I awake from my long music-reviewer slumber to tell you about two recently-released albums I’ve been enjoying: Moments from Michael Vincent Waller, featuring pianist R. Andrew Lee and percussionist William Winant; and Autumn Winds from Kirk O’Riordan, featuring pianist Holly Roadfeldt, soprano Ann Moss, and violist Peter Dutilly.

Album Cover - MomentsAlbum title: Moments
Composer: Michael Vincent Waller
Performers: R. Andrew Lee, piano; William Winant, vibraphone
Released by: Unseen Words on October 4, 2019
Link: https://unseenworlds.bandcamp.com/album/moments

Moments presents eighteen autobiographical pieces that each evoke a certain spirit or imagery. Waller’s compositional voice draws the listener in with its care and sincerity, and the album’s diaphanous atmospheres and delicate expressions are faithfully captured by pianist R. Andrew Lee and vibraphonist William Winant. The first track, “For Papa,” establishes this approach with its tenderness and the sense of openness provided by F Lydian. This is followed by the first of a four-movement work titled “Return from L.A.,” which embraces that space where yearning and gladness join hands, wonderfully expressed by Waller’s use of D Dorian.

“For Pauline” pays homage to Oliveros and her accordion with its alternating quintal harmonies and sense of stasis. I can imagine watching Lee perform this live and hearing the notes hover and intermingle within the body of the piano as an exercise in deep listening. The final track on the album, “Bounding,” also seems written so that the pianist is imitating another instrument, this time a Flamenco guitar, performing for the bulk of the piece a slightly modified Andalusian cadence. The Nocturnes, meanwhile, are fully pianistic, continuing in the vein of their predecessors in their pensive tranquility, with Lee eliciting great sensibility from the slow, undulating melodies.

The album includes a four-movement suite for vibraphone called Love, beginning with the aptly titled “Valentine,” which sounds like a metal-tined music box—with brief bop-like flares—haunting in its juxtaposition of intricacy and innocence. The middle section of “Baby’s Return” has Winant performing complex polyrhythms, while “Images” blurs together notes of the octatonic scale to create spiky but alluring harmonies. “Sizing” provides more polyrhythm, the number of lines in its polyphony seeming almost more than is possible for one person to play. Love, it seems, is a complex undertaking.

cover of autumn winds CDAlbum title: Autumn Winds
Composer: Kirk O’Riordan
Performers: Holly Roadfeldt, piano; Ann Moss, soprano; Peter Dutilly, viola
Released by: Ravello Records on February 14, 2020
Link: http://www.ravellorecords.com/catalog/rr8029/


The title piece is a fifteen-movement song cycle for piano and voice, each setting a haiku by Matsuo Basho. A study in stillness, many of the songs inhabit a liminal space; like Autumn, they tremble between one state of being and the next. As Roadfeldt puts it in her liner note, “each deals with [the image of Autumn Winds] as a literal image and as a metaphor.”

In the first two tracks, voice and piano both hover in a soft dynamic, scattering sparse lines across a fleeting span. The third song opens with Roadfeldt performing a rocking, dissonant ostinato as Moss sings in full voice for the first time so far in the cycle. She returns sotto voce in the next song, as the piano’s melody climbs around the keyboard. Moss’s voice radiates crystalline in “bright red” and “speaking out”; Roadfeldt’s vigorous might is on display in the rhythmically active “blowing stones” and “though autumn winds blow.”

The final three songs of the cycle cross the liminal threshold as autumn winds transform into trembling graves. Proceeding from two of the cycle’s sparsest songs, Moss’s dramatic exclamation “shake, oh grave!” introduces a kind of final awakening, in which tremolos “tremble, oh my grave-mound,” and angular, fluctuating vocal lines rise and dip, before the music slowly fades to black.

The album opens with Four Beautiful Songs for piano, voice, and viola, with text by Lee Upton. The cycle features dramatic shifts in mood with moments of frenetic activity, melodious repose, and yearning lines in counterpoint. Roadfeldt, Moss, and Dutilly blend such that each part coalesces into a whole; no part is written for primacy over the others, and the group expertly combine and trade off to create a holistic piano-voice-viola timbre. Though writing diatonic music, O’Riordan deftly shifts expectation from harmony to gesture, beckoning the listener to hitch on for the ride. The fourth song, “The Blouse,” is especially tender and enticing.

Bookending the title song cycle are two standalone pieces. Prayer Stones is a tour de force for violist Peter Dutilly, with wide-ranging melodies and extended sections of rich double stops. Roadfeldt introduces a dramatic panorama, expansive and stark. Dutilly enters with a keening supplication, soaring over the piano’s landscape. The piece then moves into a more pensive mood, with the piano providing shimmering figures like sparks of light falling from the sky, as the viola speaks in harmony with itself. The energy gradually increases in the piece’s final minutes, exploding into a joyous coda.

The album closes with Beautiful Nightmares, whose forceful outbursts alternate with troubled spinning and churning. Even before reading in Roadfeldt’s notes that it is a serial work, I was seeing in my mind’s eye colors and shapes reminiscent of early 20th century expressionist art, typified by Schoenberg’s painting “The Red Gaze.” Roadfeldt moves through the complex lines and textures with discernment, emphasizing the piece’s turbulent spirit.

One last note for engineer Andreas Meyer, who created impeccable atmospheres for each of the four worlds this album inhabits.

Tracks 1 through 4 performed by Megumi Shibata, track 5 performed by Jenny Q. Chai 

Here is some cool piano music for you to listen to: Five Easy Pieces by composer Michael Vincent Waller, written in 2012 and 2013.  The individual pieces each have their own distinct character, while their shared ethereality links them together nicely as a whole for the album. There are shades of Impressionism and minimalism, and thereby of gamelan music; “Ninna Nanna” in particular exhibits the cyclical, surreal merry-go-round vibe of gamelan.

“Per Terry e Morty II” makes skillful use of the Phrygian dominant scale. I know I’m always harping on about Morton Feldman on this blog, but there is definitely a link between his and Waller’s music, in the sense that it uses small, slowly-morphing patterns to sort of suspend the sense of time moving forward. The performances by Shibata and Chai are sensitive and compelling, and the production of the album does justice to the delicate sound decay of the sustain pedal.   

Be sure to check out the album on Bandcamp or iTunes.