TEN QUESTIONS WITH MICHAEL ROBINSON
Unique artistic voices are rare indeed, but if anyone can lay claim to possessing one it's Michael Robinson. Having developed his artistic sensibility over the course of many decades, the Los Angeles-based composer's productions are self-contained universes that reflect the remarkably fertile imagination of their creator. But though they might be the product of a single creator, Robinson's works are heavily informed by the wealth of experiences and influences he's enjoyed throughout his life and that have helped shape his vision. His relationships with figures such as Steve Reich and Ray Manzarek and a huge number of American and Indian teachers have had a profound impact on the kind of music Robinson creates, three recent examples of which, The Spirit Pool, Hummingbird Canyon, and Lucknow Shimmer, are included below (in video form). In the interview, Robinson discusses in depth his working methods, compositional process, and myriad other topics, the sum-total of which amounts to an encompassing portrait of the artist.
1. It's misguided to posit too great an equivalence between a composer's immediate environment and the work he/she creates, given that the history of artistic production includes countless cases of uplifting works originating out of life situations filled with despair (and vice-versa). Even so, it's interesting to consider the degree to which an artist's home environment and life circumstances might influence the nature of the work produced. If I'm not mistaken, you reside in a particularly beautiful part of Los Angeles, which leads me to wonder in what ways your surroundings have had an impact on your work (one of your most recent releases, Hummingbird Canyon certainly suggests that it has, for example).
I moved from Manhattan to Beverly Hills in 1990, but that was presaged by a year in Kapalua, Maui, beginning in 1989. Both new homes presented a pleasant shock to the system with their semblance of an endless summer. It's only after one becomes acclimated to the new environment that relatively subtle shifts in seasons become apparent, signaled by the cyclical vegetative rhythms of favoured fauna and flora together forming a glorious visual polyphony inviting sonic verisimilitudes.
For instance, here in Los Angeles, we are in March, and my favourite plant, Indian Jasmine, is blooming white, pink, and red, with an unearthly, honey-like scent. It was Harihar Rao, the senior disciple of Ravi Shankar, who introduced me to Indian Jasmine in his backyard in South Pasadena following one of our lessons, so that fond memory adds to my enjoyment of this yearly event. Several months from now, the Jacaranda trees will be in full bloom. Their purple-lavender magic was transitioned from Brazil, as are the equally majestic and entirely unreal pink floss-silk trees. Fortunately, I also discovered a miles-long street in Beverly Hills where one can walk among trees in their autumn beauty colourations of red, orange, and yellow during the fall.
Beginning in spring and continuing through summer, the unsurpassed melodists we have named mockingbirds enchant with breathtaking extemporizations all through the night, if you are fortunate enough to come upon a tree where one has chosen to sing under the moon and stars, searching for a female mockingbird with which to conjoin. They perch protected in a lush tree of their choosing, mostly in the deep of night, and spin out endlessly creative phrases informed by the most unearthly and delightful melodies and rhythms rendered in bewitching tunings all their own, with all the elements of music synergizing perfectly. Their method is to repeat each phrase two times and then move on to a new utterance, again repeated two times, and continuing for hours in this format without any exact repetition. This truly is another world of music! On one occasion, I was with Pandit Jasraj while a mockingbird was singing, and he praised the bird with no little astonishment as “an Indian classical musician bird.” Another time, I was walking with Lee Konitz when we came upon another mockingbird, and he was excited and joyous upon hearing the exuberant “tootin',” complimenting the mockingbird out loud for his performance.
This is an amorphous, extemporaneous city of tamboura-like Indian Summer, with shimmering sun-filled days and cool, mysterious nights, all of which sometimes makes it difficult to focus on one's work indoors. An air of fantasy exists as well, surrounded by Art Deco homes and buildings in pastel shades from the ‘20s and ‘30s, whispering memories of classically elegant Hollywood of the past, the finest artistic qualities of which every musician and composer in every city and every country loves and yearns for, sometimes admitting it, sometimes not. Here we find the most recent incarnations of timeless, transcendental myths, symbols, and legends that add meaning to life.
