Michael Vincent Waller
The South Shore (2015)

Media Submitted for Review

2015-03-05 — Original posting
2016-08-03 — Brushed up for better readability

Table of Contents

The CD

M.V. Waller: The South Shore — CD cover
M.V. Waller: The South Shore — CD cover

Michael Vincent Waller: The South Shore

Various artists and ensembles, see below
XI Records, XI 136 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 2015; Booklet: 20 pp. (English)

amazon media link


Michael Vincent Waller sent me his latest music (on 2 CDs, see above, to be released on 2015-03-08) for comments. I received the music as download, with the booklet in PDF format. The comments below were not coordinated with the composer, I received no extra guidance / instructions. So, let me start with a short inventory-like description of what’s included in the “package” (“track” is either a composition, or a movement from a composition). It’s all solo or chamber music:

  • music for 1 instrument (solos, 15 tracks total, 58’48”):
    • flute: 1 track, 4’17”
    • clarinet: 1 track, 4’55”
    • violin: 1 track, 8’57”
    • cello: 9 tracks, 27’45”
    • piano: 2 tracks, 8’29”
    • organ: 1 track, 4’26”
  • music for 2 instruments (duos, 7 tracks total, 34’34”):
    • violin and cello: 1 track, 4’15”
    • viola and piano: 2 tracks, 14’46”
    • cello and piano: 1 track, 2’31”
    • cello and organ: 2 tracks, 8’55”
    • bass clarinet and gongs: 1 track, 4’09”
  • music for ensembles (3 – 6 instruments, 9 tracks total, 44’24”):
    • string trio (violin, viola, cello): 1 track, 10’26”
    • piano trio (piano, violin, cello): 4 tracks, 13’04”
    • string quartet (2 violins, viola, cello): 1 track, 6’03”
    • quintet (flute, piano, violin, viola, cello): 2 tracks, 7’55”
    • sextet (flute, alto sax, electr. guitar, viola, cello, trombone): 1 track, 6’58”

So, it’s a set of two well-filled CDs (almost 138 minutes) with a broad range of instrumental settings, with a slight domination of music for a solo instrument.

What Kind of Music is This?

Michael Vincent Waller is born 1985. In the few years of his career (since about 2008) he has created quite a number of compositions. Most of his output from 2013 and 2014 (plus three compositions from 2012) is included on these two CDs, see the interactive table below. His Wikipedia entry is rather broad in the characterization of his music, as if the author had troubles classifying it:

“His recent compositions have been compared to Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Keith Jarrett, and Morton Feldman blending elements of minimalism, impressionism, gamelan, world music, and melodic classicism.”

Most of these characterizations may indeed be valid also for the music on the above CD set. But I think that Michael Vincent Waller is also rooted in baroque music (J.S. Bach), or at least inspired by it.

Michael Vincent Waller may have picked up even more from medieval music (with composers such as Francesco Landini, etc.), see below. In the text that follows, I will simply state my personal impressions & thoughts about this music. I have not taken “instructions” by the composer. I have read through the booklet. But I have not tried linking text and music. In my personal view, music should make sense / be understood, and hopefully be palatable just by itself. At least, it should be able to create the appropriate (intended) emotional response. Vocal music would be different, as the content of the underlying text is an integral part of vocal music.

A First Look at the Contents

The music here (to me) is “absolute”, i.e., does not require a “program”. Of course, it may evoke pictures / scenes in the composer’s and listener’s mind. But in my view, such pictures reflect the interaction of the music with one person’s inner world, memory and experience. Therefore, they are individual and don’t necessarily “work” for an arbitrary listener. The booklet (written by the composer and pianist “Blue” Gene Tyranny) has one paragraph (from a few lines up to a page) for each of the compositions. It also indicates the artists and their instruments. Here’s the comment for track 2 from the second CD (one of the longest texts in the booklet):

Michael Waller: The South Shore — sample comment from the booklet

So, here’s my view on this music and its interpretation. Let me start with some general remarks.

Minimal Art?

I can certainly concur with using the label “minimalism” for these compositions by Michael Vincent Waller. Maybe that’s not quite in the strict sense of one its inventors, Steve Reich (*1936): Reich uses “infinite” repetitions of a tiny, seminal, rhythmic element that he subjects to very slow, gradual shifts and alterations. It’s Minimal Music in the sense that Waller’s music appears stripped down to the bare bones in terms of both instrumentation, as well as musical (rhythmic, melodic, dynamic) means.

