Name: Michael Robinson
Current release: Michael Robinson's' latest release A Parrot Sipping Tea is now available directly from his bandcamp account. There, you can also find his expansive back catalogue, including fascinating pieces such as Taffeta Patterns.
If these thoughts by Michael Robinson piqued your interest, visit his website for a deeper look at his work.
Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?
One worthwhile strategy is to become one with one's medium to allow an unimpeded translation through the language of music what we feel, sense, and think inside. This is a process involving much time, and hopefully benefitting from experience and acquired knowledge.
In the realm of composition and performance realizations, my medium has been a combination of software, computer, and sound modules with sampled and synthesized timbral capabilities, collectively named Meruvina given my preference for a poetic moniker rather than a technical one. Earlier centuries were eras of the composer-keyboardist, and now we are in an era of the composer-programmer, a medium capable of reflecting the zeitgeist of our time.
I especially love the challenge of attempting to essentially bring inanimate objects to life; the Meruvina and, say, the sitar or clarinet, all being creative tools possessing unique musical virtues one endeavors to harness and make shine. Having an unlimited timbral arsenal available, along with technical capabilities going beyond what is humanly possible, both in terms of fast and slow, is both awesome and humbling. My compositions for Meruvina are performed in real time free of any human interference intuitively channeling anahata nada, the unstruck sound.
For my piano improvisations, similar concepts hold true, the major difference being there is no notation and programming, rather extemporizing in real time, with the tonal capabilities of the piano being the musical palette. This process involves ahata nada, the struck sound, of course.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
Indian classical music and jazz, together with various forms of rock and pop, superseded the European classical music of the world I was born into. At the time I shifted focus from improvisation to composition in my early twenties, I was underwhelmed with the state of Western composition, admiring the minimalists for replacing the serialists while finding they generally went too far in the opposite direction. Gradually, I found ways to assimilate in unprecedented manners desired aspects of improvisational spirit, syntax and form, derived from Indian classical music and jazz, into composition.
Ideally, whether music is improvised or composed, the intent is for the music to come alive at the moment it is heard whether that be live or on a recorded medium; listeners hopefully finding new aspects and dimensions with each hearing in the case of recordings. My notation of a composition begins after the completed work is envisioned internally, and only then is the score created.
Thus, not a single note is changed after notation, including my most recent composition, A Parrot Sipping Tea, which has just under 62,000 individual notes.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned out to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
Having a fecund idea for a new composition is most fortunate and priceless. I do my best to imagine and recognize musical kernels and concepts promising to allow for meaningful possibilities. Sometimes they manifest unexpectedly, and sometimes I set about seeking something hopefully worthy of my time.
For my piano improvisations, I both love spontaneous extemporization, and, given my extensive jazz background, including having been close to one of the architects of modern jazz, Lee Konitz, find it thrilling to improvise upon the ragas of jazz, which are the standards, keeping in mind how the finest jazz artists have been intimate with the lyrics as well as the music. I've taken to heart how Bill Evans advised developing one's own approach rather than copying existing styles. The unexpected ways my extensive background and experience with Indian classical music manifests within the medium of improvising upon jazz standards is most fortuitous and invigorating.
One esoteric concept of Charlie Parker I especially love is how he suggested having the instrument play one's self rather than the more conventional idea of one playing an instrument. Together with significant preparation, I'm enjoying allowing the music to manifest, doing my best to keep out of the way.
Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?
So far, I have only recorded solo piano albums, so I will address this question in terms of my music for Meruvina. Relative levels among the various musical voices, both melodic and percussive, and forefront and background, are incredibly delicate, requiring the utmost nuance and subtlety. Furthermore, all of the collective parts of the whole must work together synergistically, even when they are disparate in their cultural origins, the search for new connections being most crucial.
For my piano improvisations, I am thinking about engaging in duets with a drummer moving forward, recalling the collaborations between Nat King Cole on piano and Buddy Rich on drums (minus the tenor saxophonist, Lester Young, for my conception), aware of how this echoes the format of Indian classical music, as John Coltrane was aware of for his duet album with Rashied Ali.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind for your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Feeling healthy and well-rested, and not being distractingly upset about something, would appear to be ideal states for creativity, though there are always exceptions. The most we may hope for is being fully in the moment, and capturing "now" in all its unique properties, both metaphysical and corporeal.
Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting?
When I was giving live Meruvina concerts, there was usually a predetermined set list, but sometimes I would make a spontaneous change perhaps due to the acoustics of the venue. Looking forward to perhaps doing live piano improvisation concerts, I imagine feeling the collective vibe of the audience would be a key element.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
When I was giving live concerts with the Meruvina, soundchecks were essential, and I always sought venues with the finest acoustics possible. It's important to tweak the sound in such instances for the best possible results. My music for Meruvina is conceived in my studio, and that has provided a useful template for emulation in whatever sound environment presents itself.
How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?
I would say that ideally one is playing in the manner of Haridas, the guru of Tansen, who only played for God, or nature, if one prefers, irrespective of the music being enacted in the studio or in front of an audience. When I was giving concerts with the Meruvina, I enjoyed sensing the mood of the audience, and experiencing the music collectively in contrast to how it's experienced in private.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
When I began my studies of Indian classical music, the expression, known as rasa, was the most mysterious and elusive element. Several months into my lessons with Harihar Rao, the senior disciple of Ravi Shankar, a friend lent me a cassette tape - the case had been lost - featuring sitarist Ravi Shankar playing an unidentified raga. This music spoke to me very deeply, and seemed to be relating a most memorable story or legend filled with an unspecified and alluring form of love from antiquity in a rustic setting. Playing the tape for Harihar, he immediately recognized Raga Jaijaivanti, and I began studying renditions of the same raga by other artists, too, including one by vocalist Bhimsen Joshi being especially noteworthy. Every raga has a unique mood or flavor related to the melodic palette it possesses, and I had been initially hypnotized by the rasa Shankar and tabla player Alla Rakha elicited on their recording.
After this, I became sensitive to the rasas of every raga interpretation I heard. One of my earliest compositions using raga form, Water Stones, from the 1995 Hamoa album, actually uses the feeling I experienced with Jaijaivanti in the context of another completely different melodic palette. To this day, I feel the original tape I heard contains the most perfect of Shankar's recordings.
Listening to my first album released reflecting his teachings, Harihar told me I was reaching into the core of the spirit of Indian classical music, which is a spiritual yearning.
In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music inhabits a uniquely magical domain in-between the corporeal and metaphysical worlds. It is invisible, yet physical at the same time. It engages the creator spiritually, physically, intellectually and emotionally at once, as it does the listener. If one is very fortunate, the music created will possess a timeless quality whether in the present or a thousand years from now.
Listening to my Chinese Legend album from 1997 recently, music that excited Ravi Shankar, Pandit Jasraj, Joel Chadabe, Martin Perlich and Lee Konitz among others back then, it was encouraging realizing the album still sounds born in the moment including new details emerging with every listen.