Writings about Music
Opposing the Absence of Alternatives
Michael Robinson at the age of five with his father, Eli Robinson, at Jones Beach
My occasional correspondence with Yale historian Tim Snyder began in 2011 when I found him online using Google search to answer questions I had about anti-Semitism in 1920’s Germany, eventually meeting briefly after a lecture he gave at a Beverly Hills synagogue years later. At one point, Tim was very kind to write, "Your continuing fruitful work amazes me!" He also afforded me priceless advise about how to approach lecturing pertaining to nuances of interaction with listeners prior to a presentation I gave at Bard College.
Interestingly, another Ivy League professor outside of music I found on Google search, this time for information about William Butler Yeats, Helen Vendler, an English professor at Harvard, wrote me, "Your intriguing set of instruments suggests that you are doing something quite new in American music." On another occasion she added, "Thank you for the notes and the music, with its shimmering version of the music of the spheres." Yet another Ivy Leaguer outside music, Kitty Pilgrim, a Columbia University graduate who became an award-winning CNN anchor and correspondent, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote after hearing my music, "You have been blessed with genius," an opinion articulated by a number of people both in and outside of music, (and to be clear, I'm not stating that description myself, only repeating what others have said).
One thing these highly sensitive and brilliant people share is freedom from the conventions and politics of music.
I might add how Leonard Altman, who attended Harvard with his friend, Leonard Bernstein, took the extraordinary actions of inviting me to study at Tanglewood, including asking Gunther Schuller to mentor me while there, and later asking Steve Reich to mentor me. Altman also trusted me to report back to him how the acoustics were effected by a renovation of Carnegie Hall.
My intent is not to overemphasis the importance of the Ivy League, I'm simply noting some coincidences. My best friend in high school graduated either third or sixth in our class, and after following family tradition serving in both the Navy and the Peace Corps, went on to Harvard, later becoming a leader in business. My closest childhood friend graduated from Cornell and became a leader in several different fields. Our high school band director did startle me on one occasion, telling me I was the most intelligent person in our graduating class. Of course, being overly creatively intelligent can get you in trouble. At several of the universities where I lectured, I felt compelled to correct as diplomatically as possible the professors who had invited me when pertinent musical issues arose spontaneously, and have not been invited back. Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy was extremely noble in this regard, agreeing with me that the wording regarding a key element of Indian classical music in his most famous book was misleading, but he was unable to have the book republished with the correction I had pointed out.
Listening to Tim Snyder’s lectures on YouTube is always incredibly educational and fascinating, and heard him just a few days ago highlighting a German word that resonated with myself which translates to mean “the absence of alternatives.”
While I feel extremely fortunate for all the attention given my music by others, and while I appreciate hearing from them, it has been disappointing to receive emails from Alex Ross and Amanda Petrusich at the New Yorker; Mark Swed at The Los Angeles Times; and Jon Pareles, Giovanni Russonello, and Corrina da Fonseca-Wollheim at the New York Times, without any follow-up to date in terms of writing a piece about my music. Perhaps one or more of them wishes to, but their editors rejected the idea. This actually happened to me once. Derk Richardson told me he was planning a piece for Yoga Journal, but his editor at the time said he disapproved of the way my music was entirely self-produced. One wonders if the editor forgot about the person who brought yoga to the Western world, Paramhansa Yogananda, who named his teaching centers the Self-Realization Fellowship! Conversely, Norman Lebrecht, residing in England, whose blog is the most visited Western classical music site online, featured my writings about music four times in 2020 even though his tastes are highly conservative, thus not focusing on my actual music. Actually focusing on my music, All About Jazz, one of the world's leading music publications, has presented four most generous and informative writings in the past eighteen months, demonstrating a keen interest in music defying traditional genre groupings. Another leading British cultural site featured me together with Meister Eckhart and Julian Schnabel during the summer of 2020.
The writers mentioned above who sent me emails profess to be interested in composers and improvisers of our time, yet they are saddled by a profound lack of alternatives, covering and extolling music that is entirely predictable and similar, and oftentimes underwhelming.
