In spite of our notions that music is a universal language (to quote Longfellow, "Music is the universal language of mankind"), in practical, everyday terms, the barriers separating the different forms and possibilities of musical expression are so high as to rarely be breached. University professors of composition are not heard in public playing death metal, and those able to improvise over jazz standards are not heard in sessions of traditional music at Irish pubs. The situation is more fluid in the visual arts, where graffiti artists may exhibit alongside those with more traditional training, and there is a well-developed concept of "art naif," or the related "outsider art".
For a variety of reasons, memorable and valuable "outsider music" which falls within the canons of what we think of as concert or classical music is almost vanishingly rare. Perhaps the most well-known example of an outsider composer in classical music is that of Charles Ives (1874-1954), whose father was a bandmaster in Connecticut, and who himself went on to study formally on the undergraduate level at Yale University, but who turned his back on a life in classical music and went to become wealthy in the insurance business. A major difference between visual art and music is the amount of commitment, beyond that of the creating artists, for the artistic experience to take place. An exhibit of naive art must be hung and publicized, yes, but the interaction with the individual work can be as long or as brief as the viewer chooses. A musical concert, on the other hand, requires re-creative artists in addition to the original creator, and takes place in time, in a social situation with strong constraints against simply standing up and walking out. For all these reasons, your reviewer thought more than twice about going to take in the evening of world premieres by local composer Bill Robinson.
Robinson (b. 1955), like Ives, has an unusual trajectory for a composer of concert music. He studied piano and violin as a child, began to study composition in 1972 while a student at Phillips Andover, and finally took a BM in composition in 1984 at the University of North Texas. In the last ten years he has taken a second bachelor's and a PhD in physics at NC State, and is now a lecturer in physics there. Robinson, a very noticeable figure, tall and slender, and wearing a white tail suit (the jacket bearing multi-colored inscriptions in Sanskrit), white tie, and white (but scuffed) tennis shoes, introduced his works at the beginning of the program.
The way in which he presents himself, along with his work titles and movement titles, using a heavy load of irony, encourage the message that "this is not serious music, we are just having some musical fun here," in the same way, indeed, that Ives did at times (with a work entitled "Some South-Paw Pitching," among others). At the same time, the dimensions of the individual works, and the dedication given to the presentation of the works (Robinson has recorded nine CDs) speak otherwise.
The evening included four works, one each from 2006 and 2008, and two from 2010. Beginning the program was a trio for oboe, violin and piano, Aditya Hridayam, named for a mantra from the Ramayana, structured in three movements, the first moderato, the second slow and lyrical (this one bearing the name of the mantra), and the closing movement a "twisted jig." Robinson's language here was conservative, but not harking back all the way to the 19th century – perhaps to about 1910 or so, and drawing on the impressionist French composers most of all. It was sensitively played, particularly by the excellent Joseph Robinson on oboe.
Next up was A Major Piano Sonata, interpreted by John Noel, in three movements – "Heavy Pedal," "Roll Over Stockhausen," and "Tell Chuck Berry the News." Here Robinson went back to the well for more Gallic sounds, particularly in the first movement, which was full of whole-tone scales, and drawing from Debussy and his preludes above all. Movement two was a bit more modern, and the third, marked "Allegro knucklebuster," only sounded so at the very end. Here was a case where Robinson's titles were counterproductive, as they promised far more than they delivered, with nothing of either Stockhausen nor Berry evident to the ear.
The two works from 2010 heard after intermission were far more satisfying. The string trio of Eric Pritchard, violin, Yoram Youngerman, viola, and Elizabeth Marshall, cello, was heard in Birthday Trio, and here one began to listen to Robinson's original voice, without being enmeshed in the sources that he was borrowing from. This is a strong work, particularly the closing slow movement ("Seasonal Affective Music"), and it was beautifully played. Any composer would be happy to have such fine and dedicated artists as his advocates. Pritchard (joined by Stephanie Vial, cello and Vincent van Gelder, piano) was heard once more in the closing trio, Three Kinds of Music, of which the most striking and accomplished movement was the "Angel Music", in which Robinson varied a chant-like melody.
Robinson would certainly like to be evaluated as a composer, rather than as someone who happens to compose. On that basis, this concert revealed an artist who has incorporated little of the musical idiom of the last century into his language, and one who could strive harder to vary that language and his approaches to musical problems and their solutions. On the other hand, unlike some university composers who squander their musical talent and training by spending their time on administrative rather than artistic matters, Robinson is a true artist, one who simply must express himself, and who lets his music be heard in spite of any external constraint.