M e r u V i n a:
Composition and Performance Coalesce
by Michael Robinson

Mian Ki Malhar, Part-1 by Michael Robinson


In December 1997, I was invited to attend a lecture/demonstration given by Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka at the University of California at San Diego. As it turned out, I practically risked my life getting there because I had to drive through one of the biggest downpours on record from Los Angeles to San Diego via the 405 freeway.

My most meaningful memory from Shankar's talk was a story he told about his guru, Allauddin Khan, reacting to America landing a man on the moon. Khan had remarked upon the enormous time and effort made to make a journey deep into space, and said it was actually much more difficult and meaningful for people to explore the fathomless regions within ourselves, for that is where one finds the most profound meaning and enlightenment.

Given our complex and multifaceted world, where information and technological advances abound, creative artists may easily be overwhelmed by myriad choices and possible directions, yet finding a form and medium to work within is paramount to realizing our potential.

Having decided to make music composition my life path at the age of 23 (prior to that I was more involved with music improvisation), I feel fortunate that a series of seemingly random events led me first to choose pure computer-performed music as my medium of choice at the age of 28, and later, at the age of 38, I was drawn to Indian ragas for the musical form I would use as a basis for composition. (Between the ages of 23 and 38, my compositions were based on a variety of musical forms. Much of this music is found on the Azure Miles 1000 and 2000 series of recordings. Compositions based on ragas are found on the 3000 and 4000 series.)

Regarding the title of this essay, it was my desire to give a name to the "musical instrument" (representing the individual way I create music with a computer, sound module and music software) I compose for. Vina is the Sanskrit word for musical instrument, and it is used in a range of names for South Asian instruments, including the Rudra Vina and the Gatra Vina. I first thought of Compu Vina or Digi Vina, but dismissed these names because they are too cold. Next I thought to use the initials of my full name, Michael Eric Robinson, and combine them with a Sanskrit or Hindu word or name. Happily, I recalled Meru, as in Mount Meru, the heavenly mountain Hindus believe is the center of the universe. I even thought that the ever-developing and seemingly limitless capabilities and potential of music technology was appropriate for this name. (Obviously, I do not wish to suggest that my initials have anything to do with the center of the universe!)

Since I compose directly for the Meru Vina, and subsequently program a computer and sound module to perform my compositions in real time, I am creating both the composition and the performance. This makes me the composer and performer at once, and that is why I used the word coalesce in the title.

None other than Shivkumar Sharma, India's legendary master of the santoor, explained to me during our two interviews (1998 and 2003) how ragas originated thousands of years ago as a form of meditation and prayer; a method of looking inward through the miracle of sound. And this was not an entertainment for any audience. Rather, the music was sung or played in solitary fashion, frequently outdoors in a forest

As a composer of computer-performed music, I find strong connections between what Sharma described and how I personally approach music.

My compositions begin with solitary meditation on the overall mood and thrust of my desired musical utterance. This process may take anywhere from a few hours to a few years depending upon how my body, spirit and intellect (not to mention external events and influences beyond my control) reacts to the particular raga I will use as a basis for composition in relation to the capabilities of the technology I use to realize my musical vision.

I have found that the extraordinary, relatively unexplored and largely unique expressive and technical capabilities of pure computer-performed music are wonderfully qualified to assist me in making the inward search for meaning within the realm of music composition and performance.

What follows are some pertinent insights I have experienced during the composition of my two most recent compositions, Mian Ki Malhar and Dhani, both released in 2003.

Since my beginnings in computer-performed music, I have been attracted to the "detached, ethereal, and abstract" expressive capabilities of the medium, writing about this aspect of my music as early as 1986. In 2002, I was stunned to realize that the quality which attracts me is none other than the ancient Indian concept of anahata nada (unstruck sound). Ahata nada (struck sound) describes the sounds we experience here on earth, including all the sounds produced by people, animals and nature. Anahata nada is the silent yet pervasive vibration that yogis seek to gain union with in their meditations. It is believed to be the metaphysical principle of all physical manifestations in the universe. Using a computer as the performer, without any interference from live musicians, may be the closest we can get to expressing the state of anahata nada through music. Live musicians (whose range of expressive characteristics and nuances are very beautiful and effective in the proper context) are instruments of ahata nada, and that is why they are antithetical to my compositional musical vision. (Persons interacting with computer and electronic instruments during a performance definitely fall into the category of live musicians.)

Those who know me are familiar with the way my thoughts jump rapidly from one subject to another, sometimes without any obvious connection. (I am also fond of focusing in on one subject in minute detail.) One thing I love about composition is the way I can give free range to my speed of thought, and sometimes the resulting music may seem closer to the movements of a rabbit, squirrel or bird as opposed to a person. This is one example of how computer-performed music taps into areas inaccessible to traditional performers.

