Michael Vincent Waller: The South Shore
XI Records

The wealth of chamber music presented on Michael Vincent Waller's debut collection The South Shore suggests that the young American composer has considerably more in common with Bach and Schubert than Berio and Stockhausen. A graduate of New York University and one-time student of La Monte Young, Bunita Marcus, Petr Kotik, and Elizabeth Hoffman, Waller isn't shy about infusing his tonally harmonic material with melodies both lyrical and plaintive and is likewise a composer more inclined to incorporate pure modal scales (Ionian, Phrygian, Aeolian) into his work than anything of a twelve-tone variety. Ironically, The South Shore turns out to be daring in its own way, simply for the fact that in embracing a style that's so resolutely accessible and melodically direct, Waller positions himself as somewhat of a lone wolf amongst other young composers whose works are characterized by radical, boundary-challenging inclinations.

Issued on Phill Niblock's XI Records imprint, the 138-minute release features works of modest duration composed between 2011 and 2014 and performed by a diverse set of instrumental configurations. While many are arranged for duos, trios, and quartets, there are solo settings for piano, flute, violin, clarinet, cello, and organ, and almost every instrument heard on the recording is acoustic (the appearance of an electric guitar during “Ritratto” almost startles for being so rare). As one listens to the recording's electronics-free miniatures, one could be forgiven for thinking that as far as Waller is concerned the twentieth century never happened. But though The South Shore might hark back to an earlier time, there's also no denying the appeal of Waller's music, which, rich in counterpoint and elegant in flow, speaks to the listener with an undeniable immediacy, and one comes away from the recording impressed by its genuine character.

Moments of lyrical beauty are plentiful, whether it be the emotionally expressive string quartet “Atmosfera di Tempo,” the Debussy-esque flute solo “Vocalise,” or the gentle piano setting “Pasticcio per meno è più.” The string trio “Per La Madre e La Nonna,” which Waller composed for his mother and grandmother, features some of the recording's most heartfelt writing, while Esther Noh's bravura rendering of the solo violin setting “Il Mento Tenuto Alto” provides the collection with one of its most uplifting moments. A pronounced folk influence emerges during “Profondo Rosso,” in the piano patterns especially but in the violin playing also, and a folk feel emerges within the melismatic piano-and-viola duo “La Riva Sud” and solo piano “Return from The Fork” movement from Miniatures, too. Resplendent in its multi-voiced presentation and contrasts of timbre, the organ solo “Organum” tips its toes into the modern world when its repeating patterns hint at a minimalism influence, and a similar flirtation seeps into Y for Henry Flynt when the solo cellist toys with micro-dissonance during its third movement.

From the seductively pensive cello-and-piano duet “Anthems” with which the recording lullingly begins to the dramatic bass clarinet-and-gong duo “Arbitrage” with which it ends, The South Shore—by turns impressionistic, autumnal, introspective—entrances the listener with one supple chamber-styled setting after another.

March 2015