Writings about Music

Pointers Becoming An Appreciation

Reggie Johnson

Reggie Johnson gave composer Michael Robinson the gift of an idea that proved transformative.

 

What began as an essay about pointers for listening to my music unexpectedly became an appreciation for African American culture.

So grateful for those who get my music instantly. For some, what I do it is a developed taste, and I’m equally fortunate for those who are intrigued enough to allow enjoyment of my music to grow through repeated listenings.

Here are some pointers those hearing my music may find useful.

First off, the only instrument created by nature or god is the gatra vina, meaning human voice. Humans make all other instruments, including the meruvina. Some are apparently troubled by the concept of music performed by a computer without any human interaction while the music is playing, but one may argue this is the most challenging instrument of all, the premise of bringing to life music without traditional performers. This is my aesthetic preference as opposed to essentially treating computers the same way as earlier instruments rather than embracing, exploring and harnessing what I believe are their primary unique virtues and promise.

For form, my music is largely a continuum of Indian classical music and jazz traditions interpreted according to my personal predilections, something those with orientations from Western classical music may overlook. One of my core beliefs is how American jazz and Indian classical music superseded Western classical music intellectually, spiritually, technically and expressively, corresponding to the period between early Charlie Parker and late John Coltrane, and my musical path embraces such personal truths. Endowing a notated composition with improvisatory qualities jazz and Indian classical music are based upon appears to be an extremely rare occurrence, especially when such works are an hour or more in duration. An inspired composition containing such elusive attributes is more spontaneous and effectively more in the jazz tradition of evolving innovation than an extemporization parroting past styles avant-garde or traditional and using predetermined patterns similar to etudes.

Utterly one with form, my musical language and syntax embody a synergistic distillation of jazz, Indian classical music, Western classical music, rock and pop thought and feeling processes. As Helen Vendler pointed out: "Form is content as deployed. Content is form as imagined." Vendler was very kind to engage is a series of voluminous emails with me concerning both William Butler Yeats and my music.

"I hate reasonable people the activity of their brains sucks up all the blood out of their hearts. I was once afraid of turning out reasonable myself. The only buisness (Yeats spelling) of the head in the world is to bow a ceaseless obeisance to the heart." (William Butler Yeats)

ONCE, when midnight smote the air,
Eunuchs ran through Hell and met
On every crowded street to stare
Upon great Juan riding by:
Even like these to rail and sweat
Staring upon his sinewy thigh.

(William Butler Yeats)

My musical inspiration largely comes from African American culture, for which I am beyond grateful. And I suspect some may be disoriented by how deeply absorbed this transformative influence is if in my own original manner. For example, it was so astute and appreciated how a music industry insider who worked with top jazz and rock artists remarked upon my "deep bebop roots," part of the reason why Lee Konitz admired my music, even half-seriously telling me while saying goodbye at the airport on one occasion not to steal his licks as if I were a competitor, something I've never actually done, of course. Will not repeat here what a black friend once told me because her words amounting to an astonishing compliment might possibly be misconstrued. 

Two highlights of my life came giving programs for black and Latino children who danced joyfully ecstatic to my music, and on another occasion having an older black audience member approach me after a concert to say how deeply spiritual he found my music.

My late friend, Don Shirley, achieved his highest artistic level through miraculously performed piano transcriptions of Black Spirituals. We would discuss music for six hours at a time, never getting tired, both of us inflamed with the spirit of musical adventure both intellectual and spiritual. Don's rage at having been denied the opportunity to pursue classical music because of the color of his skin was like passing through a fearsome storm hearing his feelings articulated so passionately. 

Reggie Johnson, a leading jazz bassist of our time, is the person who clipped an article about computers and music for me in 1984, feeling this technological innovation might be a promising avenue for me to explore. I met Reggie when he was living with my girlfriend’s mother in Long Island City. He told a funny story about turning down a band being formed because he didn’t like their proposed name – Blood, Sweat and Tears. Reggie also turned down Miles Davis because he didn’t wish to tour so much.

For timbre, while I prefer using samples of acoustic instruments over more traditional computer and electronic music abstract sounds, finding the former infinitely more beautiful and relevant, I never imagined imitating the way traditional musicians use these timbres in their original form. Rather, I view the timbres I use as found objects from our sonic experience. Earlier incarnations of the meruvina have more basic timbres than later incarnations, with each possessing their own charm and appeal, including how the way they sound is interwoven with the compositions they voice. That being said, I did re-orchestrate compositions for the first meruvina for the second meruvina in order to illuminate with more timbral color and body those early works. It is a fallacy to suppose musical timbres are owned exclusively by any one group, and must be used in a certain way. In our time, music is mostly heard through various forms of recordings, whereby the issue of how a sound is produced is both obscured and ultimately irrelevant. And there is a distinction between using samples of acoustic timbres for original compositions, as I do, as opposed to recreating a composition by Bach or the instrumental score of a Broadway musical. Those who fail to appreciate such distinctions are being simplistic and even reactionary.

My expression is unique, too, the meruvina allowing for more abstract and transcendental explorations of our spiritual, emotional and intellectual states, freed from the performance gestures inherent in more traditional ways of making music.

Above all, there is no intent to replace traditional musicians. They have been and still are what inspires me. My music is an addition to tradition, allowing for a unique form of experience existing as a world unto itself while also enhancing the experience of past music.

My nature is all about the endless pursuit of perfection, and my form, language, syntax, timbres and expression are articulated with fanatical attention to detail. My hope is that the various incarnations of the meruvina will be part of some universities and cultural centers where students, scholars and music lovers may experience and learn from the compositions and techniques I've developed to realize my musical vision.

While reading a book about the cuisine of the American South, I came upon the following words from a traditional African American spiritual, perhaps even one Shirley played, that a black chef sang while cooking. These words summarize what I'm about musically, absolutely following spiritual and intellectual instinct towards self-realization.

I'm gonna do what the spirit say do,
I'm gonna do what the spirit say do,
If the spirit say dance,
I'll dance, oh Lordy,
I'm gonna do what the spirit say do

We are all black, in part, here in America, in terms of cultural influences, and fortunately so. Discrimination and violence towards blacks is abominable, intolerable, and self-destructive - a vile mentality that must end now. My late friend, Ray Manzarek of The Doors, was fond of pointing out how if it weren’t for African Americans we would all still be dancing the waltz on our tippy toes. Amen.

- Michael Robinson, June 2020, Los Angeles

© 2020 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

 

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