by Michael Robinson
originally published by electronicmusic.com in 1997
Review of Chinese Legend
A Collection of Concise Discographies of Selected Artists
Michael Robinson voices and colors his compositions with instrumental timbres, and scale tunings from diverse world music cultures, including India, Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia, the Far East, South America, and Europe. He composes using traditional Western notation, and programs a computer and sound module to perform his music in real time without any overdubbing.
The composer's six most recent recordings, Chinese Legend (1997), Indian Jasmine (1997), Adorned With Pearl (1996), Rainbow Thunder (1996), Tendrils (1996), and Hamoa (1995), reflect the profound influence of North Indian classical music. There are nine additional recordings on Azure Miles containing music composed between 1985 and 1994. Azure Miles Records CDs are archival quality direct-to-disk recordings autographed by the composer, and packaged with hand silkscreened rice paper from Japan.
In contrast to the vast majority of composers utilizing computer instruments, Robinson does not collaborate with live musicians, or interact with his computer music system for performances and recordings. He prefers what he describes as the "transcendental expressive quality of pure computer-performed music." It is a coincidence that this approach shares some similarities with the music of Conlon Nancarrow, a composer Robinson has been compared to by Tim Page of WNYC-FM and The New York Times, and Kyle Gann of the Village Voice. Robinson had not yet heard the music of Nancarrow at the time those works compared to Nancarrow were composed.
In his liner notes to Fire Monkey (1994), Robinson wrote, "Computers are perfect instruments for the musical distillation of intellectual, sensual and spiritual energies, capable of articulating the nuances of one's soul. There is a greater emphasis on "what" rather than "who."
Robinson's music is notable for its tremendous energy, brilliant colors, strong contrasts, and a unique sense of timing, phrasing, form and flow.
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My earliest musical memories consist of my mother playing classical music, and Rodgers and Hart songs on the piano. She has a beautiful, expressive tone, and style, and had reached the point where she was playing Beethoven concertos, before shifting her attention to her three children. The other memory is of my father playing classical recordings, and classical music radio programs. His favorite composer is Brahms, and he used to attend Toscanini's NBC Orchestra concerts every week.
I was born in Manhattan, shortly before a historic snow storm, and spent my first few years in Brooklyn, after which my family moved to North Merrick, and than Wantagh, both on the South Shore of Nassau County, Long Island.
My life in music began with Ben DiDia, the beloved Camp Avenue Elementary School band teacher in North Merrick. It was either second or third grade, and he came into our class one day to give musical aptitude tests. I was one of the students who passed. He made quite an impression on me because he took music so seriously, and had so much enthusiasm. I still remember him holding both my hands to study them, and telling me that because they were so large, I should play the trumpet. He often would use my playing as an example for the other students to emulate. Soon afterwards, I told my parents I wanted to learn the piano too, and I began taking piano lessons from Mrs. Joffe. My memories from that time are faint, but she was an elegant, cheerful woman who introduced me to some wonderful beginning pieces by the German masters. Her husband would give me vintage baseball cards if I played my weekly lesson well. Unfortunately, I preceded to cut-out the player's figures on each card, and paste them into a scrap book!
A football accident in 6th grade, shortly after moving to Wantagh, seemed to ruin my trumpet career. I drifted in music for a while, focusing on sports, until a family friend referred me to Barney Bragin, a gifted teacher and pianist who had toured with Bunny Berigan, the jazz band leader. At our first meeting, I played Bragin a short, beautiful contrapuntal piece by Handel I had learned from Mrs. Joffe, and also a piece I had composed at the piano. I would like to find the score for that piece someday. It was my first composition.
Barney was delighted by my attraction to contrapuntal music, and he introduced me to the Johann Sebastian Bach Inventions, which I quickly fell in love with, and memorized. Bach said that he wrote his Inventions to teach the art of composition, and I think that Bragin planted the seeds of a future composer when he introduced me to these musical jewels in his unique, masterful way. He also had me listen to Glen Gould's recording of the Inventions. Bach is probably my favorite composer to this day. Bragin also encouraged the interest I had improvising at the piano. He taught me to play boogie-woogie compositions, and also the pieces from Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, a recording by Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck and Joe Morello that was my first exposure to both jazz, and Eastern influenced music. Barney thought I was very talented, and during one of our lessons he said, "You may be a musical genius, you know."
