Michael Robinson
Composing With the Raga Form and MIDI


"Robinson mixes the organic virtues of raga with the synthetic ability of MIDI to create 3 CDs, each a different section of the one piece. The introspective nature of the music grows and changes over the course of three CDs, creating a spiritual journey of sound. Equally as impressive are the one-of-a-kind covers made from hand silkscreen and hand woodblock printed papers from Japan and India."
- Amanda MacBlane, NewMusicBox, writing about "Bhimpalasi"

"Michael Robinson is a jazz-influenced composer who bases (at least in part) his compositions on the ancient Indian (long) musical form of raga, but the two pieces on this CD do not consciously attempt to "sound like" ragas in particular or Indian music in general. Robinson is no mere copycat or cultural/colonial imperialist ­ he's studied and absorbed the essence and approach of musics of not only India but other Asian cultures as well. Luminous Realms has shades of "light" or "dark" coursing through it - it's a truly cerebral, challenging listen though never self-consciously or defiantly difficult."
- Mark Keresman, jazzreview.com, writing about "Luminous Realms" (Marwa, Durga)

Water Stones
Scarlet Dawn
October Sky

Beginning in 1995, I have used the raga form as a basis for composition. I program a computer and sound module using MIDI to perform my fully notated scores in real time with instrumental timbres and tunings from India, Africa, the Near East, the Far East, Indonesia, Latin America and Europe.

Raga ("that which colors the mind") is the musical form of Indian classical music used as a basis for improvisation and composition. It has developed over thousands of years, and is still a vital and evolving form of creative musical expression.

Ragas are timeless, individual melodic jewels possessing spiritual resonance, and unlimited developmental potential. The raga form originated in chants for a myriad of deities and manifestations of the five elements - water, fire, earth, air and ether. Ragas embody the organic laws which create interaction between the elements. They offer a vision of immortality, and union with the perfection of nature.

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. This is the language which computers and electronic instruments use to communicate, sending and receiving musical data . It has been widely used throughout the music world since the early 1980's.

I have gradually found the raga form to be a perfect and limitless system for the musical distillation of spiritual and intellectual energies. Ragas lend themselves to new manifestations in terms of both content and instrumentation, and that is why I can create my music, where composition and improvisation are one, using computers and sound samples. Ragas are based upon universal laws which are available to anyone who can absorb those laws, and then develop a new way of arranging them. In other words, ragas are not only for Indians, just as chess and yoga have transcended their Indian origins. After six years of working with this miraculous musical form, I have discovered that each raga becomes a different reflection of oneself, revealing whatever you have inside through the simultaneous prisms of rasa (expression), swaras (tones) and tal (rhythm).

In addition to Indian classical music, my compositions are influenced by jazz, rock, western classical, and the classical music of other cultures. One reason my music sounds different from other styles is due to the absence of the expressive gestures and characteristics of live musicians. Instead, I seek to take advantage of the musical capabilities found within the realm of MIDI.

Lee Konitz is one of the jazz artists who has influenced me the most over the years. As it turns out, his improvisations have more in common with great Indian classical musicians than any other jazz musician despite the fact that he never engages in modal improvisation, a musical form he does not enjoy playing within.

In recent years, I was astonished to recognize some similarities between my computer-performed music, and the playing of Lee's musical guru, the pianist, Lenny Tristano. Tristano is one of the most enigmatic figures in jazz history. In terms of originality and technique, he was equal to anyone, yet it is difficult to get a true sense of his accomplishments due to the limited number of recordings he left us. There is a smooth, driven and detached computer-like quality to his phrasing and articulation which I feel has some connection to my own music. On the other hand, I find there is a vast difference between our music in terms of its expressive nature.

Like Konitz, Tristano's improvisations are based upon jazz standards, popular Broadway songs composed primarily between roughly 1930 and 1960, which feature tonal modulations and complex harmonic structures. Ragas focus on pure melody and rhythm, without any use of tonal modulations and vertical harmonies.

I would like to take the opportunity here and now to point out the crucial difference between Indian classical music and jazz, a subject that is the cause of much confusion. Jazz musicians generally know little about Indian classical music, and vice-versa.

