Writings about Music

Patelson's Crossroads

Joseph Patelson Music House was the largest seller of classical sheet music in the world.

Oftentimes for lunch, leaving Patelson's, I would go to Smiler’s on Seventh Avenue for small take-outs, saffron rice and steamed peas being the only selections specifically recalled. On inadvertent days, feeling a need for fortification, I would enter the Carnegie Deli, also on Seventh Avenue, around 4 PM for a pastrami sandwich, matzo ball soup, and apple strudel, savoring a feast surrounded by mostly empty tables, observed by approving waiters.

Breakfast was had at the Joseph Patelson Music House where one arrived at 9. After finishing in thirty minutes whatever early work had accumulated, I would first go to Ernest Klein on Sixth Avenue for two Whitney yogurts, usually peach and apple maple raisin, and two bialys or bagels dry. Then it was onto a coffee place where I initially purchased two large teas with milk and honey, eventually transitioning to two coffees. All this culinary booty was enjoyed back at work, really the highlight of the day.

I worked in the receiving department at Patelson’s, having turned down a job in the office because sitting at a desk all day seemed especially disheartening, whereas being downstairs in the main store area promised to be more engaging with new people entering from the street. Leonard Altman was a friend of Joseph Patelson, arranging an interview for me.

Will never forget how one day a frightening, unhinged, and loudly aggressive man entered the store, and we were all taken aback, not sure what to do. Before anyone could phone the police, Joseph came down the staircase to see what the commotion was, and without any visible hesitation metamorphosed from a aristocratic, restrained, and meticulously mannered shop owner into someone like Muhammad Ali, storming towards the much younger intruder with arms waving in a menacing manner while shouting for him to get out, leaving all of us with mouths open in astonishment at his instantaneous transformation. Mr. Patelson had scared the Alfred Garrievich Schnittke out of the fellow who turned and hurried out.

Joseph Patelson

Another group of two became most transformative, consisting of legendary pianists Earl Wild and Don Shirley, both introduced to me by the manager, Philip Mealey, himself an accomplished pianist who studied with Wild at Juilliard. And just now, searching online for the correct spelling, I learned Phil passed away last March 20 at 81. Hard to reconcile Phil with that age because he was so vibrantly youthful and tremendously bright.

Phil Mealey

Don and I would have epic conversations about music that went on for five or six hours surrounded by the dazzling assemblage of art objects he had collected from around the world. There were also two Steinway grand pianos in his Carnegie Hall apartment, and Shirley would periodically play Scriabin or Rachmaninoff to illustrate a point he was making.

Don Shirley

Hanging out and discussing music with Don Shirley was thrilling and invigorating, but it was Earl Wild who was to transform West 56th Street into a Street of Dreams.

Earl also invited me to his apartment where an elegant tea was served. I had brought with me the score for an early piano composition he requested. Some time passed after this, and then one day Earl burst into Patelson’s with no small fury. He was very upset that I was spending time not focusing on composition, and implored me to find a way to correct this situation like it was a matter of life and death. At the same time, having learned how I had begun visiting Maui, he advised against moving there while saying it was fine to visit for as long as I wanted.

Earl Wild

Wild’s admonition seemed entirely implausible, there being no apparent way for me to spend all my time composing. But then, rather miraculously, I was able to transfer from fulltime to part-time at Patelson’s, eventually leaving for the increased fluidity of temp work just a few days a week where Polo became my favorite place to go, including being introduced to Ralph Lauren himself. They even offered me a fulltime job, but I explained to both Buffy and Ralph how that would not be possible because it would compromise my composing. To this day, some are amazed that I turned down this opportunity to work in such a glamorous environ, but for someone beguiled by the call of music this was the only choice.

At the time I left Patelson's, I was deeply moved by how Joseph Patelson invited me to join him in his residence on the second floor of his stately building to ask about my future plans and to wish me well.

Now, all I can say is that I hope they make a movie about Earl Wild, too, like they did with Don Shirley. He was my medieval musical knight in shining armor for whom I owe everything, appearing briefly, momentously in my life on a street of dreams he insisted was real.

And Phil Mealey, he was a charismatic, cheerful angel who always looked out for me. He liked to call me Mick or Mikey. You are in my heart, Phil, along with Earl and Don.

It was also while working at Patelson's that Reggie Johnson clipped an article about computer music instruments that had become affordable, and one day I spent my entire lunch hour walking at breakneck speed to the other side of town and back - there was no decent subway there - so I could look in person at one of these products for a few minutes. Soon after, my initial Meruvina was purchased closer by at Alex Music, and adjoining parts of that instrument were actually mailed to me at Patelson's from Canada.

