Waller’s first release dedicated entirely to his work was the 2 CD The South Shore release on Phill Niblock’s XI label last year. Two disc sets are a risky venture, especially for relatively new artists. But Niblock has always chosen to take the interesting path regardless of risk. Well that risk seems all the less risky now that we see the release of yet another full album (albeit one CD) of more of Waller’s increasingly popular compositions.
This time he is championed by the post-minimalist master pianist R. Andrew Lee and rising star Cellist Seth Parker Woods. The other risk taker here is the producer and engineer Sean McCann whose experimental label Recital is exploring some exciting territory. Now one might take issue with an argument for the increasing popularity of this composer given that his albums are being released self-styled “experimental” labels but two releases in two years is hardly a case for obscurity.
In fact Waller’s work seems to be attracting a great many musicians who sense that he is evoking a genre with ties to various well worn traditions but also one which is developing its own lasting voice. Waller’s background includes studies with La Monte Young, Bunita Marcus, and Elizabeth Hoffman. His works tend to use modes, a style heard more commonly in the work of composers like Lou Harrison (and before that perhaps the 14th century). At first listen one hears a basically tonal sound but gradually one is drawn into the more subtle aspects of Waller’s art and therein lies the beauty of his work.
There are six works here spread over 17 tracks and all are from 2015-2016. With only a couple of exceptions Waller makes his statements in 1-5 minute movements much like Lou Harrison. His penchant for using modes occasionally suggests the music of Alan Hovhaness but Waller is seemingly an unabashed romantic at times too.
The first work “by itself” is one of the longer pieces here at 5’51” and is pretty much representative of the tone of the entire album. That’s not to say that the album is not varied in content, it is.
The second work in the 8 movement, “Visages” which, appropriately conjures a more impressionistic notion. This is not Debussy, rather it is maybe post-impressionistic. It is strongly reminiscent of the best of Lou Harrison’s work with short varied movements but embraces a far more romantic and virtuosic reach.
Lines for cello and piano give the listener the opportunity to hear the fine cellist Seth Parker Woods in this lyrical and beautiful work. Woods really makes these almost vocal lines sing and begs the question as to when we might hear some vocal music from Mr. Waller. This is the most extended piece on this collection at 9’19” in a single movement but one wishes for it to go on much longer. It also prompts one to want to hear more from Mr. Woods.
The three movement Breathing Trajectories is perhaps the most post-minimal of the works here. It is also among the most complex harmonically but the point here seems to be the sound rather than the method per se. It is a three movement meditation on some minimalist-like ideas.
Dreaming Cadenza is one of the more overtly virtuosic works here though it’s mood is not unlike the rest of the pieces here. It is an opportunity for the soloist to demonstrate his skill and Lee does that admirably.
Last but not least, as they say, is the ironically titled, “Laziness”. Its three movements have enough development to suggest calling this work a “sonata” but such choices are left to the composer (as they should be).
Two other salient factors come to light here. One is the rather attractive and intelligently designed slipcase (by label owner Sean McCann) with some lovely photographs by none other than Phill Niblock and room enough for adequate liner notes (thank you).
The other factor, one for which I intentionally truncated by own commentary on the music, is that the liner notes are by none other than “Blue” Gene Tyranny aka Buddy, the world’s greatest piano player from Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, aka Robert Sheff. This legendary pianist and composer provides a really insightful set of liner notes and adds so much to the understanding and appreciation of the musical content.
This is a beautiful album brought to life with an auspicious and talented set of people. That alone is reason enough to buy this album but the best reason is that the listener may follow this next step in the trajectories of the composer Michael Vincent Waller.