Michael Vincent Waller (photograph by Tim Saccenti)
Those that have followed my writing for some time may know that, between this site and my work with Examiner.com, I have written about all three of the full-length records of the music of Michael Vincent Waller. My first encounter was with The South Shore in the spring of 2015; and, on this site, I have written about Trajectories and Moments. Both of these two albums featured the piano work of R. Andrew Lee.
However, while working on Moments, Waller sat down at the piano himself and recorded his own improvisation over the course of a little more than twenty minutes. That unedited single take has been produced by Longform Editions as an MP3 single entitled simply “A Song.” The album was released this past Wednesday and is now available for download through an Amazon.com Web page.
I have had a long fascination with such spontaneous improvisation. I had been “noodling” at a piano keyboard since I was about ten years old. However, I only began to take improvisation seriously when I attended a music camp during the summer after my graduation from high school. Most of my work there was on clarinet, but I got to know another camper aspiring to be a composer and highly facile at the piano keyboard. We started playing improvised duos; and we eventually “went public” with our work. (I also remember a dance student that volunteered to do her own improvisation during one of our takes.)
As Merce Cunningham said about such ventures, “Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.” “A Song” definitely “works.” This is probably most evident when Waller is elaborating upper-voice work above a ground bass in the spirit of a chaconne. However, there are also freer episodes, including an opening section in which a degree of uncertainty in establishing a rhythmic pulse engenders a rhetoric of searching.
For those familiar with Keith Jarrett, twenty minutes is a perfectly reasonable amount of time in which to unfold a continuous improvisation. Waller’s rhetoric, on the other hand, is more likely to resonate with those familiar with the music of Harold Budd or Waller’s own teacher, La Monte Young. Both of those two predecessors developed their own rhetorical strategies around endowing every moment with its own significance. That capacity for signification now seems to have passed to Waller, and twenty minutes of listening to him at work makes for a highly satisfying listening experience.