Writings about Music
Momentous Phrase Moment
Michael Robinson while an undergraduate.
A teacher's thoughts about Michael's long auburn hair.
"From this hour, I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines" - Walt Whitman
It was an unforgettable moment. My graduate composition teacher at CalArts, Mel Powell, who had previously chaired the composition department at Yale, succeeding his teacher, Paul Hindemith, had asked me to compose right there on the spot a melodic response to a phrase he had also composed right there on the spot. After doing so, Mel commented that my phrase was too abstract, and he then composed a phrase he felt was a more appropriate response. This was riveting for me. We were getting down to the nitty-gritty of music composition - how a composer proceeds from one note to the next. And no way was I going to compromise here to please my teacher. That would be an insult to him, not to mention myself, and the art of composition. So, I told Powell the truth; that his responding phrase was much too obvious and boring. Mel then looked puzzled at me, confounded both by my opinion and willingness to express it. I may even have this exercise in my music papers, will attempt to locate it, and add it here if its found.
Michael Robinson while in graduate school.
Robinson's auburn hair appears much darker here. He decided to cut it shorter after his freshman year of college.
Prior to this moment, at earlier private lessons, Powell had graciously exclaimed: "I can tell you're a composer"; had complimented a short composition of mine assigned as another exercise: "This is a fine effort, Michael", and also praised my method of composition, stating it was the same approach used by Mozart.
Now, years later, I sometimes become aware of music mentalities tied to overly obvious and redundant musical syntax of past eras (these were great in their own time and place but that doesn't mean one may copy them now as if they were still current like writing in the style of Stravinsky or playing in the style of late Coltrane to use but two examples), including those who may not comprehend both my musical phrases and my larger sense of form. For instance, one composer was uncomfortable with a composition of mine being studied in a class where I lectured because he felt it sounded improvised. In response, I noted how American jazz superseded European classical music and its successors in America around the time of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, and others, and that fact together with my immersion into the classical music of India, another phenomenal music tradition based upon improvisation that superseded other forms, made it so composed music with improvisational qualities is entirely natural and, arguably, the only way for Western classical composition to be real in our time. (Will not even get into the Meruvina here.) When I stated my opinion, a hush came over the classroom, and another composer made an admirable attempt to qualify my statement, but there really is no compromising with what I said. No doubt, there were other fellow students at CalArts and other leading schools who would have been fine with Powell's response phrase while becoming composers, professors and critics still reflecting the same reactionary musical consciousness, but hopefully some will grow beyond that.
Mel had generously offered me a full scholarship, but he insisted upon teaching me serial composition, something I found myself entirely incompatible with, and I ended up leaving graduate school, preferring to follow my musical instincts even though this momentous decision led to working full-time at the Patelson Music House behind Carnegie Hall in New York City. At the time, I reasoned we only live once, and one's life work, and music itself, is much too important to compromise. More so, I recognized the vapidity Western classical composition had fallen into, that serialism had gone too far in one direction, and minimalism too far the other way (my mentor, Leonard Altman, stated about the latter: "It quickly loses its charm."), so I knew it was necessary to chart my own course no matter what. There was a sense of superficial emptiness in the composition of the time calling for music churning inside the process of being formed and eager to assert itself in the physical world.
Looking back now, there was music of that time I admire, and likely would have enjoyed then, too, if I had been aware of it. Also, I wish to make clear that this essay in no way intends to impugn or criticize Mel Powell's actual music, recognizing how it's not always easy being both a composer and a professor simultaneously especially when one has many diverse students to teach.
Fortunately, I met Earl Wild while working at Patelson's, and after examining one of my scores, he insisted I spend all my time composing, finding anything else an unacceptable abomination - I can still feel his outrage over my predicament. And I also reunited with Joan La Barbera visiting the store who arranged for me to meet with Charles Dodge after relating to to her my initial interest in using computers to make music. That meeting with Dodge was transformative, too.
Don Shirley was another musician I met while working at Patelson’s. We had epic conversations about music that went on for five hours or longer in his otherworldly apartment, which the recent film about him, Green Book, unfortunately didn’t do justice too. His home, actually in Carnegie Hall, was depicted much too tame, conventional, and boring. You know, like the phrase my teacher once wished for me to use. But I did enjoy the overall film tremendously (very cool watching a movie about a friend like with The Doors), if with some reservations, which is another story.
Looking back, at a critical moment, I stepped over the aesthetic barbed wire in my path, out of a nightmare composer factory, and have done my best to be loos'd of limits and imaginary lines ever since. And sometimes others even appreciate and enjoy what I do. I’m thankful and grateful for both those things.
- Michael Robinson, November 2019, Los Angeles
© 2019 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).