I was still playing trumpet, despite the injury, and my ninth grade music director, Richard Baffa, made me President of the school band. He also took music very seriously, and was very exacting. He was both personable, with a great sense of humor, and a highly organized, strict disciplinarian at the same time.
When I entered high school, I took a music theory class from the music director, Rollan Masciarelli. I did better than everyone in the class, even though they were all seniors, and I was the only freshman. (One of my classmates, Larry Dutton, would become a member of the Emerson String Quartet.) Rollan urged me to join the band by learning to play the alto saxophone. I had lost interest in the trumpet, perhaps due to the lip injury.
Masciarelli lit a fire in me, and introduced me to the improvisations of Charlie Parker and Lester Young, which he had me learn to sing. Soon I was practicing six hours a day, and more. I listened to Charlie Parker improvisations all the time, including in the shower, and in the car.
Mr. Masciarelli's main theme to his students was that we all have the ability to achieve whatever we put our best effort towards. He was a larger-than-life figure whose profound musicality, energy, intelligence, discipline, and boundless encouragement awakened me to life's potentials. There was something saint-like about his dedication to teaching us about music and life.
Rollan literally saved my life. He inspired me to work hard, and to believe in my dreams. I had broken both my ankles, and could no longer compete in sports. I had been captain of the basketball team, and before I met Rollan, I was depressed, and drifting without any enthusiasm. Soon after Rollan gave me back my life, I fell under the sway of John Coltrane and other jazz artists. I also loved the music of the Beatles, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, etc.
In tenth grade, I wrote a composition for clarinet and piano titled, "Promenade des Tortues" with a gifted visiting composer-in-residence, Adele Berk. This composition features an exotic ostinato, and a strong Middle Eastern and Indian sound that seemed to manifest naturally. I mean, I had not been listening to music like that except for Jazz Impressions of Eurasia. In hindsight, I now realize that the ostinato was a synthesis of boogie-woogie, and Eastern musical influences. (Promenade des Tortues is featured on The Abode of Joy album.)
People were amazed at the progress I made on the alto saxophone. I was accepted by several music schools, and decided to attend the Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam, as a saxophone performance major. I had auditioned for Ray Shiner, a perfectionist, who had previously been a top woodwind studio musician in New York City, and a member of the historic Sauter-Finnegan Orchestra. Shiner said he had ever heard of anyone learning an instrument so quickly at this level, and exclaimed, "You must have worked like a dog!" After Rollan, who is a brilliant trumpet player, showed me the basics, I studied privately with Richard Baffa, who is also a superb musician, and teacher. At our final Spring Concert, Rollan introduced me to the packed audience as "a true musical genius."
One day, I read a book titled, "Beethoven: His Spiritual Development," in the school library. This book made me think that being a composer would be a truly noble path to take.
Another fascinating book I found in the library was My Music, My Life by Ravi Shankar. The book was very difficult to understand at the time. Years later, I formed the opinion that this was the very best book on music ever written. It truly is an amazing book that grows and grows on you.
Jazz improvisation was my main interest now, but I found you had to focus on classical saxophone playing in college to get a degree. Eventually, I decided to shift my major to composition after my sophomore year, and continued to play improvisational music on the saxophone.
In the second semester of my freshman year, I enjoyed a composition course taught by Elliot Del Borgo, who was a fantastic teacher, and composed two avant-garde pieces that were performed.
The following summer, I took private lessons in improvisation, and saxophone with jazz legend, Lee Konitz, in New York City. I still remember how stunned I was to see him for the first time. I found it unbelieveable that I was going to be spending time with one of the individuals who created modern jazz; someone who Charlie Parker and Miles Davis considered an equal. Our lessons were only supposed to be one-hour, but they frequently went on for two, and even three hours.
