20 min read

Then and Now

A quick update on a previous post; recommendations for streaming events during the next week or so; and a long-overdue conversation with the enterprising composer Michael Vincent Waller.
Then and Now


I hate to start out a newsletter on a sour note, but I owe an apology to everyone who’s signed up for Night After Night, but didn’t see the newsletter I circulated last Friday, June 5. That day, you might recall, was one of Bandcamp’s occasional fees-waived sales days. I packed the newsletter accordingly with recommendations for timely purchases, many of them related to the 75th birthday of the visionary composer, improviser, bandleader and pedagogue Anthony Braxton on June 4.

Unfortunately, despite my express attempts at setting it up otherwise, what was meant to be a post shared free with all readers instead was sent only to paid subscribers. This was not meant to happen, and I’m deeply sorry that it did.

There is, however, something of a silver lining: Bandcamp is running another sale on June 19—Juneteenth, so called because June 19, 1865, was the date that the  Emancipation Proclamation (issued on January 1, 1863, recall) was read  to slaves in Texas. On that day, Bandcamp will donate 100 percent of its sales cut to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

So please, by all means, check out the suggestions you were supposed to see last Friday—and then bookmark anything that strikes your fancy for purchase on June 19. (No doubt there will be even more options available by then, too.)

Streaming highlights

A young listener watches cellist Julia Biber performing during the June 9 ChamberQUEERantine livestream.
Photograph: Steve Smith

All performances are listed in Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).

June 10-23, 7pm: ChamberQUEER, a young Brooklyn-based LGBTQ+ organization and concert series, is running a nightly online festival for Pride Month, cleverly titled ChamberQUEERantine. In the first two nights of the series, each program has featured brief performances by multiple artists; the opening-night showcase, for instance, included ChamberQUEER co-founder Andrew Yee playing a fervent rendition of Andrew Norman’s For Ashley, original songs sung sweetly by aviva jaye, arresting bedroom electronica by Phong Tran, and the iconic pianist Sara Davis Buechner playing Turina at home. Donations encouraged; facebook.com/chamberqueer

June 11, 7:30pm: Superstar performers in canonic classics have dominated the nightly complete-opera streams from the Metropolitan Opera. But this Thursday night you’ll see such stars in a vintage recording of The Ghosts of Versailles, John Corigliano’s fantastical installment in the operatic saga of Figaro, filmed during its world-premiere run in 1992. The cast includes Teresa Stratas, Renée Fleming, and Marilyn Horne; there also is a conductor. The stream will remain available for 23 hours. Donations encouraged; metopera.org

June 12, 1pm: OperaVision, the generous initiative that brings major productions from 29 European opera houses and festivals to YouTube for free streaming, presents a production of Arnold Schoenberg’s noble, unfinished Moses und Aron staged by the controversial visionary Barrie Kosky and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski for the Komische Oper Berlin in 2015. The video will remain available until September 11, so there’s no urgency—but the show is self-recommending. Free; youtube.com/operavision

June 13, 7pm; June 14 at 2pm: The Village Vanguard, New York City’s most venerable jazz institution, hosts its first-ever livestreamed performances, featuring the Billy Hart Quartet. Along with master drummer Hart, the band includes saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson, and bassist Ben Street. $7 admission; villagevanguard.com

June 14, 3pm: Bang on a Can hosts its second six-hour digital Marathon. The show opens at 3pm with Rhiannon Giddens, and closes just before 9pm with Terry Riley; in between, you’ll hear 25 live performances and 10 newly commissioned premieres. Donations encouraged; marathon2020.bangonacan.org

Interview: Michael Vincent Waller

Michael Vincent Waller
Photograph: Timothy Saccenti

The following interview with composer Michael Vincent Waller has been a long time coming, in more ways than one.

