Writings about Music

Cosmic Rituals - Michael Robinson Interview

Margen, Number 22, 2001 (Spain)

Interviewer: Rafa Dorado

The interview was conducted in English, and translated into Spanish for Margen. There is an introduction to the interview that needs to be translated into English. It will be added here when that is done.

What are the essentials of your beginnings?

I was fortunate to have a very creative piano teacher, Barney Bragin, when I was thirteen or so. He introduced me to Bach's Inventions, and also jazz improvisation through boogie woogie, and an album and music book titled Jazz Themes From Eurasia, featuring Paul Desmond, Joe Morello and Dave Brubeck.

Later in high school, Rollan Masciarelli started me on alto saxophone, and I drowned myself in the music of Charlie Parker. John Coltrane, Lee Konitz and Jackie McLean also became favorites, and I had a chance to study privately with Konitz one summer.

After college, I decided to shift my focus from improvisation to composition. It was very painful to lay my horn down at first, but it was clear that my musical impulses were better realized through composing.

After going so far as to write several symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas and one-act music dramas, I became intrigued with the new computer-performed sound modules that had suddenly become affordable.

I began making computer music transcriptions of the my compositions for acoustic instruments, and one day, shortly after moving into Manhattan, I decided to write my first piece directly for my new computer instruments, calling the one-minute composition Silvercup after the sign across the river in Long Island City I could see from my East 65th Street and First Avenue apartment.

Since then, I have never turned back, having realized that this is the artistic medium of our time for a composer.

Your music is a wonderful mix among a lot of genres and subgenres of electronic, contemporary and ethnic Asiatic musics (Indian, Chinese. gamelan ...) and I'd say these influences are expressed from a cosmic point of view. Are you OK with this opinion?

It is wonderful to hear this perception of my music. Since 1994, I have based my compositions on the raga form of Indian classical music. My training is basically in the music of North India, known as Hindustani, but I have also been influenced by the Karnatic style of South India.

My teachers are Harihar Rao, the senior disciple of Ravi Shankar, Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, Professor Emeritus at UCLA, and Kala Ramnath, the leading disciple of Pandit Jasraj, who I have also had several consultations with.

A great deal of my knowledge comes from intensive listening to concerts and recordings, and voluminous reading.

Ragas, as Shivkumar Sharma told me, began as a form of prayer, and were not an entertainment. The musician sat alone, frequently outdoors, and offered a musical prayer to the presiding deity of the raga, which he hoped to conjure to descend from heaven, and so be blessed by the presence of the deity, who might even appear in human form. Hinduism teaches that music is the highest form of yoga, and the most direct path to god consciousness. The universal laws recognized by Hinduism, which are reflected in the raga form, are available to any person, regardless of ethnicity or birthplace. Essential to the nature of Hinduism is its readiness to assimilate new expressions of these universal laws. In addition to its potential to touch upon transcendental states, the raga is a pathway to monumental intellectual constructions that will never be exhausted.

My own approach is to sit at a low table on the floor, and notate my composition without the aid of any instrument. This is a spiritual, intellectual and heart-felt mediation; a spontaneous improvisation transmitted onto the music paper with pencil. I prefer pencil to pen even though I never go back and change a single swara (note) or bol (percussion tone). This includes my most recent CD, Kaunsi Kanada, which has over 30,000 swaras and bols.

The swaras and bols are different for each raga, and they touch upon my body and mind like invisible acupuncture points. Composing is as much a physical sensation as it is intellectual and spiritual.

Afterwards, the completed composition is converted into numbers for the computer to perform in conjunction with a sound module, which is both a sample playback unit and synthesizer, along with some additional programming, and fine-tuning, of course.

The challenge is to transmit the prana (life force) and rasa (expressive essence) that the raga originally inspired in me into an elaborately developed piece of music. Technical perfection is merely a starting point, and it is useless without prana, rasa and development.

I know that most composers in electronic music like to interact and improvise with digital instruments, but for me the real challenge, and most fruitful and exciting path, is to explore the potentials of having computers actually perform the music, much as Conlon Nancarrow did with the player piano.

Despite of these different influences mixed, at last, we've got homogeneous and imaginative albums. How do you do it? I hear the Lou Harrison's and Laszlo Hortobagyi's influence in your music. Do you agree?

I think that by extracting the essence of any particular music which inspires me, rather than making a futile effort to copy it, which would be artificial even if it could be done, I am able to assimilate and make new connections between seemingly disparate influences.

I feel fortunate to have realized that the raga form allows for unlimited balances and relationships between the five elements: fire, water, air, earth and ether, which are refracted through the prisms of individual human experience and perceptions.