Most everyone who lives in Los Angeles has had brief and protracted encounters with Hollywood people, sometimes forming friendships. Here are a few random memories of such from many that come to mind. When I met Mitzi Gaynor and told her I was a big fan, she responded with a warm smile, “I think I'm in love!” And when I made friends with Diana Herbert Markes Levitt, whose father, F. Hugh Herbert, gave Marilyn Monroe her first movie role in Scudda Noo! Scud Hay!, she took me to the opening night of a one-woman show at the Stella Adler Theater in Hollywood featuring Sunny Thompson about the last weekend of her dear friend. Diana held my hand throughout the opening night performance that had her weeping in sadness for Monroe's tragic demise, especially during the depictions that showed how the famed actress was required to submit to unwanted and sometimes brutal sexual acts in order to advance her career. Quite moved, I did my best to comfort Diana at the reception following the performance, stating, “Please don't be so sad. Marilyn Monroe is immortal like a Hindu Goddess.”
And when one legendary Los Angeles musician who became my friend, Ray Manzarek, passed away, I was moved to visit for the first time the street in Ocean Park where he and Dorothy took in the homeless Jim Morrison, sharing a one-bedroom apartment over a garage less than one block from the ocean. Sure enough, the ocean and mountain vistas from the beach across from their street were among the most spectacular California coast views I've ever seen, no doubt inspiring their burgeoning music to no end. After walking along the shore for a period, I ventured towards the famed Venice Beach boardwalk and happened upon a shop selling sterling silver rings at half-price. Two musical rings caught my eye, one a treble clef and the other having both a treble clef and bass clef together with several notes. Purchasing both rings, I sometimes think of them as representing Ray and Jim, with Jim being the treble ring and Ray the combined ring.
Los Angeles may appear like a lovely kiss, but underneath moves a petrified sphinx with pitiless eyes we must strive to keep at bay. This once was a desert and only creativity and determination will prevent it from returning to that state.
2. How does a new Michael Robinson composition come into being? Do you wait for inspiration to strike and then dive in or are you more the kind of disciplined artist who has an established routine, like someone who works every day from 8 to noon?
Surprisingly, it's relatively easy for me to find inspiration, as it's all around us. For myself, it's more about developing that initial spark or rasa towards its full realization and that requires much concentration and spirited intensity to the point that I purposely close my mind to myriad other starting points of inspiration until the composition I'm working on is completed, recorded, and released. What I'm saying is that sometimes inspiration itself is easier than the development of an inspiration towards its full potentiality. There is always music churning within me during waking hours, at least, and it's essential to discipline myself into focusing those energies into a specific composition as opposed to becoming overly diffused.
In recent years, I seem to prefer composing during the afternoon, but, generally, there are no specific times of day and night for me to work, the one prerequisite being that I feel centered and full of energy ready to be deployed. When I first decided to focus on composing, I went to the library every day and sat for eight hours composing so that I would not be distracted by the comforts of home. A number of my earlier pieces were written in this manner, but I eventually came to realize that it's the quality of time one spends that is crucial as opposed to the amount of time, so one develops a sense of when to write and when to rest.
Currently, I'm working on a new composition that was inspired by a song from several Canadian artists I had never heard of before [the song: "Second Chance" by Caribou (aka Dan Snaith) featuring Jessy Lanza on vocals]. I was in Amoeba Music in Hollywood at the time when this phenomenal song played through the store sound system, and I immediately found out who it was and purchased the CD. Transcendent rasa is the quality that attracts me, and this song was pure magic, a fertile starting point for me to elaborate on with musical inventions sprung from my own personal temperament expressed through physical-intellectual-emotive-spiritual explorations in coloured and shaped sound. I endeavor to exteriorize into physical form pulsating inner states of imaginative energies, hopefully rendering tangible my most ambitious musical dreams. Composers dwell only in the flow of shapes, alternately expanding and magnifying imagined vistas of desire others hopefully wish to join in habitation.
