Writings About Music

Composing with Raga Form and Technology

The Idea, Number 6, 2002 (New Delhi)







In 1995, I began using Indian ragas as a basis for composition. I program a computer and sound module to perform my fully notated scores in real time, voicing each work with sound samples of acoustic instruments from India, Africa, the Near East, the Far East, Indonesia, Latin America, and Europe. I use Indian tunings, with some exceptions.

Raga is the musical form of Indian classical music used as a basis for improvisation and composition. It has developed over thousands of years, and is still a vital and evolving form of creative musical expression.

Ragas are timeless, individual melodic jewels possessing spiritual resonance, and unlimited developmental potential. The raga form originated in chants for myriad deities, and manifestations of the five elements: Water, fire, earth, air and ether. Ragas embody the organic laws that create interaction between the elements. They offer a vision of immortality, and union with the perfection of nature.

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. This is the language that computers and electronic instruments use to communicate, sending and receiving musical data. MIDI has been used in a wide range of applications throughout the music world since the early 1980's, by school children, pop performers, film score composers, and avant-garde composers.

I have gradually found the raga form to be a perfect, limitless system for the musical distillation of spiritual, and intellectual energies. Ragas lend themselves to new manifestations in terms of both content and instrumentation, and that is why I can create music where composition and improvisation are one, using computers and sound samples. Ragas are based on universal laws that are available to anyone who can absorb those laws, and then develop a new way of arranging them. In other words, ragas are not only for Indians, just as chess and yoga have transcended their Indian origins. After six years of working with this miraculous musical form, I have discovered that each raga becomes a different reflection of oneself, revealing whatever you have inside through the simultaneous prisms of rasa, swara, and tal.

Over the years, a number of people have found it incredible that my music is entirely notated, but I have the scores to prove it, and plan to make them available.

One of the goals of my composing is for the music to take on a life of it's own.

As a composer who also creates the performance of each composition, I am attracted to the unique expressive and technical capabilities of pure computer-performed music.

As explained in the liner notes to Dhani, and in other writings, the expressive and technical qualities of my music would not be possible to achieve by live musicians.

It simply is impossible for anylive musician or musicians to perform my music, and vice-versa. Thus, the performances of my music are unique, and are not “emulations” of live musicians, though master performers of Indian classical music, jazz and many other traditions, not to mention my own personal past experience playing the piano and saxophone, have definitely influenced me. For example, in the second gat of Dhani, my use of a European trumpet timbre, using Indian tunings, reflects my love for the improvisations of Dizzy Gillespie and Lee Morgan, even though either of them would never have been able to perform this music in terms of expression, technique and tuning, and vice-versa, of course.

I recognize that some people have difficulty disassociating acoustic timbres from live performers, but for me that is the essence of using technology to create music; a concept anticipated by Conlon Nancarrow with his player piano.

I believe it is the best of both worlds to compose music voiced with samples of acoustic timbres, and performed in real time by a computer and sound module without any human interference. This is the medium I feel reflects the metamorphosis of classical music in our time.

All of my compositions sound somewhat different during each hearing due to the varying internal and external elements present at the moment of listening. During live performances, which includes the recording of my CDs, the spatialization of sounds are programmed to manifest differently every time a composition is played, within defined parameters.

In 1991, Keyboard compared my music to the painting of Kandinsky, whose work is more geometric and angular compared to the painting of Rembrandt. Both artists reflected the world they lived in with different techniques, and expressed qualities such as lyricism and poetry in their own distinctive manner. Keyboard also compared my music to Chinese brush painting in the same article.

To use another analogy, people from the East Coast frequently say that the weather is the same all year round in Los Angeles. However, once you have live in LA for a while, you realize that there are indeed four distinct seasons. The differences between seasons here are more subtle, and they have their own beautiful drama that manifests in myriad ways, a favorite of mine being the different flowers and trees that blossom in summer, fall, winter and spring.

Once the listener lets go of their expectations for the expressive characteristics of live musicians, they will discover my compositions have their own range of seasons, and the focus will be on the music itself, rather than how different the techniques are from more traditional musical forms.

It is common for people to ask what led to my use of the raga form, something they perceive as foreign and mysterious. The answer is simple: American teenagers of the sixties and seventies grew up listening to Indian classical music without knowing it! Modal jazz, spearheaded by John Coltrane, had a reach even more pervasive than the earlier jazz spearheaded by Charlie Parker. Not only the jazz of the time, but progressive rock, and minimalism, were all spawned by Coltrane's pervasive influence. What was the driving force behind Coltrane? North Indian classical music. More specifically, the shahnai artist, Bismillah Khan, and the sitarist, Ravi Shankar. What Coltrane did was create a synthesis forged by Hindustani music, and his jazz-blues-gospel background, together with African music influences. Coltrane's music transcended jazz, and was a major influence on groups like the Byrds, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, the Allman Brothers Band, and the Grateful Dead. I love all these groups. Coltrane also inseminated many composers, including Reich, Glass and Riley. In summation, an entire generation grew up listening to addictive offspring's of Indian classical music without even knowing it! That is why it is completely natural for me to uncover the true source of my native music, and to study directly from the source.

