Part 1

Name: Michael Robinson
Nationality: American
Occupation: Composer
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 you enjoyed these thoughts by Michael Robinson, visit his website for more information. Or head over to an earlier interview we conducted with Michael, where he talks about his views on improvisation.

In your essay on your piece "A Parrot Sipping Tea", you recall a phone call with La Monte Young praising you for a performance of your work. Do you still remember what, specifically, he enjoyed about it?

What happened is I released my first album, Trembling Flowers, in the summer of 1991 while living in Beverly Hills, and came to New York in the fall to give a concert at Saint Peter's Church, and to be interviewed on WBAI FM. After the interview, returning to my Manhattan apartment, there was a message on the answering machine from Marian Zazeela, La Monte's wife and artistic collaborator, excitedly asking me to phone back because La Monte wished to speak to me after hearing the interview. When I called back, Marian answered and handed the phone to La Monte, leading to a high energy conversation astonishingly lasting at least three hours.

While I knew La Monte's name, of course, I wasn't familiar with his music, unlike when I had met in person the previous year in Maui, George Harrison, being utterly fluent with the music of the Beatles, and remembering most of what we discussed for a similar duration of around three hours. When I got home after meeting George, I made notes of what we discussed, assisting me greatly upon being moved to write about Harrison when he left us in 2001, titled "Charukeshi In Lahaina: An Evening with George Harrison."

Getting back to La Monte, unfortunately, I didn't make notes following our talk, but what I recall most is the high intensity level of our verbal interaction, a pretty continuous presto and forte, with him seemingly much taken by my music and personality. While I didn't say La Monte specifically complimented my music in the essay mentioned, "Loving and Re-Rigging La Monte Young's Tuning," because I don't have a clear memory of that, my sense was he was excited about a new form of classical music I had invented exhibiting a strong awareness of jazz and intimations of Indian classical music while taking music performed by a computer to new expressive realms. It was exciting for both of us to learn during our talk that we both studied improvisation privately with Lee Konitz, and also studied composition privately with Leonard Stein. La Monte shared thoughts about his favorite electronic instruments, and three years later in 1994, I transitioned to the third meruvina (the name I invented for the combination of software and hardware used) incarnation from the second incarnation, which greatly increased both my timbral and alternate tuning capabilities.

Curious to know what music La Monte had actually heard back then, I recently listened to a cassette tape recording of the interview, and the tracks played were "Haunted Trees", "Trembling Flowers", and "Yellow Bird". The name of the show was Hear and Now, with the interviewers being Julie Lyonn Lieberman and Cynthia Bell. In 1988, Cynthia had interviewed me on the same show by herself, and also visited my studio to see how I made music with the meruvina. My Saint Peter's Church concert was made possible by Reverend John Gensel, known as the Jazz Minister, who facilitated around 20 solo concerts I gave between 1985 and 1993, myself only responsible for collecting voluntary donations. Reverend Gensel presided over such things as the memorial concert for John Coltrane. Again, it seems La Monte was taken by the original ways I was assimilating jazz influences together with early Indian classical music assimilations.

While I didn't begin my studies of Indian classical music until late 1994 with Harihar Rao, the senior disciple of Ravi Shankar, who also taught Don Ellis, Brian Jones, Lalo Shifrin, Ed Shaughnessy, George Harrison, John Densmore, and Robby Krieger, among others, I was already touched by a concert of Hindustani vocal music heard at Washington Square Church in Greenwich Village in 1987, and an album by vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, reflected in early works like "Purple and Brown", "Pink Carnation" from the Polynesian Woman album, and "Cave Pond".

La Monte and I did discuss Indian classical music, but I regretfully do not recall specifics.

From your conversation, what would you say did you and La Monte both drew from your jazz studies?

A core belief of mine is how jazz and Indian classical music, together with elements of rock and pop, superseded the Western classical music of the world I was born into intellectually, expressively, technically, and spiritually.

Even though I am not familiar with La Monte's actual music, my recent interest being for the tuning he invented for "The Well-Tuned Piano", what little I've heard suggests his primary influences have been jazz and Indian classical music.

Given how La Monte chose Lee Konitz to study improvisation with, I imagine he admired how Lee forged an individual style rather than copying someone else, and how he is unmatched in the history of jazz in terms of not repeating himself no matter how many times playing a particular jazz standard. Lee and his teacher, Lennie Tristano, are the most abstract of all the great jazz masters, and Lee also possesses a highly distinctive sound endowed with myriad timbral nuances. All of these qualities must have impressed La Monte, as they did myself, inspiring both of us to find our own pathways.

La Monte Young's music feeds from being played in a live setting, often over long cycles of multiple performances. Yours is scored and then realised through electronic means. Aren't these two worlds very different from each other?

Something that is often overlooked is how composed music may be more spontaneous than music purporting to be improvised. In other words, the finest classical artists interpret scores capturing the nuances of the moment, and so each rendition is somewhat different even though they are playing the same notes. Conversely, oftentimes improvisers play music committed to memory or habit almost in the form of etudes, not truly improvising, and being less spontaneous than the type of classical artist mentioned above.

My music is composed and performed endeavoring to come alive at the moment it is heard. Spatial elements are programmed to vary with each performance,  the listener always personally different in relation to the moment, hearing and feeling varied aspects every time.

What I admire about La Monte's approach is how he has found personal ways of approaching improvisation within parameters that attract him. Similarly, my compositions are conceived with specific musical concepts allowing for specificity shaped to my aesthetic desires.

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