Name: Michael Vincent Waller
Musical Recommendations: Moondog & Valentin Silvestrov - I think these two composer-artists are vibrantly prolific, yet not frequently performed in the US. They have tapped into a bold stance on post-modern musical styles, where melody, counterpoint, and harmonic lyricism feel completely transformed, and utterly extraordinary.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started composing relatively late, when I turned 19. My early influences delved into the Avant-Garde, Minimalism, and Spectralism. Simultaneously, I was interested in Medieval and Renaissance music, and also music from various cultures, like raga, gamelan, gagaku, Impressionism and jazz.
It is this tension between the universal inspirations of music from antiquity / world cultures, and the groundbreaking attitudes of the 20th century avant-garde, that I feel engaged to grapple with contemporary music.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I am still discovering what it means to be a composer. There was a time when I was searching for a niche, trying to rework ideas within established idioms that other composers established. I feel this process was ultimately for learning about possibilities in forms and structures. Once I became compelled to write music that I truly wanted to hear, I felt liberated to side-step camps of stylistic agenda or cult-collective. It is during these moments, of being alone with one’s self in the universe, when the most profound things can emerge.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
When I first started out, trying to find a community for my art work was a unique challenge. In retrospect, the underground was indeed a good place to start. Contemporary art offers a forum for constellations of ideas, and that is where I feel compelled to work, seeking engagement with the composer as artist.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
I am currently living in Brooklyn, where I have a piano in the living room, and a separate studio with monitors and computer. I like the feeling of working at home. I want my workspace to be a natural extension of my daily life, so I can be as centered as possible when creating.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? What do you start with when working on a new piece, for example, how do you form your creative decisions and how do you refine them?
Per La Madre e La Nonna (2012) for string trio was written in dedication for my grandmother and mother. My personal feelings of familial love and adoration are what I wanted to channel into the piece.
I typically begin with something along these lines: an image, feeling, or concept that is the nucleus of the work. Creative decisions are formed with this in mind, realizing the work with a sense of organic freedom and natural process, which tends to have a highly idiosyncratic quality. My sense of continual refinement is becoming more involved in the recursive process, and remaining sensitive to the awareness of how I am just part of it. The resulting art object is something of a higher force.
What, if anything, do you personally draw from the cosmos of electronic music and digital production tools that is inspiring for your daily practise? In how far do you see the potential for a mutual creative pollination between the two?
Electronic music and digital production create a world of precision in colouring techniques and synchronicity that is not possible otherwise. I do think in order to have cross-pollination, the technology should remain a tool, which serves to support the art form, rather than dominate or subsume. It’s always more fascinating to me when art transcends it means.
How do you see the relationship between timbre and composition?
I cannot separate the two. Timbre is so crucial to every aspect of composition. Even at the onset, before a single note is written, the selection of instrumentation builds the basis of the entire sound world. Overall, timbre (and tuning) underlies the fundamental feelings and tension in each moment.
I spent a considerable amount of time working with just intonation and microtonality, writing dozens of compositions, focusing on openly tuned instruments. As I began to explore my own style more in-depth, I decided to make my music more universally available, for the piano in particular, and therefore, equal temperament. But, I do believe this music would also thrive in alternate tunings. The modal aspects of my compositions extend a sense of harmonic structure that could work especially well with just-intonation intervals. I am always inspired by the fact that Bach and Mozart simultaneously can sound fantastic in alternate tunings, with different fundamental frequencies, deepening aspects of the mood and structure.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
As La Monte Young has said, “Time is my medium.” I tend to agree.
I wrote a concise string quartet Atmosfera di Tempo (“Atmosphere of Time”) where there are a lot of tempo changes (which frequently appear in my work); and, I tried to focus on this ineffable quality of how time feels, an aura that is ephemeral, and yet, eternally embodied in the moment.
The most directed sensation I am interested in, is a breakdown of “clock time”, effacing the mechanical. It’s a floating feeling, sometimes described as musical rubato, which can open up a timeless quality, a vibrating perception of time.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
Improvisation is very important and personal to me. It’s like my meditation. It gives me strength and inspiration for the compositional process. I think improvisation is so beautiful because of its freedom from the conditionality of what to do next. I discover tons of material that just flowed naturally through me, almost subconsciously. But, with this gained freedom, a loss is exposed, an inherent lack of thoughtfulness, which is necessary for me to create unique juxtapositions of ideas and phrases.
This sense of imagination and artistry requires deep contemplation and purposeful intent that is central to the compositional process. Overall, the counterpoint and superimposition of their respective merits can elevate each other.