Writings about Music

The Instrument Is My Imagination An Interview with Michael Robinson

Interviewer, translator and editor: Christopher STEPHENS

XEBEC Sound Arts Magaine, Volume 15

Published 1998 in Japan

After an initial interest in jazz and improvisation, the Los Angeles-based composer Michael ROBINSON decided to lay his saxophone aside and begin letting a computer perform his music. The additional influence of Indian music has led him to experiment with unusual combinations of ethnic timbres and a variety of tunings from Asia, North and South America, Africa, the Near East, and Australia. Recently, he is devoting much of his time to recording and releasing work on his own label, Azure Miles. In this January 1998 interview, he discusses his unique composition concepts and giving concerts of pure computer-performed music.

Could you say something first about how you went from jazz to computer music?

Originally, jazz was my main source of inspiration. I studied privately with Lee KONITZ, and I had done some composing. But I found that, although I have great respect for improvisation, I got better results if I actually wrote down the music and composed. There is certainly an improvisational quality to the music, which reflects my saxophone playing, and for the last three years, I've been studying Hindustani and South Indian music, and all that's improvisation of course. So there is definitely that influence as well. I almost think of my music as being composed improvisations, but they are compositions. Every single note is written out.

I notice that many of your CDs and titles make reference to Indian and other Asian musics. How did you become interested in these traditions?

I came to realize that a lot of the music I had been attracted to has its roots in Indian classical music. For instance, COLTRANE is the most prominent one, but also groups like the Doors were heavily influenced by Indian music. And I discovered that the source of a lot of the music that I grew up listening to is more advanced than what I heard initially. It is incredibly wide and deep in its content. It's very natural for me to be attracted to Indian music because I grew up listening to a derivative of it.

Basically, I use the raga form as a starting point because it's such a tremendous way to make music: Starting very slowly with no tempo and going into a tempo and increasing gradually, though I don't really use the rhythmic cycles they use in Indian music. My rhythmic language is more abstract in that sense.

One Asian instrument I'm really fascinated with is the biwa. I use the biwa sound on one piece I did called "Pink Jade" on HAMOA. Now, I've never studied the biwa or listened to it too much, so I'm not sure that a biwa player would say that's how a biwa should sound. But it really isn't relevant to me because I'm not trying to replicate the authentic style of playing. I'm just using the sounds, the timbres, that were given to me as ways to articulate my musical ideas. This is not to say that I am not interested in learning about the traditional ways of playing this and other instruments. Quite the contrary. I find that to be very inspiring.

How do you go about composing your pieces?

First, I compose the music using Western notation, and after the score is completed I program the computer to perform it by translating the musical notes into numbers that the computer can read. Everything is programmed: the tempo, the loud and the soft--it's all done with numbers. It was very tedious to learn that programming method. I sat in a library for six hours a day for months just learning it. People say, "You must be crazy to put yourself through that." But it gives you a lot more control than having a person play the music. You get a precision that you couldn't get with people. And again, there are trade-offs, but I try to see the advantages of the system.

I primarily use the Roland instruments for sound sources. They come with thousands of sounds, and I have to edit them a little and tweak them. I don't have a sampler. The problem I have with samplers is that none of them are tunable as far as I know--they all use Western tuning. It's very important for me to get away from Western tuning, which is irrelevant if you're doing music that doesn't have harmonic structures.

I'm more interested in composing than I am in working with sounds. Obviously, the sounds have to be "right" to work with them. There are composers who will spend a lot of their time just making new sounds. To me, the most beautiful sound in the world is a hopeless bore if it's doing a boring composition. And vice versa, you could have an ugly, boring sound, but if it's doing a great composition...who cares?

I use Macintosh and Atari computers. This again is something very unusual about myself--almost no one uses Atari, even though its MIDI timing is superior to any other computer. Actually, the software that I use--it's no longer made--is called KCS or Omega, and I know some very prominent writers who say that this was the most advanced software ever made for music. You can actually program it to improvise. Now there are lots of programs like that, but this was one of the first ones.

Another thing that is very unusual about me is that almost no one makes music with just one sound module, which is a synthesizer without a keyboard. Most people use about ten or twelve, and again I try to get a lot out of a little. I like the simplicity of it--that there's nowhere to hide. You can get distracted by too many instruments. Basically, you have to put yourself in there. I like that challenge. Most people would have a keyboard, but I want to get away from the technique of any one instrument. The instrument is my imagination.

Do you ever give live performances of your work?

I have given many live concerts of my music, but I seem to do that less since I started my record label. When I give concerts, the computer performs the music with its own unique expressive quality. There's no dynamic physical action, but there is a ceremonial aspect that is quite powerful. I'll make the space pitch black and sit up on the stage with the equipment, and I'll even turn off the computer screen, so that all you can see are a few lights flickering and glowing plus my silhouette. I find it effective, and other people do too. The focus is more on the music, and my idea is to compose music that comes to life in that setting. Even though it isn't being performed by a human being, the computer is performing it. We've lost our sensitivity in some respects. We think because it's a computer, it's not real--it's mechanical. But if you use it creatively, it can be very expressive. The challenge is making the music substantial enough to get to the audience.

I've thought about giving concerts with dancers or maybe with someone who improvises using graphics on a large screen because I'm a little bit discouraged about giving concerts of pure computer music when audiences seem to be hopelessly addicted to looking rather than listening.

I have had some musicians say they would like to collaborate with me, but I'm not really into that. I think that's like oil and water--I don't think they mix very well. Electronic and acoustic instruments possess different energies and inhabit conflicting sonic environments, so it's very difficult to balance the two in a non-superficial manner.

Sometimes people make the argument that it's more natural to play music, but actually you certainly can make an argument for just the opposite. As artists we reflect our environment and the world we live in. And we grow up listening to music how? It primarily comes through black speakers played by black pieces of equipment, and we're recipients of that. So what I've said is "Okay this is the medium, and I'm going to make my music come out of this."

I think the challenge is to make it a positive thing, and take advantage of the medium in ways that are superior to live musicians. Above all, I prefer the computer's transcendental expressive nature, which I find perfect for the musical distillation of intellectual, sensual, and spiritual energies. Also, the computer can play slower or faster than live musicians, you can change tunings very quickly if you want to, or you can give a concert with four different tunings one from the Near East, one from India, one from Japan, one from Korea. And with panning, which I use a lot, you can make any sound appear at any point within a 180-degree semi-circle. Also you can change the timbres very quickly, you can make one voice go from say a flute sound to a violin sound to a brass sound to a metallic percussion sound. To me, this is actually almost the most natural way to make music.