Undiscovered Lands

OCT 2014

By George Grella

Michael Vincent Waller

Michael Vincent Waller’s music is easy to admire: he writes with clarity, he has an involving interest in variation form, his harmonic palette is tonal but he’s not confined to functional harmony, he uses repetition as a means to build form and maintain direction, and he crafts attractive melodies—a fundamentally important skill that has become bizarrely undervalued in contemporary classical music. Waller’s pieces are very much of the present moment, but stand outside the current orthodoxies seeping out of conservatories and graduate schools. He is more interested in the historical tradition than most of his generation of composers, and he’s far less interested in white, bourgeois, audible beats and indie pop-inspired two and four bar phrases, which threaten to smother the world of contemporary classical composing in a soporific vapor.

Michael Vincent Waller, courtesy Michael Vincent Waller.

What sets Waller’s music apart is his biography. He came to composing relatively late and has an unusual academic background: his bachelor’s degree from NYU is in finance, with a minor in music, and he spends his days as a database programmer. He’s a professional composer in the most important sense, working and supporting himself and striving to make music. His interest in composing developed in college, in a seminar with composer Elizabeth Hoffman, and then blossomed outside it. His school was LaMonte Young’s Dream House. He studied under Young for several years, then with Bunita Marcus. The fruits are heard on an EP released early this year, Five Easy Pieces, piano works played by Megumi Shibata and Jenny Q. Chai. Available digitally from iTunes, Amazon, and streaming services, the music is subtly affecting and shows his roots in Bartók and Debussy without ever casting a shadow over his own voice and vision. Waller says the title is “more Jack Nicholson than Stravinsky.”

“Stylistically, I’m still impressed with the Impressionists. It’s music of departure,” he told me. Like with theirs, the organization of his music comes through in the way that it always has an interesting direction, even as it flows with a sense of organic freedom that might be indebted to his raga studies with Young. “Intuition is something I learned from all my mentors.”

In March, violist Max Mandel and pianist Eric Huebner played two fine new Waller pieces at Roulette, on a concert program that included a terrific work by Hoffman—Musical Boxes—music by Yotam Haber and Annie Gosfield, and Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life #2. Waller organized the concert in his third career as an increasingly important impresario, programming concerts at Spectrum, finding musicians and ensembles, and writing new pieces for them. “I was going to so many concerts, and I was so into concerts, I didn’t just want to be a composer.”

Through the connections he made concert-going, he was asked to program the NewIdeas MusicSeries at Pianos, 2010 – 12. One of the last performances of that series was at Spectrum, where he met Glenn Cornett and became one of Cornett’s young, interesting musicians who, with their social and musical connections, create concert programs for the venue. Check Spectrum’s schedule regularly for a chance to hear one of the most interesting composers in New York, and see more about Waller and his work at


George Grella

GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.