Writings about Music

Michael Robinson, John Cage and Digital Music

Letter from Peter Jablonski, Transfigured Night host, WKCR FM, Columbia University, to Michael Robinsonm regarding his first album, Trembling Flowers.

"I finally got to listen to your recording. It sounds great. I seem to enjoy it more with each listening - noticing things I missed before. Here are some thoughts on the music, in no particular order."

"I think there is a big difference between your music, which can have a powerful subjective effect on the listener (i.e., can arouse strong emotions), and John Cage's music, which seems truly detached and therefore without much visceral effect, evidently by his design. (I mention Cage because you seem to share some of his attitudes about the role of ego in art). Some of your pieces have a paradoxical effect on me: on one hand, the music conveys a certain “benign indifference” which I can only liken to the concept of enlightenment as understood by Zen Buddhists. I feel neutrality but not despair. On the other hand, the same piece that creates this sort of transcendental mood also evokes strong emotions. Philosophically speaking, these two reactions are incompatible. Objectivity, transcending the ego, cannot be reconciled with a subjective experience like emotion. Maybe as I listen I oscillate between the two states, and if I concentrated on one in the manner of meditation, I could sustain it."

"I wonder if the “objective” quality I feel in the music would disappear if played by performers with acoustic instruments. Is the medium a large part of the music's "message"?"

"It's amazing how much the quality of a single tone - the timbre, texture, clarity, “color” - can convey, and how manipulating these properties produces different effects on the mind of the listener, not even considering the larger musical whole. With this in mind, is it possible electronic and digital technology can produce sounds never before heard? (cf. LaMonte Young) The answer seems to be yes, but even more interesting is the corollary to this question: do these new sounds have effects on the brain completely unknown before their discovery? I'm really asking how would the body and mind react to a stimulus they had never experienced before? Or is this new musical “stimulus” (i.e., the new electronic sounds) perceived by the listener as essentially the same and therefore not “new”. In other words, just as the untrained ear cannot discriminate between a 440 A and an A that is slightly off pitch, is the same true of the normal brain, which perceives a new electronic sound as basically the same as a naturally-occurring sound in the same frequency? I'm interested in any thoughts you have on the subject, as I'm sure you've pondered similar ideas about music."

Above is the full text of a typed letter by Peter Jablonksi mailed to me in late 1991 or early 1992. The recording referred to is Trembling Flowers, my first CD.

While going through some old correspondence, I came across this letter, and felt compelled to share it here because this is music writing of the highest order, displaying imagination, insight, originality, and precision rarely found in the field.

Jablonksi and myself met in Manhattan in the late eighties when he was a host of WKCR FM's Transfigured Night program. I sent him a cassette tape of my music, and he invited me to perform my music live on-air. The program aired from 1 AM to 5 AM, and this allowed for an expansive presentation of both music and conversation, including some compositions that were up to an hour long. Peter was to have me on his show for the full four-hours a total of three times.

Peter graduated from Columbia University with a degree in English. He went on to teach at innovative public schools in Venice and Los Angeles, California, in addition to becoming a championship winning body builder. He had become disillusioned with the New Music world, and did not pursue radio hosting or writing about music. This stunned me because he was one of the most brilliant, principled, and inspirational persons I ever encountered in music or elsewhere, but he clearly preferred pursuing other avenues.

At the time of our radio shows together, I was using my pre-MIDI digital music system, and it was exciting to bring my equipment into the studio, and have the music performed live. (Historically speaking, WKCR at Columbia University was the very first radio station to broadcast on FM radio.) This recording is of our first show. To date, I've been unable to locate recordings of the other two programs we did together.

I was also a guest on WKCR's Afternoon New MusicLive Constructions, New Music Smorgasbord, and Transfigured Night with two other hosts. These appearances included using my first MIDI system live, and, more recently, my recordings. 

WNYC FM and WBAI FM were other NYC stations I was a guest on.

Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of the letter I sent responding to Jablonski's letter reproduced above.

- Michael Robinson, May 2010, Los Angeles 


© 2010 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


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