I did not take to improvising on the great American Songbook. I always will love listening to the fantastic instrumentalists, and vocalists who interpret these classic compositions. Those artists have been, and always will be a main source of musical inspiration. However, at the time, it felt like I was doing something personally false by directing my improvisational efforts in that direction.
During one lesson, I believe that Konitz sensed this because he stated, out of nowhere: “I think the definition of genius is when someone tries to do what the current leaders in music are doing, finds that impossible, and then develops something new out of necessity.” My feeling was that Konitz was talking about his own personal experience, and being generous towards me at the same time.
At the beginning of my junior year, Del Borgo gave me private lessons: I was now a composition major. It was an enormous luxury to spend so much time with such an accomplished composer, and teacher. He had a great passion for music.
After our semester together, Elliot made a special effort to arrange for me to study privately with Don Funes, who ran the electronic music studio. Don also brought in avant-garde heavyweights, including John Cage, Salvatore Martirano, Don Buchla and Alvin Lucier, to give concerts, and lectures.
Funes appeared to be the most popular teacher in the school, and no one had studied privately with him before. Don got me thinking about composition on a large scale for the first time, encouraging me to take being a composer very seriously. He had me analize music by Webern, and write a composition for chamber orchestra. He also played an electronic tape piece of mine he was very proud of for visiting artist, avant-garde vocalist and composer, Joan LaBarbara. She was clearly taken aback by the apocalyptic intensity of the piece, and complimented it. Later on, Joan was to play an important part in my life. (I hope to release that tape piece at some point.)
One day, Don asked me to write a single sentence giving a definition of artistic quality. I ended up writing, "Artistic quality is epiphany illuminated by a jewel of the lotus." The jewel represents an original voice, and the lotus represents the world. I also stated that quality music contains the elements of substance, balance and freshness. During one of our lessons, Funes stunned me by stating, "Its part of your genius," while we were discussing a composition I was working on.
Alto saxophone improvisation continued to be my main interest. I was giving concerts with one or two percussionists, and also solo saxophone concerts. At the same time, my compositions were being performed by fellow students on a regular basis. Its interesting to see that back then, I was already attracted to music that combined melody and rhythm without vertical harmonic structures, as is found in Indian classical music.
Then I made the radical, and seemingly reckless decision to leave school at the beginning of my last semester, in order to pursue saxophone playing in New York City!
Finding myself with no money, I somehow managed to make an appointment with Leonard Altman, the Director of the Music Program at the New York State Council On The Arts, which had a bigger music budget than the entire NEA. During our appointment, Altman asked many questions about my musical background, and aspirations. He was incredulous about how I was able to schedule the appointment because there were many people, including directors of large music organizations, who were clamoring to meet with him. Before leaving, Leonard invited me to play some of my piano compositions, and my saxophone for him at his apartment that very Sunday.
After arriving at his elegant apartment, we went out for brunch in his West Village neighborhood, where I ordered a prophetic California omelet with avocado. Leonard was excited about my musical views, and exclaimed, waving his fork, "You are a very unusual person."
When we returned to the apartment, I played two compositions on one of his two magnificent pianos. He had both a Steinway, and a Bosendorfer, and I think it was the Steinway he had me play. Altman had studied piano with the same teacher as his Harvard classmate, Leonard Bernstein. Her pedigree traced directly back to Beethoven. Fortunately, I played the works perfectly, due to the quality of the piano. I was not accustomed to playing such a fantastic piano, and I never played that well before.
After the final notes sounded, Leonard asked a few excited questions about the pieces, and then invited me to study at Tanglewood that summer. I was overjoyed.
Leonard taught the Listening & Analysis Seminar, along with the distinguished musicologist, Peter Gram Swing, chair of the music department at Swarthmore College. Altman was a person of influence at Tanglewood, and he made special arrangements for me to attend the Composition Seminar classes taught by Gunther Schuller, Jacob Druckman, Ralph Shapey, Paul Zukofsky, and John Chowning, in addition to the Listening and Analysis Seminar classes.