In addition to Indian classical music, my compositions are influenced by jazz, rock, western classical, and the traditional music of other cultures. One of the reasons my music sounds different from the norm is due to the absence of the expressive gestures, and characteristics of live musicians. Instead, I seek to take advantage of the musical capabilities found within the realm of computers, software, sound samples, and synthesizers.

In recent years, I was astonished to recognize some similarities between my computer-performed music, and the playing of the legendary jazz pianist, Lenny Tristano. Tristano is one of the most enigmatic figures in jazz history. In terms of originality and technique, he was equal to anyone, yet it is difficult to get a true sense of his accomplishments due to the limited number of recordings he left us. There is a smooth, driven and detached computer-like quality to his phrasing and articulation that has some connections to my own music.

Like other jazz artists of his era, Tristano's improvisations are based upon jazz standards; popular Broadway songs composed primarily between 1930 and 1960. The great songs of this era feature tonal modulations, and complex harmonic structures. Ragas focus on pure melody and rhythm, without any use of tonal modulations, or vertical harmonies.

I would like to take this opportunity to point out what I feel are the pertinent differences between Indian classical music, and Western classical music and jazz.

One crucial, fundamental difference that cannot be overlooked, or downplayed concerns tuning. The tunings used in Indian classical music are based on the physical laws of nature, while Western classical music and jazz use the artificial tuning system known as well-tempered, or equal temperament tuning. This holds true despite the use of blue and bentnotes in jazz.

Equal temperament tuning has produced amazingly beautiful and profound music, but it cannot, by definition, express the transcendental state found in the finest music that uses natural tunings.

Another central distinction concerns expressive focus: Indian classical music is based upon transcendental, divine sentiments known as rasa, while Western classical music and jazz explore transitory human emotions. This is an observation, and not a value judgment.

Here is how Rabindranath Tagore described the difference between Indian and Western classical music: "For us, music has above all a transcendental significance. It disengages the spiritual from the happenings of life; it sings of the relationships of the human soul with the soul of things beyond. The world by day is like European music; a flowing concourse of vast harmony, composed of concord and discord and many disconnected fragments. And the night world is our Indian music; one pure, deep and tender raga. They both stir us, yet the two are contradictory in spirit. But that cannot be helped. At the very root nature is divided into two, day and night, unity and variety, finite and infinite. We men of India live in the realm of night; we are overpowered by the sense of One and Infinite. Our music draws the listener away beyond the limits of everyday human joys and sorrows, and takes us to that lonely region of renunciation which lies at the root of the universe, while European music leads us a variegated dance through the endless rise and fall of human grief and joy."

While it is obvious that I compose my music, it is also important to recognize that I am the performer, due to the fact that I create the performances of my compositions.

My creative process begins with the conceptualization of a composition, frequently inspired by a live performance, or recording of a raga by an Indian master. This conceptualization may take anywhere from minutes to years. Once I am ready to proceed with my new composition, I feel like the music has already been internalized, though the specific details need to be rendered. Now the second phase begins, and I set about composing a complete, fully notated score using a personalized form of Western musical notation. I compose using a mechanical pencil, music paper, and metronome, without the aid of any musical instrument. There is a remarkable connection between this approach to the raga form, and the approach taken by Indian musicians of ancient times. Prior to its becoming court music, and an esoteric entertainment for intimate audiences, a single musician, without any audience, would render ragas as prayers to God. These musical offerings were frequently held outdoors.

I regard my scores as composed improvisations, and I never go back and change a single note of a score, which may include up to seventy-five thousand notes or more. I use pencil as a matter of convenience because a slip of the hand can be easily corrected.

When the score is completed, I enter the third phase, translating the musical score note-by-note into a numerically based software program. All of the musical elements, including pitch, rhythm, timbre, tuning, dynamics, articulation, tempo, and spatial placement, are programmed in this third phase of the creative process. Now I have reached the fourth, and final phase, where the computer is primed to trigger a multi-timbral sound module, a system that operates with the same basic principles as a player-piano. In this conceptual regard, there is a connection with Conlon Nancarrow's compositions, a composer I have been compared to.

The vast majorities of my contemporaries who work in the field of computer-electronic music interact with their music, and collaborate with live musicians, which includes the use of free improvisation. This approach is very similar to the free improvisation period that was the center of my musical life when I was a saxophonist. In retrospect, I now view my improvisational musical experiences as a preparation for my current approach to composition. First came the realization that my musical strength was composition, rather than improvisation. The second revelation was discovering how computer-performed music was the most natural and relevant way for me to realize my music. In so doing, I was drawn to voicing my music with samples of acoustic timbres, as opposed to abstract electronic sounds. For me, this was the best of both worlds!

“Just because an artist uses "abstract" methods, it does not mean that he is an "abstract" artist. It doesn’t even mean that he is an artist. Just as there are enough dead triangles (be they white or green), there are just as many dead roosters, dead horses or dead guitars. One can just as easily be a "realist academic" as an "abstract academic." A form without content is not a hand, just an empty glove full of air.” - Wassily Kandinsky

Music we love teaches us on an intellectual, emotional or spiritual level, or any combination of the three, and as we mature and develop, some musical forms we admired in the past may be discarded, while other music continues to nourish us.

The expressive nature of my music, including the use of terraced dynamics, is distinct from the expressive gestures produced by live musicians in general, and Indian classical musicians in particular. Some have argued that it is the bends and slides, and other melismas that form the core of ragas. I disagree, believing that it is the overall continuity, intellectual and spiritual substance, and cohesion of a performance that are the prevailing factors. Shivkumar Sharma proved this point when he perfected the Indian santoor, a stringed instrument played with wooden mallets that cannot bend, or slide in-between notes. In contrast to Sharma, there are many Indian vocalists, and other more traditional instrumentalists, who can bend and slide notes extremely well, yet they lack the ability to develop their improvisations, and one grows bored with their music very quickly.

One may argue that digital instruments are not as beautiful sounding as acoustic instruments, and the human voice, and in some instances, that is a valid point. However, there have been many occasions where I attended performances, or heard recordings by vocalists and instrumentalists with exceptionally beautiful voices and sounds, who similar to the example in the previous paragraph, were not skilled in developing their improvisations, and any sensitive listener wanted to bolt for the exit, or eject the CD as soon as possible.

Musicality itself is not so rare, but the ability to organize musical utterances to create a compelling listening experience, both intellectual and spiritual, is out of the ordinary.

Computers, software, sound modules, and MIDI, are among the new musical instruments of our time, and they have highly relevant expressive and technical capabilities that are inaccessible to traditional instrumentalists. My music has its own unique expressive gestures, and techniques within this new musical realm, which are woven into the fabric of each composition to enhance its individual nature. Even though my work is different from traditional Indian classical music, some believe my compositions fall within the realm of that genre. Others place me within the sphere of contemporary Western classical music, and there are those who feel my music represents the present-day evolution of jazz. Personally, if pressed, the best I can come up with is world classical.

Some may feel that my use of computers to perform music produces cold and mechanical results. I believe these listeners are only hearing the surface of the music, and finding it different from the type of "human warmth" they expect from live musicians, immediately reject it, and fail to hear what is going on beneath the surface, in addition to misunderstanding the surface. This is unfortunate because many worthwhile things in life are developed tastes. I am grateful that two music critics took the time to inform me, after writing favorable reviews, that they found my music so unusual, and disorienting, it took repeated listening before they were acclimated, and were able to enjoy and appreciate the CDs. If the previously mentioned listeners were motivated to take this approach, they might develop a taste for my work, including an understanding of why traditional performers are not appropriate.

I believe that the overall expressive nature of my music is "detached, ethereal, and abstract." I find these expressive qualities to be what is real for me at this moment in time, and the expressive characteristics and gestures of live musicians are simply not relevant for the compositional musical vision I have developed.

My micro-musical form is based upon moment-to-moment, and if you turn your attention away, and lose the thread, you will not experience the true import of the composition. In regard to micro-musical form, my music is closer to jazz than to Indian classical music, the later having a surprising resemblance to Western classical music in its micro-development. It may be said that I have combined the larger, macro structure of the raga form with the inner, micro processes of jazz.

Perhaps it is pure fantasy, but I hope that the way I have brought together musical influences from South Asia, the Middle East, and the West anticipates a world where people in these regions, and elsewhere, coexist peacefully with an elevated living standard for all, care for the precious balance, and cleanliness of nature, and a focus on creative, beneficial pursuits.

When listening to my music, I suggest a quiet atmosphere where you will not be interrupted. My compositions are a form of classical music, and the more attentively one listens, the more you will be rewarded. For some, listening to a full-length raga will be a developed taste. There are spiritual and intellectual components of this music, and it may be best to listen in a reclining position with eyes closed, or in a yoga meditation position. Listening on a diskman while walking through a pleasant environment is another excellent setting.

[My views on the subject of performance have evolved. I now welcome live musicians to perform any of my compositions using acoustic and/or electronic instruments. Even though my music is conceived for the meruvina, I now believe that live musicians may illuminate the compositions in different ways that coexist with the original realizations. - Michael Robinson, 2013, Los Angeles]

The packaging of my CDs, fifty-two to date, is rather unique. Azure Miles CDs are special edition audiophile quality recordings that are superior to factory pressings. My expertise in the field of digital audio has been recognized by the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology, which hired me to transfer rare and fragile field recordings onto CD.

Searching for an alternative to the plastic packaging of CDs, I decided to use hand silkscreen and hand woodblock printed papers from Japan, India, Nepal and Thailand for CD covers. These papers are carefully chosen to reflect and enhance the unique musical content of each recording.

Azure Miles CDs are played on NPR, Pacifica, college and community stations alongside Indian classical, world music, Western classical, and jazz recordings, and are included in the collections of music libraries from Princeton University to The University of Hong Kong.

CDs are available directly from azuremilesrecords.com

Priceless Musical Gems details the software and hardware collectively named Meruvina to create performances of my compositions. I began using the name Meruvina in 2004. View the original publication of this essay from The Idea (India).

© 2002-2005 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist and musicologist. His 198 albums include 151 albums for meruvina and 47 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.