Michael Robinson's Hamoa
Michael Robinson recently released his third CD, Hamoa. Robinson is one of those independent composers who works without any institutional support or any other visible outside support. He has been quite successful attracting the attention of the press and he certainly finds numerous opportunities to present public concerts.
Robinson prides himself with using technology with both sophistication and simplicity. All of his works are considered to be live performance pieces. His instrument consists of a computer and one synthesizer. In today's technology world, Robinson uses the most basic of systems.
Robinson's newest offering has moved in a significantly different direction from his previous CDs, Trembling Flowers and Fire Monkey. It seems that in the past couple of years Robinson has immersed himself in world music. He has seriously studied music from other cultures, especially that of India.
He has become especially interested in various tuning systems, non-Western timbres, and complex rhythms. All of that is reflected in the new CD. The world theme is even reflected in the colorful text-less cover that is a Japanese hand silk screen on rice paper.
The theme continues with the titles. Eight of the nine works are from 1996. The ninth piece, Welsh Witch, dates from 1986. There is a similarity of approaches in all the works.
Robinson's basic approach is to establish rhythmic ostinatos and drones, and then introduce microtonal melodic material performed on ethnic-like instruments. All the works share this technique in varying degrees, with different treatments of all three elements.
The first offering Water Stones, introduces a balafon melody over a tanpura drone combined with a background of Indian bells. The melodic material here, and in most of the works, is presented as if it were improvised. Maintaining the same timbres for much of the first half, Robinson utilizes subtle dynamic contrasts. Eventually, more traditional drummed wooden and skin timbres are introduced with through-composed rhythms.
Next comes the title piece, Hamoa. Here the rhythmic ostinatos are more intense, and the drones emanate from gongs. A piano, using a Japanese tuning, performs an improvised-like melodic line throughout. In the middle section, the gongs are replaced by altered tablas. For the last third of the piece, a slow moving pattern comprised of Australian instrumental timbres is used to accompany the piano.
Chinese Berries follows. It features a sitar accompanied by a wide range of string and wind instruments.
The first three works are all slightly over ten minutes. We are now offered a six minute piece called Giant Leaves. After a poly-rhythmic introduction, an exotic flute enters using a traditional American blues tuning. The flute is followed by an esraj, and finally a hichiriki.
Pink Jade, just under four minutes, presents variations on a rhythmic cycle of five beats performed by Japanese and South American percussion instruments. The melodic voice here is the biwa.
The piece contrasts nicely with the next work, Red Painting, named for the Ad Reinhardt painting that inspired the work. Just under ten minutes long, the Korean piri is featured using a Tibetan tuning, and accompanied by a digeridoo, and Near Eastern percussion.
The next five minute piece, Moonlit Palms, deviates from this three-layered texture. Robinson introduces this piece with Western trumpet, clarinet, flute and piano playing contrapuntal textures with yet a different Japanese tuning. This section is followed by a 17 1/2 beat rhythmic cycle supporting a percussive synthesizer timbre, followed by an African harp. The piece ends with a strictly percussive passage, one of the strongest moments of the whole CD.
In African Moon, Robinson introduces new instruments with some interesting results.
The last piece, Welsh Witch, is the only work from an earlier period. As mentioned earlier, this work was composed in 1986. I am fairly certain that Robinson created this work before he began his serious investigation of world music. Yet, many of the same qualities are still found here. The piece was originally composed for a mono-timbral pre-MIDI computer music system, and it has been redone using exotic percussion, and altered muted electric guitars. The texture is extremely contrapuntal after beginning with playful and church-like chords. Especially effective in this piece is the use of silences.
Robinson has given us a nice musical gift. There are some wonderful moments here combining world music traditions with high technology. Yet, Robinson always keeps his technology and his music accessible. This new direction for Robinson promises to lead him into even more interesting areas.
- Rodney Oakes, Journal SEAMUS (1996)