For instance, if you look at the composers Alex Ross lists at his blog for being notable in our time, there are only a few computer-electronic music composers included even though we are living in the age of the composer-programmer just as the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were the age of the composer-pianist. After writing the previous sentence from memory, I went to recheck, and it appears the entire list of composers has been deleted for some unknown reason likely unrelated to my writings.
Furthermore, Ross actually stated in his recent book about Richard Wagner, “Wagner is the most widely influential figure in the history of music." In our time, at the very least, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ravi Shankar, the Beatles and John Cage are all more influential, as are Bach, Beethoven and Stravinsky. Part of the problem is how Ross, like many in the realm of “Western classical music,” has scant knowledge and experience with the music of Parker, Coltrane, Shankar, and the Beatles, and with the traditions and schools these artists represent, they being only the most famous from their respective genres. I may be wrong about Alex's familiarity with the Beatles. I base my statement on how when asked to name his favorite Beatles song, he instead indicated he was much more interested in Bob Dylan, refusing to answer. While being as great a Dylan admirer as anyone, no knowledgeable person would equate the pure musical invention of the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
Ross also stated, "Wagner was vulnerable to exploitation by the Nazis,” but that is most disingenuous and glib given how Wagner was the person who first made anti-Semitism acceptable in German society, and how he advocated and wished for the very things the Nazis went on to do, including being by far the person who most influenced Adolf Hitler. Like many others, I enjoy Wagner's overtures, but have difficulty with the operas, this not being the setting to get into specific details as to why.
Writing about Wagnerian influence upon film music, Ross focuses on the Apocalypse Now helicopter scene dramatizing the horrors of war, more specifically in this instance, unfairly or fairly, the concept of war as hellacious sport, Wagner's music accompanying the firing of rockets, machine guns and rifles from above at a Vietnamese village filled with woman and children together with soldiers, while curiously overlooking how the music of The Doors actually sets the rasa for that memorable film, both opening the movie and reappearing at the climatic moments. Robby Krieger told me how the song used, The End, was largely inspired by an Indian raga, himself and John Densmore having studied with Harihar Rao, my first Indian classical music teacher. One surmises Ross lacks experience and understanding pertaining to the revolutionary and exalted music of The Doors, and how crucial they were towards helping bring awareness of Indian classical music to the Western world together with John Coltrane, George Harrison, and others.
Another thing I will confess to finding curious concerns the thought process behind the design of the new book about Wagner's cover, with militaristic tones of black and gold framing center font of pure white. Perhaps I am overreacting being a highly sensitive person who oftentimes notices details others may miss, but this is my honest response. I mean, were they even aware of the possible symbolism? When I think of the best of Wagner, the opening of the Tannhauser Overture comes to mind with green and brown hues symbolizing nature and German forests, or for the Tristan and Isolde Overture, sensual colorations are suggested, certainly not the frigid starkness of black, gold and white for his actual music.
While any music must speak for itself, and not be dependent upon prior experience and knowledge, it’s also true that a good deal of important music is an acquired taste, including some degree of understanding and experience with relevant genres and specific artists. In fact, Derk Richardson made of point of mentioning this phenomenon with my music, relating how it was so unusual the true import and meaning only become apparent through a number of exposures. Similarly, Jeremy Bye wrote, "A composition inspired by midnight on the island of Maui, and played on a variety of instruments I can neither pronounce nor spell, Michael Robinson‘s Nightmarchers is an album unlike any other I’ve heard whilst writing for A Closer Listen, and for a long time before that, probably since Moondog." I might add that I had never heard the music of Moondog, and that the unusual nature described by Bye (love writing "by Bye") is evident in all of my 146 albums to date. Related, Kyle Gann gave what I later learned is his highest compliment for a composer, writing about my second album, Fire Monkey, from 1994, "No telling where he's going to spin off to, but he's an original." Gann also included me in a list of notable composers of our time, and electronicmusic (dot) com included me in a list of notable artists of our time who use music technology. How amazingly prescient of Kyle to predict I might "spin off" somewhere, later that same year beginning my formal immersion into Indian classical music, an ongoing study that became vitally transformative.
