Interview with Don Robertson (2009)
Diego Oscar Ramos
Diego Oscar Ramos is from Argentina and lives in Buenos Aires. Since he was a child, he has been interested in complementary paths of human expressiveness, from the written word to plastic and sound. He studied communication at the University of Buenos Aires and since 1993, he has worked as a freelance journalist in graphic media in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Spain.
Diego: It has been four years since our last interview and the discussion that we had about the Positive Music Movement. What progress have you made since then?
Don: We held a fantastic concert at the United Nations in New York City on October 22, 2004. Since that time, however, the members of the movement have each been working and progressing on our own. Personally, I stopped promoting the Positive Music Movement in 2005 because I realized that very few people understood what we were talking about.
Diego: Why is that?
Don: There are several reasons. First of all, many people did not realize that when the members of the group talked about positive music, we were talking about the effect that music itself has through the property of resonance, and not about song lyrics. Many people have not yet recognized the true power of the harmonic structure of music on the mind, body, and spirit. Also, since I was the one who introduced the term “negative music” back in 1968 and have been talking about positive and negative music for 40 years, some people mistook my involvement in the positive music group as a means for me to condemn negative music, and to foist my own ‘brand’ of music on other people. They believed that I was waging a war against negative music, or even worse, that I was trying to force my “positive music” on everyone else. Then there are many others who just thought I was crazy, or something like that. I decided to let the music that I compose and that I promote speak for itself, instead of trying to further explain something that most people didn’t understand. Those who are interested in understanding me further, my writings – starting with my first articles on the subject that were published in my 1970 book Kosmon – will always be available on the music education website that I started in 1997 www.DoveSong.com
Diego: This year is the 40th anniversary of your 1969 album called Dawn, recorded in San Francisco for Mercury Records’ Limelight label.
Don: Yes, you are right. The Italian label Akarma did a fantastic job of re-releasing my Dawn album on both vinyl and CD with beautiful accompanying booklets. The album has always had a cult following in Europe, and I was happy to see such an exquisite release in Europe, where my music is so willingly accepted.
Diego: The Dawn album was instrumental in the first presentation of your ideas about the polarities of positive and negative music, was it not?
Don: Yes, that’s right. One side of the LP record focused on positive music… the other on negative music. I purposely created an album that expressed both polarities. On Side One I presented the positive polarity of music, opening the album with my “Dawn” piece in the natural pentatonic (five-note) scale that is common the world over – it is the most harmonious of all scales – along with a recitation from the ancient holy scriptures called the Upanishads. At the end of side one, my friend Marsha reads a quotation from the Chinese book I Ching announcing the darkening of the light: this is the “link” to Side Two. Turn the record over and play side two and the music moves into the world of negative music.
Diego: What kind of music is this negative music?
Don: I had been working on two kinds of negative music… one for each of my lifelong musical ‘genres’: popular and classical. One of these kinds of negative music was what I call “duochordal contemporary classical music” that represented the evolution of my classical side, and the other was “heavy metal music” that represented the evolution of my ‘popular’ side – although the term “heavy metal” had not yet been invented. I had been working on this dark heavy-metal music for about a year. The idea had originally come from the group Blue Cheer, who were the very first heavy-metal band. Interestingly, Blue Cheer’s producer and my producer were one and the same: the late Abe “Voco” Kesh. The band rehearsed in the rehearsal studio next to mine in San Francisco. Abe Kesh not only unleashed the first heavy metal album with Blue Cheer, the first new age album with me, he also started a revival in gospel music by making Edwin Hawkins’ song “O Happy Day” a hit record when he introduced it on his disk jockey radio program.
I recorded my ultimate piece of heavy metal negative music that I affectionately called “The Bomb” in the Grateful Dead’s studio with their engineer Dan Healy. The music was so awful, so frightening, that when I went back into the control room after we had performed it, everyone in the control room, including my sister, was completely devastated… and my drummer had gone crazy… running around the studio naked, screaming. The Bomb was so negative that I was frightened to release it, so I only included a few seconds in two places on Side Two.
