Writings about Music

Cajoling the Stormy Sea

Music is an uncontrollable entity. You can’t really tell it what to do. Hide as we might, and as clever as we hope to be, it becomes devastating in either childlike wonder or the childlike brutal honesty of exposing the emperor wearing no cloths.

Gustav Mahlar was being honest, not humble, when he stated: “An artist shoots in the dark, not knowing whether he hits or what he hits.” When I related the Austrian composer’s thought to Pandit Jasraj, a titan of Hindustani music, he instantly replied: “That man was very wise.”

If we tether our ship too close to the shore of past successes, a leak will likely appear to sink us. And if we head out into the open water without a compass we may find new land, but we may drown too … and not necessarily in the Sea of Love, but perhaps the Sea of Oblivion.

There’s nothing I can do about my distaste for the term electroacoustic. I didn’t like it from the first. It’s too clinical and academic sounding while linked to reactionary compromise and retroactively specious inclusions. My eyes begin to glaze over by the fourth syllable. By this definition, the Beatles and The Doors made such music where the term is even more drastically limiting. I took one small step in the right direction by naming my instruments Meruvina, with vina the Sanskrit word for musical instrument, and Meru a mythological Hindu mountain coinciding with the initials for Michael Eric Robinson, my full name.

As Ravi Shankar (his birth name was Robindro or Rabindra Shankar) first pointed out, ethnomusicology is an unfortunate term because it presumes that one group is the norm while others are inferior outsiders whose only virtue is a curious exoticism. Its better to retain the term musicology and simply designate what music one is focusing on without any implied hierarchy.

My original motivation for moving beyond writing liner notes for my own albums into musical topics beyond my own music was a frustration at reading articles and books about music that frequently fell short by missing the point or merely repeating weak clichés. Sometimes composers and musicians know more about music than scholars. Ravi Shankar’s book, My Music, My Life, is easily the most important work on Indian classical music I have come across. Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Bill Evans were not writers, yet their words about jazz remain the most eloquent and meaningful.

A dream come true would be having living music museums where you could see and hear such instruments as the Sal-Mar Construction created by Salvatore Martirano in its full glory, in addition to exhibitions showing the inspirations, tools, materials and techniques composers like Iannis Xenakis used to construct their astonishing works. I’m just not sure what to name such a place, leaning towards the names of the artists and their primary instruments featured on a rotating basis, or simply the names of the primary donors. Like most composers who use technological instruments, I admit to hoping to be included in such places where visitors may both hear and see how machines are sometimes cajoled into making magic. It would be sad to have my Meruvina known only by the albums its captured on.

- Michael Robinson, June 2016, Los Angeles


© 2016 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


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