I’ve admired Waller’s music since first becoming aware of it around eight years ago, for its plainspoken beauty and its hidden depths. I was fascinated, frankly, by the distance I perceived between Waller’s present idiom and the practices of his most prominent teachers, La Monte Young and Bunita Marcus. And I admired the resourcefulness with which Waller had assembled a network of persuasive advocates, including the pianists Joseph Kubera, R. Andrew Lee, and Sophia Subbayya Vastek, the pianist-composers Dante Boon and Melaine Dalibert, the violinists Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris, the cellist Seth Parker Woods, and others, whose local concerts Waller frequently had a hand in arranging.

All these things led us to sit down together for a lengthy conversation near the end of September 2019, just before the Unseen Worlds label released Waller’s third album, Moments. The interview was meant for my previous publication, but was pre-empted, repeatedly, by teeming chores and competing demands. We stayed in touch consistently, looking for the next-best opportunity to publish our chat, and decided that it could coincide with a brief tour that would culminate in Waller’s debut at the South by Southwest conference and festival in Austin, TX.

Pandemic and cancelations eliminated that option, of course. But Waller managed to keep busy during the health crisis, and next week will release a previously delayed digital EP via the consistently fascinating Australian label Longform Editions. Suited to the label’s premise, A Song documents Waller’s most extended piece on record: a 21-minute meditation for solo piano, played by the composer himself.

The time had come for our conversation to appear—now prefaced with a note Waller provided concerning his present state:

It’s been difficult to work on writing music since daily life has been on hold, as that is truly what inspires me. With all the cancellations, and a new EP that was set for April, I didn’t think it was a fitting time with the pandemic surging in NYC, so we postponed it. Then recently it was re-proposed for June, which inspired the dedication of the work to the slow recovery of our times. In these extreme challenges, I’ve turned to new forms of creativity, focusing on some distance collaborations, as I was already working on a remix album of Moments. That has kept my spirits up, working on surprising dialogues in the creation process.

What follows is very nearly all of the conversation we had last year, seated at a table in one of Manhattan’s many secret patches of green: a discreet pocket of crepe-coated trees tucked away among skyscrapers, expressly for moments of contemplative escape. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

STEVE SMITH: I’ve been hearing several of the pieces featured on your newest album, Moments, in recitals presented by a handful of significant pianists in New York City over the last year or so. What prompted you to assemble this specific collection?

MICHAEL VINCENT WALLER: Yes, they were developed over the course of somewhere from where I stopped recording for Trajectories, so that was May-ish of 2016 going into 2018. I was going through my normal compositional cycle of writing during those years, marked by a couple of life events that started to inspire the titles. These works revolved around those moments. My compositions usually start with an image, or some kind of open, metaphysical kind of concept, a vignette of some kind…

That's a painterly kind of model.

Yes, definitely. I enjoy painting to inform my practice, and art is always a way for me to approach work. So there were a few different autobiographical moments that were introduced into the pieces, and into the album.

A listener might presume as much, when encountering titles like For Papa and For Pauline. The autobiographical resonances seem evident.

Yes. There are three memoriams—Roman, as well. But there are also things that are a little joyous—the Jennifer piece, with my cousin being a cancer survivor, was meant to be a kind of restitution piece. And Return from L.A. I wrote after I had come back from L.A. for the first time in a while that I had gone there. It was right after the Trajectories album release, hanging out with [composer] Sean [McCann] and just being there—I wanted to let that Hollywood lighting play out in a piece.

There’s the Nocturnes, that were really stylized towards Dante [Boon]’s playing and his kind of exposed repertoire. The vibraphone pieces were really interesting, because I was writing a lot of piano music, and I’d been almost stuck there for a little while. The vibraphone piece from 2012 [Vibrafono Studio] I’d never had on a full LP before. I wanted to write a new piece to pair with it, Love, the suite, and working with William Winant was really a cool opportunity.

Those two pieces are the most separated by time. The 2012 vibraphone piece was written for Caleb Herron, in Atlanta. It was my first piece for vibraphone, and I wasn’t thinking very much about anything; it was just this kind of melodic and temporal exploration in D minor. But seven years later, it’s still connected to what I’m doing. And that place that I was in my life, I can’t even think like that compositionally anymore. But to write another piece that was a little more updated to where I am as a composer was kind of a fun process, juxtaposing that beginning of the melodic phase with where I am now.

