Azure Miles Records ~ The Music of Michael Robinson

Writings About Music by Michael Robinson


The IDEA, Number 7, 2004, New Delhi

Meruvina: Composition and Performance Coalesce

See original version in The Idea

Priceless Musical Gems details the software and hardware I have used

(collectively named Meruvina) to create performances of my compositions.

In December 1997, I was invited to attend a lecture-demonstration given by Ravi Shankar, and his daughter Anoushka, at the University of California at San Diego. As it turned out, I practically risked my life getting there because I had to drive through one of the biggest downpours on record, from Los Angeles to San Diego, via the 405 freeway.

My most meaningful memory from Shankar's talk was a story he told about his guru, Allauddin Khan, reacting to America landing a man on the moon. Khan had remarked about the enormous time and effort spent to make a journey deep into space, and said it was actually much more difficult and worthwhile for people to explore the fathomless regions within ourselves, for that is where one finds the most profound meaning and enlightenment.

Given our complex and multifaceted world, where information and technological advances abound, creative artists may be overwhelmed by myriad choices, and possible directions, yet finding a form, and medium to work within is paramount to realizing our potential.

Having decided to make music composition my life path in my early twenties, after about five years of focusing on saxophone improvisation, I feel fortunate that a series of seemingly random events led me to choose pure computer-performed music as my medium of choice, and Indian ragas for the musical form I use as a basis for composition. Prior to using ragas, my compositions were based on a variety of musical forms. Much of this earlier music is found on the Azure Miles 2000 and 1000 CD series. Compositions based on ragas make up the 3000 and 4000 series.

Regarding the title of this essay, it was my desire to name the musical instruments (software and hardware) I compose for in a manner that reflected the individual way I create music. Vina is the Sanskrit word for musical instrument, and it is used in a range of South Asian instrument denominations, including the rudra vina, and the gatra vina. I first thought of Compu Vina or Digi Vina, but quickly dismissed those overly technical sounding names. Then I thought to use the initials of my full name, Michael Eric Robinson, and combine them with a Sanskrit, or Hindu word or name. Happily, I recalled Meru, as in Mount Meru, the heavenly mountain Hindus believe is the center of the universe. I thought the name meruvina was both poetic, and fitting for the ever-developing, and seemingly limitless capabilities, and potential of the music technology I use. Obviously, there is no suggestion that my initials have anything to do with the center of the universe! It was my initials that led to the name.

[Subsequently, years later, I learned online that the word Meruvina is also Germanic for Famous Victory. I once visited an eccentric if brilliant dentist who insisted in puzzling fashion that my lineage was German rather than Russian, Hungarian, and Polish. Of course, the borders between Germany, Hungary and Poland have shifted throughout history.]

Since I compose directly for the meruvina, which may be thought of as an umbrella term or name, and program it to perform my compositions in real time, I am creating both the composition, and the performance. This makes me the composer and performer at once, and that is the reason for the word "coalesce" in the title.

None other than Shivkumar Sharma, India's legendary master of the santoor, explained to me during our two interviews how ragas originated thousands of years ago as a form of meditation and prayer; a method of looking inward through the miracle of sound. And this was not an entertainment for any audience. Rather, the music was sung, or played in solitary fashion, frequently outdoors, and in a forest.

As a composer of computer-performed music, I find strong connections between what Sharma described, and how I personally approach music.

My compositions begin with solitary meditation on the overall mood and thrust of my desired musical utterance. This process may take anywhere from a few hours to a few years, depending on how my body, spirit and intellect, not to mention external events, and influences beyond my control, react to a particular raga. In addition, I also consider how my feeling for the raga relates to the capabilities of the technology I use to realize my musical vision.

I have found that the extraordinary, relatively unexplored, and highly unique expressive, and technical capabilities of pure computer-performed music are wonderfully qualified to assist me in making the inward search for meaning within the realm of music composition and performance.

What follows are some pertinent insights I experienced during the composition of my two most recent compositions: Mian Ki Malhar and Dhani.

Since my beginnings in computer-performed music, I have been attracted to the "detached, ethereal, and abstract" expressive capabilities of the medium, writing about this aspect of my music soon after beginning to work with my pre-MIDI music system. Recently, I was stunned to realize that the expressive quality that attracts me is none other than the ancient Indian concept of anahata nada. Ahata nada describes the sounds we experience here on earth, including all the sounds produced by people, animals and nature. Anahata nada is the silent, pervasive vibration that yogis seek to gain union with in their meditations. Anahata nada is believed to be the metaphysical principle that all physical manifestations in the universe are made of. Using a computer as the performer, without any interference from live musicians, may be the closest we can get to expressing the state of anahata nada through music. Live musicians, whose range of nuanced expressive characteristics are very beautiful and effective in the proper context, are instruments of ahata nada, and that is why they are antithetical to my compositional vision. Persons interacting with computers, and electronic instruments and effects during a performance, definitely fall into the category of live musicians.

Those who know me are familiar with the way my thoughts jump rapidly from one subject to another, sometimes without any obvious connection. I am also fond of focusing in on one subject in minute detail. One thing I love about composition is the way I can give free range to my speed of thought, and sometimes the resulting music may seem closer to the movements of a rabbit, squirrel, or bird, as opposed to a person. This is one example of how computer-performed music taps into areas inaccessible to traditional performers.

For some inexplicable reason, it appears that the vast majority of my contemporaries in the field of computer-electronic music believe they must preserve the tradition of live performers within this new genre of music. I fundamentally, and respectfully disagree. I believe that it is the magnificent timbres of musical instruments from myriad cultures and countries that are most crucial to preserve, and make use of in previously unimagined ways. These acoustic timbres are accessed through the technique of recorded samples.

There are some exceptionally beautiful timbres, including some I use, that are created through purely synthetic means, but I find that the fantastically rich assortment of acoustic timbres remain unmatched in terms of pure beauty, and variety. Please let me know when science creates a food as delicious as a grape, an orange or a mango!

Some people simply cannot separate the sounds of acoustic timbres from the manner in which live performers play those instruments, and these individuals may have a difficult time enjoying my music. I urge them to leave past prejudices aside, and maintain an open mind. While some listeners take to my music immediately, two critics, after writing favorable reviews, were kind enough to inform me that they found my music so unusual and disorienting, it took multiple hearings before they began to understand, and enjoy it.

For example, in the jor and jhala of Dhani, clarinet and jublag function as a jugalbandi, alternating musical paragraphs. The effervescent quality of these instrumental performances is otherworldly, and this precise effect would not be possible for live performers on these instruments to achieve. This is one of the miracles of electronic music: The ability to take acoustic timbres, and have these distilled tone colors performed by the relatively unexplored expressive and technical capabilities of a computer and sound module; a practice anticipated by a wide range of musical pioneers, including Conlon Nancarrow, with the familiar timbres of the player piano, and Bulent Arel, using the abstract electronic sounds of the historic RCA synthesizer. Stravinsky was so excited about the RCA synthesizer that he actually suffered a heart attack! Some of the clarinet and jublag phrases used in Dhani's jor and jhala are reminiscent of the charming mockingbirds I hear during late evening walks. A periodic jegogan glissando provides a pleasing textural and linguistic contrast.

Speaking of the clarinet, I had an astonishing experience last year. I attended a concert of chamber music featuring musicians from one of the world's leading symphony orchestras. One of the pieces on the program featured the clarinet, and maybe it was a bad night for that musician, but the playing was both tense, and frequently out of tune. It was painful for me to listen to, and I discreetly the concert hall as soon as possible. What I found most amazing thinking about the clarinetist on the way to the car, was the realization that both the clarinet timbre, and clarinet performance I created for a recent composition, Puriya Dhanashri, was much more beautiful, and musical than the live clarinet player I had just heard. But there's more: Several other featured musicians from the same esteemed orchestra, including one who is first chair, while they all played in tune, performed at a general level of musicianship that would not be acceptable for my own compositions. The point I'm making is not to compliment myself, but rather to point out that music technology has reached a point where such things are now possible. I am not suggesting that we replace the live musicians used in Western classical music, of course. That would miss the point. This was, and will always be, music written for the unique abilities of live musicians, and there always will be a range of musical personalities, and abilities among these musicians.

It is obvious that I have been greatly influenced by the expressive techniques of live performers from jazz, Indian classical music, Western classical, rock, folk, and a wide range of world music traditions. All this is apparent in my music, yet it is a matter of degree, and it is evident that I am not attempting to copy these performance characteristics literally.

That said, there is sometimes a fine line between whether a computer or a live musician is the performer, and two eminent radio hosts were surprised to learn on-air, while interviewing me, that I do not make use of any live musicians!

In the final analysis, it is most important for any listener to enjoy music at whatever level of appreciation that may be. The method, medium or technique that is used to create the music is secondary.

How my music relates to rasa, the transcendental sentiments that the performing arts of India are based on, is a subject important enough for me to devote an entire essay to. Rasas are ideally projected, and perceived on a transcendental level, as opposed to a sentimental level.

In such as essay, I would describe with specific examples how my music reflects shringara, bhakti, adbhuta, veera, hasya, karuna, raudra, and shanta rasas.

Shivkumar Sharma explained to me what a great challenge it was to find ways to perform ragas using the unconventional santoor, and I feel much the same way about the meruvina.

Ever since my beginnings in computer-performed music, I have been mindful not to use the medium's super-human technical capabilities, in regard to speed of execution, for its own sake. But for the third and concluding part of Dhani, super-human speed was integral to my compositional vision, and I planned to let out all the stops.

The Korean jing, well outside its normal range, announces the opening of Dhani's third part, consisting of three gats, with a resplendent downward flourish, balancing the upward glissandos of the alap, jor and jhala.

