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Interview with Michael Vincent Waller

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or ripp-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview, composer Michael Vincent Waller describes how 'new creation' can lead the listener into a process of transformation - and towards the very heart of creativity.

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?

There was an initial period of discovery which was raw, unprocessed, and highly personal; this for me, were my first modal improvisations at the piano. When I started attending NYU, I began to pursue formal exploration, and intensive compositional dialogue, both inside and outside the classroom.

My first composition teacher was La Monte Young, with whom I studied with for five years – delving into raga, just-intonation, composition and minimalism. I then studied with Bunita Marcus for the following two years, focusing on a more lyrical and contrapuntal language.  It was during this period of study, where I used “models” in which, I would focus on one or more composer’s sound worlds, trying to channel them into my own voice. This was a highly valuable experience to fuel my understanding of possibilities, in sound and structure. It was particularly enriching studying one-on-one, outside of an academic environment, where I could cultivate a close relationship with teachers.

A few years ago, after completing these apprenticeships, I returned back to my roots of modal harmony and counterpoint. This somewhat-recent shift to focus on what was natural to my ear, intuition, and sense of spirit; above all, was a renewal of my antecedents informed by the study of language and forms. 

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
Even as a child, I felt being original, some sort of unique and/or profound perception of the universe, was very much in the moment. I sought this is my daily life and interactions; a sense of distinction embedded in everything.

In terms of the first music that struck me as original, it’s hard to really say – but, maybe the Beatles’ White Album provided one of my first senses of magnitude, of something timeless and truly original. I felt this the first time I listened to Schoenberg, Bartok, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Ligeti, Feldman, Satie, Mozart, Debussy, Ravel, Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, and many more. It is the same feeling that is continually revitalised, recontextualised, and expanded; both forward and back in history, as I experience more, and more art and music. What attracts me the most about original music, is how transported I am, entering into a phenomenal state, by new creation.

What's your own definition of originality?
Originality to me is the essence of being creative, which is metaphysical, ethereal, and yet, real. It is a quality which is instantly recognizable, but also very hard to explain. It is core to the paradox - that is in all of us – embraced in the creation of a singular, yet imperfect, expression. It is a process which escapes many, and concentrates culture simultaneously; an inner-divinity of cumulative realisation in consciousness.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
One of the most contradictory things about originality is the inverse which supports it, that which, is universal and timeless. It is these qualities of music that have been overarching throughout human history; qualities manifested in the singing bards of Homer’s time (8th Century B.C.), Biblical horns and lutes, the chanting practices of the Medieval era, and the many renaissances to follow.

Today, there is this sense of  nothing new under the sun –  an increasingly conquered territory – a landscape with little fertile ground remaining. I think this is where originality can continually shine upon itself; reconstructions of what is timeless, contemplated, and germane.  

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
The once imminent dangers of conglomeratisation and commodification of music seem to have taken hold. This is an era of disembodiment in the practice, digitalisation of the profit and   medium, with profusion of genre, style, and aesthetics. This can create lacks in integrity, which  creep into the artistic process, as a series of watered-down intentions. I respect a certain tradition of “belief in music” which is as subtle, as it is ineffable.

I believe the greatest potential for originality are those artists finding their own path. Those determined to connect with others, but with their own personal milieus intact. I think the contemporary music community in New York City can be highly stratified, but also very supportive and collaborative. It is inspiring place for me to be, and I am thankful for all of the musicians and composers that are buzzing, almost every night.

There are also some composers working outside the US who seem to cultivate an identity that is far-reaching, but also from within their own culture, living and working:  Arvo Pärt (Estonia),  Mamoru Fujieda (Japan),  Salvatore Sciarrino (Italy), Valentin Silvestrov (Ukraine), Georg Friedrich Haas and Olga Neuwirth (Austria) are among many exemplars. 

I feel composers who don’t really subscribe to a camp or modus operandi are highly interesting. There is a certain level of commitment and persistence to transcend the fashionable, and/or constrained trends of their own culture, with overriding considerations. And yet, there is still a certain kind of love for one’s culture, that celebrates virtue as a triumph.

