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Kelly Moran talks future works and performing with Missy Mazzoli

Composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Kelly Moran works at the forefront of an ongoing collision between the electronic and the acoustic, breaking down the walls between instrumental and electronic music and making space for extraordinary and innovative new forms to evolve and flourish.

As a singularly gifted pianist with an idiosyncratic style, Moran’s music is centred around her instrument. Working with prepared piano, she records improvised compositions that are layered with prismatic textures and iridescent synth tones, bringing together imaginative instrumental technique and exploratory electronics to produce vivid, evocative music that transcends categorisation.

Kelly Moran recently joined Grammy-nominated composer and pianist Missy Mazzoli at St Giles’ Cripplegate Church for a spellbinding performance – presented by the Barbican – that included a solo set from each and a recital of two collaborative duets. Following a first half that saw violinist Etienne Abelin bow his way from grandeur to quietude through Missy Mazzoli’s stunningly dramatic union of piano and electronics, Kelly Moran stepped on stage and declared the pair “kindred spirits”.

Moran’s performance was a rare one, as she chose to forgo the luminous electronica that typically surrounds the sound of her chosen instrument. This proved to be an exceptional opportunity to witness her ample ability and ingenuity as a pianist, as she performed acoustic arrangements of pieces from “Ultraviolet” and last year’s ‘Origin‘ EP before debuting two new works.

Moran’s impossibly nimble hands dance over the keys, as clusters of notes unspool at lightning speed in calligraphic patterns, evaporating and reappearing in new formations, free from the strictures of regular rhythm and conventional structure. An expressive use of rubato treats tempo as elastic, stretching and warping phrases played with each successive iteration, as perpetually shifting motifs rapidly unfold and evolve through her fingers and her piano preparations produce unexpectedly dissonant percussive patterns that hang above the piano’s more harmonious tone, evoking a feeling of mysticism and intrigue.

Towards the end of the performance, Moran sat down at Mazzoli’s unprepared piano and performed two new pieces, one untitled and unreleased composition, and Sodalis, recorded for a recent Field Works compilation release. Though the preparations and production that typically surround her complex and polychromatic creations have become an essential element of what defines her output thus far, witnessing Moran playing solo piano was a rare opportunity to hear her compositions presented in their most essential form, and to witness a truly remarkable relationship between a gifted musician and her instrument.

Following her Barbican performance, we caught up with Kelly Moran to gain insight into her approach to collaboration and composition as she reveals details about her upcoming album and ever-changing creative direction.

Interview by Matt Mullen

Kelly Moran Credit Mariah Tiffany

"I want to bring my own point of view to everything I'm doing,
and I want to make music that sounds like myself"

Firstly, I’d love to hear about this collaborative performance for the Barbican with Missy Mazzoli. How did you two link up, what sparked this creative partnership?

Missy and I were initially commissioned to write together by Judd Greenstein, who is one of the directors of Ecstatic Music Festival in NYC. I had participated in this festival two years ago when I composed music for the renowned experimental pianist (and John Cage collaborator) Margaret Leng-Tan.

Last year, Judd asked both Missy and I if we’d be open to working with each other, and it turns out both of us were really enthusiastic about it and had secretly been fans of each other for quite some time, though we had never run into each other in person in NYC. I’ve loved her music for years and have so much respect for everything she’s accomplished in her career. She’s a really amazing role model for me and other composers because she’s broken a lot of barriers as a woman in music – she’s the first woman to ever be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, which is a huge, huge deal.

Her music is just incredible; it’s intelligent and well-constructed but to me that’s second to how gorgeously emotional and expressive it is. It’s something I’ve found is lacking in a lot of contemporary composition, and I admire that there is so much heart, so much raw emotion embedded into her music. It moves me so much. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to her rehearse with the violinist Etienne Abelin for sound check and the music just gives me chills, it’s utterly beautiful.

How do you find the process of writing and performing alongside another artist, as opposed to working solo?

I really enjoy it. I’m at a point in my career where I’m finally starting to branch out and collaborate with other people, which is something I actually haven’t done very much in my career. In the past, I’ve been quite stubborn and insisted on doing everything myself, because as a woman I’ve been hyper-aware of the fact that people often assume we have men producing our albums or helping us construct our recordings. I wanted people to know that I was the person behind everything happening in my music.

Now, I’m at a point where I feel more established and comfortable inviting other artists to play on my pieces and collaborate on tracks for my upcoming record, so the timing was really ripe for this partnership with Missy. I’m typically a very solitary worker and don’t usually get input or advice from other people when I’m working on music, so it was really liberating to be able to admit to Missy that I was struggling and wanted some feedback from her.

Initially, I was writing a duet for us with electronics, but I had sent her another track I was working on for my next record, and said something like “I think this piece could be great for us, but I’m just not sure if it would work” and her response was “Wow, I love this so much, we should definitely do it!” Just having that bit of encouragement from her was so important, because it eradicated any self-doubt I was feeling and gave me the confidence to move forward in finishing and arranging the piece for us. I’m really glad it happened this way, because this piece now has two identities – the album version, and the live version I do with Missy (which I modulated into a different key, just to make it even more distinct.)

