Interview with Kelly Moran

Kelly Moran by Tim Saccenti©Tim Saccenti

Kelly Moran is a Brooklyn-based composer and multi-instrumentalist, whose prepared piano works have found a wider audience since her signing to Warp Records. Her background includes playing in punk and rock bands, but it has been her nuanced piano recordings that have been making waves in the experimental music world since her early self-released material, followed by Bloodroot, an acclaimed LP for the Telegraph Harp label. Her first album for Warp, Ultraviolet, was issued in 2018, and Origins, a new EP for the label will be released this month.

Darren McClure/Toneshift: I read that your new “Origin” EP was inspired in part by Yuzuru Hanyu.  Could you expand a little on that.  I’m based in Japan and he is a really popular figure here, so I’m interested in hearing why he’s important to you.

Kelly Moran: I am really passionate about figure skating – outside of music it’s the one activity I am most involved in, both as a fan and as a skater myself. Anyone who knows about figure skating knows that Yuzuru Hanyu is simply the greatest skater of all time, and following his career has been immensely inspiring for me – especially in his most recent, post-Olympic season. The fact that Hanyu has continued to skate after winning back to back Olympics – an accomplishment that most people would surely retire after – shows how dedicated he is as an athlete. His drive and will to improve his skating and continue pushing himself to the limit even when he is already considered the greatest ever is endlessly inspiring to me. I saw how he dedicated his programs to Johnny Weir and Evgeny Plushenko this past year and thought it was so touching that he would pay tribute and acknowledge the people who have helped him develop into the great athlete and artist he is.

I watch Hanyu’s programs on a weekly basis to remind myself how hard he works to accomplish his goals. Unlike musicians, skaters have a very limited period in which they can accomplish their career goals as competitive athletes. Most of them don’t compete over the age of 30, so they know they have to use their time wisely and work as hard as possible during those years. I consider myself a hardworking musician, but I know I don’t work nearly as hard as these skaters do, so I watch their programs to motivate myself to become better at my own artistic practices. When I’m feeling lazy about practicing piano, I think about how Hanyu has to jump quads at practice, and that gets me out of bed! To me, there is no one more inspiring than Yuzu for what he can make people feel when you watch his programs…I have endless respect for him.

Anyway, considering all this, when I was naming my EP, I thought about how this album shows the origins of the music that eventually became my LP Ultraviolet. (The EP has early demos that later developed into the compositions on the LP.) At the same time, I had been following Hanyu’s 2018-2019 competitive season, in which he named his free skate “Origin” after Evgeny Plushenko… so I thought, why don’t I make my album a tribute to Hanyu’s tribute, to show how much he has also inspired me? Hanyu inspires legions of skaters around the world, but I wanted to show that he also inspires people in other fields like music because what he creates on the ice is transcendent.

©Mariah Tiffany

DM: You seem to balance composition in your studio work and improvisation in your live work.  How do these two things inform each other, and do you have a preference?

KM: To me there is always a balance of these two things. Improvisation is my greatest asset as a composer – I wasn’t always good at improvisation because I used to be really inhibited, and it’s only after years and years of doing it that I feel comfortable expressing myself in this way. When I improvise, I am not thinking about structure, form, harmony, or any of the cerebral aspects of music. It’s a physical response to my instrument, largely informed by my emotions, and I create different music this way. Improvisation can help me access modes of creation that I can’t access when I am sitting at the piano with a pen and paper thinking about each harmony for each note.

A lot of the time I will record myself improvising and then listen back to pick out parts that I like, and then I will refine them in a more deliberate way, which is where the composition part comes in. (I tend to improvise on piano, and then compose synth/electronic parts around the piano to fit everything together.) When performing live, I am following the scores of my music that I have written out, but there is always enough room for me to be loose and improvise within those structures. It’s always about finding a balance!

DM: When did you first become interested in experimenting with prepared piano?  Is there an element of risk when working with this live?

