Waller: The South Shore (CD review)

Music of Michael Vincent Waller. Various artists. XI Records XI 136 (2-disc set).

Not a lot of recent modern music--that is, music of the past thirty or forty years--appeals to me. Too often it sounds like mere academic exercises in noise shaping rather than anything that might entertain people. Indeed, the very thought of "entertaining" an audience would seem anathema to many modern composers; after all, that would smack of pandering to popular taste, something no respectable modernist would want critics to accuse them of. Then, just when I think that future generations will remember little from our current classical era, along comes a young composer like Michael Vincent Waller who breaks with the prevailing tide and produces serious music with a genuinely wide appeal. It's kind of refreshing.

According to his Wikipedia article, "Michael Vincent Waller (b. 1985, Staten Island, New York) is an American composer of contemporary classical music. He has studied with La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and Bunita Marcus. His recent compositions have been compared to Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Keith Jarrett, and Morton Feldman blending elements of minimalism, impressionism, gamelan, world music, and melodic classicism. His piano works have been described as 'evoking Debussy but refracted through a 21st century prism.'" Certainly, the music on his two-disc set The South Shore--solo and chamber works--fully illustrates these characteristics. More important, the compositions entertain both the mind and the heart.

Waller's music, at least as represented on this two-disc set, sounds melodic and a touch melancholy yet never sentimental. The program derives from compositions he wrote in the past four years, music that evokes memories, emotions, vaguely nostalgic and yearning, always sweet and flowing.

The musicians and ensembles who perform on the disc include Christine Kim, cello, and Pauline Kim-Harris, violin (Project SiS) with Conrad Harris, violin, Daniel Panner, viola, Charity Wicks, piano; Dedalus Ensemble with Didier Aschour, electric guitar, Amélie Berson, flute, Cyprien Busolini, viola, Thierry Madiot, trombone, Pierre Stéphane Meugé, alto sax, Deborah Walker, cello; 20>>21 Ensemble with Yael Manor, piano; Itay Lantner, flute, Erin Wight, viola, Clara Kennedy, cello, and Jessica Park, violin; Nicolas Horvath, piano; Esther Noh, violin; Carson Cooman, organ; Katie Porter, clarinet, and Devin Maxwell, gong percussion (Red Desert); Luna Cholong Kang, flute; and Marija Ilic, piano.

Being the old Romantic that I am, I tended to favor the more lyrical numbers in the set, starting at the beginning with Anthems for cello and piano. Like most of the pieces, it's brief and to the point, about two-and-a-half minutes, with a graceful beauty that envelops one in its welcoming tone. Likewise, Atmosfera di Tempo for string quartet is a gentle set of variations, quite beautiful in its wistful longing.

Waller describes Profondo Rosso for piano trio as a Valentine for his muse, Mia. As with any Valentine, it is pure, loving, and ultimately comforting.

And so it goes. Each piece has a haunting quality, moody and atmospheric, delightful in the moment, quickly forgotten. The pieces invite repetition of those moments, however. Tre Pezzi per Trio di Pianoforte for piano trio is probably the most impressionistic music in the set, with shadings of light and dark colors interweaving to create visions of nature, the seasons, and memories sad and anxious.

After that, there's a wonderfully evocative piece for organ called Organum that recalls music of the late Medieval-early Renaissance period in a large, airy, but very quiet cathedral. It's quiet organ music, if such a thing is to your liking; it is mine.

Michael Vincent Waller
Ritratto is the largest-scale work on the program, written for a sextet of flute, alto sax, electric guitar, viola, cello, and trombone. Again we hear a kind of Renaissance quality in the music, especially with the entrance of the guitar. It's quite charming, with each instrument highlighted for its own individual contribution to the whole.

The title piece, La Riva Sud ("The South Shore," of Staten Island, close to the composer's birthplace) for piano and viola involves memories of Waller's childhood. As such, it is among the most reflective and nostalgic of the works in the set.

Some of the pieces may remind you of the flute playing of Paul Horn, others of the piano of George Winston, two musicians who influenced a generation of popular artists. Yet Michael Vincent Waller's music is more complex than that, richer, subtler, and more varied.

If there is any drawback to the set, though, it is that there may be an overabundance of good things. That is, a little goes a long way and a single disc of this material might have sufficed for most of us. As it is, Waller and his team offer the two-disc set for the price of one disc, and if over two hours of his gentle compositions seem a bit much, the listener always has the choice to play only one disc at a sitting. (I had a slight preference for disc one and may be playing it often.)

I could go on, but you're getting the idea. Of course, none of the music would be of value if the musicians didn't play it well, and each of the artists involved plays with feeling and conviction. It's a lovely album all the way around.

Is Waller's music of such a quality as may become truly classic, music that people might play a hundred and more years from now? Who knows? Personally, I doubt it. Yet it is positively enjoyable in the moment, which is all that counts for us today. Equally significant, it is music that one hopes presages more good things from the composer, who is young enough to be a serious force in the world of original, avant-garde classical works.

Producers Michael Vincent Waller, Ryan Streber (who also did the mixing and mastering), and Christine Kim plus a variety of audio engineers made the recordings at several studios and a couple of live venues, XI Records releasing the album in March 2015. Although the sound derives from a number of different sources, it's all basically of a kind: warm, mildly resonant, moderately close up, and slightly soft in keeping with the nature of the tunes.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa