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Stefen Robinson: No Apology For Album Advocating Peaceful Coexistence

Stefen Robinson in his home studio

Stefen Robinson qualifies his thoughts even before he voices them. He wants to clarify that his new album under the moniker "Yea Big" has words and concepts that may raise a few eyebrows in central Illinois.

“Everybody has preconceived ideas, notions and conceptions about things. So when I used words like anarchy or anarchism, or when I talk about Marx or Guy Debord on the album, people in our society generally have associations with those words that are negative. To a large extent, I would need to sit down with people not familiar with these ideas to explain what they mean,” laughed Robinson.

That’s the disclaimer. Now, how to describe “The Wind That Blows As Mountains Flow.” Robinson gives it a shot on his bandcamp page:

“This recording is a meditation on the Buddhist notion of emptiness and the necessity for radical social movements, past and present.”

"That's accurate," said Robinson chuckling again. "You've got to say something."

How ‘bout this take?

A sonata in 3 movements USING Free Jazz/Ambient Music/Avant-Garde Rock as a musical base to rap about the interconnectedness of life -- and the need for darn near anarchy.

"I should not have to apologize for advocating for a vision of the world that is rooted in peace and love."

“That … is a good description,” giggled Robinson. “I think I should use that on my webpage."

The first three minutes of Movement-1 of the “sonata” is a meditative drone that seems to be building to a payoff, though Robinson deflected the meditation depiction.

“This music I use is a lot different than what I practice as a Buddhist,” said Robinson. “The type of meditation we practice in this tradition I’m a part of is ‘basically sitting as still as possible and observing everything and letting everything go as it comes.’ It’s called shikantaza, or ‘just sitting.’ So that obviously is different from this music.”

Yea Big "The Wind That Blow As Mountains Flow"

Back to the Buddhist notion of “emptiness,” which is the heartbeat of this album. Robinson again signals “time-out” in order to qualify his description of the concept, saying it’s difficult to put into words.

“The concept of emptiness is a way to summarize the way everything is completely interconnected and interdependent, and everything is always impermanent and constantly changing from fraction of a second to fraction of a second. And if everything is totally interdependent and subject to change, nothing has an inherent static self-nature,” he explained.  

For example?

“I mean what we refer to as ‘you and I’ and ‘that chair’ are temporary manifestations of the interdependent matter and energy composing the universe.”

In other words, he can’t point at a chair and say, "That’s a chair for eternity."

“It’s not going to be a chair forever. It has no self-chair nature. It’s just a chair right now,” said Robinson.

Elsewhere on the album, he was also metaphysical about time.

“The future don’t exist until it’s in the past, and understanding who controls it, is understanding power.”

“Part of that is a reference to George Orwell, but I teach sociology, and most things in that field come down to power dynamics. I talk about the three dimensions of power on this record, which comes from a political scientist named Steven Lukes. I read about that in a book about a case study of Appalachian coal miners and why they didn’t start unions and resist the dominance of the coal corporations,” said Robinson.

He said a lot of the analysis reduces to a dimension of power where people internalize the status quo as justifiable.

“Because you’ve internalized the logic of the people who are oppressing you,” said Robinson. “You don’t even see there is a problem. So if the people who control what we understand about the past can control today, then they can control the future. And if you don’t understand that power dynamic, you can’t understand your past, your present, or your future.

This is an intense album. In addition to more spiritual issues, it also addresses more polarizing political issues, including anarchy. After the opening three-minute drone, Robinson opens the dialogue with a verbal bomb:

“Like Avalokitesvara with a Molotov in a cup, hear the cries of the world then blow it up, stone fresh but this stone don’t know death, y’all act like you ain’t heard the news yet.”

“The way I understand it, Avalokitesvara is a mythical Bodhisattva, a person that hears the cries of the world and then tries to do something about it. But I’m struggling with ‘what do we do about it?’ There is so much violence in the world,” said Robinson.

But there always has been.

“Yes, but it takes on new forms, and we now have the capacity to literally end life on the planet with the technology we now have and the insane people who wield that technology,” said Robinson.

He attempts to express what he perceives as his role in the “insanity” through Yea Big. It begins with channeling his inner Avalokitesvara to “hear the cries of the world.” His struggles with how to convert listening to action.

“I’m a staunch pacifist,” explained Robinson. “So when I say, ‘Hear the cries of the world then blow it up,’ part of me is being metaphorical. But part of me is acknowledging the very real tendency humans have to try to solve problems through violence.”

Repeating the albums opening line, he exclaimed “That’s what we do. We see suffering somewhere and what do we do? We drop bombs on it. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

So the line is more observational and less a call to action?

“Well, it is an observation. But it could be taken as a call to action, but not in the literal sense. I’m not advocating people bombing their way to peace. I believe that is impossible. I believe A.J. Muste, the guy who started the Fellowship of Reconciliation, when he said, ‘Peace is not the goal, peace is the path toward the goal.' You cannot expect to achieve peace through other means,” said Robinson.

Digging into the sharp verbal jabs Robinson throws as Yea Big on “The Wind That Blows As Mountains Flow” can have listeners Googling historical figures in anarchy and political dissidents. But not to be lost in this 30-minute social commentary and explanation of Buddhist emptiness … is the music.

Robinson said he originally planned four movements.

“Once I got into it, the fourth one wouldn’t work, because it was just going to be 10 minutes of silence, that was dumb,” he laughed. “But I had rough sketches. I knew I wanted it to be 'droney' at the beginning and pick up in the middle, and then really be sparse in the end. But I really didn’t know what was going to happen until I began recording.”

The musical intensity increases during the second movement. Robinson used an array of instrumentsto create a dissonance that sounds like a warning signal, or a European ambulance.

“Well on the record I play electric mandolin, drums, percussion, electric base, violin, saxophone, guitar, and keyboard. I think that’s everything,” said Robinson.

A month is all it took to conceive, write, record, and edit the album, though the ideas for lyrics are always swimming in his head.

“You know there’s a line in the record where I say everything I write about is about the same thing, and it’s true. I’m always thinking about what’s going on the world and what is our role and responsibilities to decrease suffering,” said Robinson.

Any worries an album with imagery of blowing things up, advocating the virtues of anarchy and even dedicating the album to Marx will create blowback for him as a teacher at Normal Community High School?

"First of all, I don't use my power as a teacher to force my ideas on people," said Robinson. "This is my art that I do outside of school. I should not have to apologize for advocating for a vision of the world that is rooted in peace ... and love. I'm advocating and trying to work for and create a world in which we do everything we can do decrease suffering and live together peacefully. That's what the anarchist vision is. It's a vision of peaceful coexistence in co-operation with one another without people ruling us. That is the most beautiful vision I can image for society. The idea that I should have to be afraid that people are going to be mad at me for advocating for peace ... is ridiculous.

Stefen Robinson and nine friends will perform Yea Big's “The Wind That Blows As Mountains Flow” in its entirety for what he said is "one time only" on Saturday, Oct. 28. It's also the release party for the album. Venue information can be found by contacting Robinson on Facebook. DISORGANIZER will also be playing a set or two following the Yea Big performance.

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