This statement is not meant to be deprecating. The music on this CD is certainly expressive and does not feel “crude” or “naked”. I merely want to say that one should not expect, e.g., the exuberant vitality or the hefty expressions and sometimes eruptive emotions in chamber (and other) music of, say, 20th century composers, such as Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, let alone late romantic composers.

Michael Vincent Waller composes music that is typically calm, contemplative, meditative, and it (usually slowly) evolves from small melodic, harmonic, and/or rhythmic cells, avoiding abrupt changes in dynamics and texture. In some ways (and in various pieces) it reminds me of chamber music by Arvo Pärt (*1935), even though it does not use Pärt’s “Tintinnabuli” style / formalism. But Pärt is certainly a model for music based on a minimum in thematic and harmonic material. That resemblance / closeness goes far enough for me to claim that if you like Arvo Pärt’s music, you should also like many of Michael Vincent Waller’s pieces — and vice versa, of course.

Listening to Examples

You can get a good impression on Michael Vincent Waller’s music by listening to the three examples on his Web site, which are corresponding to tracks from the above CDs (see also the interactive listing below):

  • 1-03: “Profondo Rosso” (2013) for piano trio, composed for and performed by Project SiS (Charity Wicks, Pauline-Kim Harris, Christine Kim)
  • 1-04: “Per La Madre e La Nonna” (2012) for string trio, performed by the Ensemble Epomeo
  • 2-16: “Arbitrage Deux” (2013) for solo clarinet, performed by Katie Porter

Note that these sound samples are not taken from the CD. They are not the same interpretations, as can be seen already from the track durations. In the second example, different artists are playing, and at least some of the tracks appear to be live recordings. In my personal judgement, the tracks on the CDs (studio recordings, presumably) sound better, less dry, warmer, with more reverberation and adequate acoustics.

Tonal vs. Modal Music

In his compositions, Michael Vincent Waller is modal rather than tonal, i.e., it uses modes such as Aeolian, Dorian, Phrygian, Ionian modes, etc., as well as pentatonic elements, sometimes (rarely) also with tonal segments in major on minor modes. From that alone, Michael’s music also feels / appears to be rooted in medieval (modal and melodic) principles. Most of today’s listeners will not notice that, because medieval music is rarely ever heard these days. Music from that time does not have a market even within the classical music scene, and is hardly accessible at all to the ordinary listener.

There is a reason for the absence of medieval music, though: such music is radically different from what we all hear all day today. So different that I concede: it would probably take a conscious effort for many listeners not to walk away / switch off instantly when confronted with medieval music.

Still, I think that being able to make that mental link to medieval music allows for additional insights / routes into Michael Vincent Waller’s music world.

Comments on Individual Tracks

In the interest of not losing my readers, I’ll refrain from commenting all pieces in detail. I’m focusing on those which I regard highlights of the recording. See the interactive table below for durations, artists and additional detail.

Track 1-01: “Anthems” for cello and piano (2014)

The beginning of the series is melancholic, hesitant at first; the piano introduces a short melody which is then abandoned in favor of a contrapuntal dialog between the two instruments, in which the cello develops a nice, elegiac melody that is also picked up by the piano. The short piece culminates in a melody with chordal accompaniment before returning to the melancholic, hesitant beginning. Some nice musical thoughts that could probably have been developed into a bigger form?

Track 1-02: “Atmosfera di Tempo” for string quartet (2013)

An atmospheric piece, indeed, with allusions to late romantic music (Smetana?), using motifs / melody fragments that later were also used as seminal element in the piece “Anthems” (see above). The music is meditative and not obviously adhering to strict form principles, with “pending” tonality: our ears are typically “locked” into major / minor tonality. This piece is in Aeolian mode, which corresponds to (D) natural minor; it lacks the lead tone (C#), and hence is “lacking closure through a classic cadence” (also “Anthems” is in Aeolian mode, on A, and hence gives a similar “harmonic feel”).

Track 1-03: “Profondo Rosso” for piano trio (2013)

One of my favorites here: a very nice piece. It’s a mix of pentatonic and major modes. Superficially, the major modality makes this more attractive to “tonal” ears, as throughout its polyphony, the piece remains centered on A♭ major, which makes it sound maybe more conventional, despite its minimalism components and the absence of a harmonic progression. To me, it is strongly alluding to Arvo Pärt’s music (that’s not meant to be a deprecating comment!).