Indian classical music is based upon transcendental, divine sentiments (rasa), while jazz (and Western classical music) explores sentimental human emotions. This is the central distinction between the two art forms, other than the obvious technical differences in musical form which I touched upon above. My analysis is not a criticism of the great art of jazz, but merely a clarification of that musical form's expressive focus. However, I do believe that the raga form is a more profound musical system than anything found in the history of Western music, and that the musical principles ragas present are larger than Indian classical music alone.

Here is how Rabindranath Tagore described the difference between Indian and Western classical music: "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 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."

While it is obvious that I compose my music, it is also important to recognize that I am the performer as well, due to the fact that I create the performances of my compositions. It also appears that while some composers have used the raga form in the past, no one has used it to the extent I have.

My creative process begins with the conceptualization of a composition which is frequently inspired by a live performance or recording of a raga by an Indian master. This conceptualization may take anywhere from minutes to years. Once I am ready to proceed with my new composition, I feel like the music has already been internalized, though the specific details need to be rendered. Now the second phase begins, and I set about composing a complete, fully notated score using a personalized form of Western musical notation. I compose seated on the floor at a low table with a mechanical pencil, music paper and metronome, without the aid of any musical instruments. There is a remarkable connection between this approach to the raga form, and the approach taken by Indian musicians of ancient times. Prior to its becoming court music, an esoteric entertainment for intimate audiences, ragas were rendered as prayers to god by a single musician without any audience. These musical offerings were frequently held outdoors.

I regard my scores as composed improvisations, and I never go back and change a single note of a score, which may include up to seventy-five thousand notes or more. (I use pencil as a matter of convenience because a slip of the hand may be easily corrected.) When the score is completed, I enter the third phase, translating the musical score note by note into a numerically based software program for the computer. All of the musical elements including pitch, rhythm, timbre, tuning, dynamics, articulation, tempo and spatial placement (panning) are programmed in this third phase of the creative process. Now I have reached the fourth and final phase, where the computer is primed to trigger a multi-timbral sound module - a system that operates with the same basic principles as a player-piano. In this conceptual regard, there is a connection with Conlon Nancarrow's compositions. (One difficulty I have with Nancarrow's music is that he rarely allows it to 'breathe', a pitfall I have attempted to avoid.)

While I admire the music of some individuals working in the field, I generally find "interactive" composition/improvisation with different combinations of computers, digital/electronic instruments and live musicians to produce superficial results. The bottom line is that these composer/performers are still playing instruments for audiences, a method of music-making which I believe is not relevant for Western composers at this moment in time. Too often, the use of computers and electronic instruments for "interactive" composition/improvisation is a tedious exercise which recalls the serial music that permeated academia some years ago. For me, the real beauty of computers and digital/electronic instruments is to allow them to perform without any intervention. (On the other hand, there are many other forms of music performed by live musicians which I enjoy.)

Sometimes I am asked why I don't use abstract electronic sounds in my music. Again, while I admire the music of some individuals who focus on these sounds, I ultimately find these timbres to become tedious, like the soundtrack to a science-fiction film.

As Kandinsky stated: "Just because an artist uses 'abstract' methods, it does not mean that he is an 'abstract' artist. It doesn't even mean that he is an artist. Just as there are enough dead triangles (be they white or green), there are just as many dead roosters, dead horses or dead guitars. One can just as easily be a 'realist academic' as an 'abstract academic'. A form without content is not a hand, just an empty glove full of air."

I have found the use of acoustical samples to be much more beautiful and meaningful than abstract electronic sounds. Those advocates of only using electronic sounds, who somehow feel that the use of acoustical samples is immoral, don't realize that they are actually honoring a dubious "understanding" made in the academic world when electronic instruments first started appearing. The understanding was that traditional instrumentalists would allow composers to "fool around" with electronic gadgets, as long as they didn't threaten to "replace" the instrumentalists. There is no need for this arrangement. Live instrumentalists are distinct from composers who use sampled instrumental sounds, and there is plenty of room for both to exist.

Many composers were originally forced to use electronic instruments because live musicians and conductors ignored their music in favor of traditional European composers. Now that we can utilize the instrumental timbres of instrumentalists through digital technology, some will seek to limit us to the use of electronic sounds. My contention is that composers must have access to any sound their imagination desires.