Are you indicating that 2012 was a turning point in your personal practice?

Yes. There was one piece before that, Arbitrage for bass clarinet, that had clear melodies. I would say that that was the antecedent. But in 2012, around September, I remember I did a concert… it was the last concert I did at Pianos. I did it with David Watson and David First; we did a trio with bagpipe and electric guitar, and it was a heavy drone piece. And then I wrote a cello solo [Y for Henry Flynt] that same month that had this chordal melodic exploration. From there on, I said, I think this is my voice. The drone pieces were interesting to me, and some of them I thought were great. But there was something that I found: “Oh, here’s my voice now.”

That’s an excellent segue, because… well, to be perfectly honest, I find the idea of pedagogy with La Monte Young a fascinating concept just to try to wrap my head around. So I’d like to know more about your musical background, starting even before La Monte. I can’t recall now where I read it first, but I’ve seen a few instances where you talked about being a late starter.

Well, maybe I’ll be more transparent than I have been before—maybe I never started. [Laughs]

Or always were in a process of starting?

Yes, figuring out how to start. I started taking an interest in creating music at around 18, 19. I had played with my grandma at the piano, and it was very special. But it was not like an interest or a hobby, or even anything that I wanted to develop. It was almost like a family thing. She just passed recently, and she was really the only musician in the family. No one was encouraging me. She was a self-taught pianist who just played these moody Broadway chords and ’40s big band songs. I didn’t really connect my trajectory to what she did, but there is a lot there that’s subconscious, growing up. That was really my only experience. I also liked listening to music a lot. I listened to a lot of hip hop in South Florida in the late ’90s.

Whereabouts in Florida?

Fort Lauderdale. So when I came to NYU, there was kind of this explosion, and I was like, “Oh, I want to be an artist.” It was like a real cultural center that I had not been exposed to.

Was that your first exposure to New York?

No, I was born in New York. And then my parents got divorced, and I commuted back and forth. New York was where I wanted to be, always. And then I finally got there, and NYU was this eye-opening culture that was much more artistic than where I was. So then I wanted to be in a band. That was my first inclination: I wanted to be in a band like Radiohead, or something like that.

Playing guitar?

Piano. So I said, okay, I have a little bit of experience with piano, I have this childhood experience of being able to play a few songs: let me study piano. And I started taking rock piano outside of NYU, and then NYU Steinhardt’s private piano performance. I remember having some calls on the phone, interviewing teachers, and they’re like, you know, it takes 10 years to become an intermediate pianist. And I was just like, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this.

But, as I pursued piano, I got further into the department, where eventually I got introduced to the Dream House by this professor, Stanley Boorman, who just retired from NYU. He was at Oxford; he was one of their lead musicology professors. He taught medieval and Renaissance and 20th century music – those were survey courses I took – and he inspired me to check out the Dream House. I went there for like a year, and then eventually went to study with La Monte.

During [Boorman’s] class, I decided I wanted to be a composer rather than be in a band. I thought, it would take me 20 years to be a master musician, but maybe I can figure out how to compose, because there’s not this inability in my fingers or my body preventing me from being able to explore things.

This answer is getting pretty long….

That’s fine. I’ve always been curious about your trajectory—and, again, the notion of being a student of La Monte Young is such a pleasant mystery.

Okay, so there was a time – I would call it the devotee phase, which would be the first two or three years where I was in school – I said, I’m actually going to study with La Monte Young in 2006, and I remember Stanley Boorman saying, “Maybe you should change your major.” He pulled me outside in the stairwell, and he’s like, I don’t know if you know what you’re about to do. And I was like, well, I’m ready for this.

So I jumped into it. I was volunteering once a week at the Dream House. I was taking lessons, waiting in the middle of the night, kind of going through these mild kind of exercises of patience and guru/disciple… this authoritarian kind of relationship, but very spiritual at the same time. It was a lot of raga, it was a lot of La Monte’s… existence. And then that progressed.

I like that: La Monte’s existence.