There are endless new musical ideas I wish to delve into, and I am fundamentally unable to stand still and repeat something that I've already done.

I have heard very little of Lou Harrison's music, and none of Laszlo Hortobagyi's at this time.

In the early stages of my composing career, I was much taken with the late music of Morton Feldman, which I now view as an unconscious yearning for the alap form of Hindustani music.

I would say that your style is between the past and the future, between musical primitivism and avant contemporary. Is your music a type of new ritual for the XXI century?

I am astonished to discover that ragas are the most vital musical form of our time, especially because their origins have been traced back thousands of years.

It is possible to consider my music a ritual that uses the technological instruments of our time to bring new dimensions and experiences to an ancient and timeless form that has the potential to take listeners to higher levels.

The timeless quality of ragas stem from being based upon the cycles of night and day, the seasons, and the five elements, from which the human body, and the earth are composed.

The transcendental emotions conveyed are also impervious to time, in contrast to the sentimental human emotions found in Western classical, jazz and rock, which somehow tie that music to a specific time in history.

In the recent years as a solo composer how have you changed as a writer? What elements have remained? Do you think your current music is more accessible than your early music or vice versa?

I believe that the breadth of my composing has expanded due to my assimilation of the raga form.

Perhaps the same kernel of musical personality is there in terms of melodic, rhythmic and expressive impulses, yet I hope that there has been some growth in terms of sustaining the musical flow through the movement of time, and that there has been an increase in my ability to differentiate between elemental musical subtleties.

I began using my current musical system in 1995 with Hamoa, and I feel that the music created since that time is more accessible due to the greater richness of the sounds.

My overall melodic and rhythmic impulses are probably identifiable from my first CD, Trembling Flowers, to my most recent, Kaunsi Kanada. On the other hand, it may be that some listeners will take more easily to my earlier work for the simple reason that the pieces tend to be much shorter. The most obvious change in my composing, again, is how I have adopted the raga form as a basis for musical exploration.

I should mention that many of my earlier shorter pieces anticipate my later use of ragas in various ways. For instance, Delayed Response from the Trembling Flowers album, and Ghosts and Jade Streams from the Fire Monkey album, all share a connection to the alap form of ragas.

What are some of your different creative approaches to writing? Are there any usual procedures? The improvisation is very important in your writing process, I suppose, isn't it?

My current musical studying consists primarily of listening to recordings and live concerts of the finest Indian musicians.

I particularly enjoy taking long walks in natural settings while listening avidly to ragas with a walkman.

I only work on one piece at a time, so it is sometimes a coincidence that I will begin work on a particular raga that happens to be my current fascination at the time my last piece has been completed.

It is when a particular recording or live concert inspires me to create my own version of a particular raga that I meditate upon the unique expressive and technical characteristics of that raga, sometimes for months, and so when I actually sit down to write the piece it is already finished.

The famous Japanese book on the Art of War, which I have never read, but have heard of comes to mind. That is, one is advised to never engage an opponent you cannot defeat.

I do not begin the act of composition until I have formed an internal union with the raga, and then I am free to spontaneously follow the impulses of the moment. I think of my compositions as improvisations captured fleetingly yet exactly.

I have no interest in attempting to recreate the authentic style of any particular instrumental sound I may use, whether it be tabla, sitar, kawala or ud, even though I am inspired by recordings of masters of these and other instruments. If that was the case, it makes more sense to have live musicians play the music.

My aesthetic involves utilizing the possible expressive and technical capabilities of the digital instruments of our time to illuminate my sensations of the moment.

The overall sound of my music comes after working with computer-performed sound modules for sixteen years, and it is just as difficult - some believe more difficult - to make music with this medium as it is with traditional acoustical instruments. I only mention this because once in a while I hear a common misconception that digital instruments involve only pressing a few buttons! A poetic utterance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which I carried around in my wallet for years comes to mind:

In art, the hand can
never execute
anything higher than
the heart can inspire

What is the key element in your music?

My unique life force - all of us are unique - projected through sonically manifested energies which appear like luminous ghosts in-between the physical and metaphysical worlds; the domain that is unique to music. Something invisible to the eye, yet heard and felt.

How do you know when a piece is really done? Have you ever looked on a finished album with regrets about a particular piece?

As mentioned above, I do not begin a piece until it is already completed. That is, I could write endless versions of the same piece if I wished, and each would be unique, and simultaneously recognized as that piece or raga.

On my Adorned With Pearl album, I went back and changed the percussion timbres because I felt they were too heavy in relation to the clarinet, but I did not change any of the actual rhythms.

