Drawing by Irene Kopelman
In essence, the sound of the piano comes in two parts: its attack and its decay. The striking of a hammer is followed by the resonance of a string or strings. (Much the same might be said about the vibraphone, as it happens.) This dual quality of sound comes to mind when listening to the music of the New York-based composer Michael Vincent Waller, especially as it is played here by pianist R. Andrew Lee and vibraphonist William Winant. It is there at the start, in the way in which the rising three-note gesture that begins For Papa shapes not just a frame, but a bed – the exhortation to listen, sustained, underpins the lighter melody that follows. In Bounding, a simple four-chord gesture is increasingly filled and stretched, each time causing the blending harmonies to bloom and fade differently. In For Pauline, triads overlap one another, like pebbles settling at the bottom of a pool.
‘Pauline’ is the great American composer Pauline Oliveros, and Waller wrote his piece to her memory just days after she passed away in November 2016. Her most enduring idea was that of ‘deep listening’ – a way of listening to and musically responding to one’s environment that extended into practices of improvisation, teaching and meditation. Waller writes of his piece that ‘the harmonies and subtle fermatas at the end of each chord group offer a space for a deep listening experience. The chord choices have a subtle gravity and inward gaze.’
This last sentence is revealing not only of this piece, but of all Waller’s music on this disc. We can think of the duality of the piano’s (and vibraphone’s) sound as two different forms of gravity: striking and sinking. The former – the origin of melodies, harmonies and rhythms – has for centuries been the basis of the piano’s place in Western classical music. They are certainly present here too, and Waller draws on that tradition in its most archetypal forms through its use of modal melodies, triadic harmonies and metered rhythms. Yet the emotional heart of his music is not in attack, but resonance. The afterlife of sounds. Those elements that can’t be grasped and placed into easy historical categories. It is poignant that Stolen Moments, written for Lee himself, is constructed around arpeggiated chords that are allowed to reverberate; sometimes they have a one- or two-note embellishment, but on every fourth repetition they don’t. It is as though the composer wants to interfere as little as possible in creating that ringing afterglow. Vibrafono Studio, Waller’s first piece for the instrument, is, as well as an exploration of minor-mode harmonies, a study in sustaining and stopping resonances.
Waller’s music is often compared to that of Erik Satie, and there is certainly something Satie-like in its concision, its subtle asymmetries and its lack of ornament. But where Satie’s Gnossiennes, Nocturnes and Gymnopédies were blank canvases, deliberately signifying nothing, Waller’s pieces are vessels to be filled. That is partly an effect of titles: Waller’s pieces on this disc are all ‘moments’ of autobiographical poignancy – memorials, birthdays, homecomings; friends, teachers, family members. We are clearly invited to invest certain emotional expectations into these sounds. TheDivertimento written for a close friend on his birthday (developed from an after-dinner improvisation); the two Nocturnes, written to capture the ‘particularly exposed’ performance style of the Dutch composer and pianist Dante Boon; Roman, written in memory of Waller’s late father-in-law, whom he never met.
But it is also to do with attack and decay. Satie’s language of songs without words, dances without movement, is strange, but it still speaks to well-worn principles of balance and rhyme, shaped by precisely placed pitches. Yet notes, especially those at the piano and the vibraphone, are doomed to leave us. Their lives may be artificially extended a little, by sustain pedals, but ultimately we know they must fade. Here Waller finds sympathy with another composer, Morton Feldman, for whom the natural decay of sounds conveyed a profound sense of loss: of close friends, of the artistic circle of 1950s New York, of the Jewish people, of ‘Schubert leaving me’.
Something of that loss is within Waller’s music. But where Feldman concentrated on the moments when sounds disappeared into silence, Waller’s sounds merge to open alternative spaces for contemplation and recollection. There are memorials here, but also moments of joy: the relief of coming home in Return from L.A.; the transformation of anxiety into healing in Jennifer, written for Waller’s cousin, a colon cancer survivor; the private moments traced in Love. Behind his surface attacks Waller finds hazy, edgeless zones that draw us downwards, into introspection – the ‘inward gaze’. Rather than mourn, we sink, as though into feathers, or warm water.
– Tim Rutherford-Johnson
Notes on the Pieces by "Blue Gene Tyranny
Composer Michael Vincent Waller on this album again demonstrates his elegant ability to use lucid material to express deep feelings and profound images. Most of these musical miniatures arise from experiences with people in the composer’s personal life. The clarity of these expressions appeals to the listener on first hearing as indicative of a deeply felt emotion, as in previously released recordings. He uses compositional material such as traditional modal scales, repeated gestures, and his own unique harmonic combinations to clarify his feelings which a listener will intuit even without having information contained in these liner notes. This shows the close connection between the heart and the mind which are too often separated as uniquely distinct perceptions. In Waller’s music the structural elements and the perceived expression provided by these elements are closely united. There’s no bombast of loud chords that have traditionally expressed dramatic emphasis, but a listener is provided with a rich listening experience that is deeply satisfying.
- For Papa - The meditative three note drone in the left hand provides the bed for a gently repeating and varied melodic line in the right hand that suggests memories of a kind childhood relationship with one’s grandfather. The music never modulates but remains in this nostalgic mode with its melody line that is built from a delicate scale followed by a Bach-like inverted grace note.
