An education in classical music will provide you with an in-depth knowledge of musical structure, progression, dissonance and melody, but it can also trap you in its rigid form. Kelly Moran, however, trained in classical music, is a stellar example of someone who is comfortable performing in multiple musical dimensions.
Throughout her career she has collaborated with no-wave and art-rock bands, traveling the extreme of heavy music, exploring the intricacies of electronic compositions, and diving into the experimental realm of iconic composers like John Cage, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
Through this interview Moran’s ethos and her approach to composition and performance becomes clear. She details the beginning of her musical journey, playing with bands, being introduced to improvisation and experimentalism, as well as her affinity towards dance as an art form and the control that the knowledge of sound engineering has provided her.
Moran’s vision is an amalgamation of these different worlds, and her new record Ultraviolet, becomes such a potent release for that exact reason. She’s someone who possesses traditional knowledge, but pushes the boundaries of tightly confined musical spaces. She descents from a vast set of musical lineages, and that is the type of creative individual that often expands music as a whole, creating art that is truly original.
Let’s begin with your background in music. I understand you started playing piano quite early, and then moved to other instruments.
Yes! I started playing piano when I was six, and then I also learned string bass, clarinet, and oboe in elementary school, and eventually I picked up electric bass, guitar, and accordion in high school. Piano was always the central focus though, and I took lessons from elementary school all through college. I was basically your everyday average classically trained pianist and then my interests just spiraled out.
When you were starting, your background was mainly classical, but today there are many jazz themes in your work. When did you start getting into improvisation?
I didn’t really start getting into jazz and improvisation in a significant way until college. I took a course that was specifically geared towards classical musicians who wanted to improvise, and that was really essential at helping me grasp the basic concepts. I was so terrified of improvising, at first. Jazz scrambles my brain in a way other musical frameworks don’t, and I think to be really good at it you need to be able to multi-task super well, especially as a pianist.
I got more into free improvisation because it’s looser and I feel more at ease exploring without thinking so much. I used to be in this free improv orchestra in college and it was the most amazing, supportive environment that made you feel completely comfortable to just play and explore your instrument in ways you weren’t permitted to in other formal stylistic contexts. It was great.
When I finished grad school, I started working as an accompanist for ballet and modern dance classes in New York, so then improvisation literally became part of my livelihood. It was a really amazing job because — despite the hustle and exhaustion of freelancing — it really strengthened my confidence as a solo improviser and performer since I was doing it nearly every single day in front of people, and I had to sound good enough to make them want to move.
You went to the University of Michigan to study music performance and composition, and I think there was also a sound engineering element in your undergraduate studies. Given that you were already at a high level in terms of musical skill, what did those studies help you with?
The major I had was pretty multi-faceted because I was able to study and take classical piano lessons the way a normal piano major would, but all of my other courses were in recording engineering and electronic music composition. I really wanted to learn how to better produce and record my own music, so I could have more creative control over what I wanted to make. I wanted to be completely self-sufficient.
I started making my first record Microcosms (2010) during my senior year, and that felt like the culmination of studying all these areas — I composed, performed, recorded, produced, and mixed the entire album myself, and that was the first time I had really done a huge recording project like that on my own. Once I was able to do that, I felt like I had achieved what I set out to learn in school.
In another interview you said that you first discovered avant-garde piano techniques from a professor at the music technology department. Did this introduction to a different mode of approaching the instrument somehow liberated you creatively?
Yes, absolutely! Before college, I was completely oblivious to the myriad of ways you can generate different sounds from a piano, and I was truly delighted to discover there were all these alternate methods of playing the instrument and coaxing out really lovely sounds from it simultaneously. It really opened me up to all these new ways of playing the instrument and working with the infinite resonances pianos can offer. It was so liberating because suddenly an instrument I had been playing for over a decade felt completely new to me!
Do you feel there’s a certain rigidity when it comes to classical music education and an unwillingness to acknowledge experimental composers like Philip Glass or John Cage?