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
In recent months, I have been focusing on releasing a record; a new project, aside from the usual activity of composing and curating concerts. The writing of the individual pieces has its own self-contained universe and process – core to what I need to be doing as a composer. Actually writing music, working on pieces that offer unique constructions, instrumentations, and overall musical feelings. There is a different energy in creating a record, that offers an object and lens for a series of works to be received, almost like a gallery show for one’s paintings. I find it challenging, but also insightful, to think about the tradition of record production, alongside the works themselves, in combining art  together for a concentrated statement. 

Since 2011, I have written over thirty chamber works, and I am working on bringing them together into a double-disc CD release on XI Records, The South Shore. It will be my first full length release, a double LP featuring Ensemble Dedalus, Project SiS, 20>21 Ensemble, among over 20 musicians included in this recording. In Feb. 2014, I self-released an EP, Five Easy Pieces, to establish an introduction to my work; this next release set for March 2015 will be a full-bodied volume.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
The creative process is very intuitive, beginning and ending with material and process. Concepts usually, are most important at early stages of a work: they can be feelings, titles, or images that inspire a work. Ideas are containers that need to be filled (by working).

Once I have strong constellation of ideas in mind; instrumentation, thematic format, a particular ensemble I am working with, I can begin the material-gathering process. I begin assembling a series of musical images (single melodies, harmonic passages, thematic cells), and transcribe them. This first phase is like picking the colours for the painting, mixing the palette before applying the brushstrokes.

Then, I go to the full score format which is laid out very visually; the actual page(s) act as a blank canvas. This is where I orchestrate, applying the different strands and materials that I have collected, placing them in an transparent form.  I observe a sense of organic progression in how the images and information is received; the order itself, is dictated by a higher force of being in time.   

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
Copyrights, within a legal model, can be important especially for music being used in film and TV, and other commercial purposes. Publishing rights and score/parts rental fees can be also be a viable source of income for composers in an overall dwindling compensation model.

I think the recognition model is more difficult to ascertain, it is something than can take anywhere from a few weeks to 300 years. It will always remain elusive, providing special opportunities for those who get in early; before the cusp of an artistic statement, movement, or singular work. I think dedication, and openness foster these qualities of profound appreciation, even long after it becomes history.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
I believe tools create methodologies to achieve a particular result, but with similar idea in mind. Whether you’re writing for 40 speakers in a performance hall, or a laptop with pitch tracking, or any technology, the most important concept remains the sound, the immersion into artistic experience. If it is pencil and paper, one’s instrument, notation software, or even, a series of verbal instructions, then the music should flow through you, and be communicable by others simultaneously. Artists can choose to be reflexive, or reflective, of the tool(s). 

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
The most interesting points of departure in my work  have been embracing the age-old technologies of counterpoint and harmonic/melodic composition. After searching for high experimentalism, I think my increasing interest in more traditional and romantic idioms, and in lyrical imagery, has helped me expand the practice of minimalism (outside of its formal bounds) encouraging post-modern revival within the avant-garde.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
It might be unfortunate, but adversity and abuse of power can actually be highly conducive for originality. The need to break the mould, or in the early 21st century’s case, an increasing potential for reformation of the mould, can be a very strong impetus. Throughout different civilisations, political unrest and shifts in consciousness have inspired great art, as has the mundane, and underlying social stability which evolves slowly.

Overall, I think cultural diffusion and homogenisation, especially within the recent rush of the information age have posed serious obstacles to new orders of expression. It’s becoming hard and harder to do something for the sake of something, rather than in spite of some thing. But as they say, “Life finds a way.”

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
I really want to write for the Orchestra. I have been working with smaller chamber ensembles in different combinations, predominately solos, duos, and trios, while appreciating those opportunities to write for quintet, sextet, septet, and octet and have them performed. Overall, I would love to receive more invitation to collaborate with large ensembles, while maintaining this core of chamber works.

Michael Vincent Waller Interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Michael Vincent Waller