Joan LaBarbara

Around the time of Johnson's action, yet another combination of two came into play when Joan LaBarbara discovered me working at Palelson's. She had been wowed by an explosive electronic tape composition I made under the tutelage of Don Funes while visiting the Crane School of Music, Don arranging a private hearing of the piece for her. We met unexpectedly again when I was at CalArts about five years later. This time, at Patelson's, upon learning of my interest in computer music, she arranged a meeting for me with Charles Dodge at Brooklyn College where he taught me the principles of computer music. (Regretfully, that remarkable tape piece made with a Buchla, which everyone who heard it was dazzled and overwhelmed by, seems to have been lost.)

Charles Dodge

In addition to helping me gain my position at Patelson's, while I was working there Leonard Altman asked Steve Reich to become a mentor for my compositional aspirations. This proved to be extremely helpful, Steve advising me on centrally important practical matters involved with composition. Reich preferred to communicate through the mail, and we never actually met or even spoke on the phone. But that may have been for the best because it was the images of NYC on the postcards that Steve sent that somehow persuaded me to move into the city, that by itself becoming a transformative event. One day Steve was in the store purchasing a large stack of expensive books about orchestration. He noticed me, too, and am rather certain he knew who I was, but I rightly or wrongly chose to play it cool, and didn't take the opportunity to introduce myself, influenced by how he didn't appear very friendly or approachable.

Nelson Sullivan was a philosophically insightful, quietly charismatic, and even mysterious coworker at Patelson's; an impeccable Southern gentleman with a timeless, avant-garde aura like someone who was just passing by visiting these intriguing earthlings. He always dressed in elegant suits or jackets with tie sporting the most unusual color combinations noticeable and subdued at once. On one occasion I happened to have an original manuscript with me, and Nelson very much wished to see it, thereupon shaking his head with reverence at how beautiful he found the notation and overall layout. Though he was not someone who could actually read a score, Sullivan admired the aesthetic artistry of the appearance alone. Nelson always had kind, encouraging things to say, and invited me and my girlfriend to his enormous downtown apartment (townhouse?) for a party to watch his close friend, actress Sylvia Miles, make an uproarious appearance in the current top TV show, Miami Vice. When I moved into my Manhattan apartment, Sylvia, who believed the song Lay, Lady, Lay by Bob Dylan was written for her, gave me a housewarming present of a framed and autographed portrait reproduction. Nelson also introduced me to Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, and one night there was the unusual experience of walking down the street with both of them only Musto was dressed as a woman. Only years later did I learn Sullivan was a pioneering video artist who tragically passed away one day after retiring from Patelson's at the early age of 41.

Nelson Sullivan and Sylvia Miles

Speaking of Phil Mealey's mentioned favorite nickname for me, Mikey, among myriad cultural icons enjoying Patelson's, it was especially memorable standing adjacent to Al Pacino, dressed immaculately and formally like he was going to a very important event, while spending an hour or so perusing the opera recordings with great intensity. I did my best not to stare while inadvertently flashing back in my mind to scenes from The Godfather, this thankfully not being a restaurant. My childhood home on Long Island was a few towns over from where the reputed real life godfather of legend resided on a breezy promontory with panoramic oceanic views. My teacher and friend, Lee Konitz, had also lived nearby, as did Stan Getz. A new movie of Pacino's with starkly menacing posters in the subway was released around the time I saw him in the store titled Scarface.

Following a fascination for Indian classical music, and taking advantage of discounts offered to employees at Patelson's, I ordered a book about Ram Narayan having been utterly seduced by his original sarangi recording on the Nonesuch Explorer Series while an undergraduate. The author was a student of Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy who would later become instrumental in my musical life. One year prior to meeting Nazir, I composed Pink Moon, still a favorite piece, based on the Ram Narayan recording, and included on the Tendrils album.

Michael Robinson in Maui a few years after working at Patelson's. Pictures On the Wall was composed at the pictured condo. A few years later, back at Robinson's Manhattan apartment, Lee Konitz had a ball playing his soprano saxophone along with Pictures On the Wall, including attempting to emulate the composition's more convoluted phrases, these sharing characteristics of lines improvised by Lee and his teacher, Lennie Tristano. Lee also noted how the pulse and riffs used reminded him of Count Basie.

CDeMusic wrote about Pink Moon and Tendrils in a way suggesting some of what the artists I encountered at Patelson's believed I had in me:

"Listening to Pink Moon, the first composition on Tendrils, one is immediately struck by the unusual timbral juxtaposition of the piano sounds and the tanpura drone. Then, one notices that the unusual skipping melodic line fragments and at times repeated gestures seem to derive more from Western contemporary music, or from jazz. These are juxtaposed with various unusual Eastern scales and tunings. Somehow, it all fits in the musical tapestry that Michael Robinson weaves. At a certain point, the percussion instruments, from India and other lands, intensify, as the piano melodies grow less tonal, presenting, as a result, a wild, alive moment."

- Michael Robinson, August 2020, Los Angeles


© 2020 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


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