Words: Rebecca S. Lentjes
Images: Wolf Daniel/
I found myself submerged into the truly unique sound world of Kelly Moran during the final performance of her Van Lier fellowship at Roulette in Brooklyn on May 20. Moran, a composer and multi-instrumentalist based in New York, dabbles in many different realms of the avant-garde, from noise music to Cage-influenced piano collaborations. During this show, she performed two 45-minute sets of piano music against video and visual backdrops that contributed to an overall sense of hallucinatory otherworldliness: what Moran describes as “some kind of psychedelic trip… with all these micro-epiphanies along the way.” The two sets (one acoustic, one electroacoustic), though played straight through with no pauses, lacked a sense of overarching narrative or teleological focus, instead enveloping the listeners in sensations of light, color, rhythm, and timbre.
The first half of the concert consisted of two of Moran’s recent acoustic works, both for prepared piano. For readers who might not be familiar with this technique, a piano can be “prepared” by opening up the back and sticking objects – such as nuts, screws, bolts, coins, rubber, or paperclips – between the piano strings. When the corresponding piano key is pressed, the “prepared” note will still sound, but will sound dampened or percussive or metallic. Moran has explained that for her part, she prefers “to use screws and bolts because they give the piano a sharp attack, while creating really delicate, gentle resonances.”
Her acoustic works explore the harmonies and textures possible within these resonances. Bloodroot (2017) consists of six movements that bleed together like watercolors, one shade shifting imperceptibly into the next. Origin, newly released on May 17, continued from there, deepening our experience of 19th-century-tinged chord progressions interspersed with unpredictable clangs and clonks.
Although Moran has stated that she loves “when people completely guess the wrong instrument I’m playing,” the piano was very evident during the first half of her performance. The plinks and plunks of Origin were interwoven with Debussy-esque harmonies and Romantic-era flourishes. Moran’s sound world is four-dimensional, not only drenching listeners in different timbres and textures. but also transporting them across time.
Her approach is less concerned with “correctness,” and much more with the drastic range of experiences the piano can provide—whether it’s recognizable as a piano or not. The result was a swirl of neo-Romantic and prepared piano sounds, like a delightful, shroom-fueled combination of the oeuvres of Cage and Chopin, with a dash of harpsichord thrown in for good measure.
After a quick intermission and a costume change, the audience was immersed into the electroacoustic world of Ultraviolet(2018). Moran, now wearing black rather than white, spun a series of prepared-piano melodies, totaling about an hour in length, against a backdrop of widely varying video collaborations, and with layers of electronics humming alongside the piano melodies. Ultraviolet was reconstructed from an audio recording of Moran improvising on the piano she had prepared for Bloodroot. As she explained in an interview with Tiny Mix Tapes, “after I made Bloodroot, it wasn’t in my mind to make another record of prepared piano, just because I actually ran into quite a bit of difficulty when it came to performing that material live. There were a lot of venues in New York that wouldn’t let me prepare the pianos.”
When Moran listened back to the improvisation, though, she found herself drawn to the sounds and realized that “my structure for my improvisation felt very compositional and very planned, even though it wasn’t.” She decided to painstakingly transcribe this improvisation into a notated composition, which took about two months, and then layered in electronic elements. The result is the 45 minutes of synth and piano that comprise Ultraviolet.
As in the concert’s first half, the various movements of this work (“Autowave,” “Helix,” “Water Music,” and so on) were played in one continuous chain. But the movements were more musically distinct than those of the acoustic set had been, and were further distinguished by visuals and videos by several different authors, including Moran herself.
During “Autowave,” floaty pink visuals by Juli Odomo and Ren Pan were paired with staticky electronics and quasi-Romantic arpeggios. “Helix” featured Moran’s own visuals; the lights, colors, and shapes bled past the edges of the projection screen, engulfing the stage in the visual component just as her musical composition engulfed listeners in an aural bubble bath.
“Water Music” was perhaps my favorite of the second set. The sounds were still very plinky plunky, but the prepared piano sounded more exploratory and almost aquatic during Moran’s dive into a more rhythmically and structurally amorphous sound world. The accompanying video, directed and produced by Katharine Antoun, was a perfect visual supplement to the aural sensations, wordlessly narrating the “water music” with shifting seascapes and underwater images.
Moran reached into the piano and made an adjustment before playing the last six pieces (including “Halogen,” “Radian,” and several interludes), which all seemed to spill one after the other such that the audience could never be completely sure when one piece ended and the next began. If the first half of the concert had been neo-Romantic, this half was neo-minimalist.
These repetitive, propulsive compositions were complemented by kinetic videos by Moran, Cassie McQuater, Gabe Liberti, and Odomo & Pan. Unlike many instances of similar video projections during new-music concerts, I felt that these videos were perfectly suited for the musical content. As abstract images and shapes unfolded and collided, it seemed that the visual and sonic components were informing one another, almost as if the music was blooming alongside the images, rather than one dictating the other.
When Moran’s final note rang through the venue, I reluctantly unglued myself from my seat and ventured back out into the world, blinking against its humdrum sights and sounds, already desperate to return to the world of Ultraviolet.
Rebecca S. Lentjes is a writer and feminist activist based in NYC. Her work has appeared in VAN Magazine, Music & Literature, Sounding Out!, TEMPO, and I Care If You Listen. By day she works as a translator and assistant editor at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; by night she hatches schemes to dismantle the patriarchy.
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