The title of the Dawn album was a purposeful play on my name, but it also referred to the dawning of a new age – an idea that I had picked up from reading Corrine Heline’s books about the healing properties of music. I had designed the front cover of the album to show me in black and white sitting on a pile of rubbish, with a beautiful sunrise, in full color, in the background… but the record company didn’t get it right. However, I created a powerful collage for the back cover that provided a very powerful description of the opposites of dark and light: a visual description of sides one and two. This collage on the back of the album is even more descriptive today than it was then because of the polarization that has taken place in America during the past 40 years. The Dawn album was prophetic, I have to say. When the album first came out, I asked people which side they liked the most, and the answer was always unanimous: everyone liked Side Two, the negative side, the best. I knew that I was ahead of time, and so I told them all that it would be 30 years before anyone understood what the Dawn album was saying. And it took this long, actually 33 years, before it was re-released by Akarma Records in Italy.
Diego: Interesting. Don, you have been talking about how you had two sides: one is classical music and the other is popular music. Can you explain what you mean by these terms?
Don: The popular music genre is the “music of the people,” you could say. Classical music is appreciated by a smaller number of people and is usually a more refined art. These two distinctions, popular and classical, exist in all cultures, as far as I have been able to determine. The popular music of my own American culture includes folk, jazz, country, rhythm and blues, gospel music… these are all ‘popular’ genres, the music for the many, and classical music, which originated centuries ago in churches, temples, mosques and courts, is music for the few.
Most people do not relate to pure classical music. Theirs is the music of the popular genre. However, there is a position in the middle, where the two genres meet, and I call that the pop-classical musical genre. I have loved, listened to and played both pop and classical music all of my life, and so have many of today’s composers. That is because of the tremendous strength of 20th century’s popular music and the weakness of the 20th century European classical tradition that embraced so much discord. There has always been a mid-point where classical and popular music merge. For example, Brahms composed his Hungarian Dances, and they were so loved by so many people that their earnings supported him, making his time available to write symphonies and chamber music. And… these same Hungarian Dances were an inspiration to composers of popular music that followed him, like the African American composer Scott Joplin who wrote the famous Maple Leaf Rag. Then there are the many examples of popular tunes that were lifted from classical works. During our current time, where so many people have become tired of the music that they are being fed by the five major corporations that control US media (and thus influence the entire world), and so they have turned to new avenues of popular music, and pop-classical music is one of them, as evidenced by Josh Groban’s 2007 Christmas album that was the best-selling CD for that year.
Diego: Back to positive music, you said that instead of trying to explain the difference between positive and negative music that you would let the music speak for itself. What have been doing since we last spoke? Have you been creating music?
Don: Absolutely. I have been very busy writing music and I have also been mastering and releasing albums of music that I had already composed but had not released.
Diego: First of all, tell me about the albums that you hadn’t released. Why hadn’t you put them out before?
Don: Of my total of eight digital symphonies, I had released only the first two: Anthem and Starmusic… both on cassette. I had not released my third digital symphony, Celestial Voyager, composed and recorded in 1984 and 1985, because I did not have the means to complete its digital orchestration. Being symphonic, it needed more digital instruments than I could produce with my Synclavier II computer instrument of that time. Over a decade later, after I had set up my second recording studio in 1998, I finished most of Celestial Voyager, but it wasn’t until late 2008 that I finally completed the entire symphony. The remaining five digital symphonies – numbers 4-8 – that I had composed between 1999 and 2003, I had not released because I could not find a record label that understood what I was doing.
Diego: Why was that?
Don: My music was just fuzzy to an industry that was so specialized genre-wise. My digital symphonies did not fit into the pre-conceived categories that had been established in the recording industry. Now I am releasing all my music on the Internet, on sites such as Amazon and iTunes. I am very happy that the Internet is breaking up the hegemony created by the handful of corporations that control entertainment in the USA.
Diego: What new music have you composed, and is it different than the unreleased albums that you have been releasing?
Don: The albums from before 2003 that I am releasing are six digital symphonies – numbers 3 through 8, and I am happy that they are finally being made available for people all over the world to enjoy.
