Hummingbird Canyon by Michael Robinson - textura review

Michael Robinson: Hummingbird Canyon
Azure Miles Records

That Michael Robinson's latest work, Hummingbird Canyon, recalls in some of its structural details his previous release, Lucknow Shimmer, in no way argues against it, especially when the new work proves to be as mesmerizing as its predecessor. Issued on the composer's own Azure Miles Records, Hummingbird Canyon is an uninterrupted piece of forty-three minutes duration that's also a study in contrasts, of which two are paramount: stasis versus development, and stabilizing structure versus free-flow. The work's stabilizing forces include a faint tamboura drone and a pitter-pattering shuffle that persist throughout and sing-song melodic themes that appear at regulated intervals; its free-flowing character derives from the incessantly burbling swirl of a rich percussive arsenal that includes cuicas, tablas, drums, cymbals, and shaker.

Using his treasured meruvina as the real-time, sound-generating source, Robinson once again creates the impression of a live, in-concert ensemble populated with woodwinds, horns, and percussion players and collectively committed to letting the high-energy music speak through them. In addition to the aforementioned percussion instruments, the work includes the resplendent sounds of furin bell, kalimba, spokes bell, gayageum, shahnai, mizmar, clarinet, and trumpet. Listening to Hummingbird Canyon, it's easy to visualize multiple tabla players generating a non-stop flow of rapid cross-currents and other musicians intermittently interjecting to punctuate the percussive activity with thematic statements.

As with Lucknow Shimmer, the different parts of Hummingbird Canyon are also earmarked by contrasting percussion pitches, with lower-half bols used in the first third, higher-half bols for the second, and the full arsenal of percussion sounds present for the concluding third. The work begins and ends with a spirited melodic motif that also appears three more times over the course of the piece and is voiced by different instrument sounds, and is complemented by a second melodic figure that appears twelve times and is also voiced by different instruments. Helping to makie the gesture more entrancing is the fact that when that figure does appear, it's repeated at varying pitches, with often the first one low and the second an octave higher. 

It's interesting that one of Robinson's inspiration for Hummingbird Canyon was Charlie Parker, not so much because of his well-known nickname Bird but for the soaring nature of his playing. By his own admission, Robinson also tips his hat to The Beatles' Abbey Road in surprising the listener with a closing statement (played by furin bell, spokes bell, kalimba, and three cuicas) that only appears after Hummingbird Canyon has seemingly achieved formal resolution. But obviously the main inspiration for the recording is the hummingbird, an inspiration that came to the composer as he encountered on a walking route a dazzling mass of seemingly ecstatic hummingbirds whose “(k)aleidoscopic, frenzied counterpoint” captivated him. And with canyons being equally ubiquitous in the Southern California locale that Robinson calls home, it seemed only natural for the work's title to combine the two ideas. Consistent with the rapidity of the hummingbird's wings (apparently they can beat up to 200 times a second), his delightfully exuberant music often flutters at an equivalent speed, resulting in a vibrant sound mass that tickles the ear and never fails to keep one engaged. 

August-September 2014

textura is a Canadian music publication