American Lover of Ragas Creates Melodies In Computer

India Abroad

by Kuhu Singh

April 7, 2000 

NEW YORK - Michael Robinson is an American composer who bases his music on Hindustani and Karnatic classical ragas which, he says, he regards as "one of the finest forms of music in the history of the world." And he thinks he can make that judgment, having studied Western classical music, jazz improvisation and world music, and later learning extensively from Indian masters the finer notes about Indian classical music.

Also striking about his music is that he composes it entirely on a computer, creating musical notes and instruments' sounds in computer language. "Many people find my music very expressive and very spiritual," he told India Abroad over the phone. "There are always those, however, who are turned off to it because they know it's coming from a computer and won't even listen to it. I don't let that deter me, however. I just follow my instincts."

A New Yorker for most of his life but now settled in Los Angeles, Robinson's love affair with music began at age 8 with trumpet and piano. That interest graduated to alto saxophone. He entered the Crane School of Music, State University of New York at Potsdam, as a saxophone major, switching to composition in his junior year. After receiving a BM in composition, he went on to study at Tanglewood and CalArts. He also studied under the legendary alto saxophonist, Lee Konitz, whom he calls "one of the very few surviving architects of modern jazz." "When the first affordable computer music systems became available in 1984, I acquired one, and gradually learned how to write and program music for this medium," he says. "Soon after, I began giving live concerts, and appearing on radio programs in New York City. I moved to Los Angeles in 1990."

His exposure to Indian classical music began in 1994, when a friend invited him to attend his tabla lessons with Harihar Rao, the senior disciple of Ravi Shankar, and president of the Music Circle, which presents concerts of Indian classical music. "Soon after, I began my own private lessons with Rao, who introduced me to the aesthetics and techniques of the raga form," he relates. In 1996, Robinson met Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, professor emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles. "He focused on teaching me the melodic principles of ragas, and we worked on a rendering of raga 'Kedara,' which he subsequently played for the All India Music Conference of 1997," Robinson says. That same year he also began to learn under Hindustani violinist Kala Ramnath, whom Pandit Jasraj considers his leading disciple.

"My way of creating music begins with a musical inspiration to compose within a particular raga," Robinson says. "Sometimes a particular recording communicates the rasa of a raga to me, and motivates me to create my own interpretation of that raga. At that point, I decide which instruments I wish to compose for, and also the approximate length of the piece. I have a sound module which contains hundreds of musical instrumental sounds, some sampled, some synthesized. For instance, for raga 'Patdeep,' I selected santoor, tabla, dholak, dhol and two tanpuras."

Robinson prefers to compose without the aid of any particular instrument. "The instrument is my imagination; all of my spiritual, intellectual, emotional and physical senses fusing to focus on the rasa radiating from the raga," he says. "I do not begin the actual composing until I have a sure sense of the overall shape and content of the music. The actual writing is almost a spontaneous written improvisation." After completing notating his compositions using an individualized form of Western notation, Robinson then translates the music into a numerical computer language. "This is a mechanical and tedious process, but fortunately, I am very proficient at it after years of practice," he says. "All the elements of my composition; the pitches, rhythms, dynamics, timbres, tempos and articulations must be expressed in numerical terms. Once this mechanical process is finished, the computer is ready to tell the sound module exactly what sounds to make. Then I must fine-tune and adjust subtleties such as balances, tuning, textures and panning, and my composition will come to life, expressing my original vision of the raga's rasa." "That is my reason for creating music - to present my sensations of the beauty, perfection and mysteries of Nature and Existence as fully as possible," he says. "After all, even the greatest artist is a grain of sand compared to Nature and the Infinite." 

Currently, Robinson has 27 CDs to his credit, distributed by CDeMUSIC, an Albany, New York-based music company run by the Electronic Music Foundation, his introductory suggestions being "The Listening Earth" (a compilation of shorter pieces), "Chinese Legend" and "Sagarmatha."