Diego: What do you mean by the term “digital symphony”?
Don: I use the term “digital symphony” to describe symphonic works that I have created using digital technology instead of a symphonic orchestra. I created eight digital symphonic works, then after completing Symphony No. 8, I moved in a new direction.
Diego: What was that?
Don: I wanted to put words with my music. I am a writer as well as a composer, but I had rarely before combined my two expressions into a single work. In 2002, I began a serious study of lyric writing, and the result was a book that I wrote with my wife Mary Ellen Bickford, songwriter Jim Peterick, and Dave Austin. It is called Songwriting for Dummies, and it has sold over 60,000 copies so far. My name is not on the cover because I volunteered to leave it off, because four author names were too many for the publisher. It’s a very popular book here in Nashville, where I live… the “Song-Writing Capital of the World.”
My first compositions that incorporated words were my Three Sacred Songs for Piano and Choir that I wrote in 2003. It was natural for me to start with classical music songs first, as I had been composing digital symphonies for three years.
Following that I wrote another classical choral composition called Thrushes in the Moonlight, a setting of Robert Frost’s poem Come In. Then, between the years 2004 and 2007, I worked on two projects simultaneously, one a pop music project, the other classical. The classical composition is a big choral work for orchestra and chorus called the Jubilation Mass. My new pop album, actually pop-classical, is called Songs of Love and Joy.
Diego: Please tell me about the album “Take My Hand: Songs of Love and Joy.” What inspired you and how did you choose the singers?
Don: Diego, this album is a direct result of my wife Mary Ellen and I moving to Nashville in 2003. Nashville is famous for being the home of country music, but musically it is much more than that. For me it is the music center of America. Talented composers, arrangers, singers and musicians from all over have been moving here over the past few decades and it has become much more than just the recording capitol for country music. That is because of the ever-increasing number of independent artists who live here, and the recording artists who come from all over the world to record in Nashville and to draw on the tremendous talent pool and recording studios. In fact, the recording industry has spread all over the city into hundreds of innocent-looking homes, and an amazing amount of music is being produced here in every conceivable genre. Because of this, Mary Ellen and I were able to produce my new album of pop-classical songs, Songs of Love and Joy. I created most of the album with my Apple MacPro computer using state-of-the art sampling technology. Then, I invited my friends to join me at the Tracking Room and Wildwood Studios, two great studios, where we recorded vocals, and some live instruments.
Diego: Some people call your songs “Disney songs”. How do you feel about that?
Don: I feel great about that! My wife Mary Ellen and I consider Walt Disney to be one of the great artists of the 20th Century. This is a view that is slowly gaining acceptance as people are beginning to look back on the art and music produced during the last century and they see so much that is destructive. They are now realizing the accomplishment of this one man, Walt Disney. I am not talking about the Disney Corporation that exists today, which may well be the opposite of what Walt Disney envisioned, for all I know… that seems to happen to all great visions, but I am talking about the man I met in my childhood…who had traveled to Europe in 1935 where he collected over 350 books of art and folklore and sent them back to his studio in Southern California to incorporate them into what became the first works of art in a genre that he himself created: the animated film. The fact that Walt was extending the European art tradition as a basis for his vision was documented two years ago in the “Il était une fois, Walt Disney” exhibit that was presented at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris at the end of 2006. Walt knew how to mix pop with the classical and was successful at doing that. He was a big influence on me during my childhood, plus I personally met him at the Garden of the Gods Country Club in Colorado Springs during the 1960s.
Diego: Let’s turn to your classical side. Please tell me more about your “Jubilation Mass”. Why did you choose to set the catholic liturgy to music?
