Writings about Music

Painting Raga Composition Junction

In ancient India, paintings of ragas, known as ragamalas, were passed from person to person around a table for the purpose of aesthetic enjoyment through the eyes, similar to how performances of ragas enthralled listeners through the ears. What connects the two disciplines is the heart soul of rasa, representing the divine essence, or poetic individuality, of each raga, which then splinters into infinite possible interpretations by both musicians and painters.

Shortly after moving into Manhattan in 1985, a friend introduced me to the excitements of visiting museums. One night at MOMA, I came upon a painting by Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting (Blue), which induced technical and expressive concepts that transformed my music, including compositions such as Thursday Evening and Trembling Flowers. Another composition inspired by a Reinhardt canvas, titled Red Painting, was completed in 1995.




In the autumn of 1991, I was visiting Manhattan from my home in Los Angeles. One morning, I woke up coughing blood. Quite alarmed, I went to see my former internist. It turned out to be only a cold, and the blood had simply come from my nose!

Riding waves of relief, I walked to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was only a few blocks away, and found myself sitting down in front of Pierre-August Renoir’s Figures by the Sea in the Robert Lehman Wing.

The painting shows a young boy and a small white dog playing on the shore, accompanied by his mother and another women, and it brought back memories of my childhood. Those recollections, together with the sensation of relief upon learning I wasn’t very ill, brought about a serene mood, and the ostinato figure played by the strings came to me.

Borrowing some paper and pencil, I wrote down the musical idea, and when I got back to my apartment, began composing the through-composed music sounded by the piano timbre. Later on, in the realization phase, I added the playful sounding water bells, and the soothing ocean waves for a richer texture, while naming the new composition, Sea of France.

Renoir is more commonly known for his sensuality, yet I am also dazzled by his perfect technique and sense of form.



Some other painters who have inspired compositions are Giorgio de Chirico and Paul Gauguin. Dark Yellow came from de Chirico's Ariadne, and Polynesian Woman was engendered by Gauguin's Two Tahitian Women. African sculptures made of wood inspired Night of Fire and Cameroon. All of this art was viewed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on separate occasions.







Getting back to ragamalas, in 2001, I was invited for breakfast at the Newsroom, across the street from The Ivy, by a professor of Indian art who is also a major collector, Catherine Glynn Benkaim. We had originally met in 1999 while attending a lecture about ragamalas at UCLA. She shared with me how when her husband passed away the only thing giving comfort was listening to one of my compositions over and over for several weeks. Originally inspired by bansuri artist, Hariprasad Chaurasia, I subsequently learned that the swaras I used for this composition were similar to an obscure South Indian raga, Nagamani, which translates to mean jeweled snake or cobra.



- Michael Robinson, November 2015, Los Angeles


© 2015 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist and musicologist. His 190 albums include 151 albums for meruvina and 39 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.