. Of course, I also enjoy focusing in on one subject in minute detail. One thing I love about composition is the way I can give free range to my speed of thought, and sometimes the resulting music may seem closer to the movements of a rabbit, squirrel, or bird, as opposed to a person. This is one example of how computer-performed music may tap into areas inaccessible to traditional performers.
Some in the field of computer-electronic music may prefer to continue literally the tradition of human performers within this relatively new genre of music, an approach I personally do not follow, even though my method is definitely within the continuum of that tradition being a composer-musician who creates and enables performances to occur in real time, including elements of improvisational variability in terms of spatial placement or panning. My focus is on the magnificent timbres of musical instruments from myriad cultures and countries that are both crucial to preserve and make use of in previously unimagined ways while continuing to learn from sublime traditional performance practices. These acoustic timbres may be accessed through the technique of recorded samples. There are also exceptionally beautiful timbres created purely through synthesis, ranging from simple to highly abstract, including ones I use myself, yet the fantastically rich assortment of acoustic timbres remain unmatched in terms of pure beauty and variety for my purposes.
For those who may feel one cannot separate the sounds of acoustic timbres from the exact manner in which live performers play those instruments, I hope you will maintain an open mind, including how my expressive and technical gestures have a definite kinship with the practices of traditional musicians. While some listeners take to my music immediately, two critics, after writing favorable reviews, were kind enough to inform me that they found my music so unusual and disorienting, it took multiple hearings before they began to understand and enjoy it.
For example, in the Jor (momentum) and Jhala (sparkling) of Dhani, a 3.5 hour composition based upon an Indian raga of the same name, clarinet and jublag function as a jugalbandi (duet), alternating musical phrases. The effervescent quality of these instrumental performances is otherworldly, and this precise effect would not be possible for musicians playing these instruments to achieve. This is one of the miracles of computer-electronic music; the ability to take acoustic timbres, and have these distilled tone colors performed by the relatively unexplored expressive and technical capabilities of a computer and sound module; a practice anticipated by a wide range of musical pioneers, including Conlon Nancarrow with the familiar timbres of the player piano; Lennie Tristano, who made pioneering use of multi-tracking with a conventional piano; and Bulent Arel, using the abstract electronic sounds of the historic RCA synthesizer. Upon being invited to witness it, and having its capabilities explained, Igor Stravinsky was so excited by the RCA synthesizer that he unfortunately suffered a mild heart attack! Some of the clarinet and jublag phrases used in Dhani's jor and jhala are reminiscent of the charming mockingbirds I hear during late evening walks. A periodic jegogan glissando provides a pleasing textural and linguistic contrast.
Speaking of the clarinet, I had an astonishing experience last year attending a concert of chamber music featuring musicians from a world famous symphony orchestra. One of the pieces on the program featured the clarinet, and maybe it was a bad night for that musician, but the playing was both tense and frequently out of tune. It was painful for me to listen to, and I discreetly left the concert hall as soon as possible. What I found most amazing was the realization that both the clarinet timbre and performance created for a recent composition, Puriya Dhanashri, based on an Indian raga of the same name, were more beautiful and musical than the live clarinet performance I had just heard. In addition, several other featured musicians from the same esteemed orchestra, including one who is First Chair, while they all played in tune, performed with a style of musicianship that would not be appropriate for my own compositions even though it was fine for the traditional repertoire they were playing. The point I'm making is not to compliment myself, but rather to recognize that music technology has reached a point where such things are now possible, in addition to the capability of accessing unusual tunings easily, and playing outside the normal pitch range of acoustic instruments. I am not suggesting that we replace the live musicians used in Western classical music, of course, which would be absurd. There has been and always will be music written for the unique abilities of live musicians, including a range of musical personalities and unique capabilities.
Lee Konitz with Michael Robinson. Legendary alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, a favorite musician and teacher of Robinson, was greatly influenced by clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, in addition to his more commonly cited teacher, pianist Lennie Tristano, and tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
It is obvious that I have been greatly influenced by the expressive techniques of live performers from jazz, Indian classical music, Western classical, rock, folk, and a wide range of world music traditions. All this is apparent in my music, yet it is a matter of degree, and it is evident that I am not attempting to copy these performance characteristics literally. That said, there is sometimes a fine line between whether a computer or a live musician is the performer, and two eminent radio hosts were surprised to learn on-air while interviewing me that I do not make use of any live musicians! In the final analysis, it is most important for any listener to enjoy music at whatever level of appreciation that may be. The method, medium or technique that is used to create the music is secondary.
How my music relates to rasa, the transcendental sentiments that the performing arts of India are based on, is a subject important enough for me to devote an entire essay to. Rasas are ideally projected and perceived on a transcendental level, as opposed to a sentimental level.
Shivkumar Sharma explained to me what a great challenge it was to find ways to perform ragas using the unconventional santoor, and I feel much the same way about the meruvina. Ever since my beginnings in computer-performed music, I have been mindful not to use the medium's super-human technical capabilities, especially in regard to speed of execution, for its own sake. However, for the third and concluding part of Dhani, super-human speed was integral to my compositional vision, and I planned to let out all the stops.
