Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Michael Vincent Waller Continues to Explore his Rhetoric of Stillness

This Friday will see the release of Trajectories, the second album consisting entirely of music by Michael Vincent Waller, a composer currently based in New York City. The release is on Sean McCann’s Recital label, which is based in Los Angeles; and, as of this writing, is not aware of it. (Hopefully, that means “not yet.”) However, Bandcamp has created a Web page that supports paying for streaming, digital download, a physical CD, and, in a limited edition of 110 pressings, a vinyl album.

courtesy of the composer

I first became aware of Waller in the spring of 2015, back when I was writing for; and I did a piece about his first album, the two-CD release by XI Records entitled The South Shore (which is available from The liner notes for this album were by “Blue” Gene Tyranny, a major figure in the avant-garde movement of the second half of the twentieth century; and he has also provided the liner notes for Trajectories. However, my own impressions, while sympathetic to Tyranny’s background material, did not arrive at the same conclusions that he did.

In all fairness this was probably because both Tyranny and I were seeking precedents for Waller’s work; and, probably by virtue of our own different listening experiences, we arrived at different conclusions. Ultimately, however, I was less interested in “sounds-like” hypotheses, preferring instead to draw upon broader category labels. Ultimately, I settled on “rhetoric of stillness,” for which the strongest precedent could be found in much of the music that Brian Eno released on his Obscure label, perhaps with particular attention to Harold Budd.

That rhetoric of stillness definitely continues to prevail on the new Trajectories release. The six compositions on the recording were all written in either 2015 or 2016; and, while there were some impressive approaches to instrumentation on The South Shore, all but two of the compositions on the Trajectories album are works for solo piano, played by R. Andrew Lee. The other two are duo compositions for cello (Seth Parker Woods) and piano.

Note that Waller’s quietude is not the same as John Cage’s silence. During a Q&A with Harvard University students when Cage held the Norton Chair there, Cage was asked about the origins of 4’33”. He explained that he realized that he was including more and more rests in pieces he was writing for solo piano. Those rests were intended to call awareness to those sounds that were not coming from the piano; and, ultimately, he had the courage to write a piece consisting only of those rests.

Waller is decidedly interested in the instrumental sounds themselves. Indeed, it is clear from this album that he has turned those interests to highly lyrical ends. Furthermore, through his studies with La Monte Young, Waller seems to have come to appreciate that every individual sound has the potential for lyrical qualities; so, as a composer, Waller comes off as seeking the lyricism of every moment that transpires during the act of making music. By way of comparison, one might think of that same almost microscopic attention that emerges from the improvisatory performances of Young in The Well-Tuned Piano and Terry Riley in The Harp of New Albion. However, for both Young and Riley, many of those moments arose through the uniqueness of intervals based on just intonation, while Waller has no trouble finding his moments in well-tempered intervals.

Nevertheless, I continue to prioritize rhetoric over more “technical” matters of logic and grammar when listening to Waller’s recordings. One does not have to look very far to find evidence that we are in an era of Days of Rage that may well be as serious as that time of violent protest against the presence of United States troops in Vietnam. When such rage comes to a head, stillness may be the only viable countermeasure, the necessary prerequisite to recovering our bearings with enough strength to begin thinking about solutions rather than propagating problems.

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