- Return from LA I - Similar to the first piece this short instrumental song begins with a series of arpeggiated chords in the left hand played in a harp like style. The music suddenly changes its tune to a very cheerful upper melody that seems to celebrate the joy of returning. This melody is built of short scale-like runs and maintains its mood throughout its almost two minute duration.
- Return from LA II - This impression begins immediately with a rich harmonic progression that could easily suggest a popular LA style of ballads. The bassline here is not a drone but underpins the touching harmony while the melody is again built on scale-like gestures that end in ecstatic leaps towards final higher notes. The harmony follows the traditional song-like structure of verse, bridge, verse.
- Return from LA III - This short movement sounds like a cross between gamelan music with its repeating cycles and the player piano riffs of the 19th century in America with its rhythmic tremolo of octaves and slowly ascending bassline.
- Return from LA IV - This last movement depicts a quite different feeling from the other three. It is wistful in feeling as if there is a slight sadness in reflecting upon an experience that has ended. The use of the sustaining pedal to blend the echoes of the notes suggests music projected over a very large space. The harmony again is restricted to a single chord as in most drone-like music, for example North Indian music. The effect is no longer joyful but felt inside as if one were approaching in a gentle manner a memory of a long past event.
- Divertimento - This charming divertimento is built upon a “shake” or quick roll of two notes that resolves by falling away into a drop of three or four notes. The “shake” is again like an old-time piano gesture and the concluding notes are a comment that comes to life after the shake creates a minor alarm that this is about to happen. This is the basic schema that is followed throughout with the harmony unmodulated and the notes given the emotional flavor and prominence that they receive in modal music of all kinds. The music thus touches feeling as well as intellect which is in the nature of the musical divertimento that creates a diversion from the expected.
- For Pauline - This piece is made of chords played six times in alternately high and lower tessituras and nothing else, which would make this perhaps the most minimal use of materials except that the progression of chords is very moving and elegant. At times this gives the impression of ringing church bells but is suggestive of many other impressions. This is a study in pure harmonic modulation without melodic or rhythmic variations.
- Jennifer - This is the most neo-romantic piece so far in this recording. A somewhat anxious and pleading melody again made up of “shakes” is delivered over a gradually repeated deep bassline of four octaves, which gives it an impression of gravitas that brings to mind music of the romantic 19th century as heard through the filter of current minimalism. The music still maintains its modal quality only with a serious intention.
- Nocturne No. 1 - This brief nocturne is a purely melodic invention that descends from on high to the lower registers and then works its way back again ascending to a perhaps brighter consciousness with many pitches serving as emotional touchstones upon the journey. With all the ups and downs of feeling, this Nocturne ends with a quiet assurance.
- Nocturne No. 4 - This nocturne has a decidedly tragic feeling throughout and ends with a perhaps resigned emotion.
This is another suite that is expressed in four movements played by William Winant.
- Love I - Valentine - The vibraphone plays bell-like chords interspersed between melodic fragments. In fact it’s very gamelan like and at the same time has a quality of a fine ballad.
- Love II - Baby’s Return - This piece begins with a lively introduction in 4/4 time and immediately progresses into an elegant waltz meter. The 3/4 meter is then played at a slightly slower tempo like two dancers who become entranced with each other until all they hear is the music oblivious to any others in the dance space.
- Love III - Images - An arpeggiated chord is heard followed by three notes that seem to make a statement and then comment upon it as if someone is saying with the gentle words “yes, I said so”.
- Love IV - Sizing - This short, lively piece can accompany visions of people running happily through a forest or a garden in springtime. It is the kind of gently teasing love that finds its way into any romance. We hear fast scale passages again that remind of a person participating in a lively game without any intent of winning or losing. Just a sheer joy of the chase.
- Roman - A continuously arpeggiating bass is heard throughout while a delicate melody expands and contracts giving great variety to its expression. The tune sometimes jumps from octave to octave and different notes are often changed in their sequence giving greater variety. The effect is like that of a beautiful, gentle impressionistic portrait of feeling which is expressed in its dedication. This mood is maintained throughout and provides a peaceful listening experience.
- Stolen Moments - These “Stolen Moments” suggest a mystery that has created itself in moments depicted by an unusual succession of individual chords that are slowly arpeggiated without comment. They are, borrowing a title from composer Charles Ives, “unanswered questions”. The answer to the mystery may always remain unexplained.
- Vibrafono Studio - This is a study in several textures that are available on the vibraphone. The various patterns are sometimes in regular and irregular groupings and played at different tempos that combine or make distinct different sounds available at various resonances. There is again a gamelan quality to the bell-like characteristics of the instrument.
- Bounding - This piece is built upon a descending chord progression that has been used in many violin and guitar solos in both classical and folk music since the Renaissance. Here the progression is sometimes fully heard in its four descending harmonies or slightly truncated into the first three chords with a new repetition beginning on the fourth beat making a seven chord progression.
The preceding works will have shown the listener Michael Vincent Waller’s unique ability to create distinct images without sacrificing the clarity of structural composition. We are fortunate in the century of exploration to encounter music that does not merely remain on the surface level of such labels as minimalism while sacrificing the ever present needs of the listener for emotional satisfaction. The inherent understanding of the human condition expressed in these compositions gives us hope for a new creative insight made possible by contemporary music.
– “Blue” Gene Tyranny
Transcribed by Sime Viduka