That summer, and also the following summer, in addition to my seminar classes, I attended the rehearsals and concerts of the Boston Symphony led by a host of famous conductors. I was also privileged to attend two Conducting Seminar classes given by none other than Leonard Bernstein. He lived up to his reputation for brilliance, and more. I got to see him rehearse, and perform the Mahler Ninth Symphony, and the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. It was out of this world! Another unforgettable highlight was witnessing Klaus Tennstadt conducting Bruckner. It was a transcendental performance.
It turns out that Leonard Altman had a special interest in contemporary composers, and played an important role in the careers of a number of composers, including George Crumb, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Corigliano, Ralph Shapey, Olivier Messiaen, George Rochberg, and posthumously, Charles Ives. I was one of the last composers he gave his attention to. More than anyone else, Leonard encouraged me to make composition my life's work. He always treated me like I was an equal to any composer alive, even though I had written very few pieces. Altman had a diamond-sharp mind, a will of iron, and a heart of gold. He is most well-known for leading the fight to save Carnegie Hall, and was also a prominent musicologist, music editor, television producer, radio host, and music department chair and professor at various colleges. He even owned the original score to a short work by Sergei Prokofiev. The composer had given him the score when Leonard represented the Western hemisphere during a cultural trip to Russia, where he also met Dmitri Shostakovich.
Without a doubt, Leonard was an important influence in my decision to shift my focus from improvisation to composition. I loved improvising, but felt the need to control all of the musical parts. I also felt I got better results by writing out the music, rather than improvising it.
I returned to finish my BM in Composition at Crane, and spent my last semester at SUNY Stony Brook, where I took an electronic music composition class with Bulent Arel, who was one of the founders of the genre. One day, I overheard Bulent talking about me to one of his friends. I was surprised to overhear him say: "He is a composer. I can tell." I also took a class on the music of Igor Stravinsky with Sarah Fuller that had a great influence on me. The concept of creating a complex structure by combining simple parts was ingrained in me. There was also a private consultation with composer and theorist, David Lewin, who Milton Babbit once described as the brightest person he ever met. David opened my eyes to the possibilities inherent with shifting meters and poly-rhythms. Around this time, I developed a special interest in the music of Mahler.
After Tanglewood and Stony Brook, I was accepted into the graduate composition program at CalArts, reputed to be among the most difficult such programs in the country to be accepted into. My principal teacher, Mel Powell, thought very highly of my abilities, and told me at our first private lesson that he could tell I was a composer, but our ideas clashed. Powell wished to teach me serial composition, but I had a genuine physical repulsion to that form of music, and didn't wish to pursue it. Unfortunately, this ultimately led to my leaving school, returning to New York, and taking a job at the Joseph Patelson Music House across from Carnegie Hall.
Something important happened at graduate school, however. I discovered that it was completely, and utterly impossible for me to compromise my aesthetic vision when put to the test. Something inside me simply will not allow my instincts to be ignored.
Looking at the larger picture, I felt that Western classical composition in our time was, with some rare exceptions, a dismal aesthetic failure. Jazz, the Great American Songbook, rock, and folk music, with artists like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Rodgers and Hart, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan, was the true Western classical music of our time. This is a core belief of mine.
While at CalArts, I attended the premiere performance of Morton Feldman's String Quartet by the Kronos String Quartet. It made a profound impression, giving me the idea to write slow-moving, transcendental music that lasted an hour or more.
I also met Merritt Butrick, an extremely gifted actor who was about to begin a promising film career that included playing Captain Kirk's son in the Star Trek movies. He was looking for a composer to write music for a project he was working on, but I am not really a film score composer, and after giving my best effort, we both agreed that he should try someone with more experience.