And with the writers I have named above, I confess to fearing they are disapproving of the meruvina itself, believing acoustic instrumental timbres are only sanctified if they are played by traditional musicians. Some may be intimidated by my assimilation of Indian classical music influences, feeling this falls outside their area of expertise, but that would be a self-defeating attitude because they would learn about that great tradition, as I continue to learn, by interacting with my music and myself. Together with my unique assimilation of Indian classical music elements, my interviews with Indian masters related to my studies are highly valued by both musicians and scholars.
I am also a more traditional musician given my recent albums of piano improvisations, admittedly at an early stage of development, but for my compositions feel the meruvina concept represents a natural evolution of Western classical composition and performance.
When Lee Konitz passed away in April 2020, it was stunning how the New Yorker utterly ignored the loss of this historic figure being one of the key individuals who created modern jazz, and also Jewish American. This snub was even more egregious because he lived in Manhattan for around seventy of his ninety-two years, and it's difficult to think of anyone who better represented the cultural life of NYC than Lee who also spent part of the year at a second home in Cologne for a period. I would be very curious to hear editor David Remnick's explanation for this glaring omission. My best guess is he was compromised by a lack of jazz knowledge and sophistication in his music department.
The musical direction I took with composition began with sensing that the John Coltrane and Rashied Ali Interstellar Space album, originally released in 1974, represented a transitional moment in time. While many have taken to copying jazz styles of the past both avant-garde and traditional (something most Western classical music writers are oblivious to, lacking significant experience with jazz history), I entered into a new musical medium, subsequently named the meruvina. Astonishingly, much of my music for meruvina is more spontaneous sounding and original, and thus more about jazz given my deep jazz roots, than most current more traditional musicians generally classified as such.
More so, given how American jazz and Indian classical music superseded the Western classical music of the world I was born into, something affirmed by the music of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and Philip Glass, my music represents a unique assimilation of improvisation into composition. All four of these composers were deeply transformed by Indian classical music and jazz, of course, Steve specifically citing John Coltrane's modal period engendered by Ravi Shankar and Bismillah Khan.
Reich has also said he envisions people who enjoy Western classical, jazz, and world music having interest in his music, and I concur regarding myself, adding computer, electronic, rock and pop listeners, too.
In my late teens or early twenties, a professor asked us to write a definition of quality, this being in the context of music, of course. Preferring not to consult a dictionary, I composed: “Quality is epiphany illuminated by a jewel of the lotus.” My professor said he didn’t understand the meaning, so I explained how lotus represents the world; jewel represents an individual; and how epiphany represents noteworthy content.
When it comes to myself, at least, the writers mentioned above seem determined to maintain an absence of alternatives in music while denying originality in music simultaneously. I also suspect, again, they may feel recognizing music for meruvina is unacceptable because I have broken some kind of dubious arrangement the academic computer-electronic music world made with traditional musicians whereby traditional acoustic timbres are out of bounds because of a misplaced fear traditional musicians may have of being replaced. While such things certainly happen in some commercial music situations, it is completely irrelevant and even impossible when it comes to art music. And, as others have pointed out, the academic computer-electronic music world has a tendency to be as conformist as serialism was at an earlier time.
I suppose that by writing this I am opening myself up to criticism, ridicule, or even more determined marginalization from these writers and their colleagues and publications if they happen to take offense to my thoughts rather than as helpful suggestions. As an independent individual, I am obviously an easy target for criticism and marginalization. They might question the expression and form in my music, for example. But that would expose their clinging to the expressive qualities of traditional musicians, and their failure to understand the jazz and Indian classical music forms that largely inform my compositions. And in chess, for better or worse, they sometimes say the best defense is a good offense.
It’s no longer such a simple and segregated world where Western classical, jazz, Indian classical, and new technological instruments are separate.
The absence of alternatives in music or most any field is troubling, and it is essential for a range of genuine, valid approaches and views to be presented, even those that happen not to be one's personal favorite and comfort zone.
Believe it or not, the main reason for writing this is how I wish young people of all ethnicities and social classes to be exposed to alternatives in music, especially those who are frustrated by the prevailing absence of alternatives in their lives, being denied essential information.
- Michael Robinson, April 2021, Los Angeles
© 2021 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).