That’s what you show up to. My interest persisted around 2008, towards the end of graduation, that I wanted to be a composer. I started talking to him about composition, saying, hey, I don’t want to sing raga all the time; I want to learn how to compose. He said, okay, we can set aside some of your lessons for composition. This is after about two years really in it, doing the laundry—those things were worked out.

And then he started showing me scores. He showed me the score for The Second Dream [of The High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer], and that was really dense. You would think this improvisational four-pitches piece would be very loose, and it was such precise instructions. It was a very beautiful score, and it was very rich. So that was very impactful, some of those experiences with him.

I remember playing him some of my music, as I explored tuning a lot more from 2008 to the end of 2011, when I stopped studying. I remember playing him tapes, and he’d be like: Ohhh, there’s beating! Ohhh, this is out of tune. And I thought: I have to train the musicians in the process of building the piece to get the tuning right, to really be Charles Curtis precise. That was the standard for being able to play in tune.

In 2011 I wrote a mixed ensemble piece with vibraphone, flute, violin, and cello, and I was using primes in the numerator and denominator, thinking that was some sort of LaMonte-ian twist, you know, double primes just with the intervals. And he was like, No, this is not in tune, you can’t do that. And then I was like, alright, I think I’m done with trying to do these variations on La Monte’s themes.

Michael Vincent Waller
Photograph: Timothy Saccenti

At around the same time right, I was really getting into Feldman. I had thrust myself into La Monte’s music and Pandit Pran Nath and Indian music. But then with Feldman, it started to be like, wow, this is just as rich and deep a catalog of minimalism. There’s an article, actually, between the two of them, where they talk about improvisation and composition in Resonance magazine. And that text really impacted me, hearing that dialogue, hearing the benefits of improvisation and composition, and where the tension was.

That’s kind of what I was doing, especially in that beginning phase: a lot of improvisational-based methods, the La Monte school of “you can’t write it down.” It’s impossible to get the rhythms, capture the nuance of in between the pitches. But when I started studying with Bunita Marcus, in response to that kind of Feldman obsession, she showed me the school of getting everything on the page. She made a joke in one of my first lessons… she was like, “I feel like all of La Monte's scores fit on a postcard.” And these are the kinds of tensions that you hear in the aesthetics, and how people develop their methods.

Either way, she really got me on the page, and since then I’ve through-composed almost every work. It’s been almost hard to figure out how to get improvisation back into the work, other than in my practice, how I find material, and how I leave a lot of space. But that’s not really traditional improvisation; it’s more interpretive improvisation.

You mentioned earlier that you had been working in this very drone based area, and then there was this turning point, where you recognized that there was a different path for you to pursue. What prompted you to take that step?

I’ll be honest, it was my wife-to-be. I had taken her to all these drone shows, and she went to this Petr Kotik-conducted resonance piece [Discretion], in the beginning. And then she heard me playing the piano, and she was like, “Why don't you do that?” And I was like, you know, it’s not really in fashion to make things that sound good. [laughs] I mean, to go back to this traditional expression at all, like melody or harmony—Phill Niblock was like, “no harmony, no melody, no rhythm, no bullshit.”

That was in my mind, as I wanted to be in the new generation of artists, right? These are our inspirations of the 20th century, and the mentors that I had—which I still think are the greatest artists of the 20th century. It’s just about reinventing what is acceptable, what is experimental, what is foundational. Those are the things that I still grapple with.

There’s one point that I want to make, which is that despite all this study – almost seven years of private study, and being at NYU, and being at Elizabeth Hoffman’s honors seminar as a non-major – I really am autodidactic, in a way. I have more of whatever the self-taught pop musician trajectory would be, but applied to classical instruments and the more contemporary minimalism fields. It’s like my grandma’s self-taught, not knowing how to read music has inspired me more than heavy theory or some compositional degree.

When you struck out in this new mode, did you feel isolated?