Track 1-04: “Per La Madre e La Nonna” for string trio (2012)

The longest piece in this collection, in Dorian mode, mostly meditative, going through a slow climax, then returning to a dreaming tone; it then builds up to a second, gradual climax, finally returns to a calm, but reassuring, optimist ending. The rhythmic pattern / structure does not alter dramatically over the piece, and also dynamically, there are no dramatic evolutions: the build-ups are achieved mostly through melodic, polyphonic and harmonic density.

Track 1-05: “Pasticcio per meno è più” for piano (2014)

Another calm, meditative piece in Aeolian mode (Michael’s favorite mode, apparently!), longing, pensive, diving in memories…

Tracks 1-07 — 1-09: Tre Pezzi per Trio di Pianoforte (2014)

These pieces are mostly contrapuntal, e.g., combining fast and slow variants of a melody in different voices, creating an interwoven texture. The comment calls the first piece the “most impressionistic” of the three. One can certainly see allusions to Debussy or Ravel.

Tracks 1-10 — 1-11: “Nel Nome di Gesù” for cello and organ (2013)

I’m tempted to lend the title “vocalise” to these two pieces (both in D minor), based on the singing tone of the cello and the calm nature of this music. Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise op.34/14 comes to mind…

Track 1-12: Organum (2014)

This is nicely evoking medieval organ music. It is played here on a digital replica of an organ built 1973 by Marcussen & Son, in the Laurenskerk, Rotterdam. One could easily picture this being played on a real (and simpler), medieval organ, for more “medieval authenticity”. But I like the base-tonal, mostly somber registration selected for this recording.

Track 1-14: “Il Mento Tenuto Alto” for violin solo (2014)

The first disc closes with two pieces for solo string instruments. This one for violin appears inspired by and alluding to J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, with an occasional (accidental?) glimpse on Eugène Ysaÿe‘s six Sonatas for Violin solo, op.27. To me, this is one of the highlights in this collection (maybe also because I played the violin myself?).

Track 2-02: “La Riva Sud” for viola and piano (2014)

Another of my favorites on these CDs, and one of the longest pieces. It starts as a melancholic song on the viola, with a playful, ornamented accompaniment by the piano, gradually adds emotions and expression, in the end even jazzy rhythmic elements. To me, the most “genuine and original Waller piece” in this collection.

Tracks 2-03 — 2-06: “Pupazzo di Neve Partitas” for cello solo (2013)

Almost half an hour of music on these CDs is for cello solo. Michael Vincent Waller shows so much familiarity with the sonority and the technical properties of the instrument, that I suspect he must have been playing the cello himself (maybe he still does?). Out of the nine tracks for cello solo there are two compositions of four movements / tracks each, this being the more recent one.

Alluding to one of Bach’s Cello Suites?

The movements Allemande — Courante — Sarabande — Gigue constitute the traditional, baroque Suite scheme: four (then) popular dance movements, in baroque times often complemented with an introductory Prélude, plus additional, short dance movements, such as a pair of Menuets, usually between the Sarabande and the Gigue. So, there’s a formal relation to baroque music. But there’s more: I instantly felt a resemblance between these movements and passages in J.S. Bach’s Suite for cello solo No.1 in G major, BWV 1007.

Waller does of course not quote Bach’s music directly, neither melodically, nor harmonically. There’s a lot of abstraction involved here: in the Allemande, I see similarities in the melody lines and the (sporadic) chordal accompaniment to the equivalent movement in Bach’s suite. One could claim that Waller also alludes to Bach’s Menuet I. But that could also be coincidence, as Bach may have been bracketing his composition by using similar melodic archetypes in several movements of his Suite No.1.

In the Courante, there are similar links to Bach’s Suite. Not to the initial figure in Bach’s Courante, but more to the faster (semiquaver) passages, and again (I could be over-interpreting), there appear to be links to Bach’s Menuet I. The similarities continue in the Sarabande: also here, one could see links to the Menuet I. Finally, in the Gigue, the similarities to Bach’s Gigue are more than just rhythmic, I think.

Not Plagiarizing!

Let me be clear: picking up elements from Bach’s music is perfectly OK. Even if Michael Vincent Waller were to use direct quotes, this would be absolutely legitimate. Though it would not fit his style, I’m sure. After all, Bach himself has been quoting his own music (and that of other composers) directly; Bach’s music is timeless, and in any case, these relations to Bach’s music are rather remote / indirect, camouflaged; many listeners won’t even notice. But it is fun to look for such links, finding similarities! On top of that, Michael Vincent Waller always just appears to take this as a seminal element, as a basis for adding and developing his own material. Also, all these movements are clearly showing Michael’s personal style, harmonically, in the melodic development, etc.

