Azure Miles Records ~ The Music of Michael Robinson

Writings About Music by Michael Robinson

The Search For A New Instrument

by Michael Robinson

This writing includes a letter from Michael Robinson to John Chowning, computer music pioneer and founder of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University; an email to Michael Robinson from John Chowning; a description of Roland's Compu Music from Sound on Sound; and a letter from Ikutaro Kakehashi, Founder and President of Roland Corporation, to Michael Robinson.

 

July 20, 1982

Dear John Chowning,

We met four summers ago at Tanglewood, but I was just one of a number of students there, and I do not expect you to remember me. David Lewin, of Yale University, suggested that I contact you about the following subject matter.

I am seeking an electronic instrument that can realize the music I have written for acoustical instruments. Perhaps there is an instrument that can realize my symphonies, for example, after I enter the musical details concerning rhythm, pitch, timbre, phrasing, dynamics and articulation through a computer.

And what about vocal music? Is there an instrument on the horizon that will be able to articulate words and syllables at any pitch, in any language?

Recently, I came to the conclusion that a composer could waste his life waiting for instrumentalists, singers and conductors to perform his music. The reality of the situation is that the overwhelming majority of performing musicians want to play Beethoven, etc. This situation is unlikely to change during our lifetime. With new technology, however, there should be no reason for composers to fight this ocean.

Please do not get me wrong. I do not see electronic instruments as second-class citizens that merely serve as a substitute for acoustical instruments. My intuition tells me that the unique subtleties of the over-all expressive quality of electronic instruments capture best the tenor of our time and point towards the future.

I would appreciate knowing of any instrument(s) that can meet my needs, and if the cost of such an instrument is prohibitive, how I may gain access to it.

Cordially,

Michael Robinson

 

The above letter was sent to John Chowning, at Stanford University, a few months before I moved to Long Island City, Queens from Wantagh, Long Island.

I had attended Chowning's Composition Seminar Classes at Tanglewood where he discussed his work with computers and music. His talk was intriguing, and I recall Jacob Druckman introducing Chowning as "a better composer than skier" in reference to the cast he was wearing on one of his legs.

David Lewin, who I had extremely meaningful consultations with at SUNY Stony Brook, suggested I contact Chowning regarding my search for a new computer instrument. As best I can recall - I cannot locate his letter now - Chowning was unaware of anything relevant that was currently available, but was hopeful that something would materialize in the near future. (In retrospect, I believe he was unable to discuss in detail his current work with Yamaha that eventually yielded the famous DX7 one-year later.) See August 2011 comments from John Chowning reprinted below.

It was about two years after this letter that I purchased the Roland Compu Music System, consisting of the 800, 802 and 810 modules together with software for an Apple II computer, after determining that it was the best product for me among several possible candidates. In fact, it was superior in several major aspects (software, architectural structure) to products that cost over one-hundred times more (Synclavier, Fairlight), and historically speaking, the Roland Compu Music System is an important landmark for computer and electronic music.

I completed 135 compositions for the Compu Music System between 1985 and 1989, ranging in length from one minute to twelve hours, in addition to transcribing earlier compositions originally for acoustic instruments, before turning to my first MIDI sound module in 1989. (Autobiography contains more details about working with the Compu Music System, and subsequent instruments, which I came to name the meruvina.)

- Michael Robinson, March 2011, Los Angeles

 

Soundonsound.com has a complete history of Roland Corporation by Gordon Reid, which includes a description of CompuMusic that is reprinted below. This item is positioned at the end of The Birth of MIDI: 1983. I should note that the 810 and 802 modules were only available from Roland Canada at the time I purchased the complete system.

 

Milestone: The Roland DG CMU 800R Compu Music

Not all milestone products are hugely successful, as demonstrated by the CMU 800R, a small, wedge-shaped synthesizer built into the same case as the ADA 200R. But if any product can be said to be the ancestor of today's multitimbral rackmount modules, this is it.

Originally manufactured in Taiwan in 1982 under the AMDEK name, this became a Roland DG product when Roland ceased marketing the AMDEK brand in 1983. It offered four sound generators; a monophonic lead synth, a monophonic bass synth, a four-voice polysynth, and a rhythm section with seven analogue drum sounds. Apart from level for each of the sections, little control over the sounds was provided — just decay rates for the tonal sounds, and a sustain level for the lead sound. What's more, the sounds were incredibly basic, being just digitally generated square waves, with no filtering or complex envelopes.

Control was provided by sequencing software running on either an Apple II, a Sharp MX80, an NEC 8001 or, later on, a Commodore 64, and delivered by an interface card plus a dedicated multi-way cable. However, whereas the internal sounds did no justice to the control software, eight pairs of CVs and Gates on the back of the box allowed you to drive up to eight analogue monosynths using the CMU 800R as a secondary interface. At the same time, the module's clock input and output provided synchronisation with drum machines and other sequencers, and another box — the CMU802 CompuSync — added Sync 24 and tape sync. Another synth in the series, the CMU810, looked very similar but was a variation on the SH101 monosynth.

Nowadays, its most unlikely that you will find a CMU 800R or a CMU802 in working order, not because the units have failed, but because they have became separated from their interface cards and software. Nonetheless, we should not overlook the CMU 800R. It was the first sound module to provide multitimbral voicing, independent outputs for each section, control over other synthesizers, and sequencing. As such, it occupies a unique and important place in history.

 

In August 2011, I was delighted to receive the following email from John Chowning in reponse to my original writing:

 

'While searching I just came upon your note about our meeting in 1978 at Tanglewood that you posted in March. What a surprise! In any case, I don't remember my reply exactly, but I do know that my assertion that I was unaware of anything in the offing was in fact true. I visited Japan many times in those years to work with YAMAHA on the development of FM synthesis hardware. As incredible as it may seem, I did not know of or see a DX7 until after it was marketed in 1983. My wife and I stopped in a restaurant/bar for a beer after a movie and the pianist called me over. There, sitting on his grandpiano, was a DX7. The sounds were familiar, as I had heard many of them in the "breadboard" form of the instrument that was used in the development stage before the company committed to VLSI for production. At the time the company was carefully partitioned so that the engineering group, with whom I worked, did not communicate with the product and marketing groups.'

'Well, you found what you needed in the Roland Compu Music System. I knew some of the people at Roland including Mr. Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder, an imaginative and personable man.'

 

Finally, here is a 1987 letter I received from Ikutaro Kakehashi. I followed his advise to move on to newer Roland products, together with the incomparable software invented by Emile Tobenfeld, who switched his focus away from music back in 1993, a loss in the realm of music software that brings to mind Bobby Fischer leaving chess. I was excited to learn earlier this year that the reclusive Fischer used to live one block away from my current home. - Michael Robinson, August 2011, Los Angeles

 

Hamamatsu, April 14, 1987

Dear Mr. Robinson,

I have received your letter about Compu Music. I am sorry to be late to make a reply to you as I was tripping around Europe and North America so far.

Computer music world has been changed drastically during these one or two years. As a result, the cost of hardware type products such as CMU series has been up compared with software type: we came to be obliged to discontinue them.

Instead of Compu Music, we have developed much more useful assistants for computer music. Enclose please find information for them.

I hope our products being of your good help for your music,

Yours very truly,

I. Kakehashi

President

Roland Corporation

 

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