At first there was the audience that had been following a new-music contextual thing, with certain expectations, that obviously started to say, Hey, what are you doing? But it wasn’t so far off that people couldn’t enjoy the evening; you could listen to Kaija Saariaho and then listen to something by me, and it would flow. So I was able to get through it and keep going with a similar pattern of trying to curate and trying to build concerts and come up with a platform for my music, and outlets, and musicians to work with and keep that the same cycle that I had. The scene that I was gravitating towards went a little bit more to the chamber/salon-style concert rather than electronic venues, so it kind of tamed out some of the vibes in the social scene.

I started to look at other music that I never knew existed that was simpatico, like Gavin Bryars or Howard Skempton or Harold Budd or Peter Garland and Michael Byron. Then I started befriending those two… you know, now I don’t have to study with someone; I can just be colleagues or friends with a composer who’s great. The Cold Blue school, Michael Byron, Peter Garland… I started to realize they’ve been doing this for 40 years. So even though I felt like I was jumping into something, I wasn’t fearful.

When I heard your music for the first time, I had read your press bio beforehand, and then I was actually surprised by the simplicity and straightforward beauty in your work. Knowing who you’d studied with had led me to anticipate something else. But then after that, it wasn’t hard to hear affinities with the Cold Blue composers you mentioned, like Budd or Garland or John Luther Adams. At the time I was still getting to know the Wandelweiser composers, like Antoine Beuger and Jürg Frey, but that, too, felt like a place of some affinity.

I started to try to introduce that into the curatorial mix at around the same time. I think I was finding out probably around the same time that you were like, after 2010, ’11, ’12. I remember in 2013 I went to quite a few Wandelweiser shows. There was Presents Gallery, where John P. Hastings had some very tiny concerts; I went to quite a few of those shows.

I never really fit into one of those schools. I’ve taken kind of refuge in that. You’re not trying to be somebody else. You’re not trying to try to be in some school or some thought pattern, or fit into minimalism or even post-minimalism. Bunita would say, “I'm a post-minimalist composer.” I was like, well, if you’re a post-minimalist composer, maybe maybe that fits. And some of those other people I was mentioning kind of fit into that. I don’t know if it works. Maybe it does.

On a practical level, as an outlier who didn’t necessarily spend a whole lot of time becoming chummy with a ton of musicians while in school, how have you come to form your network of interpreters?

Pretty organically. It started with the people that I grew up with in New York. At Niblock’s loft, I met Tom Chiu and the FLUX Quartet and Conrad [Harris] and Pauline [Kim Harris]. They were my first group of friends. My first piece that I wrote in the New York circle was for Pauline and her sister. And just going to a lot of concerts, networking, sharing, meeting that hardworking musician community that’s still pretty much the same people I was fraternizing with 10 years ago: Niblock’s friends, the people who played at the Stone, the classic institutions. A lot of the time it’s me reaching out and saying: hey, I know you’re doing music in this space, and you have this affinity toward beautiful textures and contemplative performances. Why don’t we work together?

Is that how you connected with Andy Lee?

Andy Lee was a reference, which I was very blessed for. I did a concert with Nicolas Horvath at Carnegie Hall. It was a two-minute piece; he had 20 short homages to Philip Glass on this huge Glass program. Paul Epstein was on the program and I met him that night, and Andy had been working with him. Paul said, I really liked this one piece, Pasticcio per meno è più, and then Andy programmed it.

Andy usually picks all his own programs; he has his own repertoire. I remember brainstorming with him, saying maybe we should do a concert at Roulette. I wrote Breathing Trajectories for him, so that was the first piece for him. And then it was easy to ask for an album after we had created this relationship. Andy is really an amazing person, and the least demanding musician I’ve ever worked with, but then he’s so focused and uncompromising. The way he works in a studio and works things out is really amazing to watch. He’s very, very precise in what he wants.

This brings me to another thing that has always fascinated me about your work and the way you do it: this entrepreneurial aspect, where you’re actually producing a lot of concerts. You’ll put on a concert by Dante Boon at Daniel Goode’s loft on Spring Street, for example, and you’ll have a couple of pieces on the program, but the rest is all whatever Dante is doing. How did that start?

