Writings about Music

Leonard Altman Music Tree

Back of card Leonard Altman gave to Michael Robinson when they first met,
writing his East 10th Street address, (212) home phone, and when to call.
The other unrelated address and phone were subsequently written by Michael.

Front of card Leonard Altman gave to Michael Robinson when they first met.
Jean was a woman Michael met around the same time at a NYC jazz club featuring Lee Konitz.


Michael Robinson in front of Leonard Altman's second floor Santa Monica apartment last week.

Musicologist and arts administrator Leonard Altman was a magical person who took much time and care nurturing what was to become a new branch of the tree of music, my being one of the composers he took a special interest in, some others having earlier been Charles Ives, Olivier Messiaen, George Crumb, Ralph Shapey and Steve Reich, myself crediting Steve with having rescued Western composition from serialism, providing a foundational template for expansion.

By sheer happenstance we met at his Manhattan office where he directed the Music Program for the New York State Council on the Arts. Leonard believed I was someone exhibiting extraordinary promise. As you can see above, he gave me his card, including his home number on the back, making it clear I could phone any time.

A man of action, at our subsequent meeting in his Greenwich Village apartment, where I played my two earliest piano compositions, Leonard immediately invited me to study at Tanglewood. After that, urging me to continue composition studies at graduate school, his top recommendation was CalArts where I was one of a handful accepted among hundreds of applicants.

Leonard Altman with piano and music stand

And when CalArts didn't work out, Altman helped arrange an interview with Joseph Patelson, whose Music House I would at work for several years, including making transformational contact with Joan La Barbara, who arranged a meeting with computer music pioneer Charles Dodge, and Earl Wild, who insisted that I find a way to work full-time on my composing.

In addition to the contacts made at Patelson's, notably including Don Shirley, Leonard took the extraordinary action of asking Steve Reich, who was perhaps the most famous living composer in the world, to mentor me, which Steve agreed to.

Leonard Altman with piano birthday cake

This essay was engendered by an unexpected visit to Santa Monica last Friday, whereby I took the opportunity to pose in front of Leonard's second floor apartment on Second Street, one block from the magnificent cliff overlooking the ocean. The air there is charged with energy, echoing the uncanny intellectual, emotional and spiritual life force Leonard Altman possessed.

Neal Sideman very kindly sent me the photos and image included here together with notes from the Memorial Concert for his close friend, Leonard, given at Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall. Here is an excerpt: "Leonard had an unusually diverse professional life. He may have been best known for his crucial role in the preservation of Carnegie Hall and his noble, doomed struggle to save the Old Met. But he also wrote wonderfully witty articles for Stereo Review and The American Record Guide and served as the editor and publisher of Listen: A Music Monthly from 1963 to 1965. Leonard produced more than 200 television programs for WNYC and thousands of radio shows in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. He ran the Leeds Music Corporation and the Concert Artists Guild and then directed the music division of the New York State Council on the Arts from 1973-1979. Leonard taught at Brooklyn College, Queens College [where he was Chair of the music department, UCLA], and at his beloved Tanglewood. In his last years, Leonard was the artistic director for the Maestro Foundation in Santa Monica, California."

Image of Leonard Altman from his Memorial Concert at Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall. Another memorial was held for him in Santa Monica at the home of Aaron Mendelsohn.

Leonard was also a classical music radio host on a leading NYC station, having the most fantastically musically deep and resonant speaking voice for doing so - pure velvet - with an exciting touch of mystery and humor enhancing prodigious knowledge. Prior to the Maestro Foundation, Leonard was the executive director for the Los Angeles Music and Performing Arts Commission. There are many more things that might be added here among myriad accomplishments and pursuits.

Today is Memorial Day, and my thoughts are also with my late uncle, Burton Goldstein, who survived fierce combat in the Battle of the Bulge while in his late teens. Uncle Burt, who inherited a construction business from his father, lived to 92, advising me to "take a big bite out of life." His wartime experiences were too horrific to discuss except with fellow veterans whom he met with each subsequent year.

Leonard Altman believed I had the potential to add a new branch to the tree of music, and I only wish he was still here to talk about so many things. And I know he would have been thrilled by how I recently began exploring piano improvisation together with the music composition he envisioned when we first met.

In his Santa Monica apartment, where we spent a number of afternoons discussing and listening to music, including during lunch, Leonard showed me an autograph score Sergei Prokofiev had gifted him when he was a cultural representative to Russia from the Western Hemisphere. I don't recall going over any of my scores with Leonard, but I would have loved to have heard his thoughts and observations, beginning with the unusual notation I use with single lines for notes rather than circles, a concept taught to me by Barney Bragin who said it was closer to the notation Johann Sebastian Bach favored. Just recently, I found music notation by John Coltrane whereby he used the same method as myself.

My compositions for meruvina are my vision of Western classical and jazz evolution at once, jazz having superseded European classical music of the time around the middle of the past century, absolutely earning the distinction of being the true classical music of America and the Western world, later joined by Indian classical music and British and American rock.

I hadn't thought it possible to find a new evolution of jazz on a more conventional instrument such as the piano. It was only when a friend's mother had me playing standards three hours a week on Sundays that I began wondering how I might find my own way, moving beyond existing styles, creating something fresh and personal conjured from jazz and raga experience and knowledge. At first, on my own, not playing for Jocelyn, I explored improvising on ragas and free improvisation. Then, one day, motivated to discover a new dimension stemming from standards as mentioned, I instinctively began with a walking bass in the left hand rather than chords, combining this improvisatory voice with an equally improvisatory right hand, going by what sounded and felt best and true. At first, this was utterly perilous, like the sudden jump Harrison Ford takes from the top of a giant dam amidst thundering, mercurial waterfalls heading hundreds of feet down while escaping from Tommy Lee Jones. But I was able to slowly begin swimming in the merciless currents following the initial plunge, gradually becoming one with them, and embracing with fortunate self-recognition what Stan Getz, a tenor saxophonist revered by John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie, said was essential: Courage, individuality, irreverence, and taste.

Leonard advised me to focus on composing new music and not be overly concerned about promoting it. For those who have supported my music I am beyond grateful, also recognizing how some are understandably confounded by the originality of my compositions and improvisations.

Almost forgot. Altman was a key person urging me to move to Los Angeles where the indespensably essential ocean of Hindustani music came to reveal itself fully, something else completely unexpected and unplanned.

- Michael Robinson, May 2022, Los Angeles


© 2022 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, pianist and musicologist. His 199 albums include 152 albums for meruvina and 47 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.