Michael Robinson and His Computer Music: A Unique American
An article in Chinese from 1991 now translated into English for the first time
Eastern US Times
December 14, 1991
Reporter: Cheng Hui (filmmaker Joanne Cheng)
Translation by Shawn Li on October 6, 2020
The first time I met Michael Robinson was in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City. It was near the closure time, as I was observing crowds slowly dispersing down the staircase, I turned my head and unexpectedly saw a gentleman sitting quietly on the upper stairs with a light smile looking down. This momentary serene scene brought joy to my heart, and instinct told me this must a unique American.
His name is Michael Robinson, a computer musician. From an initial curiosity about the novel concept of computer music to actually witnessing Michael keying down notes on a computer screen, I felt being brought into a whole new world.
There are myriad contemporary American music styles, from country, jazz, rock and pop to new-music. From a content perspective, they tend to delve on story narratives and dramatic presentations, just like how realist painters often focus on depicting real life scenarios. Michael Robinson’s music pursues an artistic stage of purity. There are two aspects to this uncompromising “purity." First, it means a complete disregard of commercialization. As Michael put it, “If asked to compose music that isn't genuine, I literally feel nauseous. This occurred in graduate school when they insisted upon teaching me serial music before I bolted.” Secondly, it refers to the transcendent nature of Michael’s works. His creations are future-oriented. Just like the famous contemporary master, Ad Reinhardt, using colors and shapes to create “eternal purity,” Michael uses notes and instruments to convey his musical understanding and aspirations.
His love of nature allows him to often draw inspirations from rivers, clouds, trees, the sky and chirping birds. His curiosity and exploration of human nature, his contemplation of religion and philosophy, all provide his compositions with a transcendent nature, sometimes even bordering the whimsical. Just as Michael described, “I’m looking at another world, where space and time are eternal. Here, the vast multiplicity of musical forms continuously evolve into the simplest, most primal and purest stage.” Michael’s music not only brings us dreams and poems, but also meditation and enlightenment.
Computers have been widely used in the modern world beginning in the second half of the 20th century, including their application in music starting in the academic world during the fifties. Computer musicians often only utilize computers and electronic instruments including synthesizers. Some musicians would also include more traditional musical instruments such as violins, pianos and guitars.
Michael Robinson started his research and exploration of computer music in 1983 after completing a four-year degree in music composition. Since then, he has composed a total of 144 works to date. Ten of these pieces have been included in an album named Trembling Flowers published by Azure Miles Records, his own company. The album is currently on sale at Tower Records.
I am very pleased to finally have this most insightful article made available. My experience has been that people from China and Japan often have an especially deep understanding of my music. Pertinent how the writer focuses on qualities shared with Indian classical music even though I only began formal studies three years later in 1994 with Harihar Rao.
Trembling Flowers, mentioned in the article, was my first album. Coincidently with the number of compositions at the time of this article, there are now 144 albums to date, with nearly 500 compositions.
Special thanks to Cheng Hui (filmmaker Joanne Cheng) and Shawn Li, a translator and CMA who graduated from the University of British Columbia, referred by Xiaoxin Sun, a lecturer at the UCLA Department of Asian Languages & Cultures.
Eastern US Times was a Chinese/Taiwanese community newspaper headquarted in Flushing (Queens), New York, no longer in existence.
- Michael Robinson, Los Angeles, October 2020