Text by CLOT Magazine
Our 11th Mixtape, the first of the new year, brings Avant-garde composer Michael Vincent Waller – with a specially crafted mix and, as Waller himself says, a stream of consciousness.
Michael Vincent Waller is an American composer based in New York City. Some describe him as one of the most interesting composing of the big city, and we surely agree. His music has been described as lyrical and introspective, drawing inspiration from impressionism, post-minimalism and world music. There’s a melancholic longing quite unique in his sound.
A student of names such as minimalist legend La Monte Young, Bunita Marcus, and Elizabeth Hoffman, Waller’s compositions are suffused with an avant-garde essence of enthralling beauty. His most recent publication, Moments (Unseen Worlds, 2019), is a collection of minimalist pieces performed solo by pianist R. Andrew Lee and vibraphonist William Winant. The piano pieces bring memories of Satie gravitating between softness and more dramatic tours. The album draws on Western classical music tradition in its most archetypal forms through its use of modal melodies, triadic harmonies and metered rhythms. Yet the emotional heart of the music is not in attack but resonance. The afterlife of sounds. Those elements can’t be grasped and placed into easy historical categories. Behind his surface attacks, Waller finds hazy, edgeless zones that draw us downwards into introspection – an “inward gaze.
For this mix, Waller has prepared a pretty fluid stream of consciousness, starting with the austere and contemplative, building to the dense and dark electronic, blurring into jazz, funk, hip/hop — then shifting suddenly back to hardcore dark chamber music, which smoothes out to drones, and finally emotive piano music…. (then a reprieve, coda / tour-de-force outro).
Your last album, Moments, is a recollection of your compositions for piano and vibraphone, clearly inspired by seasonality and with a captivating melancholic feeling. What memories or needs triggered these compositions?
The album, for the most part, features a series of personal experiences that inspired the works. The nature of the pieces is extremely intimate, not very translatable into words. Some are pointed memorials of relatives or inspiring voices; others reflect on more blurred emotional episodes with friends, musicians, travelling or being with my partner.
Overall, the writing is grounded most clearly in the present, directly engaging with personal feelings. There is a sense of searching which invites the listeners to have their own ‘moments’, and interpretations of these memories.
Could you tell us a bit about the inception of the album? Did you develop it with a concept around it, or was it more of a technical/compositional exploration?
The inception of the album started with Unseen Labels label director and producer Tommy McCutchon. I sent him a few live recordings after releasing my prior record, Trajectories, and I remember him remarking about one vibraphone solo. So that set the seed for the project. I also wrote many piano pieces over the last three years, so I selected some of those works to fill out the body of the record. R. Andrew Lee is such an inspiring musician to collaborate with.
I feel a strong magnetism with his style. It just made sense and was almost natural to work on another album with him back-to-back—the project coalesced by working in close dialogue with Tommy, reflecting on ideas and the arc. The thread of “Moments” emerged from the title of one of the pieces, Stolen Moments, written for Lee — which encapsulates the central process of all these personal vignettes drawn from images and subtle feelings.
What are you technically or compositionally exploring in Moments? And what were the main challenges of putting the album together?
I am technically exploring a process of not subscribing to any genre or kind of music. Letting the composition itself be my teacher, an intuitive guide to a feeling of contemplation and new places of introspective peace.
The main challenge of the record was working through the careful details of the production process. Editing, Mixing, Mastering. The cover design and album aesthetic. The painstaking attention to the overall concept/art object. The music on the record was composed more fluidly and organically over the years, as life unfolded, preceding the production.
The image of the album artwork is by Phill Niblock, one of the big avant-garde references. Could you tell us a bit more about how it happened? and how has his work influenced your practice?
Phill Niblock is a very inspiring figure for generations of artists. He released my debut album on his label XI Records in 2015, and over the years has always been a supportive figure in my compositional life. His photography has been featured on all three covers of my LPs, and this last selection for Moments, was particularly microscopic and cosmic feeling at the same time, which fit the music quite well. Working with Robert Beatty, who designed a custom font for the record, was incredible. His subtle sense of art design and colour choices perfectly complemented the core image.
What is your relationship with new musical technologies nowadays? Do you incorporate any in your practice?
I wrote for electronics and computer processing when I was beginning as a composer. As I progressed as an artist, there was a time around 2012 when I found the courage to cultivate a melodic signature that was truly my own. It was developed from an ear inspired by detailed electronic and world music (amongst others), with careful attention to the acoustic phenomenon and overtone shadings.
I felt so lucky to find a voice in this medium, and thus have remained on a trajectory, not returning to writing with electronics in the last 8 years… maybe, things will meld back and re-emerge more prominently in the future or take form with new collaborators, even sooner. I am still discovering things with familiar and universal themes, the sometimes forgotten inner technology.