In reflecting upon music created by innovative composers and artists who venture off the beaten path, it’s almost become a cliché to use the descriptions “inventive” and “revolutionary.” Yet any discussion of Emmy and multiple BMI award winning pianist Peter Manning Robinson’s debut two-CD, 16 track collection Double Helix must include those terms because he’s not only charting a new sonic course for new age and experimental music, he’s using the first eight pieces on the project to introduce not only a whole new vibe but a new musical creation entirely with The Refractor Piano™.
In the realm of physics, refraction is the change in direction of a wave passing from one medium to another or from a gradual change in the medium. We usually use this term in reference to the movement of light, but Robinson and his collaborator, director and filmmaker Klaus Hoch, applied the concept to sound to formulate a new style of music called “refracted music.”
When you listen to trippy, avant-garde, breathy and strangely yet compellingly hypnotic pieces like the bright, infectious opening track “Surfing the Sunrise” or “vocal” percussion driven “Secret Sauce,” you’ll think Robinson is creating all this cool divine aural madness around the identifiable melodic acoustic piano passages with pre-recorded tracks, triggered samples, external sounds, string plucking or maybe MIDI instruments.
That’s traditionally how these kinds of fascinating, otherworldly tapestries of sounds are generated and compiled. But he achieves everything, both live and for the first time on a commercial recording, with an acoustic piano that is refracted. Beyond simply a fresh new way to express his eclectic musicality via unexpected twists and turns in the realm of possibility, The Refracted Piano™ is the culmination of Robinson’s lifelong work and experimentation with alternative forms of acoustic, electronic and Asian instruments.
“My vision of Double Helix was to create new music with a new instrument that would connect with people’s emotions in a positive way,” says the pianist, who co-produced the epic work with Hoch.
“The world is in such turmoil physically, politically and spiritually. Klaus and I wanted it rhythmic, melodic and emotional without huge climaxes and abrupt changes. The process took roughly 18 months from start to completion. Music, like life, is a constantly evolving journey. Although I have used synths and samplers from the age of 12, as technology evolved and people used them, I questioned what I could do that would be unique to my music. The Refractor Piano™ is a great foil to my solo acoustic piano creating. Everything I’ve done in the past led me to this moment.”
Which brings us to the fascinating album title, Double Helix – a scientific term that refers to the structure formed by double-stranded molecules of nucleic acids such as DNA. Hoch’s goal in working with Robinson was to showcase two aspects of the pianist’s music for this album – solo acoustic piano and Refractor Piano™ music. Though on the physical product, Disc One features the solo acoustic piano compositions and Disc Two features all the Refractor Piano™ pieces, it’s clear Hoch would prefer that we listen in different combinations to understand the contrast in stylistic approaches. He says, “These two strands intertwine to form the DNA of this music – the Double Helix.”
Serendipitously, the way the songs loaded into my cloud program, the Refractor and solo acoustic songs alternate (i.e. track 3 of the Refractor Piano™ set, the elegant, percussive and atmospheric “Moon Vines” is followed in sequence with track 3 of the acoustic, the gently impressionistic ballad “Enigma”). So you don’t overload your senses with a run of wild Refractor adventures, and to better understand Robinson’s keen duality, I would suggest listening to the 16 tracks this way. Specifically, following the snappy, frenetic and mind-bending Eastern flavored fusion adventure “Fugitive Heart” with the lively and fluid, ballet-like solo “Swimming With Ghosts” allows your brain to engage in the zig-zag journey, then breeze down to a more relaxed state of melodic beauty before hopping on the sonic roller coaster again. Likewise with the echoes, spaciness and clanging “Invisible Highway” and its tender graceful counterpoint “Sweet Shadows.”
Listening to Double Helix this way – as it seems Robinson and Hoch intend us to – makes the journey much more emotionally powerful and allows us to quickly juxtapose the dual sides of the pianist’s artistry so we can better understand the unique towering impact of The Refractor Piano™.