Richard Allan “Dick” Robinson, nonagenarian Atlanta composer and electronic music pioneer, passed away Monday at about 5 a.m. He had suffered a stroke in July and had been in physical therapy rehab since then, until going into hospice under palliative care two weeks ago. He was 93 years old. He had been married to artist and print designer Lucy Stovall, who died in 2014.
In the months prior to his stroke, Robinson was still actively presenting concerts of his own music, such as one in late February of last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA-GA).
A native of Chicago, Robinson’s parents were both doctors. During his youth he was immersed in that city’s particular artistic ferment and the work of great visual artists through the Art Institute of Chicago. He had also taken up study of violin at age 12.
At the outbreak of World War II, Robinson was 18 years old but was one inch too short to be inducted into the military. He turned to the study of mechanical engineering but after two years gave that up to seriously pursue the violin and become a professional musician.
He moved to Atlanta to take a job as violinist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1951. He retired from the ASO in 1987. While that had kept him busy, in the early days he found that the city’s art circles were not yet prepared for his modernist perspectives. Few Atlanta composers in the 1950s were interested in the avant-garde.
Living in the old “Castle” on 15th Street for a while, Robinson hung out instead with a group of visual artists, including the young Judith Alexander, whose New Arts Gallery showed work by significant modern artists such as Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, Jim Dine, Ellsworth Kelly and Franz Kline in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Like Wassily Kandinsky, Robinson believed that all art tends toward music. His own affinity for abstract art was because he felt it closer to music. Visual arts had always informed Robinson’s musical sensibilities, and he considered his own compositions as much visually as aurally inspired.
While Robinson’s compositions were initially for traditional acoustic instruments, with Webern and Stockhausen among his influences, he moved into electronic music in the 1960s. The creative shift was largely inspired by Robert Moog and the synthesizer he invented, but also because of Robinson’s attraction to complex music that was otherwise impossible to play. Even though he composed computer music later in life, Robinson did not think of himself as being on Atlanta’s cutting edge, instead calling himself “sort of a ‘classical’ avant-gardist.”
Over the decades, Robinson’s music has been performed in North American colleges and in Europe. His long list of musical collaborators include Col. Bruce Hampton and Pauline Oliveros. In a 2012 interview with ArtsATL, he remarked, “I’ve always improvised, and have collaborated since the seventies without the thought of anything more than having fun.”
A long-time colleague, composer Howard Wershil, had this to say upon hearing of Robinson’s passing: “I feel fortunate that I took the opportunity to visit him a few weeks ago. During that time, we had a wonderful conversation about many topics, but mostly about music, of course, similar to conversations we’ve had on and off over nearly four decades. For me, he was a particularly kindred musical spirit, whose breath of knowledge, force of talent and sense of humor I always enjoyed. He was an outstanding composer, a good friend and a great inspiration to all of us, I think, and so very lucky to have so many people who care about him. He will be missed; and he will be remembered.”
A memorial service will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center.