Writings about Music

Composers and Quietude

Giovanni Bellini

In his writings, Arnold Schoenberg tells the story of how he complained to Gustav Mahler about city church bells for funerals sounding continuously outside while he was attempting to compose, but Gustav made light of the situation, advising Arnold to work the bell sounds into his music. Schoenberg found this dismissal hypocritical after learning how a special house in the mountains Mahler had built to compose in was later declared unsuitable because of a persistent bird singing forth.

These Austrian stories recall my shock upon setting up to compose for the first time in my dorm room at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia upon entering the graduate composition program. Even though the institute was located far from any bustling city, I soon realized there was a major freeway nearby, and the sounds and vibrations of cars and trucks, perhaps unnoticeable to most, prevented me from concentrating properly.

Seeking a solution, I went foraging into the lower level of the institute, and found an open area off one of the hallways, inside of which was a small room, practically a closet, used apparently for storage, but it was empty. With a degree of urgency combined with boldness, I then tracked down the head custodian, and asked if I might be able to use the modest space for composing.

Halloween has sometimes turned out to be a a day of good fortune for myself, and sure enough, it being that festive holiday of phantasy, especially at CalArts, I was nonetheless stunned when the custodian granted my request, and even gave me a key to insure privacy. Using various wooden and metal parts in the vicinity, I improvised a workable desk to go along with an existing chair and overhead light where I could compose, even entertaining friends there occasionally.

Sadly, some time later, during a private composition lesson with Mel Powell, he told me how the custodians had complained because at certain late hours they had to use a master key themselves to allow me into the larger space which contained my composition room, and my visits there had become too frequent for them, so I had to turn in my key and find another place to compose. It was perplexing how Mel didn't seem to have much sympathy for my predicament. Around the same time, I was sitting outside in the hallway with fellow students from an African dance class during a break, and Powell stormed past me with a disapproving shake of his head because I was dressed only in shorts without any shirt due to the heat inside the room. (Concurrently, I was taken aback by my girlfriend stating how my body recalled the statue of David by Michelangelo.)

And so began my searching for a place to live off campus where I might find peacefulness to work in, including getting a car. My roommate was in the film school, and he owned a number of vehicles for use in the movies he was making, so I was able to purchase an oversized, yellow jalopy that still ran at a reasonable price.

The first new place I found was out in the wilds of the desert, renting a room in a large three bedroom trailer owned by a professor who lived with his girlfriend. All was well at first. I especially loved jogging through desert trails in the glorious hot sun surrounded by gorgeous, indigenous fauna and flora with mountain vistas. However, my joy turned more sinister after I was given a casual warning by the professor about abundant rattle snakes in the area, and how it was dangerous to startle them.

After this, I found a room in a modest home in Saugus. What is most remarkable about that scenario is how it led to a musical experience that rivaled my hearing the Kronos Quartet give what may have been the world premiere of "String Quartet" by Morton Feldman at CalArts, the spaciousness of which imparted stimulating potentialities of musical form, which I later realized connected with the ragas of India.

You see, Helen, the woman who owned the home, invited me to a celebrative church service for her son, Henry, the week of Thanksgiving. A young woman with stunning blonde hair sang something profoundly pure, simple, and utterly transfixing for the occasion, taking me completely by surprise, having expected much less. While never learning the specific composer whose work was sung, most likely Bach or Handel, her performance was an epiphanic reminder of how exalted music may assert itself untethered outside the classrooms of academia, and there is no substitute for sheer talent and uninhibited musical passion.

For most composers, no doubt, a degree of quietude is conducive for tapping into inner thoughts and feelings where ideas and expressions emanate, tantalizing us to be portrayed in notations for future realizations. (Conversely, Leonard Altman once told me that Dmitri Shostakovich was able to compose in a noisy cafeteria without any problem!)

One of Schoenberg's students, John Cage, said a composition is not completed until it has been realized and heard by other listeners, and that necessity is what led me to software and hardware I eventually christened the meruvina, not wishing to be dependent upon others for my music to exist, which would be like being lost in the desert.

Saint Francis in the Desert (Saint Francis in Ecstasy) by Giovanni Bellini

A canvas I loved viewing at the Frick Collection while living in Manhattan is "Saint Francis in the Desert," also known as "Saint Francis in Ecstasy," by Giovanni Bellini. It brings to mind what I was fortunately taught is essential for being a creative artist, which is self-validation being a guiding light away from the tumult of the outside world.

Having music that is different from anyone else may feel like being alone in the desert at times, but that is vastly outweighed by what Ravi Shankar has advised is the purpose of music, namely the inner journey of self-realization coming from being true to your vision.

- Michael Robinson, December 2021, Los Angeles


© 2021 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and musicologist. His 162 albums include 149 albums for meruvina and 13 albums of piano improvisations. He has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University.