Yes. One-hundred percent. It’s hard for me to speak on what it’s like now since I’ve been out of college for a bit, and I’m not sure if things changed in the past five, ten years, but when I was studying there was definitely a resistance to acknowledging certain composers or more experimental kinds of music. In my experience, a lot of music departments are pretty old school and strict about the repertoire they want pianists to study, and because these professors come from other academic institutions with similar traditions, the same repertoire is being recycled and protected as part of the canon. But also, professors like to teach what they are comfortable with, and since the vast majority of classical pianists focus their studies on traditional repertoire, it means we have fewer professors who can expose students to more experimental and marginalized kinds of music.
None of my piano teachers wanted to teach me Glass or Cage because they had no personal familiarity with the work and didn’t want to learn about it, which is why I had to seek out a professor from an entirely different department to teach me about it. It’s wild, because those composers aren’t even that controversial anymore, they’re obviously part of the contemporary music canon already, but their music is still not being taught with the same kind of seriousness as someone like Debussy. Maybe [shrugs] it’s going to take another generation, or just a wave of hiring younger teachers who like newer music?
When was it that you started performing with bands? You have worked with a number of different acts, including Voice Coils and Cellular Chaos. How is it different, working on your own and then being part of a band?
I grew up playing in bands! I played electric bass and guitar in bands all throughout high school in a variety of different projects, so it’s a familiar configuration for me as a musician despite the fact that I’m primarily a pianist [laughs]. I really love playing in bands and I’m grateful for the experiences I had in Voice Coils and Cellular Chaos, but I also wasn’t the driving creative force behind either of those projects. In both of those bands, I was basically a session musician for other people who were in charge of the musical direction.
Despite really loving both those projects and the music being made, I eventually left because I just needed the time and energy to devote to my own music. I didn’t put out any solo records in the years I was in those bands, but then I made three within a year and a half of being on my own, so it’s pretty obvious that working on my own renders me a bit more efficient and productive. I will say though that I love playing in the Oneohtrix Point Never band because it’s unlike any band that exists.
Both Voice Coils and Cellular Chaos lay on the heavier, more extreme side of the music spectrum. What was it that attracted you to that sound? Do you remember when you started getting into heavy music?
I’ve been into heavy music since I was a teenager because I had cool older friends who showed me metal, prog, and weird experimental music. A big turning point for me was being a freshman in high school and hearing Kayo Dot‘s album, Choirs of the Eye. It’s incredibly heavy and complex music that’s also starkly beautiful. It was the first time I realized that things like metal and art-rock could have the same delicacy and compositional complexity as classical music without being cheesy or derivative.
When did you start getting into electronic music and IDM? What software were you using to experiment with making beats (Ableton, Logic)?
I started getting into electronic music around the time I was a freshman in high school and a friend sent me Telefon Tel Aviv’s album, Fahrenheit Fair Enough. Their clean production style and timbral combinations just resonated so deeply with me. I had never really listened to IDM or electronica before that, and it was just such a fresh sound to me. I realized there was an entire genre of music that existed that I didn’t know anything about, but immediately loved. That drove me to working with music software and getting more deeply into electronic music. I happened to get into Logic specifically because one of my music teachers taught it, so to this day it’s the program I feel most comfortable with.
You also did a Master at University of California, Irvine, where you coalesced music with dance. What was it that interested you about dance? Was it from a compositional approach or did you track the movement to sound using something like the Myo Gesture Control Armband, or similar equipment?
I got into collaborating with dancers in college and found choreography to be a really lovely vessel for my work. I like having some kind of visual accompaniment to my music in general, so it immediately seemed like a great way to bring my recorded music to life. I liked that working with dancers gave me just enough of a structural framework to work within, but lots of compositional and creative freedom. Plus, dancers just really inspire me! I love generating melodies in relation to someone’s movements, and it’s really satisfying to watch somebody physically embody your sounds.
I wrote my thesis on collaborative processes in dance/music in relation to the origins of modern dance. In the past, dancers had to rely on music for structure and emotional narrative, but the early pioneers of modern dance started with movement first to liberate dance from being “music’s handmaiden”, and that drove a lot of early developments in modern dance. I was curious to research the different kinds of working relationships between composers and choreographers.
