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Stefen Robinson: Improvising Music When Words Fail

Stefen Robinson and his dog Kodo
Jamie Breeck
Stefen Robinson and his dog, Kodo.

What to do when words won’t describe the current political landscape in the United States? At least words that can be aired on the radio?

Bloomington multi-instrumentalist (and activist) Stefen Robinson improvised a nearly 32-minute instrumental piece to express himself.

Robinson records and performs as Yea Big. He also plays mandolin in the popular free-jazz group Disorganizer.

Album cover for "How Long, Oh (expletive)"

Robinson said "How Long, Oh (expletive)" is a commentary on "monotony, beauty, divisiveness, meaning, fragmentation, chaos, joy, suffering ... the death-rattling of empire ... In short, it's a record about the United States."

That’s a lot of ground to cover without words.

Robinson leaned on the tone poem model that utilizes a single continuous movement to illustrate or evoke the content of a poem.

“This piece represents the way I am feeling currently about what’s going on in the United States,” said Robinson.

The poem opens with a beautiful guitar piece that might evoke a sunrise. Robinson didn’t dislike the image, but said he must often remind himself to remember the beautiful things when critiquing his country. For example, his young son and wife that were sitting next to him in the GLT studio.

"I would rather live in a world where I didn't have to be part of an activist community."

“I’m a very doom-and-gloom person a lot of the time,” laughed the jovial Robinson, who said he often uses humor as a defense mechanism. “I’m very idealistic, but extremely pessimistic. There’s beautiful stuff happening all the time, so I have to remember that when I’m all doom and gloom. So in the music itself, I’m hoping some of it comes across as being quite beautiful and meaningful, and emotive.”  

Robinson’s previous Yea Big release, “The Wind That Blows As Mountains Flow,” was also a roughly half-hour single piece, but he used spoken word alongside the music to convey “a meditation on the Buddhist notion of emptiness and the necessity for radical social movements, past and present.”

He said for “How Long, Oh (expletive)" he didn’t know how to verbally express his dismay with how the U.S. government is conducting itself both at home and abroad, and how Americans are inflicting violence on each other.

“And I don’t know how to express that with poetry or lyrics other than just yelling obscenities,” he laughed again. “

A choice word did make it into the title. Robinson said it is a reference to the biblical Psalm 13.

“There’s a line in there in some translations that says, ‘How long, oh Lord.’ And it’s kind of this question, like, ‘How long are you going to allow these things to continue to be perpetrated upon us?’ So for me, it’s like, ‘How long, oh bleep?’ How long is this going to continue?” said Robinson.

Though the beautiful guitar part gradually morphs into dissonant sounds roughly halfway through the piece, Robinson introduced electronic glitches even in the early beauty. He said it represents the chaos and fragmentation even within the beauty.

“For example, taking my son to soccer practice is beautiful. But when I get there, I notice every kid on the field right now is white,” said Robinson. “Why is that? Where are the fields located? Who has the privilege and resources to be able to take time out of their weekday to take their kid to this very lovely, nice soccer practice?”

Robinson is a deep, sensitive thinker. He worries constantly about privilege and as an activist works to raise awareness to these and other issues related to the plight of poor and marginalized people.  

“So I’m thinking about the political and economic reasons for why it’s only white kids on the field in a very diverse community,” said Robinson.

And the music that helps him work through those feelings. As does the recent Terry Eagleton authored book “Why Marx Was Right,” where Eagleton attempted to dispel of the myth that Marxists don’t want to be Marxists.

“You know we have a Marxist analysis of politics economy and we’re involved in the activism we are involved in because we care about the world and people. I would rather live in a world where I didn’t have to be part of an activist community. I would like for that to be unnecessary,” said Robinson, who added that in an ideal world, all he would do … is make music.

Like this piece, but perhaps under more idyllic political circumstances for Robinson’s taste.

“The biggest inspiration for this record is probably Jim O'Rourke,” he said of the American post-classical composer who dabbles in American and European experimental and avant-garde music.  

“He famously mixed what I think as Wilco’s best record ("Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"). But Jim O’Rourke’s solo records are some of my biggest inspirations for my musical taste and what I want to do with music. He’s an amazing inspiration to me because he defies genre. And to me, that’s an inspiration,” said Robinson.

Robinson said he is planning a Yea Big show this fall in the Twin Cities. He said his free-jazz group Disorganizer will next perform in Bloomington at Nightshop on Sept. 25.

Listen to the entire GLT interview with Stefen Robinson, aka "Yea Big."

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