I could be completely off the track with these remarks. They reflect my own findings. But if Michael Vincent Waller had been playing the cello, or even if he had just familiarized himself with the instrument, he would inevitably have run into Bach’s Suites. He might have picked up melodic and rhythmic fragments, even subconsciously. There is a distant possibility that the above similarities are entirely coincidental, because Bach has covered such a variety of melodic archetypes that inevitably one will find occasional similarities with (fragments of) his music. But I’m personally sure the affinities mentioned are more than a mere coincidence.

Tracks 2-07 — 2-08: “Variations for Quintet” (2014)

Variations on a ground: a cantus firmus in the bass, over which a lively polyphonic texture develops, played by flute, violin, viola, and cello.

Track 2-09: “Miniatures” for piano (2014)

This is a kind of Passacaglia, where the right hand goes through a broad, rhythmic and dynamic climax, while the left hand repeats a descending bass theme. Very nice, reaffirming, and almost making the listener forget about the Aeolian modality!

Tracks 2-10 — 2-13: “Y for Henry Flynt” for cello solo (2012)

These four movements pre-date the “Pupazzo di Neve Partitas” by a year. I do find links to Bach’s Suites here as well, though more camouflaged than in the later piece. I see a similarity between the ascending D minor chord in the first movement, “Fuguey Prélude“, and similar melodic fragments in the Prélude of Bach’s Suite No.2 for cello solo, BWV 1008. That suite is also in D minor: more than a coincidence? The second movement, “Post-Sonata” inverts the opening motif from the first movement, later switches to a repeated motif that reminds me of the basic motif in Bach’s Prélude from the Suite No.4 for cello solo, BWV 1010 (in E♭). At the same time it is also alluding to motifs from the Prélude in Bach’s Suite for cello solo No.1 in G major, BWV 1007.

The third movement, “Quarter-Tone Rondo” appears to allude to motifs from Bach’s Courante in the Suite No.4 for cello solo, BWV 1010, before ending in a short segment with quarter-tone intervals (not nearly as outlandish as it sounds!). The final movement, “Slow Scherzo“, takes up the broken, ascending chords from the first movement (indirectly again alluding to the Prélude in Bach’s Suite No.2 for cello solo, BWV 1008).

But as stated: the ties to Bach’s Suites (if they are real at all) are less direct, more fragmentary than in the 2013 composition. Still, it is fun to look for such “distant ties”. As mentioned already, Michael Vincent Waller appears to be intimately familiar with the possibilities of this instrument. For me as a “naïve listener”, his compositions for cello solo are among the most rewarding ones in the collection (but I’m coming from the “string camp” myself).

Track 2-14: “Capo Finale” for viola and piano (2012)

A gentle piece for viola and piano. Brahms’ “Geistliches Wiegenlied” for alto, viola and piano (from the 2 Lieder, op.91) comes to mind. Here it’s definitely more than a mere reminiscence, even though Waller’s composition is mostly pentatonic.

Track 2-15: “Vocalise” for flute solo (2014)

A nice flute solo! It reminds me of music by Jacques Ibert (1890 – 1962), maybe remotely also of music by Cécile Chaminade (1857 – 1944). But that could also be the mere sound of the transverse flute…

About the Interpretation

Except for the three examples on Michael Vincent Waller’s Web site, I have no reference or alternative to compare this with. But as far as I can tell, the instrumentalists in this recording are all excellent. They give these compositions a very good interpretation. The sound of the recording is impeccable. My only, minor reservation is that the vibrato in the viola (occasionally also in the violin) is at times a bit strong and heavy. OK, I’m a declared HIP fanatic, and other listeners may not feel that way at all.

My Advice to the Listener

It may take a while to get “into” this music: don’t walk away after a few bars! It pays to listen into these CDs, exploring the pensive, sometimes dream-like moods, letting the music speak. I think you don’t need to stick to the booklet: if you let the music talk to you, it will evoke pictures by itself. Do not use this music as background accompaniment / entertainment: in casual listening, it may become more of a distraction than an enrichment and a pleasure.