Is there a recorded release in the works that will document this collaboration, or is it a solely performative venture?

The performance we did in NYC last week of Ecstatic Music Festival is going to be available to stream in the near future on New Sounds, but right now we don’t have any concrete plans to record together. I’m down to do it though, and I’m sure Missy is too. I’d love to have a recording of our iteration of “Don’t Trust Mirrors” – that’s the name of the piece I wrote. The same piece will appear on my next album, but it sounds quite different and features an appearance by another artist on my label. But I’m keeping that detail a secret until the record comes out!

The notes for this performance mention that you’ll be performing some acoustic settings of your work. Your last two EPs, the WXAXRXP Session and the Origin EP, also included solo piano recordings. Is this more stripped-back approach something that you plan to work with further in your future releases, or do you plan to continue operating within the continuum between electronics and the piano?

Definitely. I constructed a very dense, synth-heavy world for ‘Ultraviolet‘ and have been performing the music from that record non-stop since it came out in 2018. I love the timbres I used for it, but as I’ve gotten more experience in performing that album, I’ve been thinking about how I can do a better job complementing the sound of the prepared piano, especially in a live setting.

In my newer works, I’m really trying to exploit how delicate and fragile the prepared piano sounds, so I’m using fewer heavy textures and trying to bring out the idiosyncrasies of the piano itself more. I think it sounds really fresh and beautiful! I’ll still be working with electronics in the future, but I think my approach is changing slightly. I always want my music to be evolving!

Another thing is that it’s really rewarding for me to work on different versions of my music and show audiences a fresh perspective of these pieces. The music on ‘Ultraviolet’ originally started out as solo prepared piano music, so it feels very natural to be able to go back to the roots of what these pieces were before I drenched them in synths!

"In the past, I've been quite stubborn and insisted on doing
everything myself, because as a woman I've been hyper-aware of
the fact that people often assume we have men producing our
albums or helping us construct our recordings. I wanted people
to know that I was the person behind everything happening in my music."

Speaking of that continuum, I wanted to ask about your influences on either side. When I first heard you playing, I was reminded of (perhaps the most obvious touchstone) John Cage. Not only because of the prepared piano, but the flowing arpeggios that dominate your work, and the tendency towards minimalism – Cage’s “In A Landscape” was the piece that came to mind. Who do you consider as the primary influences on your particular style of composition?

It’s hard to say. I don’t relate to John Cage’s style of playing very much. Obviously he’s an influence from a prepared piano standpoint, but it took me many years to feel comfortable composing for prepared piano because I wanted to make sure I had my own point of view I could bring to it that was different from his.

I think one thing that sets me apart is my rhythmic feel, because I use a lot of rubato and play around with compressing and stretching time in my music a lot, while his rhythmic style tends to be a bit more regular and consistent. The only piece on ‘Ultraviolet‘ that uses any consistent rhythmic timing is “Helix,” everything else is totally free and unmetered.

Lately I’ve been writing a lot more music that is groove and loop-based, and I think this has to do with the fact that since I’ve been touring a lot, I’ve been playing festivals and end up going to see more acts in the vein of techno/electronic/dance music. Before I started touring, I mostly went to metal and experimental music shows in NYC. But I’ve been exposed to so much more music in the past two years from all my travelling, and it just kinda dawned on me how good it feels to move to music!

I know that sounds basic as hell, but it’s true. I just hadn’t really gone to shows that were part of that scene for a long time. Last summer I wrote my first piece in a long time that actually had a solid groove, and as I was bouncing from side to side in my chair mixing it, and I just thought “this feels great, I need to write more music that makes me want to MOVE!” So, that has been a big guiding principle for me in the music I’m working on now more than any specific artist or album.

I’ve read that much of the material in ‘Ultraviolet’ came from a day of improvised playing, which you later notated and added to – is this a method that you plan to continue using? How does the music that you create when you improvise differ to what you were composing in a more conventional fashion?

It’s true – I’ve used that method a few times since then! I’m fortunate to be a Yamaha artist, and recently Yamaha generously loaned me a Disklavier, which is a piano that has MIDI capabilities. You know when you go to the mall at Christmas and the piano in the lobby is playing itself? That’s a Disklavier. You can send MIDI information to the piano and it will play it back for you, but you can also record yourself playing the piano and it will record the MIDI into software.

A few weeks ago, I had a big improv session on the Disklavier and recorded the MIDI into Logic, and I was instantly able to pull up the notes and read the score of what I had just improvised from the MIDI file. Being able to bypass the step of transcribing made the process of relearning my improvisations so much easier and efficient, and it makes editing the music a lot easier too.

No matter what I do compositionally, there’s always an element of improvisation to it. Even when I’m working with loops, I’ll just be improvising and playing around until I find a melody or phrase that feels good over the loop, and then I play it over and over before I write it down. Usually the best music comes out of me when I’m not overthinking or trying too hard, which is why I’ll always rely on improvisation to generate my material.

Moving over to the other side of the spectrum, I’m curious about how your interest in electronic music developed alongside your instrumental playing. Have these two areas always been in parallel for you and what compelled you to explore both together, rather than narrow your focus on either one? What sparked your interest in electronic music?

