A Parrot Sipping Tea
Cover art is handmade paper from India
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autograph score - Book 1 and Book 2
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"...Robinson has created a brilliant and absorbing amalgam..." (All About Jazz)
Music Inhabits A Uniquely Magical Domain ("15" Questions)
Much Like My First Experience With Bebop (Vince Guarino)
Elevate, Levitate, Airborne (Carla Crow)
Michael Robinson introducing A Parrot Sipping Tea on dublab
"Amazing record." (Gregory Taylor, RTQE)
"Exhilarating" (Amy Catlin, UCLA)
"Fantastic stuff Pops!! Really DIFFERENT and always MUSICAL!!! I'd like to have some of THAT tea that the parrot was drinking!!!" (David Amram)
1. Alap (touch a color) 15:03
meruvina: clavichord, rotating drum, two tambouras, organ-flute drone
2. Jor and Jhala (momentum and sparkling) 17:27
meruvina: two clavichords, sheng, African Harp, hunt pipe, Hammond B3 organ, ud, clarinet, two tambouras, organ-flute drone
3. Drut Gat (fast composition) 16:22
meruvina: piano, tabla, dholak, dhol, two tambouras, organ-flute drone
4. Ati Drut Gat (very fast composition) 15:03
meruvina: Hammond B3 organ, wadon, bebarongan, pelegongan, two tambouras, organ-flute drone
Composed, Programmed and Mixed by Michael Robinson
Recorded and Mastered by Catharine Wood at Planetwood Studios
A Parrot Sipping Tea is named for a beautiful story Ravi Shankar relates in My Music My Life about his spiritual guru, Tat Baba, a person Ravi credits with saving his life during a perilous time. Tat Baba was believed by his disciples to have manifested as a parrot in their guru's home, including the parrot most remarkably accepting no food or drink while sitting in Tat Baba's chair with the exception of sipping tea as was the guru's custom, something witnessed by Shankar himself. I've long believed My Music My Life to be the finest book about music ever written. When I initially discovered it in my high school library during lunch break there was no inkling I would years later study with legendary teacher Harihar Rao, Shankar's senior disciple, and the person who had recorded Ravi's words and thoughts into such momentous written form. Invariably, my compositions are named only after they are completed. Oftentimes this involves searching through various books of poetry and prose for prospective titles. Deciding to peruse My Music My Life for this purpose, the page I opened to by chance was the chapter with the parrot story, instinctively fitting the feeling I had for this newly born music perfectly. More so, when I phoned a friend to share the new title, first asking what they were doing, the reply was, "Sipping tea."
The genesis of my new composition and performance began with curiosity for an unusual form of Just Intonation tuning La Monte Young developed for his Well-Tuned Piano improvisations. I've been using more traditional forms of Just Intonation related to Indian raga tunings since 1995, beginning with the Hamoa album, though I have also enjoyed a variety of tunings from various world cultures, always guided by how appealing and effective they sound in particular settings of my own design. There have also been tunings I developed myself.
When I began investigating The Well-Tuned Piano tuning, I noticed right away the tuning falls within Khammaj thaat, similar to the Western Mixolydian mode. While not knowing if this was his intention or not, Young ingeniously transformed the chromatic scale into Khammaj thaat, including three enharmonic tones for Rishaba (second), three enharmonic tones for Panchama (fifth), and two enharmonic tones for Shadja (tonic). Those who have written about La Monte's tuning previously overlooked all of this, likely due to a lack of knowledge and experience with Indian classical music, which is the dominant influence on La Monte's music together with jazz. I found this tuning extremely attractive, and decided to use my personal interpretation of the tuning for a new composition, including using A rather than E flat for Shadja.
While La Monte has been mostly interested in vertical relationships native to his tuning, featuring various chords he plays on the piano, my interest is in the purely horizontal aspects of the tuning, horizontal relationships being the nature of Indian classical music itself, of course. Indian classical music is based upon interactions between a single melodic line and a single percussion line, except in those instances where more than one singer or instrumentalist is involved, or more than one percussionist is involved, but even then the focus remains upon pure melody and pure rhythm without any harmonic relationships other than melodic tones moving over the drone or drones.
Raga Madhmad Sarang and Raga Megh are both pentatonic ragas that sound closest to La Monte's tuning, something else no one else had noticed previously, apparently. Alain Danielou did publish an analysis of Raga Gunkali, also pentatonic, with three enharmonic tones for Komal Rishaba (lowered second) and three enharmonic tones for Komal Dhaivata (lowered sixth). Porcelain Nights from the Chinese Legend album is based upon Gunkali. My sense is La Monte is familiar with all these ragas, and also with Alain's book irrespective of whether or not they had any influence on his tuning.
After hearing me interviewed on WBAI FM in Manhattan in 1991 related to my first album, Trembling Flowers, La Monte and Marian Zazeela excitedly phoned me, and I spoke to La Monte for over three hours on the phone, including discovering we had both studied improvisation privately with Lee Konitz - La Monte in the fifties, and myself in the seventies. Additionally, we both studied composition with Leonard Stein - La Monte in the fifties, and myself in the eighties.
Given how A Parrot Sipping Tea is conceived melodically in horizontal fashion like Indian classical music, and not having aesthetic interest in exploring the vertical relationships La Monte has favored with his tuning at this time, my approach is emphasized by a longtime musical preference for using keyboard timbres, here the clavichord, piano and Hammond B3 organ, in the manner of a single voice instrument like the sitar, bansri, shahnai, Indian harmonium, and gatra vina (human voice).