Again, I think it extends through that program in 2011 with Pauline, that pattern of building a program with the musicians. So it’s like, yes, I want to work with you, I want you to play my music; let’s figure out a good program for it. It’s a dialogue. There are certain times where I’m really chasing repertoire, I need these pieces… like Michael Byron’s Tender, Infinitely Tender—Lisa Moore premiered it. I wanted to put on the second performance of that piece for a year-and-a-half, and I was trying to get it on a program and it kept getting bounced off. There’s some complexity there.

But then with Dante, I didn’t pick any of the pieces. I sent him a whole bunch of scores, he picked a couple, and I wrote one new piece. Sometimes I have these really intricate things that I want to present, and the interrelations are very conscious. And sometimes it’s just friends who I’ve been hanging out with, good composer friends, or people who I’m in contact with during that period.

Sometimes, freeing yourself from an institution is the only way to really do the program. It’s nice when things align: oh, this festival is doing this thing, and it allows me to present this work that I want. But a lot of the things that I’ve done have been very small DIY rentals.

You mentioned in an interview some years ago that you would like to move towards larger ensembles and larger forms of work. Have you made any progress toward realizing that ambition?

That was a little cry for help, at that time, but I’ve done a couple of bigger ensembles; it’s more me that has to do the work now. I wrote a piece for Melaine [Dalibert]’s festival, for nine instruments, and that was kind of flexing in that area.

I want to start writing a little bit more away from solo piano for the next couple of years. You go through periods where you become absorbed in something, and it’s very important to the process to allow it to happen that way. And then you need to take a step back from that and create something new, or focus on different materials. So I’m in the process of trying to say, Hey, I know that piano is really great, but you can do some of the things that I was doing in 2012 to 2015, more mixed ensembles and strings.

Is your early music still around? You haven’t destroyed it all? Someday we’ll have the “Michael Vincent Waller: The Early Years” retrospective concert?

Well, they’re not burned. I always wonder: maybe I should write this really grinding drone piece again? And then some people have said, why don’t you try to put both of them together?

That’s actually what I was just imagining: a drone-based piece with some very simple, lovely piano over it.

I don’t know. It’s just… it doesn’t….

The idea is not calling to you right now.

Yeah. What I studied in drone music, what I absorbed from that kind of body-music experience, is sonorities and resonances and hearing things in a nonfunctional tonal way, which extends to the harmonies, the afterlife, the resonance in the way that I approach these more archetypical patterns that are written out or rhythmic or chordal. There’s a lot of hearing overtones in an equal-temperament mode, exposing sonorities, that comes from spending a lot of time of listening to La Monte Young’s drones. I do hear the whole spectrum, rather than thinking in dyads.

The surface simplicity of a lot of your music is deceptive in that way, because there’s actually a lot going on in terms of sonority and decay and resonance, and the way that things sound together.

I’m glad you said that. Earlier, when you mentioned the straightforward simplicity and sincerity you hear in the music, I wanted to offer this as a kind of counterpoint, but you’ve just stated the counterpoint. I always feel a little exposed when people respond that way. It’s like, maybe you’re just judging that initial feeling, where you need to use your inner clock—there’s a lot of subtext that’s ticking, that’s as deep and as complex as I can be as an intellectual, or someone who’s trying to convey some sort of nonverbal message.

As a listener, you have to get beyond your own expectations and initial impression of what something is at a surface level, do a bit of digging, and engage an expression of art for what it actually is meant to convey. And once you start to do that, there’s this whole rich extra life, where you can keep going back and discovering more.

Part of what’s really beautiful about minimalism, in general, is that conceptually you’re able to appreciate something that might be ruled at face value as one thing, as something monolithic, but there’s so much in there. It’s the classic expression: how do you explain what minimalism is? It’s something like what you were describing, where it’s constantly changing and new. It can be as physical as the Dream House, where literally everything is changing as you move your ear, or it could be something very temporal, where through time the relationships and your memories – or whoever’s memories, even if they don't know the music – somehow transform the music and the way that it’s presented.

Moments is available now on Unseen Worlds; unseenworlds.bandcamp.com. A Song will be issued next week on Longform Editions; longformeditions.bandcamp.com.