Piano virtuoso Peter Manning Robinson introduces the refractor piano

By Christina Campodonico

Emmy-winning composer Peter Manning Robinson says his refractor piano “like me, has a mind of its own.” Photo by Klaus Hoch

Emmy-winning composer Peter Manning Robinson says his refractor piano “like me, has a mind of its own.”
Photo by Klaus Hoch

Peter Manning Robinson’s house is a temple to two things — music and Asian art.

A reclining Buddha rests on its side near a black grand piano. A Japanese Taiko drum sits just off the kitchen, while water gushes from a Buddha head in the garden outside. A stringed instrument on spindly wooden legs — reminiscent of a Chinese guzheng — hides behind the front door.

Robinson, an Emmy-winning composer and pianist, estimates that he has hundreds of antique Asian instruments like these in his collection. When asked how he finds them, the musician is a little cryptic.

“These things find me. I don’t look anymore,” he says.

But one thing Robinson continues to pursue is his quest to make new and never-before-heard sounds.  He unveils his latest creation — the refractor piano — at a free concert at Bergamot Station Arts Center on April 28.

In case you’re wondering what a refractor piano is: It’s a computer whose software is hooked up to a piano. Robinson manipulates foot pedals, a small panel of buttons and knobs, and the piano itself to control the software, allowing him to modify in real time how the piano’s acoustic sounds are refracted or morphed by the computer. Two speakers project the resulting sounds, which sound truly out of this world.

When Robinson plays the instrument a whole new musical universe is born. The piano’s tinkling notes and vibrating strings sound as if they’re bursting from stars, ricocheting through black holes, cascading through time warps and drifting through space. By the time a song finishes you feel as if you’ve just gone to another galaxy and back.

More remarkable is that Robinson generates these fantastical sounds live, without the use of pre-recorded tracks, triggered samples, overdubbing, external sounds or MIDI instruments.

“Instead of something wholly derived from digital zeroes and ones, you have something that’s derived from metal and wood and ivory,” says Robinson, who literally turns into a one-man band when he fires up the refractor, playing composer, conductor, improviser, pianist and computer programmer all at once.

“It’s really like having a big orchestra of me’s,” he says.

But how exactly does the refractor piano work?

Robinson is reticent to go into the technical details, but he explains it like this, pointing to plant in a round glass vase filled with water on his kitchen counter.

“In science, refraction occurs when you take a wave, such as light or sound, and you pass it through some kind of a prism so the wave gets bent or morphed, but when you look at it through this prism, it’s changed,” says Robinson. “In the same way, if I was to take this plant and put it into a larger cylindrical glass bowl … the plant is the same plant, but when you look at it through the bowl it’s now morphed. So that’s kind of the idea behind this.”

Even then, playing the refractor piano isn’t an exact science.

“The refractor, like me, has a mind of its own. You think you’re zigging, but you’re zagging.”

Just like the waves of sound winding through his refractor, Robinson is more interested in bending the barriers between musical genres such as classical and jazz, electronic and EDM, than abiding by them.

“All these tribes have sort of their own rules. My whole thing is that, ‘No, you don’t have any rules for creating something wholly original,’” says Robinson. “That’s one of the precepts I use when I’m creating my music. I adhere to
no one in terms of what should or shouldn’t be done.”

So creating an entirely new instrument and genre of music wasn’t ever really a question of “if,” but “when” for Robinson, who started playing the piano at age 3 and touring with jazz groups at 12. He went on to work in the entertainment industry, composing music for film and TV shows such as “Without a Trace,” but he walked away from the show when he realized that he wasn’t making the kind of music that made his spirit soar.

“I’m put on the planet to make my music,” says Robinson with deep conviction.

He adds that you have to have a “liberated spirit” to play the refractor piano.

When he does, it looks like he’s finally found his bliss.

Peter Manning Robinson performs on his refractor piano at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 28, in the Writers Bootcamp at Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bldg. I, Santa Monica. Tickets are free, but click here for info.