Dazzling Darkness and Spirit Lady by Michael Robinson - textura review

"There is certainly much to recommend the releases, each one presenting a single, spacious composition. Both Dazzling Darkness and Spirit Lady were created by the Los Angeles-based composer using his trademark Meruvina, a self-customized hardware-and-software device that enables Robinson to simulate virtually any conceivable instrument and play his notated material in real-time. By his own reckoning, the sixty-seven-minute Dazzling Darkness, the earlier of the two, is the longest piece he's created in fifteen years, but its expansiveness wasn't a contrivance: like any true artist, Robinson attends to his muse, which for this creative expression dictated that the material should assume the form of an uninterrupted hour-plus presentation."

"Compared to other Robinson productions, Dazzling Darkness is stripped-down, centering as it does on Optigan organ, voices, and drums. And as overtly as other Robinson productions, the material enacts bridges between jazz and Indian classical music, genres he's immersed himself within for decades. Evidence of his longstanding connection to Indian music is seen in a huge number of the recordings preceding Dazzling Darkness and is again dominant in this creation, too. A Hawaii connection also emerges, with the composer having spent significant parts of his life in Maui. In fact, the album title derives from a phenomenon he witnessed standing by the shores of Lahaina, Maui at night, specifically the way the dark sky merges with the sea to form a dazzling black field. As he experienced this sight, the raga foundation for Dazzling Darkness, Raga Bairagi, declared itself."

"The piece takes no time acquiring momentum, with its two insistent drum ostinatos lunging from the gate and alternating every seventeen beats. Despite the intense propulsion of the rhythm design, the organ material accompanying it unfolds at a slow, meditative pace, a move that lends the piece an ongoing tension between the restless agitation of the pulse and the slow-motion blossoming of the melodic material. Adding to the hypnagogic effect, synthesized voices blanket the collective mass like dew-drenched air particles, their droning presence verging on subliminal but felt nonetheless. At the percussive level, snares skitter relentlessly, their light-speed action punctuated by bass throbs and swirling hi-hats; floating above the charging percussive base, organ patterns unfurl unhurriedly, sometimes gathering into emphatic chords but more often appearing as explorative, single-note phrases."

"With both being long-form, single-movement pieces featuring organ, drones, and percussion ostinatos, Spirit Lady and Dazzling Darkness share much, but one difference concerns tempo. Spirit Lady moves at an even more hellacious pace than its sibling, specifically 212 beats per minute (by Robinson's count, the score ended up exceeding 500 pages and required the programming of 50,000 notes). And in place of Optigan, he chose Vox organ, familiarly used by ‘60s bands such as The Doors, Santana, the Zombies, and the Rolling Stones, not only because it can sustain melodic clarity at a fast clip but also because its trills and tremolos aren't harsh-sounding in the upper register. Augmenting the Vox are an Indian tamboura and a nineteen-beat rhythmic cycle (4-4-4-4-3) executed in a drums-and-cymbals combination."

"In text accompanying the release, the composer argues that Western classical music is as central to his music as jazz and Indian classical music, and certainly the extended keyboard explorations in Dazzling Darkness and Spirit Lady perpetuate a tradition extending back to Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. In that regard, it's possible to establish links between classical, jazz, and Indian forms to the degree that long-form improvisations, keyboard-centered or otherwise, emerge in all three. As with other recent Robinson releases, the material on both sets was brought to a spellbinding degree of clarity by Catharine Wood, who mastered them at the Planetwood Productions studio in Eagle Rock, California."

December 2019

textura is a Canadian music publication