The Korean jing (bell), well outside its normal range, announces the opening of Dhani's third part, consisting of three Gats (compositions), with a resplendent downward flourish, balancing the upward glissandos of the Alap (touch a color), Jor and Jhala. The first gat presents the first family of skin percussion timbres from the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and India, with a tempo of 200 BPM. A trumpet timbre announces the second gat, joined by the second family of skin percussion timbres, all Indian, and the tempo increases to 240 BPM. For the concluding third gat, the tempo is a scorching 352 BPM, including phrases moving at the rate of 2,816 BPM. This gat has the kemanche and cimbalom alternating in the playing of each swara (tone), together with a family of wood, shaker, ratchet and metal percussion timbres from Japan, China, Korea, Latin America and Indonesia. Tremolos played by both percussion and melodic timbres suggest the rain forest sounds of monkeys, frogs, birds and insects. The second half of the third gat features solo percussion, balancing the solo percussion opening the first gat. The jing reappears at various intervals of the first two gats with an upward moving chant; a Buddha reflecting upon the tumult of earth. For the third gat, the jing is replaced by the more extroverted sound of an Indonesian bell. At the end of the third gat, the jing returns to close the composition by repeating its opening phrases.
The cumulative effect of Dhani's three gats is akin to looking towards the sun. It is not easy to focus on all the details for the duration of the music. Perhaps what this music aspires to reflect is the centrifugal dispersive force known in the Hindu cosmological conception of the world as Shiva. It was my musical intention to explore this remote region, and I am glad that I followed through on my original design.
Ray Manzarek with Michael Robinson. Rock was a centerpiece of Robinson's musical experience growing up, and it was thrilling to become friends with keyboardist Ray Manzarek of The Doors after moving to Los Angeles, including finding himself in the surreal position of teaching Manzarek about ragas. Surreal because Ray Manzarek's improvisations on Light My Fire and Riders On the Storm are masterpieces of modal improvisation, in addition to the phenomenally powerful music of his band.
Viewing Van Gogh's Dr. Rey, on loan to LACMA from Russia, I was struck by the almost unbearable intensity and beauty he expressed; something that was too powerful for him to live with. I have sometimes found the experience of listening to my own music to be overwhelming, and one way I keep centered is to think of the music as something removed from the physical world. The invisible, ethereal nature of how my music is produced, seemingly out of thin air, contributes greatly to this sensation. And, in all honestly, I sometimes find this music, which merely passes through me - I am not the source - to be almost too beautiful and powerful to bear without feeling that I have left the earth; a sensation that is frightening, especially because I lack any spiritual training or guru. It also confuses me why more people have not heard the music I am producing, and I feel a profound loneliness when it seems my work will never fit into various music establishments and their accompanying conventions.
Recently, I enjoyed learning that Sanskrit is the most natural language for computer programming, and that an Indian spiritual leader, Pujya Pramukh Swami Maharaj, believes that divinities exist in technology. Related, it was inspiring to come across the following statement by Nikhil Banerjee: "I do not compromise with anybody or anything else in the world. I want to really go beyond this materialistic world. A musician must lift up the souls of the listeners, and take them towards Space." Similarly, when I interviewed Shivkumar Sharma for the second time, he stated that the way he keeps centered is by knowing that divinities are manifesting through the music, and he is merely the instrument.
Zakir Hussain with Michael Robinson. Alla Rakha was the first genius tabla artist who inspired Robinson's feeling for percussion, followed by his son, Zakir Hussain, and continuing with Anindo Chatterjee and Swapan Chaudhuri.
Those familiar with my music know that I regard melody and rhythm as equals. Here is an important realization experienced during the composition of Mian Ki Malhar, based upon an Indian raga of the same name: In traditional Hindu thought, the absolute is formless, and this is why the fifth, transcendental head of a pancamukhalinga (sculptural representation of Shiva) is implied in the center of the linga, in contrast to the four clearly sculpted heads facing cardinal directions representing Shiva's different aspects. While learning about pancamukhalingas for the first time at the splendid Honolulu Academy of Art, I experienced a shock of recognition, for the description of the fifth head explains my personal preference for not using talas (rhythmic cycles) in my compositions. In my musical quest to express the absolute, and give voice to the unmanifest, I find the cyclic, repetitive nature of talas to be overly emphatic. Driven by instinct and adventure, and guided by my sense of flow, balance and contrast, I have developed a more abstract approach to rhythmic form, analogous to the transcendental fifth head of a pancamukhalinga. Thus, the overall form and content of my compositions based upon ragas transcend the use of talas.
Live musicians are both welcomed and encouraged to perform my compositions using acoustic and/or electronic instruments. Even though my music is conceived for the meruvina, I believe live musicians may illuminate the compositions in different ways that coexist with my original conceptions.
Pandit Jasraj with Michael Robinson. Known as "The Sun of Music" in India, the magnificent expression and technical perfection of Pandit Jasraj's singing and raga development have greatly inspired Robinson.
In closing, I recall the words Pandit Jasraj, the legendary North Indian classical vocalist, related to me several years ago. He told me that the saint, Narada, once asked Vishnu where he lives. Vishnu replied that he does not live in heaven, or in temples, or in the hearts of yogis. Instead, Vishnu explained, "Wherever my devotees sing, I am there."
In other words, god, meaning whatever god or faith or spiritual yearning one feels, loves music more than anything else, and I interpret that to mean myriad forms of music. There are innumerable races, cultures, animals, fruits, bodies of water, and infinite other physical manifestations here on earth, and so it is consistent that there should also be unlimited musical forms, including new forms arising from the creation of new musical instruments and the intermingling of diverse cultures.
Priceless Musical Gems details the software and hardware collectively named Meruvina to create performances of my compositions. I began using the name Meruvina in 2004. View the original publication of this essay from The Idea (India).
© 2004 - 2017 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).