During a time when I was particularly upset about things not working out at CalArts, Merritt noticed my demeanor while sitting in Mom's cafeteria. Even though we barely knew one another, Merritt gave me an inspirational pep talk that somehow restored my self-confidence for years, and years, and years. He was truly a great man, in addition to being a gifted actor. I was heartbroken when the news came later that he had died from AIDS. He was one of the kindest, most uplifting people you will ever meet, in addition to his acting ability, which seemed to have no limits.
Before leaving CalArts, I also met the acclaimed avant garde vocalist and composer, Diamanda Galas, who gave important encouragement to my musical aspirations.
While in New York, I had important personal contact with Steve Reich (via correspondence), John Cage, and Morton Feldman, all of who encouraged me, and gave me ideas. Reich, who Leonard Altman arranged to advise me, somehow inspired me to move into the city, and that made all the difference. Reich communicated with me using postcards that had engaging images of lower Manhattan, and these photos actually proved to be the impetus for my moving into New York City, even though Steve never mentioned the idea in his writing.
However, it was frustrating trying to arrange performances of my compositions for orchestra, string quartet, etc. In 1984, a friend, the great jazz bass player, Reggie Johnson, gave me a magazine clipping about computers and music. I then ran into Joan LaBarbara at Patelson's, and she arranged for Charles Dodge to show me the basics of computer music at Brooklyn College. After considerable research, I purchased a pre-MIDI computer music system. I learned how to program the system to play some of my compositions, and it was very exciting. This led to writing music directly for the pre-MIDI system. During this time I was deeply influenced by the compositional profundity I observed in the paintings of Ad Reinhardt, and began applying the concepts I extrapolated into my music. My first concert at Saint Peter's Church in Manhattan in December 1985 featured two of these Reinhardt-influenced pieces: Thursday Evening and Trembling Flowers. That same month, I was a guest on "New, Old & Unexpected," a WNYC FM radio program hosted by Tim Page, who had recently left The New York Times to become chief classical music critic at Newsday. Tim found similarities between my music, and that of Conlon Nancarrow, a composer I had heard of, but had never listened to. This was a great opportunity for me because the most famous composers in the world appeared on Tim's show.
During the next four years, I gave many concerts in Manhattan, and was regularly interviewed on WKCR FM and WBAI FM, sometimes bringing my equipment into the studio, and performing live concerts.
The music I was writing included compositions with considerable energy and polyphony, as well as pieces with a through-composed melodic voice weaving in and out of various ostinatos. The later type of music has been compared to a sea snake exploring all the holes in a coral reef.
I was moving in the opposite direction of most other electronic and computer music composers. All of my music is performed by the computer in real time without any live intervention or overdubbing. Everyone else wanted to combine live musicians with electronics, and/or interact with their music system. Quite frankly, I find that concept outdated, and old-fashioned. What they were really doing was trying to use computers and electronics the same way earlier composers had used acoustic instruments with what I consider to be superficial differences. The bottom line was THEY were playing these instruments, including electronic manipulations of acoustic instruments. I was entranced with having the COMPUTER PERFORM the music. Some people find this idea cold and lifeless, but I find it transcendental, and much more exciting. Something like how life begins after death. In other words, "die" now by purging your life of superficialities, so you can enjoy the essence of life more! This is an Eastern concept, of course.
Even though I still enjoy going to concerts of world music, and listening to recordings of live musicians from myriad genres, I prefer to make my own music by having the computer be the performer. When it comes to my own music, I actually feel that people playing musical instruments are weapons that we must lay down in order to survive!
One night in 1987, I attended a concert of North Indian classical vocal music that "taught me" how to compose the music I had imagined when I heard Feldman's String Quartet seven years earlier. Music that reflects this influence includes Sea of France, Inspiration Point, and Dark Yellow. Someday, I hope to track down who those vocalists were.
In 1989, I moved from Manhattan to Maui, where I continued to give concerts, and switched to a MIDI music system, which gave me a greatly expanded range of timbres and voices to utilize, and much more powerful software.
