Writings about Music

With Three Teachers: Steve Reich, Zakir Hussain & Lee Konitz

One of the postcards Steve Reich sent to Michael Robinson while serving as a mentor having the utterly transformative effect of convincing Robinson to move to NYC .


Glad to notice how I'm joined by three of my teachers on The 100 Best Recordings of 2019 including my Spirit Lady album curated by author and music historian Ted Gioia. These are Steve Reich, Zakir Hussain and Lee Konitz. (Konitz is actually featured just below on a second list of 100 Honorable Mentions.)



Most who know me or know of me are perhaps most familiar with my relationship to Lee Konitz, who I studied jazz improvisation with following my freshman year of college. At the end of that summer, my father asked Lee in person point blank what my future prospects were for a life in music, and Konitz simply replied directly and succinctly as is his nature: "He's going to make it." At the time, when Dad related Lee's reply to me very seriously and movingly, this affirmation from a legendary musician, I recall feeling astonished that Konitz would make such a pronouncement, but Dad did put him on the spot, those two extremely serious and intelligent people, both about as no-nonsense as you can get. I've rarely thought about that moment since, but now it is a fond memory.

After meeting Leonard Altman when he was the Director of the New York State Council on the Arts Music Division, he took a special interest in my musical life, showing tremendous enthusiasm, including inviting me to study at Tanglewood, and later asking me whom I would like to have as a compositional mentor. My choice was Karlheinz Stockhausen, but Leonard replied that I had managed to come up with perhaps the only composer who was out of his or anyone else's reach. Altman then decided on his own that Steve Reich would be a good fit for me. Sure enough, Reich acquiesced to Altman's request, and even though he preferred never to meet in person - for this reason there is no photo of us together having never met to this day - the postcards we communicated with proved to be absolutely transformative towards developing my life as a composer. We did not get off to an auspicious start when Steve sent back some oversized scores I initially mailed to him, stating they took up too much space in his Manhattan apartment, suggesting I photocopy them to smaller dimensions.

These were the same oversized scores I carried the year before in a giant red suitcase after accepting an invitation to meet with John Cage, and when he opened his front door to greet me, John appeared astonished perhaps wondering if the suitcase meant I was intending to move in! And he was even more surprised by how unusual my music was, observing that it didn't coincide with Stravinsky or Schoenberg (or himself). After this extended afternoon meeting of roughly three hours, Cage always responded to subsequent letters I sent with mailed telegrams.


Michael Robinson and Zakir Hussain earlier in the evening of a memorable midnight interview.


When I was given a chance by editor Jack Bishop to select anything I wished to write about for the esteemed Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology published by the UCLA Ethnomusicology Department, founded by yet another important teacher, Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, I immediately sensed this was an opportunity to have a music lesson with tabla great Zakir Hussian because I could simply approach such a lesson in the form of an interview. That is precisely what happened, and our interview was even featured on the cover. Having spent countless hours studying Zakir's recordings helped prepare me for our encounter. This exchange remains a treasure trove of information enjoyed by many, including being used by Carnegie Hall publications and classes at UC Berkeley.


Michael Robinson and Lee Konitz celebrating Lee's 92nd birthday in his Manhattan apartment last October.


From what I can tell at first glance, I am the only artist on this list using the Meruvina, or any other approach similar in conception. One astute observer, Alejandro Cohen, noted how Frank Zappa came to favor this method even though our respective music is worlds apart. Simultaneously, if in ancillary fashion, I am exploring piano improvisations, playing a traditional instrument in a traditional manner if not contentwise. It's just that I feel differently how to go about music composition.

- Michael Robinson, December 2019, Los Angeles


© 2019 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


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