Improvisation in music is a thrilling experience when practiced by masters of Indian classical music, jazz and other world music cultures. During my undergraduate years, I was an enthusiastic participant in "free jazz" or "free improvisation", and was fascinated with the music of the perceived leaders of these forms. However, I found myself to outgrow "free jazz" and "free improvisation", and its likely that the only music from that genre which has lasting value for me are some of the late recordings of John Coltrane. (I do believe that "free improvisation" is an important phase for any musician or composer to go through.)

Music we love "teaches" us on an intellectual, emotional or spiritual level, or any combination of the three, and as we mature and develop, some musical forms we admired in the past may be discarded, while other music continues to nourish us.

The expressive nature of my music is distinct from the expressive gestures produced by live musicians in general, and Indian classical musicians in particular. Some have argued that it is the bends and slides and other melismas which are the core of the raga form. I disagree, believing that it is the overall continuity, intellectual and spiritual substance, and cohesion of a performance which are the prevailing factors. This point was proven by Shivkumar Sharma, the master of the Indian santoor, a stringed instrument played with wooden mallets which cannot bend or slide inbetween notes. In contrast to Sharma, there are many Indian vocalists and other more traditional instrumentalists who can bend and slide notes extremely well, yet they lack the ability to develop their improvisations, and one grows bored with their music very quickly despite all the melismas.

One may argue that digital instruments are not as beautiful sounding as acoustical instruments and the human voice, and in some instances, that is a valid point. However, there have been many occasions where I attended performances or heard recordings by vocalists and instrumentalists with exceptionally beautiful voices and sounds who - similar to the example in the previous paragraph - were not skilled in developing their improvisations, and any sensitive listener wanted to bolt for the exit or eject the CD as soon as possible.

Musicality itself is not so rare, but the ability to organize musical utterances to create a compelling listening experience, both intellectual and spiritual, is out of the ordinary.

Computers, digital sound modules and MIDI are the new musical instruments of our time, and they have highly relevant expressive and technical capabilities which are inaccessible to traditional instrumentalists. My music has its own unique expressive gestures and techniques within this new musical realm which are woven into the fabric of each composition to enhance its individual nature. Even though my work is different from traditional Indian classical music, some believe my compositions fall within the realm of that genre. Others place me within the sphere of contemporary Western classical music, and there are those who feel my music represents the present-day evolution of jazz. Personally, I would like to call what I do World Classical.

My micro musical form is based upon moment-to-moment, and if you turn your attention away and lose the thread, you will not experience the true import of the composition. In this regard (micro musical form), my music is closer to jazz than to Indian classical music, the later (Indian classical music) having a surprising resemblance to Western classical music in its micro development. It may be said that I have combined the larger structure of the raga form (macro) with the inner processes (micro) of jazz.

Perhaps it is pure fantasy, but I hope that the way I have brought together musical influences from South Asia, the Middle East (I make extensive use of kemanche, kawala and ud timbres) and the West anticipates a world where people in these regions and elsewhere coexist peacefully with an elevated living standard for all, care for the precious balance and cleanliness of nature, and a focus on creative, beneficial pursuits.

For listening to my music I suggest a quiet atmosphere where you will not be interrupted. My compositions are a form of classical music, and the more attentively one listens, the more you will be rewarded. For some, listening to a full-length raga will be a developed taste. There are spiritual and intellectual components of this music, and it may be best to listen in a reclining position with eyes closed, or in a yoga meditation position. Listening on a diskman while walking through a pleasant environment is another excellent setting.

The packaging of my CDs - forty-four to date - is also unique. Azure Miles CDs are special edition audiophile quality recordings - superior to factory pressings - which I personally autograph. (My expertise in the field of digital audio has been recognized by the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology, which hired me to transfer rare and fragile recordings onto CD.) Searching for an alternative to the plastic packaging of CDs, I decided to use hand silkscreen and hand woodblock printed papers from Japan and India for CD covers. These papers are carefully chosen to enhance the unique musical content of each recording.

Azure Miles CDs are played on NPR, Pacifica and college stations alongside leading artists and labels. They are available directly from azuremilesrecords.com, and from CDeMUSIC.org, which is one of the world's largest distributors of contemporary classical music. There are also some individual retail stores which have begun carrying the CDs.

(Updated 23 June 2002 ~This manifesto/essay is frequently expanded and revised)
© 2002 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

Sea off France
Kaunsi Kanada
Chinese Legend

Michael Robinson
209 North Swall Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90211