Michael Robinson: Lahaina Lanterns
Azure Miles Records

Michael Robinson: Lucknow Shimmer
Azure Miles Records

Los Angeles-based composer Michael Robinson brings his Indian raga-styled compositions into being using the Meruvina (Meru derived from Mount Meru, which the Hindus regard as the center of the universe, and Vina the Sanskrit word for musical instrument), in essence a software-hardware mix of computer, sound module, and music software that enables him to perform his fully notated scores in real time; in a typical Robinson work, sound samples of acoustic instruments from multiple world cultures appear in long-form settings of powerfully hypnotic character.

Two references help bring the particular character of Robinson's music into focus: the first derives from interviews he conducted with santoor master Shivkumar Sharma, who explained to Robinson how “ragas originated thousands of years ago as a form of meditation and prayer, a method of looking inward through the miracle of sound”; the second comes from the composer himself in stating that his music “is intended for close, even meditational listening, with elements of both adbhuta rasa (exhilaration) and shanta rasa (tranquility).” One finds all such elements well-accounted for in Lucknow Shimmer and Lahaina Lanterns, two 2013 recordings that speak strongly on behalf of Robinson's artistry and approach. By way of background, he has amassed an incredible body of work, with something in the vicinity of 100 CDs of music available from his Azure Miles Records label. Robinson's musical education includes formal studies at the Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam and CalArts, plus private studies in Indian classical music with Harihar Rao (the senior disciple of Ravi Shankar) and jazz improvisation with saxophonist Lee Konitz. He's been the recipient of numerous awards, among them the Louis Armstrong Award for jazz improvisation in New York and six grants from Meet the Composer California.

Let's start by noting how attractively the releases are presented, with both featuring cover art of handmade paper from India and the music presented on archival quality gold CD-Rs. Let's continue by noting how convincingly natural the instruments sound on the recordings, despite the fact that they're all generated by the Meruvina (a simple scan of the instruments listed provides an immediate hint of the sound-worlds contained on the discs, with clarinet, trumpet, furin bell, udu, dhol, dholak, tabla, and tamboura common to both). Let's also note that all the music presented in the pieces was performed in real time without overdubbing, and that both releases include liner notes that provide extensive detail, technical and otherwise, for each release.

Lucknow Shimmer presents itself as a forty-three-minute stream of uninterrupted radiance. Against a backdrop consisting of two main elements, a locomotive dance music pattern (presented at an unwavering tempo of 152 BPM) and a tamboura drone, an ongoing dialogue occurs between skin drums and melody instruments. In a brilliant move, Robinson structures the piece so that there isn't one but instead three sections of equal duration, with the onset of each announced by the repetition of an entrancing theme (with each section intoned by a different instrument: kalimba, furin bell, and spokes bell) and the skin drums different within each section, too (lower-pitched in the first, higher-pitched in the second, a combination of both in the third). A harmonious mood of controlled jubilation establishes itself as fluttering drums and lead voices (shahnai, trumpet, and clarinet respectively in the sections) keep up a constant, ecstatic exchange. Each appearance of the theme is itself a delight, not only for how mesmerizing its chiming melody is but for the ululating babble of three cuicas that follows its statement every time. It's telling that the compositional process for the piece began in Los Angeles and then moved to Honolulu (Kaimuki, specifically) and Kula (on Maui) before being completed in Los Angeles, as the material exudes a breezy, fleet-footed, and open-air quality. Amazingly, Robinson had to input more than sixty thousand individual events (one at a time) to render the composition into physical form.

Unlike Lucknow Shimmer, Lahaina Lanterns presents two parts of similar duration but markedly contrasting character. With textures and melodic patterns washing over the listener for twenty-three minutes, “First Part” achieves a kind of celestial shimmer in its merging of tinkling bells and chiming melodic phrases. The material for the piece originated out of grand piano improvisations conducted in Lahaina, Maui that resulted in simple yet attractive harmonic sequences Robinson subsequently paired with a pulsating, hurdy gurdy-like background (produced by four Chinese qu dis) and bell textures (provided by the Japanese furin bell). This first half of Lahaina Lanterns eschews the motorik propulsiveness of Lucknow Shimmer for an overall effect that's soothing and relaxing, and not in any way objectionable for doing so.

Lahaina Lanterns' “Second Part” shares certain things with Lucknow Shimmer: a tripartite structure that sees a single melodic instrument featured in each section, in this case clarinet, pipa, and trumpet; different percussive treatments within the sections (tablas first, then udu, dhol, and dholak bols, and finally all in the third); and a background tamboura drone as an omnipresence. But, like the first part, it's not anywhere near as intense as far as propulsion is concerned, though part two is the more rhythmically assertive of the two. The arrangement is also less dense, which means that the interaction between the drums and melodic instruments is entirely—the tamboura drone aside—the focus of attention. No repeating theme announces the transition from one section to the next, but timbral contrasts make the changes obvious. While Lahaina Lanterns' two parts clearly differ, there is something common to both: in the second part the clarinet, pipa, and trumpet all follow the same pattern of chords and ragas as in the first part, though it's less easy to detect as the chords are not voiced explicitly in the second part.

Of the two recordings, Lucknow Shimmer is the one that impresses me more simply for offering a near-perfect encapsulation of Robinson's artistry and approach and for being the more dynamic of the two. But each deserves to be taken on its own terms, which makes the idea of comparing them seem rather misguided. In simplest terms, they're both quality recordings and both deserving of recommendation. That they make me want to investigate the other releases in the Azure Miles Records catalogue is clearly a positive comment in itself.

March 2014