While there are many great musicians who walk among us, it is very challenging to create something truly innovative and unique. The highly idiosyncratic Peter Manning Robinson is one who certainly is an exception to this reality. Already an acclaimed Emmy- and multiple BMI- winning composer, Robinson’s invention, the Refractor Piano™, takes his art to a whole new level of beauty and mystery. The music that he creates with this instrument is consistently new and surprising. Everyone involved, included Peter himself, never quite knows what to expect once the music is performed. He recently shared stories about his new invention, life’s challenges, his healthy lifestyle, and what to expect from his upcoming performances at LA’s Vortex Immersion Dome on May 6.
What inspired you to invent the Refractor Piano™?
I began playing the piano at the age of three. From the moment I sat at the piano, I was always unconventional in my music. By the age of twelve, I began building electronic gear and incorporating it into both my instruments and my music. This was the foundation for what would become the Refractor Piano™.
The Digital Age has definitely had a significant impact on the world of music. For many genres an electronic base is commonly used but your Refractor Piano™ seems more natural and raw. It seems like you are able to manipulate the instrument’s sound in totally unique and astounding ways. Can you explain how you’re able to transform the piano’s sound by applying techniques that go beyond the keys and the pedals?
I really see the Refractor Piano™ as a hybrid… only the acoustic piano is used as a sound source… no pre-recorded tracks, triggered samples, virtual instruments, or synths are involved… it is then “refracted” by my proprietary combination of hardware and software to create a new sound. My approach to music has always been the road less travelled. I love Dostoyevsky’s quote: “The enemy of great is good.” With digital technology advancing at such a rapid rate, this enables many to create “good” sounding compositions, but the amount of music available becomes so pervasive that truly innovative music rarely gets created and/or heard.
It is safe to say that much of art is inspired by a myriad of personal and collective struggles we face. One piece of work that stands out in your catalog is the hauntingly unsettling “Precipice.” Do you feel that most challenges can be converted to some form of artistic expression?
I believe that we must solve our challenges and obstacles through our creative gifts. One difficult situation for me started in my early 20’s. I developed severe tendonitis in my wrists that prevented me from touring for roughly fifteen years. I became angry and resentful during this period, but I never lost my hope that this condition would change. I was very fortunate to meet Phil Cohen, a brilliant teacher and innovator from Montreal who re-trained me using very unconventional playing techniques. Although it took some time, I’m now playing better than ever! From this experience, I truly learned about humility and great appreciation for my life!
Although your struggles have inspired you to master your craft, your healthy lifestyle is another huge influence. How does that assist with the creation of your music?
I can’t separate my life, my spirituality, and my music... it’s all the same. My conversion to veganism started quite early and when I started cooking and growing my own food, I discovered that certain foods vibrate at different frequencies. I use food and herbs as medicine and inspiration. Quite often, a new composition inspires a new recipe and vice-versa! After struggling with my physical obstacles, sustaining optimal health is crucial to my life… creatively and in every other way. I would never suggest or impose this lifestyle on anyone else…however, it works for me.
Your unique music can undeniably create a very compelling experience. In addition to observing your playing and listening to your sounds, would you say that experiencing your music would cause the listener to feel something different?
The nature of the Refractor Piano™ and the music I create with it has a mysterious and mercurial aspect to it. Although my compositions have clear motifs, colors, and structures, the aleatoric nature of the instrument means that no two performances are alike. I get to combine composition, improvisation, orchestration, programming, and conducting in a form and an instrument that has never existed. It also seems to create sounds and textures that the listener experiences through images and feelings ranging from evocative, beautiful, and exhilarating to unsettling and sometimes, downright scary. Each person experiences something different, each time!
Klaus Hoch has been your collaborator for many years in creating the Refractor Piano™. How has that partnership worked in creating the music and the refractor?
Klaus is my director/producer and the co-developer of the Refractor Piano™. He has a wonderful ability to push me to greater heights without sacrificing my esthetics. When I first showed him an early version of the Refractor Piano™ called the P-Mod, a multi-instrumental set-up, Klaus pointed out how unwieldy and large the setup was and suggested that we create a system built around only the acoustic piano. He was instrumental in developing the current combination of hardware/software and assembling the Refractor Piano™. In addition, what we call “musical environments” were shaped by both of us after years of trial and error. He is one of the few people that I trust to give me an honest opinion, musical or otherwise, and is involved with every aspect of the Refractor Piano™.
On May 6, Peter will perform on his Refractor Piano™at the Vortex Immersion Dome in Downtown Los Angeles. Event collaborators include Klaus Hoch, Refractor Piano™ co-developer, who also serves as the event’s director-producer, and award-winning projection designer Hana Sooyeon Kim. Purchase tickets to the show through Eventbrite Tickets. For more information, visit Peter Manning Robinson online at - www.petermanningrobinson.com
The Vortex Immersion Dome is located at 450 S. Bixel Street, Los Angeles, CA 90017