KM: In college, I began studying modernist piano music, which included John Cage’s prepared piano works. I saw one of my professors play his Sonatas and Interludes at a concert and I was fascinated by how different the piano sounded. An instrument I had played my entire life suddenly felt fresh and new! I dove into learning lots of prepared piano repertoire and really enjoyed playing this music. But I didn’t try to compose for prepared piano myself until many years later – simply because I was too intimidated. I thought that people would immediately think I was copying John Cage, and that was scary to me. But once I allowed myself to compose and improvise on prepared piano, I immediately felt like I had found a mode of expression that felt correct to me, and I knew I was approaching this technique in a way that was different than John Cage because unlike him, I am a classically trained pianist. (Cage studied piano, but not at the extent that I did – he wasn’t interested in becoming a virtuoso.)

There’s definitely a risk when working with prepared piano live – each piano is slightly different, and I don’t always play the same size piano when I perform, so things will always sound just slightly different every time I perform. But I have an organized system of preparing the piano that ensures it will always be very close to how I want it to sound, and after working in this way for so long, I know how to achieve the sounds I want to make. I tend to embrace another one of Cage’s philosophies when working with prepared piano live – which is the element of indeterminacy, and not being able to control every single aspect of the sounds you are making!

p-1Origin EP

DM: You play keyboard in OPN’s live ensemble, and Daniel Lopatin contributed to a few tracks from “Ultraviolet”.  Would you like to collaborate more with him in the future?  Some of my favourite material by him is when he’s in a collaborative context, and the idea of you two doing something where both your unique styles interact is exciting.

KM: Sure, I would work with him again! He is a brilliant composer and always has fresh ideas. In general, I am very interested in collaborating with lots of different musicians now – before I worked with Dan, I hadn’t collaborated with another musician in years because I was very possessive over my own music and didn’t want anyone else to get credit for my work. But now that I feel more confident as a composer, I feel excited to let other people into my process and allow them to shape my work.

DM: Your influences range from Tori Amos all the way to black metal.  Do you think there is a lot of cross pollination between genres and that seemingly disparate styles can inform each other?

KM: Absolutely! I have always said that I felt black metal and post-minimalism share a lot in common – there is more beneath the surface that unites these seemingly disparate genres. For example, both black metal and post-minimalism rely heavily on a steady pulse, adherence to tonal harmony, and building melodies through tremolo/note repetition. I think if you orchestrated a Mayhem song for string quartet, it would sound a lot like Steve Reich. The music is simply orchestrated with different timbres, but underneath that they share a lot of similar qualities. I think that now that we are in an age where you can access any style of music instantly from your phone or computer, people have become more open minded about the kinds of music they listen to, so lots of genres are starting to blur together. Soon all the divisions will be meaningless!

DM: You’ve talked about the relegation of women in music, do you think this is particularly evident in the metal scene?

KM: Yes… quite a bit so. There is a significant gender imbalance in metal – as well as a racial imbalance. It is a genre largely dominated by white men, so it can be a difficult scene for anyone who doesn’t identify as such. I think that is slowly shifting though, so hopefully we will see metal become more and more inclusive in the years to come.

DM: You visited Japan for a MYRIAD performance, how was your experience and do you have any plans to come back to Japan for solo live shows?

KM: I absolutely loved Japan, I cannot wait to go back. I went a few days before the MYRIAD show to explore Tokyo on my own and had such a wonderful time. I loved the Harajuku neighborhood and all the shopping there, plus many technology museums, and the food! Even though I cannot eat fish, there was so much incredible food and I miss the Japanese snacks so much! My piano teacher from graduate school, Kei Akagi, is Japanese and happened to be on tour during that time and we overlapped in Tokyo, so he was able to show me around and teach me about the customs. It’s such a beautiful city with such a rich culture, and I want to come back to visit more cities. I have heard Kyoto is really stunning as well!

As a performer, I felt a lot of appreciation, gratitude, and respect from the Japanese fans at the OPN show. You never know how an audience is going to react when you are there for the first time, and I remember the audience in Tokyo just made all of us feel so welcome and supported. I am in the process of making plans to tour Asia – I want to make sure I am ready for that so I can make the best impression on Japanese audiences with my solo work, but hopefully it will happen within the next year!

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