It appears that the vast majority of my contemporaries in the field of computer/electronic music believe it is the tradition of live performers that is most crucial to preserve within this new genre of music. I fundamentally and respectfully disagree. For myself, I believe that it is the acoustic timbres of the musical instruments developed in different cultures and countries over recorded time that are most crucial to preserve and make use of in previously unimagined ways. (These acoustic timbres are accessed through the technique of recorded samples, of course.)

While some exceptionally beautiful timbres (that I sometimes enjoy using myself) have been created via purely electronic and synthetic means, I find that the wide world of acoustic timbres remains unmatched in terms of pure beauty and variety. I mean, please let me know when science creates a food as delicious as a grape, an orange or a mango!

Some people simply cannot separate the sounds of acoustic timbres from the manner in which live performers play those instruments, and these individuals may have a difficult time enjoying my music. I would urge them to leave past prejudices aside and maintain an open mind. While some listeners take to my music immediately, three eminent music critics have actually taken the trouble to inform me that they found my music so unusual that it took multiple hearings before they began to appreciate and admire it.

For example, in the Jor and Jhala of Dhani, clarinet and jublag function as a jugalbandi (duet), alternating musical paragraphs. The effervescent quality of these instrumental performances is otherworldly, and this precise effect would not be possible for live performers on these instruments to achieve. This is one of the miracles of electronic music: the ability to take acoustical timbres, and have these distilled tone colors performed by the relatively unexplored expressive and technical capabilities of a computer and sound module; a practice anticipated by a wide range of musical pioneers including Conlon Nancarrow, with the familiar timbres of the player piano, and Bulent Arel, using the abstract electronic sounds of the historic RCA synthesizer. (Stravinsky was so excited about the later instrument, that he literally suffered a heart attack!). Some of the clarinet and jublag phrases used in Dhani's Jor and Jhala are reminiscent of the charming nightingales I hear during late evening walks. A periodic jegogan glissando provides a pleasing textural and linguistic contrast.

Speaking of the clarinet, I had an astonishing experience last year. You see, I attended a concert of chamber music featuring musicians from one of the world's leading symphony orchestras. One of the pieces on the program featured the clarinet, and perhaps it was a bad night for that musician, but the playing was tense and frequently out of tune. It was painful for me to listen to, and I discreetly got up and left as soon as possible. What I found most amazing on the way to the car was the realization that the clarinet timbre and performance I featured on a recent composition, Puriya Dhanashri, was much more beautiful and musical than the live clarinet player I had just heard. But there's more: Several other featured musicians from the same esteemed orchestra (including one who is first chair on another instrument), while they all played in tune, performed at a general level of musicianship that would not be acceptable for my own compositions. The point I'm making is not to compliment myself, but rather to point out that music technology has reached a point where such things are now possible. (I am not suggesting that we replace the live musicians in symphony orchestras! That would miss the point because this was and still is music written for the unique abilities of live musicians.)

It is obvious that I have been greatly influenced by the expressive techniques of live performers from jazz, Indian classical music, Western classical, rock, folk, and a wide range of world music traditions. All this is apparent in my music, yet it is a matter of degree, and it is evident that I am not attempting to copy these performance characteristics literally.

That said, there is sometimes a fine line between whether a computer or a live musician is the performer, and two eminent radio hosts were surprised to learn on-air while interviewing me that I do not make use of any live musicians!

In the final analysis, it is most important for any listener to enjoy music at whatever level of appreciation that may be. The method, medium or technique that was used to create the music is secondary.

How my music relates to rasa, the sentiments or emotions that the performing arts ­ music, dance and drama ­ in India are based on, is a subject important enough for me to devote an entire essay to. These sentiments/emotions are ideally projected and perceived on a transcendental (as opposed to sentimental) level.

In such as essay, I would describe with specific examples how I feel my music reflects (in its own way) bhakti rasa (devotional, spiritual), adbhuta rasa (wonderment, exhilaration, amazement), veera rasa (heroism, bravery, grandeur), hasya rasa (comic, humorous, playful), shringara rasa (creative force, erotic, romantic), karuna rasa (sad, loneliness, pathos), raudra rasa (reflecting the fury and wild abandon found in manifestations of nature such as thunderstorms and hurricanes) and shanta rasa (peace, tranquility and relaxation).

Shivkumar Sharma explained to me what a great challenge it was to find ways to perform ragas using the unconventional santoor, and I feel much the same way about the Meru Vina.

Ever since my beginnings in computer-performed music, I have been mindful not to use the medium's super-human technical capabilities, in regard to speed of execution, for its own sake. But for the third and concluding part of Dhani, super-human speed was integral to my compositional vision, and I planned to let out all the stops.

A Korean gong (jing), well outside its normal range, announces the opening of Dhani's third part, consisting of three gats, with a resplendent downward flourish, balancing the upward glissandos of the previous alap (first part), jor and jhala (second part).

