Kelly Moran's minimalist pieces craft a hypnotic sonic world to get lost in.
Her 2016 EP Optimist is permeated with textural subtleties and mesmerising motifs.
Utilising electro-acoustic instrumentation, she primarily begins her pieces with a prepared piano/piano with intricate melodies and rhythm. She gradually builds onto these like in 'strangers are easy to look at, loved ones are museums of brutality', whereby coarse drones with distorted glitch tones ornate the piece.
We got the chance to speak with Kelly to try gauge how her phenomenal music was composed.
~Her latest EP bloodroot is out on the 24th of March~
1. Who/what are your influences?
Pauline Oliveros, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Philip Glass, John Adams, Sofia Gubaidulina, Erik Satie.
The extended technique/piano innovations of Cowell and Cage have been extremely influential on how I compose, and the minimalist and post-minimalist techniques of Glass and Adams have always appealed to me on a really deep level. The rhythmic vitality and energy of their pieces is something I strive for in a lot of my faster works. Satie and Gubaidulina have been particularly influential to me harmonically in recent years, and of course I consider Oliveros to be of utmost importance when it comes to approaching composition from a philosophical standpoint; her Deep Listening and Sonic Meditations have helped me become a more conscious composer in terms of listening to music and learning to appreciate sounds from all perspectives.
2. In Piano Phase, Reich emphasises the use of duration as a means of producing an experimental sound. With such a minimalist focus, is there an aspect in your musical process that you chose to focus in on?
My process definitely varies from piece to piece, but on a few of the pieces on Optimist I focused on using a single repetitive pattern to serve as the backbone of the composition. On “In Symmetry”, “Optimist”, and “Let’s Dance”, each piece begins with a melodic idea that continues to repeat for the duration of the song. I challenged myself to commit to each idea by building other melodic fragments and progressions that would overlap on top of the original pattern, and create enough contrast to sustain interest for the listener throughout the whole piece. Sometimes loop-based music can get really tedious because you know from the get-go what the process is going to be - loop, then another loop on top of that one, then another loop…. so I tried to consciously avoid that sort of process where you just continue to stack riffs on top of each other.
3. Your past works have been very improv driven. What was improvisation's role/placement in Optimist?
Improvisation always has a role in my compositional process because pretty much every single piece I write begins as something that I improvised on piano. I’ve relied on automatism as a compositional tool for a long time, and I find it really useful to just see what happens when I sit down to play with no goals or expectations, and just let ideas come out of me.
I remember when I wrote “dream pauline”, it was on the night I found out Pauline Oliveros had passed away. For the first time, I felt truly gutted at the loss of a personal musical icon. Her loss hit me hard because she had always been very supportive to me and she left the world at a time where it felt like we needed her vision more than ever (right after the election in November). I spent an hour or so just meditating on all that she had given us with her teachings, and then I thought there’d be no better way than to honor her by composing something in her memory using her own techniques. I placed some ebows on my piano without even looking at what notes they were - just leaving it up to chance - and then it just so happened that the way the frequencies interacted with one another formed this rhythmic, oscillating pattern that was reminiscent of the pattern of someone breathing. It felt too perfect, given that so much of Pauline’s work was based around breath cycles. Since so much of her teachings are about using your environment and allowing these kinds of chance encounters, it was a magical moment for me, and I instantly started improvising a melody around the ebow notes by plucking the piano strings.
So - this is a long way of saying that my approach to improvisation changes every single time I compose, but I’m always delighted by the results and I love leaving musical elements up to chance.
4. What were your reasons behind incorporating this particular electro-acoustic instrumentation?
On Optimist the goal was to create a record that really explored the spectrum of sounds you can acquire from a piano through extended techniques. I tried to incorporate as few other sources of sound as possible - the only other non-piano sound I have on the record is a single synth line on a couple of the tracks (which I tried to make really subtle.) Taking this idea a little further, on my record Bloodroot I focused exclusively on piano sounds, so every single sound on that record is from a piano. There’s just so much that can be done with a piano and I’ve always been fascinated by the depth of sounds you can get some plucking the strings, putting ebows on them, and using preparations to get different timbres. I feel like this is something I can explore for the rest of my life and never become bored by it.
5. How has place influenced your works?
Place has heavily influenced my work because I’ve lived in a few different states and the musical resources I had in each one varied greatly. When I lived in Michigan, I had a lot of close friends who were string players, so on my first record Microcosms I incorporated a lot of cello and viola into the compositions. After that I lived in California for a bit, and I actually struggled a bit finding musical collaborators there, but my school had this amazing disklavier that I composed with. It’s a player piano, so I would write lots of crazy MIDI piano parts that I myself couldn’t play, and then I’d perform playing other parts on top of those.
(here’s an example - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OgnOQlduBc)
California was also where I focused a lot on composing for choreography - my graduate school had an incredible dance program and at the time I was very dedicated to collaborating with dancers, so that really changed my entire approach to composition a lot. And for the duration of all my collegiate years, I focused mainly on writing un-performable electro-acoustic music that existed solely as recordings on my earlier albums. It wasn’t until I moved back to New York a few years ago and realized the importance of live performance and community that I started writing solo music for myself that I could actually perform. Being outside of academia can always be a rude awakening for composers because you suddenly don’t have the structures and resources that you’ve been used to for years, and for me it signalled a completely different approach to how I made music.
6. Musical background?
I started playing piano when I was about 6 and also learned how to play string bass, clarinet, oboe, and guitar/bass guitar by the time I finished middle school. It was always clear that I was going to be a musician, and I was never really interested in doing anything else. I studied electronic music composition and piano performance at the University of Michigan, and then I went to the University of California-Irvine to get my master’s in Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology. It was a new, experimental MFA program that sought out composers who were interested in combining all of those elements into their music, which was a perfect fit for me. Since then I’ve been working in New York as a freelance pianist and composer.
7. Anything to say on the presence of women in music, particularly in the minimalist/post-classical field you're in?
It seems like every year women composers gain a bit more visibility, and I’m really glad that’s finally happening. I feel like we’re starting to see more woman get recognized by these important awards (Pulitzers, etc.) that have been male-dominated for so long. And I’ve noticed that universities are starting to make an effort to make their composition departments more diverse by focusing on hiring women. This kind of visibility is really important because it’s hard to become something you don’t see - we need visible role models that young women can look up to so they can see there’s a space for them to do this kind of work. At the same time, the music world still feels so heavily dominated by men, so I think it’s important that there are organizations and websites that are devoted to highlighting the voices of women musicians. I recently did a commission for a collaboration between Vital Voices and The Canales Project - the former is women’s empowerment organization, the latter being a non-profit arts organization. They commissioned four different women composers to compose new works, and it was a really amazing project to be a part of because it’s so rare that you see a concert where every single piece is performed and composed by women. We’re out there - there’s a lot of us making music; sometimes we’re just harder to find in such male dominated scenes. But I have hope that this imbalance will shift over time and more women will gain the recognition we deserve.