3. The melodic dimension in your works is very strong. From where does that originate in your case? Do you develop a work's themes by improvising on an instrument or do they come to you at random moments?
Indian classical music teaches that melody is essentially the female element, or Shakti, and rhythm is the rhythmic element, or Shiva. Then, it is Shakti who arouses Shiva into action, and, ideally, melodic and rhythmic invention interpenetrates, becoming each other to a point beyond recognition. Musicians and composers possess this duality within themselves regardless of what instrument they play or what medium they compose for. For myself, the melodic impulse seems to come from the heart area of my body and the rhythmic impulse is more instinctual and primal. I cannot conceive of music without these elements and love both of them equally. One might say that I hold nothing back in my desire to allow both impulses free rein within the evolving shapes of the compositional forms that manifest. Here, a brilliantly insightful thought by Ralph Waldo Emerson comes to mind: “In art, the hand can never execute anything higher than the heart can inspire.”
4. I'm fascinated by the stages you go through in bringing one of your compositions (and the recording thereof) to its finished state. Could you outline the steps you go through in producing a musical work? Do you complete a notated score first and then program it, or is there a back-and-forth process involved? Finally, could you elaborate a bit on what exactly the Meruvina is and whether it's something you created or developed?
Once an inspiration is experienced and chosen for musical elaboration, I settle upon a structural vision to build upon, including the personality and pitch range of the melodic voice and the nature and timbre range of the percussion voice. When I first showed some early compositions to Mel Powell at CalArts, he asked how I go about composing, and I told him how I first write out the main melodic voice of a section, or sometimes I write out the main melodic voice of the entire piece, followed by adding additional voices that are required to realize fully the musical thought. Powell responded favourably, noting that this was an excellent strategy, one that Mozart had used. (After writing this, I checked online, and it appears that Powell's description of Mozart's working method is correct. Another Mozart-related story: After relating my experience with mockingbirds to a pianist, I was startled to learn from her that Mozart actually had a pet starling whose musical utterances he drew inspiration from.)
To this day, I continue to first compose the main melodic voice of a section followed by composing the main percussion voice. After these voices are completed for the entire composition, I set about adding additional supporting voices and parts. Sometimes instrumentation is predetermined, sometimes it's decided upon after the composition phase, and sometimes the music is changed from my original orchestration idea after the actual notes are written. I never change a single note of any composition after it is written. I use a mechanical pencil to allow for misstrokes to be erased and corrected. You see, I do not actually begin composing until I feel that the work is already complete and alive inside me. Then, I simply listen and feel as closely to myself as possible in order to capture through notation the emerging music, transmitting everything as perfectly and effectively as possible moment to moment. It's also crucial for me to decide upon an approximate length for my composition because I'm capable of elaborating upon the material indefinitely. In recent years, my works have been roughly forty minutes long simply because it feels right. One key towards achieving an atemporal effect in composition is having content wedded to the naturalized duration of each work. Many of my earlier compositions are about sixty minutes, and there are also many shorter works of varying lengths, and several are over 180 minutes long. There are some extreme compositions that are three, six, and twelve hours long as well.
After the score is completed, every note and percussion stroke must be entered manually using a numerical language, so this is essentially data entry that is simple to do, and fortunately I've become proficient enough so that a composition with 80,000 or more individual events is finished in a few weeks. The same task would take someone unfamiliar with the protocol probably over a year to complete if he/she didn't give up from sheer exhaustion before then. Once all the music is entered, I then need to proof the raw data using the score to correct any possible errors. After this, a huge and equally important creative challenge begins because I must decide upon specific timbres ranging from gossamer to plangent, effects, levels, EQ, panning, articulations, etc., for every voice and part of the composition, doing my best to bring it to life. There are always unexpected musical challenges that arise, and it's both exciting and traumatic searching for possible solutions. When I feel that everything is in as close to a perfect form as possible, I go about recording the music, which is played in real time without any overdubbing. From this master CDR, I then go about producing both physical and audio file copies. Liner notes are very important for me, and I do my best to get into the core events and feelings related to the new composition. Cover art is selected from handmade papers mostly from Japan and India, a practice I began with Hamoa from 1995. I search for a paper design that seems to illuminate the rasa of the composition in some abstract manner. The same goes for the title of each new work, finding a word or name or combination of words that conjoin effectively with the actual music.
