Writings About Music
Michael Robinson, with auburn hair, celebrating a birthday, perhaps his tenth.
Sometimes what seems simple to us is difficult or even unfathomable for others. Its not uncommon for the musicians, composers, and musicologists I meet to be uncertain about how my music is composed, performed and recorded, not to mention laypersons. Some have believed I perform my compositions on a keyboard or another traditional instrument in real time, which would amount to my doing things that are not humanely possible - quite a compliment even if it isn't so. How I create music seems so natural and straightforward leading me to believe the process is completely transparent. However, since there are some understandable misconceptions, what follows are some related clarifications.
The predominant "serious" music of the past seventy-five years, superseding European classical music, has been American jazz, Indian classical music, and various forms of American and British rock and pop. American jazz and Indian classical music are based upon improvisation, a discipline that also figures heavily in American and British rock and pop, if to a lesser extent. Thus, for a composer of our time, it follows organically for their music to spring from these forms while being entirely notated. Composed music that exists as if American jazz, Indian classical music, and various forms of American and British rock and pop never happened, segregated from this syntaxical-improvisational-linguistic milieu (unless inspired by another culture's extemporaneous music), will likely sound from that earlier time. Content, form, and expression transcend whether one’s music is composed or improvised, of course.
It was during one of my guest lectures that I first heard someone say a composition, Rajasthani Spring, sounded improvised, and I took that as a compliment because intent is for my compositions to come alive as if being instantly created when listened to. In truth, all of my music is one hundred percent composed, as shown by my scores. What I think happens is that some with a predominantly European classical music orientation are hearing a new form of composition, and that is a reflexive way to describe music without previous compositional models, perhaps feeling disoriented and enchanted simultaneously. One legendary jazz artist, Lee Konitz, equally adept at differentiating between composed and improvised music, always recognized my music as the former while at the same time describing it as "swings good!"
"Dreaming a new composition is like taking in a breath, and bringing that dream to life is like breathing out." - from Michael Robinson's liner notes for Rajasthani Spring (2015)
My compositions evolved strongly in the direction of Indian classical music after I came under the sway of Harihar Rao, the senior disciple of Ravi Shankar, beginning with the Hamoa album of 1995, followed by interactions with Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, who stated that my music "is a refreshing alternative to traditional Indian classical music" and that "he probably knows as much about improvisation as anyone." What I try to do is begin with a special feeling, described by Indians as rasa, unique to each individual composition, and then compose and orchestrate towards the end of augmenting that invisible entity in the context of an alluring musical narrative and atmosphere, balancing Image, Language and Architecture in alignment with the DNA and life force of each piece.
Following structural virtues of ragas, Kaunsi Kanada (2000) begins softly and slowly, gradually building into a musical tempest.
Some have expressed astonishment at the amount of music I have composed, filling 137 albums to date with much more music still unrecorded, suggesting it might be impossible for someone to copy all the scores by hand in a lifetime. Quality is paramount, of course, with quantity never a consideration. Notation begins after a composition is completed internally without any changes made after the score is finished. Pencil is used because occasionally there is a misstroke that needs to be erased and corrected. I also much prefer the feeling of pencil on paper.
Computer instruments hold a special key and tantalizing magic for performing composed music spawned with an awareness of American jazz, Indian classical music, and various forms of American and British rock and pop superseding European classical music chronologically, though not divorced from that profound tradition. Rather, I view music performed by computer instruments - I prefer the name Meruvina - being part of the transformative evolution of music blending from myriad cultures and times moving forward.
Chinese Berries (1995) springs from a 13 beat rhythmic phrase taught to me by Harihar Rao.
Pink Jade (1995) was composed expanding upon a 10 beat rhythmic phrase I learned from Harihar Rao.
Indeed, the Meruvina is my orchestra. While I never alter any notes of a composition, after a work is completed the time to create a performance with a life of its own begins. During this process decisions and changes are made regarding orchestration details, dynamics, balances, phrasing, articulation, spatialisation, and tuning subtleties. Most of these necessary refinements are not included in my scores because they are done inside the Meruvina after the fact of the completed manuscript. There is precedent for such adjustments with the methodology of Austrian composer, Gustav Mahler, who commonly fine-tuned his compositions through interactions with symphony orchestras during rehearsals in his similarly ancillary role as conductor.
While an undergraduate, I feel deeply in love with Mahler's music, mostly some early song cycles, Kindertotenlieder and Songs of A Wayfarer, along with Das Lied von der Erde. After that, I completely immersed myself into his Symphony No. 9. I've convinced that the famous ballad, Round Midnight, was absolutely inspired by a song from Kindertotenlieder despite the composers apparently never admitting this. This doesn't detract from that great song, of course, just an interesting origination link for myself.
Dimitri Shostakovich is one recent composer whose music combines distilled melodic and rhythmic elements of jazz together with traditional folk music of his country, Russia, yielding compositions that often sound more poly-modal than tonal. Modal music and the blending in of traditional folk music are central to Indian ragas as well. During my beginnings as a composer, I instinctively fell for Shostakovich, with the mentioned connections to American jazz and Indian classical music now suggesting reasons why I headed in that direction. Therein, too, dwells a Spartan, historic charm because the ancient Vedic Aryans originally entered Northern India from Southern Russia, the borders of these vast areas, if with different names, touching in momentous places. Myself, I am of Russian descent on my father's side, while Hungarian and Polish on my mother's side. Perhaps this ancestry accounts for part of the reason why I feel so harmonized with Indian classical music and Shostakovich.
Musically, I am also indebted to Morton Feldman, who either knowingly or coincidently – I suspect the former – portrays elements of the alap form of Indian ragas in much of his music, helping lead me in that direction. Steve Reich is another composer I am grateful for, showing how modal and rhythmic entities drawn from jazz, traditional music of Indonesia and Africa, and rock/pop might be translated into composition. Salvatore Martirano, Joel Chadabe and David Behrman are the composers who first illuminated for me the potential beauty and power of computer and electronic instruments.
- Michael Robinson, March 2018, Los Angeles
© 2018 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).