I do not know if you will find Michael Robinson's latest CD, Fire Monkey, distributed on Azure Miles Records, in your local music store. It certainly is well packaged with positive quotes from the Los Angeles Times and Keyboard. I do know that Robinson is another of those hard working electro-acoustic music composers who works independently. He has no university affiliation and yet he has been quite successful in finding venues for public concerts. He has received considerable favorable publicity.
As in his previous CD, Trembling Flowers, also available on Azure Miles Records, the works here are not studio pieces, but live performance compositions. Robinson views the computer as a live performance instrument and all of his works are realized in real time. He performs these pieces in concert and on the radio. Consequently, this offering is a record in the old-fashioned sense. We have here a record of his live performances.
The eight presented pieces range from the three-minute, thirty-three second “March Wind” to the four-movement “Mountain Temple” (17 minutes, 56 seconds).
Robinson's brief and lucid program notes present his philosophy of live performance, and short statements about each work.
There is no information regarding the hardware and software.
Robinson usually works with a rather modest technology. He is very capable of generating complex music with minimal equipment. He has developed a rather individualistic approach to music making and is perfecting his own style. He obviously has been influenced by a number of sources, including music of various world folk cultures.
Underlying much of his music are rhythmic ideas that resemble ethnic traditions outside the Western Hemisphere.
The resulting effects are almost overwhelming. March Wind consists of a continuous bombardment of timbres, rhythms, and motivic material.
The three movement "Year of the Rooster" contrasts with this first work in that here Robinson's develops a few ideas. Consequently, I think the results are much stronger.
“Jade Streams” borders on minimalism with slow moving lines weaving in and out of a sustained drone.
Robinson follows this with “Distant Breakers,” a work filled with overlaid rapid rhythmic patterns. As in “March Wind,” the ideas come pouring out, almost drowning the listener.
“Mountain Temple” is a four-movement work inspired by Japanese silk-screen painting. It is in works like this that Robinson is at his best. He has limited his ideas and develops them. He has especially utilized some fine rhythmic passages and made excellent use of stereo panning. He also here has limited his timbral palette. Beginning with simple plucked sounds, the work builds in timbral intensity as other voices are added or as the plucked voices are gradually replaced by percussive or reedy timbres in each succeeding movement, with the last movement becoming almost chaotic.
“Ghosts” returns to a minimalistic approach with a slow moving melody juxtaposed onto a sustained tone cluster. Robinson follows this with “Soft Stone,” a really quite nice song reflecting a 1950s rock ballad style.
Eclectic is the only term I can think of.
Finally, “Fire Monkey,” the source of the CD's title, reflects back on “March Wind.” Again, I find Robinson to be almost too frantic in this style. At the same time, he has created a CD that makes intelligent musical sense and can be considered a work in itself. Each piece contrasts nicely in terms of style and time. As a whole, the CD builds in musical interest and resolves quite nicely by ending much as it started.
Robinson's work is rich in musical ideas. I wish that he would develop a keener sense of orchestration. My hunch is that he relies heavily on factory voices and I think his work would become much more interesting with original timbres.
Fire Monkey is an interesting CD with plenty of fine musical ideas. Michael Robinson is a composer with a vision. I wish him luck with both his music and his vision. He is one of the many independent composers who deserves an audience.
- Rodney Oakes, October 1994