Ryan Oldham: Inner Monologues (Venn Diagram of Six Pitches)
Irritable Hedgehog

Michael Vincent Waller: Trajectories

American composer Michael Vincent Waller is in excellent company on this fine follow-up to his double-CD debut The South Shore, which impressed when it was released on Phill Niblock's XI Records two years ago. The new release, an eighty-minute contemporary classical collection, is performed by pianist R. Andrew Lee, known for his performances of minimalist compositions, and cellist Seth Parker Woods, who's performed with Heinz Holliger and Peter Gabriel, among others. And whereas The South Shore appeared on Niblock's label, Trajectories comes to us by way of Sean McCann's LA-based Recital, which has made quite a name for itself since its 2011 founding. In truth, the album's more Lee than Woods, given that the cellist plays on only a small portion of the recording; that said, his playing leaves a powerful mark when it does appear.

Among those with whom Waller has studied is La Monte Young, but, stylistically at least, one hears little evidence of his influence on Waller's composing style; if anything, it's the idea of working with minimal means to achieve maximal results that's common to both. Waller's music is pretty but not saccharine; a typical piece is graceful, harmonious, tonal, and melodically rich, and more often than not concise and direct. His material has been referred to as lyrical and introspective, and such a characterization isn't inaccurate.

However, a number of settings suggest that too much shouldn't be made of the minimalist label. Downplaying the principle of severe reduction, Waller instead has Lee execute elaborate multi-layered patterns that bolster the rhythmic charge and melodic appeal of the material (see “Inner World,” the seventh part of Visages, in which ascending bass and cascading tenor patterns interlace). While there are moments that recall the elegance and simplicity of Satie, there are others that present a full-bodied attack that casts such an association aside (e.g., the second and third parts of Breathing Trajectories). One of the more interesting aspects of Trajectories is the strong folk dimension that emerges in the writing of a number of pieces.

Recorded at the University of Missouri-Kansas City's White Hall on August 11-12, 2016, the recording makes as strong an argument on behalf of Lee's artistry as it does Waller's. Many of the composer's signatures are present in the opening setting, by itself—translucence, simplicity, delicacy, calm—yet the decorative trills that emerge during its second half point towards something deeper and more complex. The eight-part Visages naturally affords a more expansive portrait (eight visages, after all, connoting eight different faces of the composer) that sees the music range from the charming folk-tinged “Year of the Ram” and dark exoticism of “Maidens Dancing” to the wistful lilt of “Onomatopoeia,” certainly one of the set's prettiest and most alluring pieces, and insistent rhythmic charge of “Obviously.” A subtle degree of dissonance seeps into the three-part piano composition Breathing Trajectories, though never so harshly that these delvings into atonality grate. Such explorations are welcome ones in suggesting Waller's interest in venturing outside the harmonic territory he's comfortably inhabited.

A yearning quality renders the ten-minute Lines all the more affecting when Woods participates, his aching expressions doing much to make the piece an album standout, and the cellist returns for the closing triptych Laziness, whose first part seduces with an arcing melody that recalls Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade while the second offers one final sampling of Waller's folk leanings. Except for these two pieces, Trajectories is an all-Lee affair, and it hardly suffers for being so.

Another recent solo Lee release, a recording of Ryan Oldham's Inner Monologues (Venn Diagram of Six Pitches), is markedly different in style from Trajectories and more consistent with the character of material issued on Irritable Hedgehog, the label Lee founded with David D. McIntire in 2010. As someone who embraces improvisation and indeterminacy in his works, Oldham's not an easy one to pin down: a trumpeter as well as composer, he's a provocateur whose sensibility is revealed somewhat by an anecdote McIntire shares in his liner notes to the release.

About ten years ago, he witnessed a performance of an Oldham work for solo cello that was interrupted at a climactic moment by the ringing of a cell phone belonging to an audience member, who subsequently exited the concert hall to answer it. Only when the individual joined the cellist on stage for the post-performance bow did the audience learn that the cell phone incident was part of the composition. As a member of the trio Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes, Oldham has created a piece that when performed lasts about twelve seconds, plus he's written an opera titled Numera whose libretto consists entirely of integers.

His Inner Monologues (Venn Diagram of Six Pitches) is unusual, too. Performed by Lee as a single-movement twenty-five-minute piece, the material perpetuates Irritable Hedgehog's propensity for slow, minimal compositions. At the outset, a single chord is played, its sustain lingering in the air until it sounds again forty-five seconds later. Though additional notes gradually appear, they too are spaced far apart, making the listener struggle to discern the work's structure. As central to the piece as the physical notes are the rests separating them, especially when those spaces are filled with the sound of notes fading away. Mystery and tension abound as the austere work unfolds, with resolution largely kept at bay and the notes marking out territory with calm deliberation. Certainly one of the primary fascinations of this enigmatic piece has to do with the way Oldham's 'picture' is alluded to rather than directly presented.

October 2017