Colour is very important for me with music, and I search for individual timbres and combinations that are both sensually delightful and well-suited for delineating and clarifying detail and balance towards a pellucid musical unfolding. It's unfortunate that men here in the West seemingly are required to only wear the most drab colours, and this is an area where India has surpassed us immeasurably. For the photos at my site, I deliberately used a range of colours, and I sometimes wear these in public too.
The Meruvina (the name comes from the sanskrit word for musical instrument, “vina” and the name of the mountain where the Hindu gods reside, “Mount Meru”) consists of software, a computer, and sound module that accesses both sampled and synthesized sounds. I find ugly technical names, including “computer music,” “digital music,” “MIDI,” “electronic music,” etc., to be self-defeating and disrespectful to the creative process I engage in. After all, we do not call the piano the “hammered metal-stringed wood box” or the trumpet the “metallic-tubed blow horn”! I would encourage others in the field to do the same, including inventing their own names. All of the equipment I use was and still is available for purchase. While I did not invent any of these tools, it appears that I have used them in new ways.
It's crucial that composers use hardware and software that's relevant for their expressive purposes and not feel pressured into compromising their vision by using whatever happens to be most fashionable, common, or new, especially being careful not to acquire everything that is recent simply because it's new. When I was living in Manhattan, I had a temporary job for a month or so working as an assistant for the Vice Chairman of Sony Corporation in Manhattan, Sadami (Chris) Wada. He impressed upon me an ancient Japanese concept: “He goes far who never turns.” (Not only that, he also insisted upon playing a recording of my composition, Trembling Flowers, at a high volume with the door open, creating quite a scene with bewildered employees stopping in the hallway to stare in, making sure everything was okay. Mr. Wada was excited and intrigued by the music, commenting that it reminded him of toccatas by Bach.) In other words, if one is always turning to new instruments and products, including taking the necessary time needed to actually learn to use them at a meaningful level, one might miss the experience of delving more deeply into one's personal musical vision that comes from working and focusing on one instrument, as Chopin did with the piano and Mahler did with the orchestra, to cite two examples. Also, as the practice of violin-making has proved, sometimes the oldest instruments are the best ones, and this concept absolutely applies to computer, electronic and digital instruments, and software, too.
My personal preference is to use semblances of the sounds of acoustical instruments from myriad cultures accessed through samples, together with some synthesized timbres, presented through the expressive nature and capabilities of the Meruvina without any interaction from myself or other musicians during performance because this would “wake the music from its dream.” Conversely, I encourage other musicians to create new realizations of my compositions with any preferred combination of actual acoustic and/or electronic instruments as this approach will illuminate the music in another light. While I obviously love and derive inspiration from musicians and my music shares important expressive qualities with them, the Meruvina simultaneously allows for technical and expressive elements that are different from human capabilities and characteristics, and it is the freedom of co-existing between these two realms that attracts, excites, and sustains me. By definition, I am both the composer and the performer, creating the performance to exist in real time, without any overdubbing. In addition, I enjoy the ability to use a variety of tunings, not limiting myself to well-tempered tuning. While I have made use of abstract electronic sounds and sometimes alter acoustical instrument timbres beyond recognition, I find the remarkably beautiful timbres of the world's acoustic instruments to be irresistible, and they remain unmatched for voicing the realizations of my personal vision.
5. Do you work on one piece at a time or are multiple pieces in various stages of development at any given time? And, in general, how much time passes between the inception and completion of a work? I'm guessing that keying in all of the info into the computer program must take an incredible amount of time all by itself.