Don: The setting of the mass liturgy is one of the oldest forms of classical music, dating back more that ten centuries, and I have been a student of this tradition from Gregorian chant forward for almost forty years. Therefore, it was a very natural thing for me to adopt the Latin text set by so many great composers through the centuries: from Josquin, Palestrina, and Victoria to Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, Mozart, and Dvorak. My Jubilation Mass, however, belongs to a new era of classical music, that of the 21st Century… a context that, naturally, has only been evolving for less than a decade. My goal is for this work to be performed in churches, temples, mosques, schools, concert halls, and theaters all over the world, in every country. Sacred music need not be limited by religion and culture… its language is the universal language of spirit, not the dogmatic language of man. I have used a powerful text that has been the spiritual tool for centuries of Christians in Europe, and then I eliminated from the text all that I considered to be dogma. I want everyone to feel spiritually free with this spiritual music that I have written, just as I feel free spiritually with the chanting of Vedic hymns or while listening to the songs of Tagore or the passionate singing of Om Kulthum.
Diego: Do you feel that the Obama Era and the expectation of a worldwide change is a good time for positive music?
Don: There is no doubt that a tremendous change is taking place in the world today with the election of President Obama and the rejection by the American people of the policies of the previous administration. However, I don’t look to politicians to solve problems. We all must participate in the coming needed global change… and the global economic crisis and climate activity is waking up many people to this fact.
The lesson of the 20th century was that social and economic progress takes a toll on the planet and its resources. Every advantage that we have gained and every convenience that we have created for ourselves have had their price. Basically, we are now realizing that the gains of the 20th century were paid for with a gradual self-destruction, and this destruction is reflected and substantiated by the discords that became a part of both our popular and classical music. In the 21st Century, we have to part with the old ways. Each and every one of us is faced with the decision to adopt new ways of living to attempt to bring about a balance and harmony with nature and with each other. But before this planetary healing can take place, the music must change. We must go back to the teachings of Pythagoras and Plato and create our music using the harmonious building blocks of nature: the natural harmonic overtones that are inherent in everything, and we must rediscover the great music of all cultures and times…our planetary musical heritage.
Because of the importance of music in everyone’s lives, and because of the tremendous effect that music has on life itself, planetary change – which has become a requirement in this 21st century, if we are to survive – must begin with music. That is why I am writing both classical and popular music and encouraging the young generation of composers and songwriters, some as young as 12 years old, to be inspired to write great music and songs.
Diego: And how are you accomplishing that?
Don: In 1997, Mary Ellen and I initiated a project called “Musical Kaleidoscope.” I had been collecting valuable music for many years. The last decade of the project, ending in 2002, was dedicated to collecting rare recordings of America’s great popular spiritual heritage: gospel music. After we had built up a historical library of great recordings that specialized in European and North Indian classical music and both black and white gospel music, we dedicated an entire year to digitizing and photographing the collection. Little of the music-loving public has heard much of the great music that we have collected, and it is our intention to give it back to the world through the Musical Kaleidoscope project. Originally conceived of as a radio show, now the project is much more than that, encompassing video, vloging, and tweeting as well. I am very excited about sharing my own personal musical discoveries with the world.
We will be launching the project’s website www.musicalkaleidoscope.com within a year. We want to help bring the world’s great music to the world. We will also begin publishing my composition studies to help young composers learn the craft of composing and songwriting not from rules, but by examining the works of the composers themselves… a level of education that has now become available because of the Internet: the greatest advancement in communication since the first printing of the Gutenberg bible.
Diego: Fantastic! And how do people find you and your music on the Internet?
Don: In addition to my own music website www.DonRobertsonMusic.com, I have two other websites:
1 – A website dedicated to both my album “Songs of Love and Joy” and the single “Take My Hand,” sung by Ashe Owen with the Settles Connection: www.TakeMyHandSong.com.
2 – A website dedicated to my Jubilation Mass: www.jubilationmass.com.
My wife, Mary Ellen Bickford, has created a video for the song “Take My Hand,” and it is available on You Tube, and on the “Take My Hand” website as well. It’s a fabulous video, and like my Celestial Voyager album, it has a history: Mary Ellen was able to incorporate footage of the “Hands Across America” event of 1986 that she was instrumental in capturing on Imax film.
Diego: Great, thanks for taking the time for this interview.
Don: Don’t mention it. It is always a pleasure to work with you, and I am very happy that you are doing so well with your work!