Writings about Music

Journal SEAMUS review of Hamoa

Michael Robinson's Hamoa

Michael Robinson recently released his third CD, Hamoa. Robinson is one of those independent composers who works without any institutional support or any other visible outside support. He has been quite successful attracting the attention of the press and he certainly finds numerous opportunities to present public concerts.

Robinson prides himself with using technology with both sophistication and simplicity. All of his works are considered to be live performance pieces. His instrument consists of a computer and one synthesizer. In today's technology world, Robinson uses the most basic of systems.

Robinson's newest offering has moved in a significantly different direction from his previous CDs, Trembling Flowers and Fire Monkey. It seems that in the past couple of years Robinson has immersed himself in world music. He has seriously studied music from other cultures, especially that of India. He has become especially interested in various tuning systems, non-Western timbres, and complex rhythms. All of that is reflected in the new CD.

The world theme is even reflected in the colorful text-less cover that is a Japanese hand silk screen on rice paper.

The theme continues with the titles. Eight of the nine works are from 1996. The ninth piece, Welsh Witch, dates from 1986. Missing are program notes.

There is a similarity of approaches in all the works.

Robinson's basic approach is to establish rhythmic ostinatos and drones, and then introduce microtonal melodic material performed on ethnic-like instruments. All the works share this technique in varying degrees, with different treatments of all three elements.

The first offering Water Stones, introduces a metallic melody over a drone combined with a chime-like background. The melodic material here, and in most of the works, is presented as if it were improvised. Maintaining the same timbres for much of the first half, Robinson utilizes subtle dynamic contrasts. Eventually, more traditional drummed wood timbres are introduced and replace the metallic qualities. As with all the pieces, Robinson uses considerable delay.

Next comes the title piece, Hamoa. Here the rhythmic ostinatos are more intense and the drones emanate from gongs. A micro-tonal piano, performs an improvised melodic line throughout. For the last third of the piece, the rhythmic ostinato dissolves into a drone.

Chinese Berries follows. Again, over drones and ostinatos we hear micro-tonal improvised-like melodic material performed this time on bowed and plucked ethnic instruments. These are eventually replaced by more woodwind timbres.

The first three works are all slightly over ten minutes. We are now offered a slightly less then six-minute piece called Giant Leaves. After a free introduction, we still have the rhythmic ostinato, but here Robinson gives us moments when the ostinato is silent. Again, we hear changing ethnic instruments performing our familiar improvised micro-tonal melodies.

Pink Jade, just under four minutes, presents a much heavier percussive approach then we have heard thus far. The percussion ostinato is present. This time the melody is performed by percussive melodic instruments. The piece contrasts nicely with the next work, Red Painting. Just under ten minutes long, Robinson here introduces micro-tonal horns, again supported by drones and a very quiet underlying percussion ostinato.

The next five-minute piece, Moonlit Palms, deviates from this same three-layered texture. Robinson introduces this piece with wind-like flourishes. Eventually the percussion ostinato enters supporting a plucked improvised melody. The timbre of the melodic instrument changes and the piece ends with a strictly percussive passage...

The last piece, Welsh Witch, is the only work from an earlier period. As mentioned earlier, this work was composed in 1986. I am fairly certain that Robinson created this work before he began his serious investigation of world music. Yet, many of the same qualities are still found here. There is a brief percussion ostinato towards the end of the piece. There is a strong ethnic music influence, but the approach is quite different from the other pieces. There are strong sections using strummed and wind timbres that are distinctly rhythmically unison. Especially effective in this piece is the use of silences.

Robinson has given us a nice miniature musical gift...combining the world music tradition with high technology. Yet, Robinson always keeps his technology and his music accessible. This new direction for Robinson promises to lead him into even more interesting areas.

- Rodney Oakes, April 1996