On Porcelain Nights, from my Chinese Legend album, I went back and changed the tanpura pattern after falling in love with Shivkumar Sharma's tanpura pattern for Gunkali, which is the raga Porcelain Nights is based on.

Other than that, I will not release a piece unless I feel it is worthy, and fortunately, I find I still feel that way about all my compositions, including the earliest albums.

In fact, I feel very fortunate because I recently went back to [meruvina transcriptions] I had done of two string quartets and two symphonies for orchestra, and found a way to voice them so that they come to life. The music sounds very fresh, exciting and provocative. I did this by using spare, transparent and colorful timbres based on celestas and vibraphones, rather than attempting to imitate the original acoustical instruments the music was written for.

I am now releasing these four extended compositions along with some other earlier music, composed between 1979 and 1984, for acoustic instruments. I felt these pieces deserved more vibrant names, and so I renamed as follows: The Abode of Joy was String Quartet No. 2; The Lotus Girl was Symphony No. 2; The Abode of Snow was String Quartet No. 3; and The Jewel Treasure of the Ocean was Symphony No. 3.

How will be the music in the next century? Are your searching for the reply to this question with your music? How do you view the current new music scene and where do you see it going in the next 10 years?

I feel it is most important to capture the essence of the present moment, and hopefully reflect eternity, so I don't really think in those terms. However, I hope that the countries of the world will take care to preserve and nourish their pure musical traditions, as well as allowing new hybrids to grow uninhibited.

Do you feel that your composing of moods and textures is equally as important as coming up with rhythms or beats?

Yes. One without the other would be like the sun without the moon, or the ocean without the sky.

The variety of moods and settings in your music albums is great. Your music is very dynamic, but also very hypnotic. Tell me about this. Do you think your music can be a way toward meditative states?

Here we may use the analogy of physical love, which enters through the eye, and then may begin very gently, yet with great intensity, by touching, and gradually builds over an extended period of time with many different expressions and forms. This may be continuously expressed through ebbs and flows that Tantric rituals describe as the piercing of the chakras, the awakening of the kundalini, or serpent power, which is the source of all spiritual conquests. Music and physical love are both very spiritual and physical at once. This is the beauty of Hindu culture, which synthesizes the great forces of life into one.

Even when my music is at its most tumultuous state, such as the concluding portions of Kaunsi Kanada, I feel it simultaneously as a spiritual and physical massage, with the lilas of swaras and bols touching different points of my mind and body like an otherworldly acupuncture.

Endless variety is one of the joys of life, such as we find in different fruits, and I seek variety in music as a pathway for growth and freedom.

At this point in your career as a recording artist, you've spread your stylistic boundaries further than most would ever dream. What other musical realms await a sonic explorer such as yourself? What should we expect from your next works?

Right now I am endlessly fascinated with ragas as a pathway towards realization of my musical dreams. My training is primarily in Hindustani music, and I wish to continue to learn more about Karnatic music.

The music of Korea and Java, and other cultures also fascinate me. I have several times thought of doing some compositions based upon the classical music of Korea, so perhaps I will do so in the future. There is already, Red Painting, from Hamoa, inspired by an Ad Reinhardt painting, featuring my version of the Korean piri. Forest Regions, from the Rainbow Thunder album, was deeply inspired by Javanese Court music. Hamoa contains compositions that use tunings from Tibet, Japan and Arabic countries, and Rainbow Thunder and Sun Dance were inspired by African music, which I have a great love for. But one really could spend a thousand lifetimes exploring ragas.

I do look forward to obtaining new musical instruments which will inspire me in new directions.


The new piece I am currently working on is always most important, and in addition to releasing the string quartets and symphonies I mentioned, there are two piano sonatas, four one-act music dramas, a song cycle and many other shorter works that I would like to eventually transcribe for my computer instruments. There are also literally hundreds of pieces written for [the first meruvina], and [the second meruvina], which have not been released.

Anything else you want to add?

During a recent trip to NYC, an acquaintance asked me to play the piano, something I almost never do, though I have retained a small amount of technique. So I played some ragas on the piano, despite its well-tempered tuning, and discovered that my playing has improved dramatically simply through my immersion in composing with ragas, and I guess my fingers are limber from using computers. Afterwards, I was astonished when she told me that the beauty of my playing ragas Megh and Bhimpalasi had made her cry.

© 2001 Margen

Margen was a print music magazine published in Spain. This interview was conducted via email during the fall of 2000. The above text is the complete interview. A condensed version of the interview was published in Margen, Number 22.