Robinson’s ‘Musical Journey’
Waldoboro — Aaron Robinson has been plying the keys since he was a teen, but his latest work is from a different board. Robinson, who grew up in Waldoboro, returns to town Saturday afternoon, Feb. 16, to share his book “Does God Sing? A Musical Journey” at his hometown library.
Robinson, who for years has said “I don’t do nature,” writes about the bucolic pleasures of growing up surrounded by it; and about being raised immersed in the Nazarene church. Both have informed his life’s work, which began as a teen when he tried his hand at the piano and quickly became a keyboard player expert enough to work professionally. As a 16-year-old Medomak Valley High School student, Robinson became the pianist/organist at two peninsula churches, playing Sundays at Cushing’s Broad Cove Community Church at 9:30 a.m., then driving farther down to play the 11 a.m. service at Friendship United Methodist Church.
In his book, Robinson notes two local church experiences that set him on his course: hearing a packed North Waldoboro Church of the Nazarene resonate with a cappella four-part hymn singing; and a terse bit of encouragement from Broad Cove’s late Estelle Saastamoinen, who told him that “all music comes from God.” Robinson, whose career has included musical theater, concerts, film scoring and church music, took that observation to heart, but his devotion to public music roles almost took his life.
“I’ve gone from the podium to Pampers,” he said during lunch the last week of January, handing his infant son a toy cell phone to play with at the table.
Robinson still sports a boyish grin and looks healthy and happy these days, but five years ago he was underweight, exhausted and so sick he had to take a few months of medical leave from his job as musical director, choirmaster and organist at Portland’s Immanuel Baptist Church and multiple other musical commitments in the area.
“I was so, so sick! When you’re a professional musician, you never want to take time off because of the fear of being replaced. But after all those years … I never went back, to the public, I mean,” he said.
Now 40 and the stay-home caregiver of his and wife Kristen’s 9-month-old son, Robinson is concentrating on composing and publishing music; creating recorded scores for theatrical productions and film; recording; and, thanks to “Does God Sing?”, writing about music, something he has done over the years for periodicals, lectures and countless program notes.
Robinson, who studied composition at the Boston Conservatory with John Adams and Lawrence Thomas Bell; and film scoring at the Berklee School of Music with John Williams, credits MVHS staff members with encouraging his and giving him the start he needed.
“The ‘80s were a great time to grow up in SAD 40, the arts were so strong! I was not academic and I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for the instrumental people at that time,” he said, giving special mention to then principal Ronald Dolloff.
By his late teens, Robinson was already well ensconced in a life of creating, performing and producing concerts and theatrical productions. The latter included “Moody Blue,” an original musical for MVHS; and “On This Island” with Arthur Hall, and “Big River” for the former Midcoast Children’s Theatre, both presented at the Waldo Theatre. In his book, he credits “Big River” for introducing him to the music he has since become best known for — ragtime, blues, gospel and Negro spirituals.
“I cannot explain it (Lord knows I’ve tried), but there is no definite link that I can find that would form such a strong bond between this style and music and me,” he writes.
This interest led to such accomplishments as producing the world premiere of a concert version of Scott Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha” and, in 2004, arranging and conducting Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity — A Gospel Celebration,” which was documented for public television and resulted in a best-selling Christmas gospel album.
“Black Nativity,” which began in 1961 as a one-off concert that was recorded and distributed as a record, was brought to Robinson’s attention by Anthony Antolini during a time when Robinson was working for Bowdoin College’s music department. The connection will come full circle this fall when the Midcoast’s Down East Singers, directed by Antolini, will begin rehearsing the work, which will soon have, for the first time, a published score, thanks to Robinson, for the ensemble’s Christmas season 2013 concerts.
There is no questioning the cultural value of such events as Immanuel’s lauded “Black Nativity” or North Haven’s “Islands,” which Robinson conducted on Broadway a few weeks after 9/11, so his calling the work he did for 20 years “fast food music” is not his way of demeaning it. Rather, the term captures the repeated cycle of preparation, performance and putting aside that finally wore him down to 120 pounds and the need to find a different outlet for his music.
“Kristen and I had been together for years, but we’d never talked about marriage or a home … it was time,” said Robinson.
The couple settled in Alna, got married and, last year, welcomed son Andrew Jacob into their much-changed lives. Robinson’s wife works in early childhood care full-time.
“She spends her days with 2-year-olds, so she’s the right person to live with me,” he said.
In the evenings, and when his son is napping, Robinson works on the kind of things he has done all along, albeit squeezed in between all the other duties. He is composing pieces to join such classical works as “An American Requiem for Orchestra and Chorus,” which had its New England premiere under the direction of Robert Russell, and “New England Ragtime Suite,” which is performed at ragtime festivals around the world. He recently wrote, and performed, the score for “In the Shadows of Grey Gardens: Get on the Ghost List,” an independent documentary by J.C. Burdin.
Robinson also is recording CDs, “orchestral” soundtracks for theater groups and music for the commercial market, sold via online stores and iTunes. His latest CD, is "La Belle Epoque — Musical Moments in Maine." Another recent production has gotten a lot of notice in Rockland.
“I think in Rockland, I’m best known for ‘Driving Old Memories,’ my father’s song video,” he said.
“Does God Sing?” had its genesis during his sick leave. Robinson looked through articles he had written in the past and began to reflect on his years in church music, as well as music of all kinds’ draw to the human spirit.
“I started to remember and it got very emotional — I had 27 chapters to begin with,” he said.
When Robinson looked for a publisher, he discovered that while publishing in general is in a bit of a decline, certain markets are doing very well and his musings fit right in with one of them.
“The spiritual, inspirational category is huge! Tate picked it up. It’s a niche publisher, the fifth largest in the country,” he said.
Robinson’s 27 chapters were cut in half, and the resulting softcover runs less than 200 pages. It includes a bibliography; Robinson may not have been “academic” in high school, but his field of reference encompasses everything from John and Charles Wesley to Coolio, Harold Arlen to “The Color Purple.”
Robinson’s world, which gets rocked a number of times in “Does God Sing?”, has grown smaller by some measures, and he is fine with that.
“I didn’t write the book to sell it. If one person reads it and it touches his heart, then it was worth doing. My life is home, now,” he said.
Robinson’s meet-the-author talk, part of the Friends of the Library’s Speaker Series, will begin at 1 p.m. at Waldoboro Public Library, 958 Main St./Route 220.
Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115 or firstname.lastname@example.org.