Writings About Music

Beginning Composition

John Cage's initial letter to Michael Robinson inviting him to visit. (Addresses and phone number covered for privacy)

After reading this, my mind drifted to the first college composition class of my life in the spring semester of my freshman year at the Crane School of Music, SUNY at Potsdam. Clear as the night sky from Haleakala, I see Elliot del Borgo speaking to an excited class filled with students from different walks of music, including classical, jazz, folk, etc. Del Borgo began his lecture by stating that Mozart was a composer of genius, yet, even so, sometimes one grows bored of that music, and desires something different and new. Then, he proceeded to give an assignment to compose a piece using spoken poetry, percussion, and only one melodic instrument.

Seven years later, John Cage invited me to his loft where we spent three hours on a bitterly cold winter afternoon in Chelsea perusing my scores and discussing composition. When I first arrived, Cage looked concerned because I was carrying a large red suitcase for my oversized scores, and he may have thought I was intending to move in! John had just polyurethaned the wood floors, noting not to step on them. Artwork on the walls by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg was dazzling, but not more so than Cage's spontaneous smile.

One of the scores was Four Haiku, stemming from Elliot’s class, and while silently watching John examine the score, I realized he was probably the person who made this type of composition famous if not actually inventing the form.

John was so cheerful and enthusiastic that day, really beaming, including asking if my ancestry was Irish, a common misconception - I'm actually descended from Russia, Hungary and Poland. (During a Saint Patrick's Day celebration at the Mint in Los Angeles in 2007, where I danced with comedian Sarah Silverman, one reveler told me I was the most Irish person he had ever met.) Cage was somewhat confounded by my music, commenting that its melodic movement diverged from both Igor Stravinksy and Arnold Schoenberg by not focusing on wide intervallic leaps. My sense at the time was that he may have been unfamiliar with Dimitri Shostakovich and jazz, both personally central influences. Nonetheless, John was very kind to subsequently reply every time I contacted him with letters typed on NOTE-O-GRAM paper that he hand-signed. Cage also expressed interest in attending a concert of my music with dance, and a choreographer and dancer from Denmark visited my studio to hear the music live upon learning about John's collaborative idea. Subsequently, I named a favorite early composition after her titled, "A Danish Princess," featured on the Purple and Brown album, because she truly had a regal presence.


It's fun to compare and contrast the above recording with the original version below of "A Danish Princess" for my first meruvina, featured on the album titled A Danish Princess.


- Michael Robinson, February 2014, Los Angeles


© 2014 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).