New York composer Michael Vincent Waller has delivered a third album to his quickly growing fanbase. Moments features R. Andrew Lee on piano and the celebrated William Winant on vibraphone. This weekend’s edition of The Moderns will feature excerpts from an interview Waller and I conducted last week. Here’s an edited version that includes material not included in the broadcast.
This feels like a more intimate work for you.
These titles are more personal and experiential about things that happened to me or family members or friends. There are some memorials, some dedications, titles that evoke places and times that are very specific. My work before has been a little more metaphysical or abstract – lots of poetic images.
The album opens with “For Papa,” dedicated to your grandfather. What would you like us to know about him?
[He] was really affable, smart, funny and witty. He was full of life into his 90s. He lived until almost 96. He was really a strong figure in the family. My dad and my mom were very supportive, but I always looked to him as kind of a guiding light. He was always a standard and held by the family in high regard.
“For Pauline” is a tribute to Pauline Oliveros. Why did her deep-listening concept resonate with so many?
It means the same thing for everyone, at some level. You become aware of how you’re listening and how your listening is part of the experience; how it’s creating the moment. That fundamental awareness: your psyche is almost in the way of what you’re trying to do, but it’s the only way to receive the information.
It’s a paradigm shift of awareness: appreciating sound as it is. The natural phenomenon of listening as a musical experience, and framing that as a musical experience. Not just in a meditational or spiritual context, but also a musical one at the same time. That’s how I frame it.
What was it like to study with La Monte Young?
It was definitely powerful. It was influential. He was a very good person to study with. He encouraged me to pursue that one-on-one guru-disciple relationship that he had with Pandit Pran Nath. That was one of the best things that happened to me. I didn’t try to seek further institutional education. I was very content and inspired by working directly with a composer one on one with private lessons.
I went through a lot of the typical chores and extenuating practices of waiting long periods of time and long lessons in the middle of the night – some of the things that people have written or associated with La Monte.
What did you learn from Young that you value the most?
Besides the way that he generally approached listening, the way that pitches are organized in the harmonic series and the whole just intonation practice. [He taught] that tuning is a function of time. That relates back to just intonation in general. Connecting it with time was really a kind of mental shift.
Pitch – you think it’s absolute and frozen. It’s this thing that’s almost like a sculpture. But the temporal aspect of things is really crucial in hearing and listening; how pitch fundamentally works in acoustics. The physics of sound and how that’s supported. Understanding that duration and pitch and this kind of universal concept of tuning really influenced the way that I listened, the way that I appreciate the moment and allow for things to bloom rather than putting things next to each other and sequencing things without letting them settle into something.
Tell me about your two performers on the album.
R. Andrew Lee, I’ve been working with now for four years. He has been one of my favourite musicians to collaborate with. He has a very painterly style of playing; very patient, practiced. It allows sounds to marinate in themselves. The overtones, his ear and his touch at the piano is very unique.
He has spent almost his entire career, with over 10 albums, very much dedicated to minimalism and a lot of variety within that idea. It’s not one type of minimalist work. He has been a big inspiration. One of the reasons I’ve written more piano music and did another record after Trajectories was because of my experience with Andy. He just made the piano feel alive; it had so much context and subtext in his hands. He was a very inspiring collaborator. We will continue to work together for a long time.
William Winant was a new collaboration. He had always been kind of an idol of mine, a very iconic performer. I remember hearing this recording in college of Kontakte by [Karlheinz] Stockhausen with James Tenney and William Winant performing together. In the last few years, he’s done recordings with Peter Garland and Michael Byron who are fellow composers who I’ve reached out to. They’ve been very mentoring to me and supportive of my work. So his connection to their work inspired a collaboration. And then I asked him to work on this recording. He was available and he liked the music. We recorded at Mills College where he teaches.