In fact, this software, created by a current-day Stradivarius, Emile Tobenfeld, and named Omega II, is the most advanced and well-designed music software ever created to this day outside of particular academic and commercial applications that do not interest me. I was extremely fortunate to come across it.
My pre-MIDI system, which I used for five years, could play a maximum of six simultaneous pitched voices, and offered only two different timbres, plus a maximum of eight non-pitched percussion sounds. I enjoyed the challenge of producing a variety of music within these severe limitations.
After working with the pre-MIDI system for a few years, I discovered that Van Gogh had deliberately limited his palette of colors to blacks, browns and grays at the beginning of his career, in order to slowly learn how to use color, and to develop a strong sense of pure form. This was a confirmation of the path I had chosen for myself with regard to the equipment.
In 1987, I wrote in a letter to Leonard Altman, "Freshness, substance and balance are the elements which engage me. Each piece is different, starting with a unique musical idea that I expand upon in the ways (waves) it's nature suggests. Something like a moment in March, when I feel that Spring has broken the backbone of Winter, there is a powerful, warming affirmation when the interplay of elements come together, and bring to life my special instruments. He goes far that never turns, a Japanese thought I came across last year, has special meaning for me. By working with the same instruments for years, I made expressive and technical discoveries that only come with sensitive and creative attention over time. I also believe that computers are uniquely qualified to illuminate the domain between the physical and metaphysical worlds where music resides. In other words, music is physical, but also invisible."
My new MIDI system had over two-hundred pitched timbres, and many more percussion sounds. It could produce thirty-two simultaneous voices, and eight different timbres at once. Five years of working with the equivalent of blacks, browns and grays had prepared me for this greatly expanded textural and coloristic range.
During the year I spent in Maui, the Lahaina News printed the first article about my music, and I was introduced to George Harrison at a restaurant one night. We spent hours taking about Indian classical music, MIDI, the Beatles, and favorite guitarists, over tea, and a few drinks.
In 1990, I moved to Beverly Hills, where I continued to give concerts, and was interviewed on KPFK and KXLU. Composers Rodney Oakes, Carl Stone, and others, made me a regular guest on their radio shows.
In 1991, I released my first CD, Trembling Flowers. That same year, Keyboard printed a pithy, in-depth, and prophetic article about my music, and the Los Angeles Times gave a detailed discriptive review of a concert that was mostly positive. Articles also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Westwood News, The Occidental (Occidental College), Journal SEAMUS, and The Outlook (Santa Monica) during the next few years.
Around this time, I came across two quotes which had the ring of truth for me. Emerson once wrote, "In art, the hand can never execute anything higher than the heart can inspire." Tung Ch'i-Ch'ang, writing about brush painting in ancient China said, "To transmit the spirit there must be form. When the form, the mind, and the hand are in total accord, each forgetting the other's separate existence, then the spirit will reside in your work."
Beginning in 1992, under the influence of Beethoven Piano Sonatas, I began writing multi-movement pieces with three or four contrasting sections, including music that was extremely contrapuntal in texture. Ten of these multi-movement compositions were completed between 1992 and 1994.
Fire Monkey was released in 1994, and Kyle Gann of the Village Voice featured it in his Consumer Guide, one of only fourteen recordings. He made reference to the "tremendous energy" found in my music, and gave me his highest compliment, describing me as "an original." I also began receiving five grants from Meet The Composer California during this period.