The first gat presents the first family of skin percussion timbres from the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and India, with a tempo of 200 beats-per-minute. A trumpet timbre announces the second gat, joined by the second family of skin percussion timbres, all Indian, and the tempo increases to 240 beats-per-minute. For the concluding gat, the tempo is a scorching 352 beats-per-minute, including phrases moving at the rate of 2,816 beats-per-minute. This gat features kemanche and cimbalom alternate in the playing of each swara, together with a family of wood, shaker, ratchet, and metal percussion timbres from Japan, China, Korea, Latin America, and Indonesia. Tremolos played by both percussion and melodic timbres suggest the rain forest sounds of monkeys, frogs, birds and insects. The second half of the third gat features solo percussion, balancing the solo percussion that opened the first gat.

Throughout the three gats, a Brazilian berimbau articulates the various tempos with two strokes per matra, contrasting the abstract rhythms of the percussion, and melodic voices. The jing also appears at various intervals of the first two gats with an upward moving chant; a Buddha reflecting upon the tumult of earth. For the third gat, the jing is replaced by the more extroverted sound of an Indonesian bell. At the end of the third gat, the jing returns to close the composition by repeating its opening phrases.

The cumulative effect of Dhani's three gats is akin to looking towards the sun. It is not easy to focus on all the details for the duration of the music. I am unaware, though I suppose it must exist, of any music that maintains such extreme tempos for such extreme lengths of time. Perhaps what this music aspires to reflect is the centrifugal dispersive force known in the Hindu cosmological conception of the world as Shiva. Super-human instruments require super-human hearing capabilities, and all the details of this music are impossible to perceive. However, it was my intention to explore this remote region, and I am glad that I followed through on my original design.

Viewing Van Gogh's Dr. Rey, on loan to LACMA from Russia, I was struck by the almost unbearable intensity and beauty he expressed; something that was too powerful for him to live with.

I sometimes find the experience of listening to my own music to be overwhelming, and one way I keep centered is to think of the music as something removed from the physical world. The invisible, ethereal nature of how my music is produced, seemingly out of thin air, contributes greatly to this sensation. And, in all honestly, I find this music, which merely passes through me - I am not the source - to be almost too beautiful, and powerful to bear without feeling that I have left the earth; a sensation that is frightening, especially because I lack any spiritual training, or guru. It also confuses me why more people have not heard the music I am producing, and I feel a profound loneliness when it seems my work will never fit into various music establishments, and their accompanying conventions.

I recently learned that Sanskrit is the most natural language for computer programming, and that an Indian spiritual leader, Pujya Pramukh Swami Maharaj, believes that divinities exist in technology.

I was glad to come across the following statement by Nikhil Banerjee: "I do not compromise with anybody or anything else in the world. I want to really go beyond this materialistic world. A musician must lift up the souls of the listeners, and take them towards Space."

Similarly, when I interviewed Shivkumar Sharma for the second time, he stated that the way he keeps centered is by knowing that divinities are manifesting through himself: He is merely the instrument.

Sharma's performances are enhanced by the custom kurtas he wears, along with the rings, and gold chains materialized by his guru.

I accompany my live performances with abstract, improvised visuals, and my CD covers are made from carefully selected handmade papers from Japan, India, Nepal and Thailand.

Those familiar with my music know that I regard melody and rhythm as equals. Here is an important insight I experienced during the composition of Mian Ki Malhar: In traditional Hindu thought, the Absolute is formless, and this is why the fifth, transcendental head of a pancamukhalinga is implied in the center of the linga, in contrast to the four clearly sculpted heads showing Shiva's different aspects, facing cardinal directions. While learning about pancamukhalingas for the first time at the splendid Honolulu Academy of Art, I experienced a shock of recognition, for the description of the fifth head explains my personal preference for not using talas in my compositions. In my musical quest to express the Absolute, and give voice to the Unmanifest, I find the cyclic, repetitive nature of talas be overly emphatic. Driven by instinct and adventure, and guided by my sense of flow, balance and contrast, I have developed a more abstract approach to rhythmic form, analogous to the transcendental fifth head, related to Chidambaram, of a pancamukhalinga. The overall form, and content of a musical utterance, whether it is one of my compositions based on a raga, or a traditional raga improvisation, transcends the use of talas.

[My views on the subject of performance have evolved. I now welcome live musicians to perform any of my compositions using acoustic and/or electronic instruments. Even though my music is conceived for the meruvina, I now believe that live musicians may illuminate the compositions in different ways that coexist with the original realizations.]

In closing, I recall the words Pandit Jasraj, the legendary North Indian classical vocalist, related to me several years ago. He told me that the saint, Narada, once asked Vishnu where he lives. Vishnu replied that he does not live in heaven, or in temples, or in the hearts of yogis. Instead, Vishnu explained, "Wherever my devotees sing, I am there."

In other words, God, meaning whatever God, or faith, or spiritual yearning you experience, loves music, and I interpret that to mean myriad forms of music.

There are many different races, cultures, animals, fruits, bodies of water, and infinite other physical manifestations here on earth, and so it is consistent that there should also be unlimited musical forms, including new forms which arise from the creation of new musical instruments, and the intermingling of diverse cultures.

- Michael Robinson, March 2004, Los Angeles


© 2004 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).