I only work on one composition at a time. As noted above, inspiration for new pieces is relatively easy to come by, but rather than countless beginnings, what interests me is to develop and complete a musical idea as fully and completely as possible before opening a new door. Depending on how many times my composing is interrupted or not by other obligations, in recent years it seems to take about three to four months to complete a new composition, with recent pieces being over forty minutes long, as mentioned.
6. Though you produce your recordings using digital means, you're familiar with a vast number of instruments from multiple cultures. What acoustic instruments do you play, and how did you acquire such an encompassing awareness of so many different instruments?
I definitely recommend that any aspiring composer learn to play one or more instruments, even if he/she never reaches the level of mastering them. In the past, I played piano, trumpet, baritone horn, alto saxophone, and tenor saxophone, but the piano is the only instrument I still play on occasion. At one time, my primary musical activity was playing “avant garde” improvisations on saxophone together with a percussionist, but I came to realize that my musical impulses were infinitely better presented through composition. Even though I sometimes still play the piano, I have no great attraction to that because I wish to avoid having my musical imagination limited to any particular instrumental sound or technique. At one point, I was being paid very well for playing Cole Porter songs and such on the piano, but found that style of music, with all its richly tapestried melodies and harmonies reflecting that time period and milieu, was interfering with my composing, flooding my consciousness with music relatively unrelated to what I wished to compose, and it became necessary to discontinue that piano playing.
You might say that the instrument I use is my imagination, and my sense of the possibilities inherent with any particular timbre in use comes from much listening and the practice and experience of applying my musical ideas through the Meruvina. For example, when I use a trumpet timbre, Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, and Chet Baker have been my primary teachers, and when I use a clarinet timbre that would be closest to the saxophonists I've studied, including Jackie McLean, Lee Konitz, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. Percussionists I've studied include Zakir Hussain, Anindo Chatterjee, Swapan Chaudhuri, Alla Rakha, Alan Dawson, Elvin Jones, and Jack DeJohnette, among many others. Some of the main influences on my general melodic sense have been Ravi Shankar, Pandit Jasraj, Shivkumar Sharma, and Hariprasad Chaurasia, again among many others.
I have always sought inspiration from timeless, transcendent musical invention, whether it be Glenn Gould, The Beatles, Laura Nyro, L. Shankar, Bob Dylan, Vikku Vinayakram, Machaut, Stan Getz, Mahler, Michael Jackson, or countless other artists from myriad times, places, and genres. Given the limited time we all have, it's so important to listen to music that inspires and nourishes us and not settle for anything less. While listening to music, I'm also simultaneously conceptualizing how that influence might be manifested in practical technical terms with my compositions for Meruvina, sometimes subconsciously. In other words, I do my best to distill whatever instrument or voice that inspires me into the technical capabilities of the Meruvina as articulated by my notations and programming, doing my best to have the finished notated score come alive through the actual sound that's produced.
My music has gradually evolved and shifted reflecting the different influences I have absorbed. My excitement and enthusiasm comes from having a ravenous appetite for music. So much so, I am not content to “eat and drink” the music of others, but even more importantly, I have developed my own personal tastes and preferences that insist upon being realized through original musical creations, which continue to evolve from the metaphysical and physical flux occurring in daily living.
7. You possess a remarkable command of musical styles from many different cultures. How did you come to acquire such a vast range of knowledge about Western and non-Western forms?
Music really is a language, and the only way to learn different dialects is to immerse yourself. With music, this entails prodigious and careful listening to live performances and recordings, followed by taking the musical concepts and specifics one absorbs into the realm of one's own musical efforts, which are honed by experience. I was most fortunate to be brought together with Harihar Rao, followed by Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, Kala Ramnath, Pandit Jasraj, Zakir Hussain, and Shivkumar Sharma for my initiations into the mysteries of the highly complex and elusive form known as Indian classical music. Similarly, I had excellent introductions to the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky, and John Cage. One of my teachers, Perry Yaw, noted in front of the entire class that I have a truly insatiable appetite for learning about and experiencing different forms of music, and that is certainly true because it was my habit to take out dozens of books a week, in addition to boatloads of recordings from the music library. Apparently, the head librarian was astonished by the amount of material I checked out, and shared this with Dr. Yaw. The music we listen to and the books we read serve as fuel for our creative fires, and it's imperative to keep that going at a roaring burn, at a level that matches our ravenous needs, particularly in the earlier, formative stages, but truthfully, never-endingly, as I continue to acquire books and recordings, including subjects that exist outside of music.