It is thrilling having three Rishabas, three Panchamas, and two Shadjas to compose with. More than that, I found it sounding even more beautiful to rerig La Monte's tunings for Gandhara (third), Madhyama (fourth), Dhaivata (sixth), and Komal Nishada (lowered seventh). Initially this tempering occurred accidentally, and I was surprised by how my new tunings were an aesthetic improvement in the context of A Parrot Sipping Tea, reinforcing how I evaluate tunings by how they sound over theoretical calculations. Coincidently, I later recognized how three of my four adjusted swara tunings are similar to some surviving tunings from ancient India previously used for Megh.
A Parrot Sipping Tea begins with Alap portrayed by a magical clavichord exploiting the three Rishabas, three Panchamas, and two Shadjas together with one swara each for Gandhara, Madhyama, Dhaivata, and Komal Nishada. Underneath are two tamboura drones, these fused with a combined organ and flute drone in lower registers. A rotating drum decorates the melodic movements of the clavichord. For glissandi, I did not use the vakra (crooked) melodic movement La Monte favors for Gandhara-Madhyama and Dhaivata-Komal Nishada, preferring how the more natural direct movement sounds. Vakra movements are common in ragas, something else those who have commented about The Well-Tuned Piano have missed.
Jor follows next, meaning "momentum," a second clavichord appearing to voice a steady pulse using Shadja, anchoring the phantasmagorical flights of the first clavichord. These lead to Jhala, meaning "sparkling," whereupon the tempo is doubled to breathtaking speed, and both the first clavichord, and the anchoring second clavichord delight in frenzied arabesques. The clavichord presented here has sonic connections to both the sitar and tamboura, including an appealing natural electrical element recalling fireflies. Coloring periods where the main clavichord rests in-between utterances, melodic figures are announced by sheng, African harp, and hunt pipe in the Jor, and by a breezy Hammond B3 organ, ud, and clarinet in the Jhala.
Now we enter the Drut Gat, moving at a bracing tempo, and featuring a subdued, stately and graceful acoustic piano that nonetheless goes beyond what is humanely possible to play, being both effusive and understated at once. The piano is preceded and joined by a richly hued compendium of tabla, dholak and dhol bols for eventful interactions. Subtleties of the native tuning and pitch differentiation are most transparent here given the delicacy of my chosen piano's timbres. Similar to the preceding Alap, Jor and Jhala, and what follows, Drut Gat commences with the three drones.
For the concluding Ati Drut Gat of A Parrot Sipping Tea, the atmospheric B3 organ presaged in the Jhala returns, this time assuming the mantle of the main melodic voice with resolute, quicksilver and byzantine exclamations, its transformation conjuring cobra and tiger at once together with Shiva. A varied percussion voice joins the organ, this one composed of wadon, bebarongan, pelegongan and dhol bols presenting yet another unique melody and drum timbral profile. Ati Drut Gat moves at an effervescent pace of 216 beats per minutes creating unworldly passages of both opposing and conjoined lilas with rarefied textures smooth as velvet amidst the spiraling churning.
If you listen closely to the opening tones of the B3 in Ati Drut Gat, you will hear how there are five reiterations of the lowest pitched enharmonic Panchama before embarking upon soaring and serpentining adventures enhanced by the alluring keyboard and drum textures.
I love how the earthiness of the clavichord in the Alap, Jor and Jhala, and the tabla, dholak, dhol compendium in the Drut Gat, contrast with the ethereal nature of the acoustic piano, B3 organ, and wadon, bebarongan, pelegongan, dhol assemblage in the Drut Gat and Ati Drut Gat. And I also love the unusual coexistence of vigor and delicacy informing A Parrot Sipping Tea, perhaps congruent to the corporeal and spiritual aspects of existence. This recalls how Shivkumar Sharma taught me he is merely someone who allows music from a metaphysical source to pass through him.
It seemed such a daunting challenge figuring out how to program the complex tuning I used, but after figuring it out, and with a degree of patience, it was easy as pie; a dish tasting simple if with a complex recipe. The way the clavichord and organ timbres appeared to play key roles did seem magical, never having used either of them before.
Interplay between through-composed melodic and drum voices was not included in my two previous albums, and it was delightful returning to this form of intricate counterpoint, showing the two elemental aspects of music in combination. This was the first time in years I did not add percussion ostinatos to the gats, preferring the subtleties of implied tempos, something more common to Carnatic music than Hindustani music.
It was surprising to learn how I am the first musicologist to uncover how The Well-Tuned Piano tuning falls under Khammaj thaat with eight enharmonic swaras being a crucial detail. Simultaneously, I am the first composer to use the tuning other than La Monte Young, who invented it in 1964.
I am indebted to Kyle Gann for being the person who uncannily figured out La Monte's tuning, after which Young eventually gave permission to have the tuning published in 1993. It was great fun sharing my observations and alterations related to the tuning on the phone with Kyle who acknowledged the soundness of my unprecedented findings after some initial confusion about whether Just Intonation ratios or Well-Tempered ratios were being used as a reference point. Previously, Gann gave his highest compliment for a composer, describing me as "an original" in the Village VOICE, placed me on a list of notable composers along with Young, and extended an invitation to lecture about my music at Bard College.
Working on A Parrot Sipping Tea was a most welcome siege lasting around four months, pretty much the spring of 2021. For those interested in the technical side, the score is 689 pages long, including 61,718 individual melody and drum notes, not including the repeated tones of the Jor and Jhala, of course. As is my custom, not a single note was changed from the original notations because I only begin creating the score after a composition is fully realized internally.
Loving and Rerigging La Monte Young's Tuning is a writing directly related to A Parrot Sipping Tea.
Cover art for my album reflects the dazzling and charming colorations parrots are known for.
- Michael Robinson, July 2021, Los Angeles
© 2021 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Composed, Programmed, Mixed, Designed and Produced by Michael Robinson
Recorded and Mastered by Catharine Wood at Planetwood Studios