Nectar-Spells by Michael Robinson - textura review

Michael Robinson: Nectar-Spells 
Azure Miles Records

Nectar-Spells excepted, ten releases by California-based composer Michael Robinson have been reviewed at textura, though that represents but a fraction of his total output. Listening through those ten releases, certain things register as identifying features of a Robinson composition: transcending straightforward genre classification, the typical piece integrates Western and Indian influences, is generated using his Meruvina, and undergirds its intricate melodic tapestry with a churning base of drums, tablas, and other percussive instruments. An introductory flourish of some kind is often followed by an abrupt segue into an extended series of thematic statements and solos before a reprise of the opening declaration brings the piece to a satisfying close.

Yet while all of the productions have certain things in common, what's equally significant is that Robinson consistently finds a way to individuate each one from the next; stated otherwise, his music retains the capacity to surprise, decades on from when it first appeared. That's definitely the case with Nectar-Spells, which presents three productions that contrast in key ways yet share specific properties, too. As the composer himself points out, each is framed by opening and closing declarations and in each case an unusual instrument is used as the framing voice: conch shell in Roaming Spirits, zither in Ocean of Honey, and an Indian ‘violin' (esraj) for the title work. Robinson's sound design is always a major part of his music's appeal, and the new recording is no exception: a Baroque-period clavichord appears in all three pieces, whereas four different keyboard timbres, harpsichord, piano, Wurlitzer electric piano, and clavichord, surface in the closing Nectar-Spells.

If there's a major selling-point to the release, it's the left turns that distinguish it from others in Robinson's ever-swelling discography. Of the three pieces, the middle one, Ocean of Honey, is perhaps the most quintessential Robinson production, though the opening Roaming Spirits isn't far behind. It's the long-form title work that's the most special for the way it methodically advances through six stages, its build in dynamics and volume mirrored by gradual increases in tempo. In like manner, the recording's three works themselves grow in duration, from the first's eleven minutes and second's fifteen to the closer's thirty.

After conch shell blowing ushers Roaming Spirits into being, a signature Robinson pulse settles in quickly, the clavichord liberally spreading itself across the tablas-and-drum base as a tamboura drones faintly in the background. Quickly enough, however, the album's first surprise arises, specifically on ongoing alternation between the dominant hip-hop-inflected rhythm and a stripped-down funk groove that briefly arrests the momentum before the main rhythm reestablishes itself. The middle track, Ocean of Honey, carries with it a surprise or two also, the primary one the mid-track shift from the opening half's medium tempo to a double-time 194 BPM. As with the opening piece, an intro, in this case four zither declarations, announces the onset of the main section, this one rooted in a funky eleven-beats cycle and the clavichord accompanied by an expanded percussion section and tamboura drone. That acceleration in tempo, which occurs two-thirds of the way along, is so fast it lends the material a dizzying quality (especially when the clavichord works itself into a swirl) that's almost rather cartoonish.

As mentioned, of the three it's the title work that impresses most. Structured using all six parts of traditional raga form (Alap, Jor, Jhala, and three Gats), the setting speaks most highly on behalf of Robinson's artistry and the control he administers over presentation. After shimmering flourishes introduce the piece, a subdued first stage (Alap) begins featuring a lone clarinet musing relaxedly over a soft five-note motif; five minutes in, trumpet takes over from the clarinet as the clanging of an Indonesian bonang infuses the material with energy, the presentation growing more insistent with the arrival of this second stage (Jor); after five more minutes, the tempo doubles for the Jhala and the trumpet cedes the stage to sparkling harpsichord flourishes, the bonang responding to its expressions with loud punctuations. Precisely halfway through, the first of the three Gats appears, the tempo now cued to medium-fast and piano backed by a thirteen-beat drum pulse, tablas, and tamboura drone. The second and third follow at the twenty- and twenty-five-minute marks, clavichord paired with a fifteen-beat cycle for the former and Wurlitzer electric piano wedded to a seventeen-beat cycle for the hyper-charged latter. Consistent with the design established by the other album pieces, Nectar-Spells ends when those originating shimmering strums reappear to close the circle.

In a side-note, Robinson clarifies that the Roaming Spirits title derives from a love poem, but that it also alludes to his creative sensibility, which is always hungry for new ideas and receptive to inspiration in whatever form it takes. To which we say: long may this insatiably curious music-maker roam.

October 2018

textura is a Canadian music publication