In 1993, I was distributing fliers for a concert at the Beverly Hills Library, when I witnessed Ray Manzarek, and his wife, getting a hard time from the check-out clerk. I have always felt that Ray is, along with Stevie Winwood, the greatest keyboardist in the history of rock, and that the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Traffic, and the Doors represent the pinacle of rock. I composed "Pink Candle" on the Trembling Flowers album as a memorial to Jim Morrison. This was a graceful opportunity to introduce myself by handing them a concert invite. Ray said he would be out of town that day, but after carefully scanning the esoteric CDs I was returning to the library, including piano music by Milton Babbit, and a variety of world music, he wrote down his home address, and asked me to send some music. "If I like it, I'll give you a call," he said. I mailed Trembling Flowers that afternoon, and about a month later, I received an early morning call from Ray, inviting me to lunch. He had enjoyed Trembling Flowers! I will never forget walking into the restaurant, and there was Ray, sitting at the bar, and facing the door, looking right at me with what seemed like admiration. By good fortune, an article had appeared in the Los Angeles Times about me a few days earlier, and later, I learned that Ray and some friends had discussed the article while working out at a health club. I wore my favorite purple shirt, and we had a really fun lunch that continued for several hours, and included several glasses of fine white wine. After that, we would meet at Ray's house about once every two months - he's a very busy guy - and I would play whatever music I was working on. He offered encouragement, and some ideas about new timbres to try. He lent me a bunch of recordings from different world music cultures that provided fresh musical inspiration. Ray also encouraged me to use color art on Fire Monkey, my second CD, and it turned out to have an exciting design that has been praised by a number of people. A few years later, during the summer of 1996, I had the idea of joining Ray with Hindustani violinist, Kala Ramnath, who I was studying with at the time, and we combined to give a concert at the Jazz Bakery. Early in 1997, I paired Ray with Near Eastern percussion virtuoso Souhal Kaspar, and tabla artist, Akal Singh, for performances at the House of Blues, the Jazz Bakery and McCabes. It has been a great experience to hang-out, and make music with one of my teenage idols!
Back in the Spring of 1994, I had attended a Kronos String Quartet concert held at a Los Angeles church, and the highlight of the program was a work by Ali Jihad Racy that featured the aforementioned Souhail Kaspar. Several days after the performance, I was incensed by an uninformed and ethnocentric review in the local paper that dismissed Racy’s piece. I had learned from the program notes that Racy was a UCLA professor originally from Lebanon, and decided to phone his office to repudiate the erroneous item in the paper. Racy greatly appreciated my gesture of support, and invited me to be a guest at the weekly rehearsals of the Near East Ensemble he directed. Hearing the splendid timbres and tunings of this tradition up-close was overwhelming, and in combination with some transcribed scales and tunings Racy gave me, I began using different tunings in my music for the first time.
In December 1994, I purchased a new electronic sound module, both a sample playback unit, and synthesizer, that opened the door to exotic instrumental timbres from around the world. This instrument had a much richer and warmer sound than my previous instrument, and doubled the number of simultaneous voices and timbres I could use. It also allowed me to program an unlimited variety of scale tunings from cultures around the world.
Around the same time, a new friend, the brilliant composer, performer, and world explorer, Chuck Jonkey, introduced me to his teacher, Harihar Rao, the senior disciple of Ravi Shankar. Shankar and Rao founded The Music Circle, renowned for presenting the very finest concerts of Indian classical music in America. Harihar serves as President, and Artistic Director. Rao is a legendary teacher, who plays both tabla and sitar, and he introduced me to Indian rhythms, and general concepts of Hindustani music, both technical, and expressive. I also took advantage of the opportunity to hear the very finest Indian musicians at The Music Circle concerts. The combination of my lessons with Rao, and hearing the finest Hindustani musicians perform had a profound effect on my music. These influences infuse all of the compositions on Hamoa, which was released in 1995.
I soon realized that North Indian classical music was the true source of much of the music that I had grown up with, including John Coltrane, the Doors, and many other important artists. This was an incredible revelation. Indian classical music is, in my opinion, the most beautiful in the history of the world, and they have perfected the art of improvisation to unmatched levels, largely due to their use of ragas, the most profound musical form I have ever encountered. It is an ongoing adventure to discover new artists and ragas within this fantastically rich musical culture.
In 1995, I gave my first of two television interviews on the Spencer Grendahl Show in Los Angeles.
In 1996, I realized I had too much material to afford the cost of having new CDs manufactured, and I was also frustrated at the poor audio quality you risked getting when you produced a CD with 500 or 1,000 copies. I never had the patience or inclination to submit my music to commercial record companies.