Interactive Track Listing

1-0102:31"Anthems" for cello and piano (2014)Anthemscello + pianoChristine Kim, Yael Manor
1-0206:03"Atmosfera di Tempo" for string quartet (2013)Atmosfera di Tempostring quartetConrad Harris, Pauline-Kim Harris, Daniel Panner, Christine Kim
1-0304:42"Profondo Rosso" for piano, violin and cello (2013)Profondo Rossopiano trioProject SiS: Charity Wicks, Pauline-Kim Harris, Christine Kim
1-0410:26"Per La Madre e La Nonna" for string trio (2012)Per La Madre e La Nonna string trioPauline-Kim Harris, Daniel Panner, Christine Kim
1-0505:27"Pasticcio per meno è più" for piano (2014)Pasticcio per meno è piùpianoNicolas Horvath
1-0604:15"La Rugiada del Mattino" for violin and cello (2013)La Rugiada del Mattinoviolin + celloEsther Noh, Christine Kim
1-0702:28Tre Pezzi per Trio di Pianoforte (2014)Pezzo Ipiano trioYael Manor, Esther Noh, Christine Kim
1-0804:14Tre Pezzi per Trio di Pianoforte (2014)Pezzo IIpiano trioYael Manor, Esther Noh, Christine Kim
1-0901:42Tre Pezzi per Trio di Pianoforte (2014)Pezzo IIIpiano trioYael Manor, Esther Noh, Christine Kim
1-1005:10"Nel Nome di Gesù" for cello and organ (2013)Nel Nome di Gesù - Icello + organChristine Kim, Carson Cooman
1-1103:47"Nel Nome di Gesù" for cello and organ (2013)Nel Nome di Gesù - IIcello + organChristine Kim, Carson Cooman
1-1204:26Organum (2014)OrganumorganCarson Cooman
1-1303:49"Tacca Prima" for cello solo (2013)Tacca PrimacelloChristine Kim
1-1408:57"Il Mento Tenuto Alto" for violin solo (2014)Il Mento Tenuto AltoviolinEsther Noh
2-0106:58"Ritratto" for sextet (2013)Ritrattoflute, alto sax, E-guitar, viola, cello, tromboneDedalus Ensemble
2-0209:52"La Riva Sud" for viola and piano (2014)La Riva Sudviola + pianoDaniel Panner, Marija Ilic
2-0303:19"Pupazzo di Neve Partitas" for cello solo (2013)1. AllemandecelloChristine Kim
2-0402:06"Pupazzo di Neve Partitas" for cello solo (2013)2. CourantecelloChristine Kim
2-0503:23"Pupazzo di Neve Partitas" for cello solo (2013)3. SarabandecelloChristine Kim
2-0602:22"Pupazzo di Neve Partitas" for cello solo (2013)4. GiguecelloChristine Kim
2-0704:45Variations for Quintet (2014)Variations Iflute, piano, violin, viola, cello20>>21 Ensemble
2-0803:10Variations for Quintet (2014)Variations IIflute, piano, violin, viola, cello20>>21 Ensemble
2-0903:04"Miniatures" for piano (2014)3. Return from The ForkpianoMarija Ilic
2-1004:02"Y for Henry Flynt" for cello solo (2012)1. Fuguey PreludecelloChristine Kim
2-1104:59"Y for Henry Flynt" for cello solo (2012)2. Post-SonatacelloChristine Kim
2-1201:30"Y for Henry Flynt" for cello solo (2012)3. Quarter-Tone RondocelloChristine Kim
2-1302:18"Y for Henry Flynt" for cello solo (2012)4. Slow ScherzocelloChristine Kim
2-1404:56"Capo Finale" for viola and piano (2012)1. Capoviola + pianoDaniel Panner, Marija Ilic
2-1504:17"Vocalise" for flute solo (2014)VocalisefluteLuna Cholang Kang
2-1604:55"Arbitrage Deux" for clarinet solo (2013)Arbitrage DeuxclarinetKatie Porter
2-1704:09"Arbitrage" for bass clarinet and gongs (2014)Arbitragebass clarinet, gongsRed Desert

Addendum About the Artists

  • Dedalus Ensemble stands for Amélie Berson (flute), Pierre Stéphane Meugé (alto sax), Didier Aschour (electric guitar), Cyprien Busolini (viola), Deborah Walker (cello), and Thierry Madiot (trombone)
  • Red Desert stands for Katie Porter (bass clarinet) and Devin Maxwell (gongs)
  • 20>>21 Ensemble features Itay Lantner (flute), Yael Manor (piano), Jessica Park (violin), Erin Wight (viola), and Clara Kennedy (cello)

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