Profiles: Michael Robinson Shares His Passion For Indian Classical Music 

Local composer helps to spread knowledge of a limitless musical form. 

Beverly Hills Weekly

by Mary Claire Yanga 

August 10, 2000

A resident of Beverly Hills for 10 years, Michael Robinson is a world music composer who has 36 CDs to his credit. Recently he was a guest on KPFK's (90.7 FM) Global Village show stationed here in Los Angeles. He also has his own website where people can listen to audio clips of his compositions, and purchase his CDs. Last year he worked on a special recording project for UCLA's Department of Ethnomusicology, and several years before that, presented a series of programs at the Beverly Hills Library. Presently, his primary project is to establish a non-profit foundation that will help spread the experience and knowledge of Indian classical ragas.

How do you describe Hindustani classical ragas?

Ragas are the form used in Indian classical music, and there are basically two traditions which utilize this unparalleled system for improvisation and composition: the North and the South. The North is referred to as Hindustani and the South is Karnatic. My training is primarily in Hindustani. Ragas are characterized by distinctive arrangements of tones, and each raga has its own expressive essence, which relates to the concept of rasa or mood. Like other inventions from India, I feel that ragas transcends ethnicity or birthplace, and offer a musical experience with unique intellectual and spiritual dimensions.

How can you compare the Indian classical raga to the more modern or popular forms of Western music?

The rock music I grew up listening to was deeply influenced by John Coltrane, including the Doors and The Grateful Dead. Coltrane was deeply influenced by Ravi Shankar and Bismillah Khan, two of the most famous Indian classical musicians. Many people do not realize it, but Indian classical music is a major source of much of the rock music and jazz that has occurred in the last 30 years of the 20th century. So, in fact, I grew up listening to a derivative of Indian classical music unknowingly. It’s very natural for me.

Where did you get the idea of implementing the Hindustani style onto a computer system?

After spending years concentrating on improvisation, I felt that my abilities were better suited for composition, and I began writing music for acoustic instruments. I went so far as to write several symphonies and string quartets, and I began discovering how difficult it was to get these pieces played because basically you’re competing against Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. I decided I didn’t want to spend my life dependent on people to perform my music, and realized I could achieve my artistic goals with computers and electronic instruments. One beautiful thing about this medium is that I have access to an unlimited number of musical instruments. For example, I can program my compositions to include an African flute, a Tibetan trumpet or a piano with Arabic tunings. When I began studying Hindustani music, it was a natural extension to incorporate this new musical influence into my compositions for a computer music system.

Do you have any projects that you are presently working on?

Radio is almost completely controlled by giant corporations, and they play very few types of music. To hear a raga on the radio is almost impossible in the United States. India has living musicians who are just as great as Bach, Beethoven or Mozart, and hardly anyone knows about them with the possible exception of Ravi Shankar. It’s almost like a form of censorship. It’s a sad lack of diversity. It’s saying people aren’t intelligent enough to appreciate the classical music of different cultures. I am now forming a foundation to help spread the experience and knowledge of Indian classical ragas. It will be an independent, not-for-profit foundation.

For more information, visit azuremilesrecords