8. I'm aware that you've enjoyed relationships with a number of seminal musical figures, Lee Konitz, Steve Reich, and Ray Manzarek among them. Could you talk a little bit about how such relationships developed and what you learned from them?
It was when I sought private lessons with Phil Woods and was told he was temporarily unavailable, that I was given the option of studying with Lee Konitz. This was through the Charles Colin Studio in NYC, and years later in Maui, Charlie and Irene Colin became close friends, even though we never met while studying at their studio with Konitz. After several lessons with Lee, he offered the option of meeting at his home on West 86th Street, and the lessons expanded from one to three hours for the same price because he had more flexibility at home. Typically, I would arrive for each lesson with a list of twenty or more questions. On one occasion, Lee stated with assurance that one day I would know the answers to all my questions, but I did not believe him at all when he said this. Most of what I learned from him came later, studying his recordings and live performances. His music taught me a love for complex, abstract melodic constructions, while avoiding cliches and repetition. When I asked Lee during one of our lessons who he listened to for musical inspiration, I was incredulous to hear him reply, “Frank Sinatra.” At the time, I had no knowledge of Sinatra's singing other than regarding him as commercial fluff. Five or six years later, I began developing a deep appreciation for Sinatra, especially enjoying hearing the lyrics of many jazz standards for the first time, which adds to my enjoyment and appreciation for instrumental improvisations based upon these songs. Konitz, Miles Davis, and Lou Levy are some musicians I know of who regarded Sinatra as the greatest jazz singer.
Postcard from Steve Reich to Michael Robinson
My primary composition mentor, Leonard Altman, encouraged me to make composing my life's work and always treated me as if I was the most important composer alive (no doubt, he made all his composer friends feel this way). One day he asked me which living composer I would like to have for a mentor. When I selected Karlheinz Stockhausen, Leonard replied that I had managed to come up with the one person who was out of his or anyone else's reach! Then, Leonard decided that Steve Reich would be a good person for me, and Steve proved to be very helpful, making a number of extremely practical and important suggestions, such as arranging to have existing compositions performed and recorded. While making his suggestions, Steve, perhaps inadvertently, convinced me to move into Manhattan, which was absolutely transformative. What happened is that he communicated with me through postcards, the first three of which show a different photograph of Manhattan in various settings and that actually provided me with the impetus to make the move into the city. Those three images show City Hall, the lower Manhattan skyline, and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, all adjacent to where Reich was living in downtown Manhattan. Persuading me to move into Manhattan, which no one else had been able to do, is something I am eternally grateful for. I also admired the way Steve found ways to incorporate influences of jazz and the music of foreign cultures into his work, creating an original soundscape. I am one of many inspired and benefiting by his example.
Several years after the experience with Steve Reich, I included the following paragraph in a letter to Leonard Altman, part of which was already alluded to: “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) its 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 [the Meruvina] is uniquely qualified to illuminate the domain between the physical and metaphysical worlds where music resides. In other words, music is physical, but also invisible.”
