The prepared piano - where a pianist places screws, forks and other foreign objects on the piano strings to create strange, eerie timbres - has long had a place in the world of contemporary classical music, notably in the avant-garde music of John Cage and George Crumb. Pianist and composer Kelly Moran was pursuing that same path, collaborating with prepared piano veterans like Margaret Leng Tan and releasing several albums of increasing complexity and rigor, culminating in 2017's Bloodroot, named by the NY Times as one of the year's best classical recordings.
But, before long, Moran found herself at an impasse which left her "banging her head against the wall." Not long after, she had what she describes as "her Eureka moment":
“I was squatted down in the forest, listening to the sounds of the wind and the wildlife, and all the echoes surrounding me. I asked myself: How can I make music that feels like this: natural, connected, and effortless? So I went back to my piano, hit record, and went into this trance-like state where I improvised for several hours nonstop...When I listened back to the recordings, I felt like the music that I had produced that day felt really unbridled and joyous."
Since then, Moran has reimagined the prepared piano as an instrument of ecstatic possibilities, enhanced by electronics and a less rigid, more improvised approach to performance. Specifically, Moran feeds her piano into MIDI software and a sampling keyboard, allowing her to electronically manipulate the recordings and play them back as complex, new sounds.
Along the way, Moran was enlisted by Oneohtrix Point Never (a.k.a. Daniel Lopatin) to play keyboards in his touring band. That ultimately led to her signing by Lopatin's label Warp Records (also home to Aphex Twin, Brian Eno and Squarepusher, among others) which has resulted in two releases so far: November's Ultraviolet and the more recent EP Origin.
On Monday 5/20, Moran performed at Roulette, completing her Van Lier artist-in-residence fellowship that began in March 2018 (prior to her joining Warp). The first half of the program consisted of music from Bloodroot and Origin, which was gentle and slowly evolving, like Erik Satie crossed with Terry Riley's ecstatic improvisations, with elements of wind chimes and Balinese gamelan. The electronic elements were subtle, subjugated to the prepared piano; Moran, in a flowing white dress complementing her long blond tresses, was the clear focus, lit by a simple spotlight.
After intermission, Moran returned - now wearing a black top and denim - to perform all of Ultraviolet. According to an interview she did with Pitchfork last year, Moran, who is synesthetic, sees a different color on each track of the album: “Autowave,” in E major, is pink; “Water Music,” in E flat major, is yellow with blue undercurrents. In developing her live performance, Moran commissioned a set of mind-bending visuals by video artists Cassie McQuater, Gabe Liberti, Juli Odomo and Ren Pan (along with Moran herself) to accompany each track, in order to let the audience experience the album as she does.
The result was an overwhelming audiovisual spectacle, with projections taking over the entire proscenium of the stage and a massive screen hung behind Moran and the piano. On Ultraviolet, the electronics are positioned more forward, enhancing and often subsuming the brightness of the prepared piano, as with "Water Music's" melisma-like patterns and "Nereid's" circular spectral magic.
For me, Ultraviolet's clear highlight was "Helix", which starts out slowly and simply, almost childlike on what sounds like a toy piano. Soon, the music becomes faster and more intricate, building to a crescendo girded by heavy dark synth that reflects Moran's love of black metal. The effect was simultaneously scary and rapturous, not unlike the sound of a great organist playing an extended voluntary. Or, perhaps more aptly, a killer guitarist launching into an extended solo. Walking out onto Atlantic Avenue on a cloud, I was fairly certain that my first experience with this thoughtful and boundary-breaking artist won't be my last.
Moran is taking her act on the festival circuit this summer, including Paris' Villette Sonique and Sónar Barcelona, where I hope to return next month for the first time since 2011. More pics on the photo page.