In high school, I got into electronic music because I heard the song “Fahrenheit Fair Enough” by Telefon Tel Aviv, and I was really struck by the delicacy of the track. The way the electronic elements of the piece – these gorgeously complex glitch patterns – interface with these more human and emotive textures (like the fender Rhodes or acoustic guitar) really intrigued me. I realised there was a whole world of music that existed that I hadn’t even delved into.

I wanted to make music that sounded exactly like that – which is very common for young composers, a lot of artists start out by emulating the people they look up to before they find their own voice. That was pretty instrumental in my development, that Telefon Tel Aviv album led me to discovering other artists like Boards of Canada and Squarepusher, and I just went down the rabbit hole from there.

As a composer, I’ve just always been really interested in expanding the possibilities of acoustic instruments via electronic means. I remember in college I wrote a string quartet that had electronics, and one of my professors – very old school at the time – was just like “this piece is fine, but why do you need electronics? The piece is good on its own without them.” But for me, my viewpoint is that there’s already so many string quartets out there. That art form has been done before and mastered by so many composers.

I want to bring my own point of view to everything I’m doing, and I want to make music that sounds like myself, which means merging these two things together, and trying to do it as effectively as possible.

I think it’s going to be a journey I’m on my whole life, trying to create new ways for acoustic and electronic sounds to exist together. That doesn’t mean I’ll never write a piece that doesn’t have electronics, or a piece that isn’t fully electronic with no acoustic instruments, but it’s always going to be a focal point of my work and an area I’m interested in exploring and mastering further.

"I was hoping to put out my next LP this year, but I've decided
to take more time with it because I recently had a big breakthrough
that made me realise I was just starting to scratch the
surface of all the new ideas I'm having, so I'm still
composing and working on it"

Do you work with electronic instruments in the same way that you improvise at the piano? Are there clear similarities between the way you produce sounds with a computer and the way you play your instrument – or would you say that these are two entirely different ways of working?

For the most part, they’re pretty separate ways of working for me. I would say 90% of my music starts out on the piano, and the electronic textures come later. But there have been a few times this year where I made a patch or texture on my synth I really liked and used that to start the piece. I have at least two new tracks that started out from arpeggiators on my Prophet 12, and that’s something I’ve never worked with before in my music.

I usually let the piano dictate what should surround it. But I already know that’s something I need to explore more in the future – maybe on the record after this one I’ll experiment with switching up the process or eliminating the piano entirely. The excitement in trying new methods and approaches is what makes drives me as a composer!

Your records are strongly thematic – ‘Bloodroot‘ seemed to be centred around the botanical world, while ‘Ultraviolet’ explored a more diverse collection of ideas, elemental themes of water, patterns and waves. Do these ideas inspire the work, or does the music come first, with the themes applied retroactively?

Usually they happen concurrently! A lot of times it will just be an inexplicable feeling that I associate with the music while I’m working on it, and I just can’t separate them. When I was working on Bloodroot and refining the pieces, I was also really into learning about botany and plants at the time, so I was just naturally in a headspace where I was thinking about those things and making those connections with my music. The music on Bloodroot at times felt so delicate and fragile that it reminded me heavily of plant life.

Whereas on Ultraviolet, there were separate themes that emerged distinctly from each piece. When I was initially improvising the ideas that became “Water Music,” my friend who was staying at my house was taking a shower and the person I was dating at the time texted me to let me know he booked us a hotel that was “right on the water” – and I had also taken a swim on the beach near my house earlier that day, so it felt like all these signs were converging and pointing me towards water, and I immediately wanted to play something that felt aqueous. I started playing these melodies that felt like waves rippling on the piano, pushing and pulling each other, and the synergy at that moment just felt utterly perfect.

Can you tell us anything about what your next project will sound like – what are you working on currently? Are there new sounds, themes or instruments you want to explore in 2020, or are you planning to continue following your instincts?

I was hoping to put out my next LP this year, but I’ve decided to take more time with it because I recently had a big breakthrough that made me realise I was just starting to scratch the surface of all the new ideas I’m having, so I’m still composing and working on it. As I mentioned earlier, now I’m working a lot more with loops, and my music is starting to be more pattern-based in general; there’s more repetition on my next album than there was on Ultraviolet, which was all freeform improvisation.

The next record is not just going to be prepared piano – that is still something I’m interested in exploring more, and I feel like I can still do more things with it, but I’m also working with (gasp!) CLEAN piano now! I’ve been applying some of the stylistic tendencies I developed on prepared piano to an unprepared piano now, and the results have been marvellous. I think the next record will show I have a lot more depth as a composer, and a lot more to offer musically than just prepared piano.

Aside from that, I will be releasing some other music this year – there’s a new track of mine I composed for the Ultrasonic Field Works compilation that’s coming out as a single in the next week – that was the track I mentioned earlier where I was bouncing in my chair mixing it, realising I wanted to write more groove-based music. on top of that, before the year is over I will be releasing a split with another artist, so there will be more new music from me in 2020!

Photography by Mariah Tiffany and Diego Noll