The first gat presents the first family of skin percussion timbres (Near Eastern, Latin American, African and Indian) with a tempo of 200 beats per minute (bpm). A trumpet timbre announces the second gat, joined by the second family of skin percussion timbres (all Indian), and the tempo increases to 240 bpm. For the concluding gat, the tempo is a scorching 352 bpm, including phrases moving at the rate of 2,816 bpm. Here kemanche and cimbalom literally alternate playing each swara of the melodic voice, together with the family of wood, shaker, ratchet and metal percussion timbres (Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Latin American and Indonesian). Tremolos played by both percussion and melodic timbres suggest the rain forest sounds of monkeys, frogs, birds and insects. The second half of the third gat features solo percussion, balancing the solo percussion that opened the first gat.

Throughout the three gats, a Brazilian berimbau articulates the various tempos with two strokes per matra (beat), contrasting the abstract rhythms of the percussion and melodic voices. The jing also appears at various intervals of the first two gats with an upward moving chant; a Buddha reflecting upon the tumult of earth. For the third gat, the jing is replaced by the "wilder" sound of an Indonesian bell. At the end of the third gat, the jing returns to close the composition by repeating its opening phrases.

The cumulative effect of Dhani's three gats is akin to looking towards the sun. It is not easy to focus on all the details for the duration of the music. I am unaware - though I suppose it must exist - of any music that maintains such extreme tempos for such extreme lengths of time. Perhaps what this music aspires to reflect is the centrifugal dispersive force known in the Hindu cosmological conception of the world as Shiva. Super-human instruments may require super-human hearing capabilities, and all of the details of this music may be impossible to perceive. However, it was my intention to explore this remote region, and I am glad that I followed through on my original design.

Viewing Van Gogh's "Dr. Rey", on loan to LACMA from Russia, I was struck by the almost unbearable intensity and beauty he expressed; something that was too powerful for him to live with.

Sometimes I find the experience of listening to my own music to be almost overwhelming, and one way I keep centered is to think of the music as something removed from the physical world. The invisible, ethereal nature of how my music is produced seemingly out of thin air contributes greatly to this sensation.

I recently learned that Sanskrit is the most natural language for computer programming, and that an Indian spiritual leader, Pujya Pramukh Swami Maharaj, believes that divinities exist in technology.

I was glad to come across the following statement by Nikhil Banerjee: "I do not compromise with anybody or anything else in the world. I want to really go beyond this materialistic world. A musician must lift up the souls of the listeners, and take them towards Space." Similarly, when I interviewed Shivkumar Sharma for the second time in September 2003, he stated that the way he keeps centered is by knowing that divinities are manifesting through himself: he is merely the instrument.

Sharma's performances are enhanced by the custom kurtas he wears, along with the rings and gold chains materialized by his guru. For myself, I accompany my live performances with improvised abstract animations, and my CDs with carefully selected handmade papers from Japan, India, Nepal and Thailand.

Those familiar with my music know that I regard melody and rhythm (raga and tala) as essential equals. Here is an important insight I experienced during the composition of Mian Ki Malhar:

In traditional Hindu thought, the Absolute is formless, and this is why the fifth, transcendental head of a pancamukhalinga (a five-headed linga representing Shiva) is implied in the center of the linga, in contrast to the four clearly sculpted heads (each showing Shiva's different aspects) facing cardinal directions. While learning about the pancamukhalinga for the first time at the splendid Honolulu Academy of Art, I experienced a shock of recognition, for the description of the fifth head explains my personal preference for not using talas in my compositions based upon the raga form. In my musical quest to express the Absolute, and give voice to the unmanifest, I find the cyclic, repetitive nature of talas (rhythmic cycles of various lengths with an emphasis on the first beat) to be overly emphatic. Driven by instinct and adventure, and guided by my sense of flow, balance and contrast, I have developed a more abstract approach to rhythmic form analogous to the transcendental fifth head (related to Chidambaram) of a pancamukhalinga. The overall form and content of a musical utterance - whether it is one of my compositions based upon a raga, or a traditional raga improvisation - transcends the use of talas.

In closing, I recall the words Pandit Jasraj, the legendary North Indian classical vocalist, related to me several years ago. He told me that Narada, a saint, had once asked Vishnu where he lives. Vishnu replied that he does not live in heaven or the hearts of yogis. Instead, Vishnu explained that 'wherever my devotees sing I am there.'

In other words, God (meaning whatever God or faith or spiritual yearning one believes in or experiences) loves music, and I interpret that to mean an infinite variety of music. There are many different races, cultures, animals, fruits, bodies of water and infinite other physical manifestations here on earth, and so it is consistent that there should also be myriad musical forms, including new forms which arise from the creation of new technological musical instruments and the intermingling of diverse cultures.

- Michael Robinson, March 2004, Beverly Hills, California. © 2004 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

Michael Robinson
209 North Swall Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90211

e-mail: azuremiles@aol.com
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