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Wind Chime Centers Stefen Robinson's New Three-Album Project

Stefen Robinson of Yea Big and Disorganizer
Stefen Robinson
Stefen Robinson's unveils his latest three-album project Saturday night at Nightshop in Bloomington.

Bloomington musician Stefen Robinson used a 50-minute recording of a wind chime as the center of his latest three-album project.

The mandolinist for the instrumental quartet Disorganizer and multiple instrumentalist for his solo vehicle Yea Big asked friends and members of the various bands he’s part of to record an improvised piece around the wind chime, using their instrument of choice.

As he tells WGLT, he intended to assemble all the recordings into a single recording.

“But what happened was, everybody sent me back their parts and it sounded like different albums,” said Robinson. “So, three or four of the people would send something back and they would work together really well. That became the record called ‘Spiritual Emptiness,’ which was the second in the series. All the guys in the band Shoshin Trio sent back their improvisations. And they all seem to fit together. That was the first one (album) that was called ‘The Shape of Emptiness Now.’

"Then all the guys in Disorganizer … the stuff they did … fit together. So that became the third in the series, which is called ‘An Emptiness Supreme.’ Each of these albums is named after an album by a saxophone player who's deeply influential to me. The first one is Ornette Coleman. The second one is Albert Ayler. Then the third one is Coltrane. There were some overdubs for the Disorganizer crew. One because part of the improvisation sounded like it could be developed into a melody. So, (saxophonist) Travis’ (Thacker) part isn't totally improvised. There's one section that I wrote out for him based off of an improvisation that I did. And so that became like the melody of the record.”

Music improvisation is generally thought of as playing off what others are doing on the bandstand or recording studio. Robinson gave it a different spin on this project by asking his improvisors to play off an inanimate object, albeit one that was musical.

“I was thinking they would have the same source material that was sparking whatever they were doing, and somehow it would fit together,” said Robinson. “And it did, with some modifications.”

He said he viewed the improvisations to the wind chimes as a form of meditation on the third album “An Emptiness Supreme.”

“As a practicing Buddhist, the concept of emptiness is very important. This idea that we're all interdependent, and impermanent and nothing has an inherent self-nature. So, part of that influenced this desire to have people record improvisations, absent hearing what other people were doing. Like there was this sort of empty space. That's why ‘emptiness’ is in every title of all three albums,” explained Robinson.

The press materials for “An Emptiness Supreme” suggests the album is a "metacognitive revolution.” Robinson nodded while saying he believes a political and economic revolution is needed to move beyond capitalism.

“And I think that for that to work in a way that doesn't create more suffering, there has to simultaneously be metacognitive revolution … we need to have sort of a revolution in the way we think about our thinking and observe our thinking and interact with our impulses and the things that natural selection has equipped us with, because a lot of it is no longer really useful in our current society. If we have some kind of revolution that tries to move us beyond capitalism to something more humane, but it's led by a bunch of reactionaries is going to be different, but just as violent, hierarchical, and coercive. If we're gonna have revolution, I want it to be peaceful, and that's going to require metacognitive revolution,” said Robinson.

Which is where the music becomes relevant to Robinson, believing free improvised music can help push metacognitive revolution.

“I really think that people creating free improvised art or writing music … whatever it is … can push the way we approach sound or visuals. It can push our thinking about it beyond the current conceptions of it and open us up to the possibilities that arise. Pre-cognitively, when I'm making improvised music, I'm doing things prior to thinking about them. I'm not thinking about modes, and scales and key signatures and stuff. And I feel like thinking that way about art has made my brain more capable of thinking that way about my existence and other forms of my life. Listening to free improvised music has allowed me to be more open minded and compassionate and understanding and able to live in the reality as it is, … before I impose my thoughts on it,” said Robinson.

Robinson somewhat passed on whether his intention was for the improvisors to dig into the meaning or idea of metacognitive revolution, or if he was essentially asking them to reprocess how they think about things, and specifically music in this case.

“Yeah, this is why (Disorganizer drummer) Michael (Carlson) should have been here because he's always giving me crap about this,” laughed Robinson.

“I actually try to tell people as little as possible. When I'm working on stuff like this, all I did was send people 50 minutes of wind chimes and ask them to record an improvisation to it. I'm processing all these different ideas and this different way of composing for myself and all these things that I'm not actually saying to anybody else. And so, ‘What do you want me to play, what instrument?’ And I was like, ‘It doesn't matter. Do what it sparks for you and then send it back to me … if you want.’ So, Michael is always making fun of me because I'm always withholding information from him that he thinks on the back end, he would have liked to have known beforehand. But then I would say to him, ‘it wouldn't have turned out the way it did if you would have known these things beforehand because then you wouldn't have had a beginner's mind. You would have approached it with ideas that would have gotten in the way of you acting more freely.’”

The Yea Big/Disorganizer album release show is Saturday night at Nightshop in Bloomington.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.
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