Ray Manzarek and Michael Robinson
My meeting Ray Manzarek might have been scripted for a film. I was heading out from my home in Beverly Hills to go jogging and momentarily parked illegally outside the Beverly Hills Library in order to drop off some books and CDs inside before they became overdue. While doing so, I was amazed to see Ray and his wife, Dorothy, being scolded by a librarian for some apparent transgression, which I found amusing. With some of the finest instantaneous decision-making I've ever managed, I saw several moves ahead like in a chess game and literally ran out to park my car legally, grabbed a flier from inside the car for an upcoming concert I was giving in Santa Monica, and ran back from the parking structure to the librarian's desk. Just as I was approaching, the scolding ended, and Ray and Dorothy turned and headed upstairs towards the media center. There I was, puzzling how to phrase my introduction, when suddenly they came back down the stairs towards me only a few minutes later. Realizing it was now or never, I managed, “Hi, Ray. I'm Michael Robinson, and I'd like to invite you to a concert I'm giving.” Ray seemed both surprised and complimented that I had recognized him more than twenty years since The Doors were abruptly ended by the death of Jim Morrison. The only reason I was able to do so was because Ray had recently appeared on the cover of Keyboard magazine so I knew what he looked like in the present time. Ray took the flier in his hand, read it, and then handed it back to me, stating that he was sorry, but would be out of town on that date, and unable to attend. But then, perhaps noticing the disappointment on my face and not wishing to come across so harshly, or conversely, out of pure curiosity, he asked to see the CDs I was returning to the library. (There had been no time to return the materials when I had originally entered the library.) Manzarek was intrigued by the recordings I had of Indian classical music and also Milton Babbitt, and apparently deciding that these musical choices indicated someone whose music might interest him, he asked for the flier back, and wrote his home address down, asking me to send one of my CDs, saying he would call me if he enjoyed it. After going jogging, I returned home and mailed my only CD at the time, Trembling Flowers, that same afternoon.
There was no response from Ray for weeks, and I sighed that my meeting him would turn out to be a one-time, brief interaction. Then, early one Tuesday morning, I received a call, and it was Ray in his beaming, charged voice, saying that he had enjoyed the music and wished to invite me for lunch. After this call and before our lunch, an article appeared in the Los Angeles Times about my music, and Ray was to tell me that while at the gym, a friend had mentioned that article to him about some guy who used computers to make music. Ray responded: “I'm having lunch with him!” Our lunch on South Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, at a place no longer there, lasted between two and three hours, and we each had three glasses of white wine with our entrees. I had worn my favorite silk purple shirt for the lunch, and when I arrived, Ray was waiting for me at the bar wearing infinitely more subdued colors of safari tan like Lawrence of Arabia. Even though we were to spend many subsequent hours together, I feel as if I only touched the surface of his life and musical personalities and wish he was still here to get to know better. Ray reinforced for me the idea that music is nothing less than a matter of life and death and also imparted that it's crucial to share one's music with the outside world, overcoming shyness, fear, and complacency. His attentions certainly improved my self-confidence because despite being a loquacious person, especially about music, Manzarek mostly preferred to listen to my ideas when we were together, affording them tremendous respect and deference, and regarding myself as someone he could learn from together with vice-versa.
Having interviewed him twice at length and approaching both encounters as music lessons, bolstered by owning nearly all of his recordings and having heard him perform live a number of times, the influence of Shivkumar Sharma, a true demiurge, is beyond calculation, being nothing less than imparting a way of doing things, a way of expanding upon an initial musical impetus, a patiently respectful and humble approach to music, including careful attention to detail and technique to the point that these elements become invisible servants for spiritual, physical, and emotional wrestings of the human coil, allowing music to manifest.
9. Though no one makes music quite like yours, you've no doubt been influenced by others, be they fellow artists and/or teachers. Who are the figures who have been most central to your own artistic development?
Artists (in alphabetical order): Johann Sebastian Bach, The Beatles, Ludwig von Beethoven, William Blake, John Cage, Joel Chadabe, Anindo Chatterjee, Swapan Chaudhuri, Hariprasad Chaurasia, ancient Chinese poetry, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Bill Evans, Morton Feldman, Bobby Fischer, Dizzy Gillespie, Allen Ginsberg, Glenn Gould, Zakir Hussain, Pandit Jasraj, Elvin Jones, James Joyce, Wassily Kandinsky, Lee Konitz, Led Zeppelin, Bob Longhi, Gustav Mahler, Salvatore Martirano, Jackie McLean, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Charlie Parker, Alla Rakha, Steve Reich, Ad Reinhardt, The Rolling Stones, Ravi Shankar, Shivkumar Sharma, Dmitri Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky, Helen Vendler, Johnny Winter, William Butler Yeats.
