In the middle of Les Fleurs du Mal, amid the corpses and disease and noise and drink and eroticism of Baudelaire's splenetic chronicle of Modernity, the reader comes upon an oasis of sorts: "L'invitation au voyage." Addressed to "mon enfant, ma soeur" (but in fact being offered on the page to that Reader whom Baudelaire first saluted as "Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!"), "L'invitation..." proposes a journey of escape to a place of languorous beauty and peace, far from the stultifying scenes of the poems around it. The tenor of that longed-for place is encompassed in the poem's famed refrain:
Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.
It has been variously translated into English. I am partial to Richard Wilbur's version:
There, there is nothing else but grace and measure
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.
"Luxe, calme et volupté" serves well to characterize The South Shore, a double-CD set collecting recent music composed by Michael Vincent Waller, recently released on Phill Niblock's XI Records: It is pleasing, it calms what lies around and about it, and it is rich in plan and in execution.
The South Shore comprises more than two hours of solo or small-group pieces, composed between 2011 and 2014. (In an age of vinyl, it would be a three-disk set.) While each of the compositions is compact in itself—the longest runs slightly over 10 minutes, and most last fewer than 6—they cumulatively amount to a major statement. They nourish and satisfy, offering both familiarity and freshness, and they do not begin to cloy even after repeated listening.
The musical rhetoric of these pieces is discursive, instruments addressing the listener in sentences or at paragraph length, melodic propositions laid into place and balance as in an essay by Montaigne. Ideas bloom out of themselves and into successive ideas, logically and with little repetition.
A late Romantic atmosphere predominates, with occasional forays into a cooler pre-Baroque sensibility. Dissonance is uncommon, but also not altogether absent. The music bespeaks an old soul, in the sense that it deploys methods and impulses first explored a century, or two, or three or more ago—modal scales, in particular—in the cause of addressing a contemporary hearer. For those (such as this blogger) who are curious about the technicalities, but who lack the training to place them by ear, helpful liner notes by "Blue" Gene Tyranny identify most of the modes and keys in play.
The South Shore begins with cello and piano and ends with clarinet and gong. Each piece between has its own virtues—there's nary a clunker in the lot—and each listener will likely find selections that speak most clearly to that listener's ears, mind and heart. Among the particular highlights (in the order in which they appear):
- "Anthems"— Piano and cello in stately post-Satie dialogue make for a succinct and welcoming introduction.
- "Nel Nome di Gesù"— For cello and organ, a two-part sacred meditation with something of the clean-swept asceticism of Arvo Pärt.
- "Ritratto"— Often evocative of Purcell or of slow movements in Vivaldi, but written for a distinctly contemporary sextet of flute, alto saxophone, electric guitar, viola, cello and trombone. Simultaneously refined and mystical, worldly and courtly one moment and cloistered the next.
- "La Riva Sud"—Appropriately, the piece that lends its [translated] title to the entire collection, and the personal favorite of this blogger. The particular shore the composer has in mind in this duet for viola and piano is the south shore of Staten Island. In the long tradition of liminal pieces, impressions of the outer and inner world inform and mingle one with the other. As Pete Townsend would have it, "A beach is a place where a man can feel/He's the only soul in the world that's real."
- "Pupazzo de Neve Partitas"—A four-part suite of dance forms (Allemande, gigue, et cetera) for solo cello. Any composer writing such a thing risks comparison to the great Bach cello suites and Waller's, as played by Christine Kim, hold up creditably well under that weighty scrutiny.
- "Arbitrage"— Bass clarinet and gong, concluding the set on a vaporous, nocturnal ramble.
Listening to The South Shore in the background as I was singling out the pieces just listed, I am struck again by the breadth of pleasures it offers. Vraiment, luxe, calme et volupté. Recommended and restorative.
In 1904, Henri Matisse appropriated "Luxe, calme et volupté" as title for a painting of another southern shore, that of France at Saint-Tropez.
This post is based upon an unsolicited, but welcome, link from the composer to a review copy of The South Shore, and on a subsequently solicited tangible copy.