I got a shock when I first put on this album. It was kindly sent to me by the composer. I opened the package to see an album from Phill Niblock‘s Experimental Intermedia label, cover art by Niblock, sleeve notes by “Blue” Gene Tyranny. Knowing nothing about Waller, all signs pointed to music that would be right up my alley: minimal (if not ascetic), with an underlying logic readily perceptible (if not rigorous). I hit play on track 1 and got mugged by something unambiguously… pretty.
Two CDs, 21 brief compositions of new chamber music, all with the same shamelessly “romantic textures”, to quote from the sleeve notes. It’s relentless, as if the double-length playing time is meant to reassure you that the sweet, modal harmonies and melodic fragments are truly guileless. The avowed simplicity and directness of intention and execution for each piece would like to be seen as disarming, but it put me on my guard. It’s like one of those cultural games that Nabokov played in his novels: the more you know about the subject, the worse you get entangled in his snares.
Those sleeve notes open by describing Waller’s music as “a welcome and rare alternative to the tempo and noise of modern life…. Waller’s music convinces us by its honest emotion, which avoids any artifice that would dramatically pull us toward some effect.” As I listened to each piece I kept waiting for the angle to emerge, the conceptual scare quotes. It didn’t happen. The initial impulse is to compare the music to Howard Skempton’s, but there’s a tangible difference. Skempton also writes tonal or modal miniatures, but his music is reduced to the barest essentials. Waller’s music is clearly informed by the past few decades of “minimalist composers” and the “new tonality” but even in this restricted scale of composition there’s always a suggestion of something grander, a romantic excessiveness of expression.
It’s a dangerous aesthetic no-man’s-land in which Waller has staked out his musical territory, where artistic merit lives or dies by the sureness of the artist’s grip on prevailing aesthetic tastes. At this time such an enterprise seems so foolhardy that I kept my ears pricked for the slightest lapse of sincerity, some cultural or ironic distancing. Tyranny’s notes for each piece seem to invite a disingenuous reading: “I do feel the almost neo-Baroque sensation taking me back to my own trips across Italy.” “There seems to be a mixed emotion in this piece that hints at a troubled memory arising in the morning.” The word “uplifting” is used to describe at least two pieces. We would appear to have entered a post-postmodern aesthetic, of new sincerity.
Other reviews have described this album as gentle, poetic, lyrically beautiful. I found myself listening to music that teetered on a knife edge, threatening to slip at any moment from sweet clarity to trite sentimentality. The starkest moments are usually the most effective: the concluding “Arbitrage” pieces for solo clarinet and bass clarinet with gongs, for example. The Variations for Quintet with its canons and repetitions are pleasingly reminiscent of some of John Cage’s beguilingly blank music from the mid to late 1940s.
Of course, Cage at that time was struggling with finding his true compositional voice. Much like e. e. cummings, whose poetry Cage occasionally set to music, his attempts at disarming directness could sometimes lapse into fey affectation. This happens in some pieces in this collection, such as the piano solo Pasticcio per meno è più, which sounds a little ingratiating. It will be interesting to hear how Waller’s music develops and whether increased confidence in his craft will make his music more self-effacing or more extroverted.
I keep listening for the angle, trying to trip it up, catch it out. Maybe I want a darker undercurrent to throw the lighter shades into relief. Maybe I’m too cynical, too sophisticated in the pejorative sense.