After much research and audio testing, I purchased a computer system that allowed me to record my own CDs: Direct-to-disk recording.
The plastic packaging of CDs always bothered me, and I found a place downtown where I could get exquisite Japanese silkscreened rice paper to use for CD covers. Instead of labeling, I decided to autograph the gold disks myself. Rainbow Thunder, which features compositions inspired by African and Javanese music, as well as ragas, Tendrils, and Adorned With Pearl, were all released in 1996. Indian Jasmine and Chinese Legend were released in 1997.
I also began releasing earlier material, including Sea of France, North Africa, Robinson Gardens, Inspiration Point, Photosynthesis, The Forest and Dark Yellow.
Finally, I rerecorded my first three factory-produced CDs, Trembling Flowers, Fire Monkey, and Hamoa, in direct-to-disk format, which has superior audio quality. I even picked new rice paper covers for the first two CDs. Hamoa was the first CD I designed with rice paper. One radio host's (Martin Perlich) enthusiasm for the music on Hamoa was matched by his excitment over the rice paper cover!
In 1996, I was introduced by Dan Neuman, the Dean of Arts and Architecture at UCLA, to Amy Catlin, an accomplished vocalist who performs contemporary music, and teaches ethnomusicology at UCLA, specializing in Asian music. She invited me to a party at her home where I met her husband, the internationally renowned expert on North Indian music and culture, Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy.
Nazir took a special interest in my music, and was delighted to teach various aspects of the raga form to me; particularly the melodic basis, and the developmental basis. He played one of my compositions, "October Sky," based on a raga he taught me, Kedara, at the 1997 All Indian Music Conference held in New Delhi.
Nazir frequently plays my CDs during parties at his home, where I have met a number of fascinating artists from many disciplines, and parts of the world. I am truly fortunate to have the opportunity to learn about Indian music from Nazir, Harihar and Kala Ramnath. Currently, I am working on a new piece for my next CD, and continue to study Indian classical music on my own, and with Nazir.
Now that I have a website, and a distributer that can accept credit card orders, I have begun sending out copies of my five most recent CDs to various publications and radio hosts.
My goals? I would like wider distribution for my recordings. If there is a company or individual with the resources to help me do that, I will certainly give it serious consideration. I have received offers to record for a world music label, and an avant-garde label, but the terms were not attractive.
I also hope to collaborate with dancers. I have come to realize that it is a small audience that will go to concerts of pure computer-performed music, and this way people will have something to look at that will enhance the music, and not compromise it.
At my pure computer-performed music concerts, I darken the performance space so that the music seems to manifest out of nowhere, enveloping the audience. Somehow, the music comes to life, and provides a satisfying musical and theatrical experience.
In the notes to Fire Monkey, I wrote: "Even though my musical instincts led me from traditional human performance to the new environs of computer-expressed music, my compositions are conceived as performance pieces. Thus, all of my music is played in real time, without any overdubbing. The emphasis is on the physical rather than the visual dimensions of tangibility. You can hear and feel sound, but you cannot see it."
"If you are willing to consider that human performers are a tradition rather than a given for musical expression, you may discover that computers are perfect instruments for the musical distillation of intellectual, sensual and spiritual energies, capable of articulating the nuances of one's soul. There is a greater emphasis on "what" instead of "who."
Before programming my compositions, I write out every note without the use of any musical instrument. In fact, I do not have a single music keyboard in my studio or home, something that has astonished many musicians and music lovers.
It is not simply a matter of hearing the music. The music must also resonate in my body, and mind.
- Michael Robinson, 1997, Los Angeles
My autobiography appeared at electronicmusic.com from 1997-2008. Editor Paul Clarke requested the autobiography upon being deeply impressed by the originality and quality of my Chinese Legend album. Clarke also included me on a list with leading artists of our time who use electronic instruments. (See links above.) When electronicmusic.com revised their site in 2008, a great deal of material was left out, including my autobiography, fortunately saved and reprinted here.
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist and musicologist. His 190 albums include 151 albums for meruvina and 39 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.