Teachers (in alphabetical order): Bulent Arel, Richard Baffa, Barney Bragin, Elliot del Borgo, John Cage, Joel Chadabe, Swapan Chaudhuri, Ben DiDia, Charles Dodge, Morton Feldman, Arthur Frackenpohl, Sarah Fuller, Don Funes, Zakir Hussain, Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, Pandit Jasraj, Therese Law, David Lewin, Salvatore Martirano, Rollan Masciarelli, Mel Powell, Kala Ramnath, Harihar Rao, Steve Reich, Shivkumar Sharma, Leonard Stein, Herbert Weisinger, Perry Yaw.
10. No doubt you've experienced many musical epiphanies during your lifetime. Could you identify two or three musical experiences, whether live performances or recordings, that stand out as being especially life-changing? Finally, you mentioned in the notes accompanying the recent The Spirit Pool that it completes a trilogy of sorts that began with Lucknow Shimmer and Hummingbird Canyon, and that the completion of the trilogy might engender a new stage or change in direction. Where are you at the moment in terms of the production of a new work, and has the nature or shape of that next stage come into focus?
A Morton Feldman composition for the Kronos Quartet heard at CalArts planted a seed in me that looking back seems to have anticipated the timeless alap concept of Indian classical music. This sensation was reinforced and expanded upon when I heard seven or so years later a performance of North Indian classical vocal music concert at Washington Square Church in Manhattan. This was a musical epiphany of enormous significance, realizing technically and expressively at once how musical invention might proceed from moment to moment in a vitalized, unrushed manner providing it is done with an understanding of the larger structure and long line of musical creation.
An Ad Reinhardt painting I happened upon at the Museum of Modern Art after moving into Manhattan hypnotized me into experiencing a new form of composition, mainly combining seemingly incongruous elements into a unified whole while maintaining their free independence. This is a concept previously suggested to me by David Lewin, in terms of combining different polyrhythms in my compositions, during a one-time private consultation in his office at SUNY Stony Brook. Similarly, the concept of combining varied rhythmic figures or cells in a composition was absorbed through a class on the music of Igor Stravinsky I took with Sarah Fuller, also at Stony Brook.
Purely by accident, a friend, knowing of my new interest in the classical music of India, decided to lend me a cassette tape of Ravi Shankar that had no other identifying information. While listening to the recording, I found myself experiencing rasa for the very first time, caught up in the vivid sensation of entering a wondrous essence. I played the tape for Harihar Rao, and he at once identified it as Raga Jaijaivanti, with tabla played by Alla Rakha. To this day, I find it to be the greatest recording performance by Shankar and Rakha, a true miracle of development and thrilling expression, imparting the feeling of venturing through a wondrous forest. The musical region they journey to eludes words, but Indians regard it as a transcendence of the human condition, a sublime distillation. You see, it's not enough to study the technical basis of Indian classical music; one must also have insights into its expressive nature, the spiritual and emotional impetus for its being. If you are fortunate enough to inhabit this terrain inside and have developed a technical means of expression, then, perhaps, music will flow.
Related to this subject, this paragraph by Rabindranath Tagore represents some of the most beautiful and insightful writing on music I have ever come across. Perhaps this description of Indian classical music may also help listeners gain insights into my own music as well: “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 [and women] 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.”Concerning what stage I'm at with respect to a new work, sure enough, as soon as I wrote that recent compositions seem to come in related groups of three, I found myself composing a new work that retains concepts similar to my previous three works! There I was, innocently searching for music to buy at Amoeba Music in Hollywood (as mentioned previously) when a song came on the sound system that so entranced me I had to buy it at once, discovering it was by Canadian artists I had never heard of. Soon afterwards, I found a rasa and form that allowed me to follow musically in the direction within myself this song opened a portal to. Much of the composition phase has been completed, with the realization and production phases to follow.
textura is a Canadian music publication