As a collaborator, I’m really interested in exploring a more equitable partnership where neither music nor dance is subservient to one another, so my thesis was focused on how choreographers and composers can develop a working relationship / vocabularies to navigate the collaborative process in a more democratic way. If anyone wants to read my full research paper, you can just email or tweet me to ask! I’m happy to leak my own thesis.
In a way I think that Ultraviolet has a certain feeling of movement and progression that would map to dance performances. Do you view it as a continuation of that work you did during your Masters?
It’s funny, I think it definitely feels more fluid than pretty much all of my past work, including all the work I’ve made for dancers. The sense of motion within the music is largely due to the fact that during my improvisations, I was really listening to my body and responding to what physically felt good to play on the piano at the time. The process wasn’t rigid in the way it was forBloodroot, where I was sitting at the piano composing on staff paper. Improvising and letting myself move around and respond to the instrument injected such a strong sense of motion into the pieces, it’s almost like I’m dancing with the piano.
How would you describe the evolution of your sound from Optimist and particularly Bloodroot to Ultraviolet?
Just to clarify, Optimist was composed after Bloodroot, despite coming out before it. So the timeline trajectory is Bloodroot > Optimist > Ultraviolet.
With Bloodroot, it was my first time working with prepared piano, and I wanted the entire album to be comprised solely of sounds I could generate from my piano — plucking, strumming, bowing the strings, etc. Even though it’s primarily prepared piano, all of the electronic elements are still piano-based.
With Optimist, I veered into a few different directions because I started incorporating the prepared piano with sounds from my synthesizer and other patches I built. All the pieces on record are quite different from one another sonically, each piece really exists in its own space. In addition to the prepared piano, there’s also clean, normal piano, and other various keyboard sounds as the basis for the tracks. There’s a different keyboard instrumentation for every track.
And then with Ultraviolet, it’s sort of a logical, extreme continuation of the themes in those two records It’s centered around prepared piano the way Bloodroot is, but it has the electronic and lush timbral worlds of Optimist since I’m also using synths to flesh it all out.
You describe the influence for Ultraviolet being your childhood memories, your home in Long Island, and more specifically visiting the forest and listening to the surrounding sounds. How different do you find this process of world-building to the more traditional composition approach?
There’s a few factors that went into this. First, the music on the record was born from one huge improvisation session, so it’s already a different process from deliberate, traditional composition. (Although we can philosophize over how improvisation is really just spontaneous composition, etc.) Second, it’s that I happened to have this very potent and emotional experience in the woods earlier in the day before I did those improvisations. I had been having all these intense, deep realizations about struggles I was having in my life and in my music, and I felt this intense urgency to let go and stop trying so hard.
Listening to the sounds and how effortless and connected everything sounded, the totality of everything in the ecosystem, it just really moved me in a unique way that’s hard for me to describe. It might sound cheesy, but I just had a really intense moment with nature and brought that feeling back into my process. So.. the process for this record happened to be really special and different from pretty much any formal experience I’ve had making music before.
While your music on Ultraviolet is based on classical music concepts, there’s something very direct and immediate about the record. This is a fairly rare approach and it works brilliantly for Ultraviolet. How do you coalesce these two opposites, and do you think more composers should attempt to do something similar?
I think the immediacy is the result of it being rooted in improvisation. It changes the whole feel of everything on the album, which is why this record sounds so unhinged compared to everything I’ve done before. For once, I felt like my improvisations really sounded as though they had discernible and proportioned sections like my non-improvised music had.
Because I transcribed and then learned how to play my improvisations (effectively learning how to play something I improvised), there was definitely a small amount of refinement on the structures of the pieces that happened, but it was really minimal. I think the process of designing all the synths and electronics around the piano really bridged the two worlds of improv and composition together quite nicely. The record feels very free-flowing with the piano, but the synths provide a meticulous environment for the piano to exist within, and works to complement it.
I think you use some very interesting atmospherics in the new album, which shifts the background to a darker, more eerie form and creates a contrast with the lighter piano lines. What was the inspiration for that approach and what tools did you use for creating the soundscapes for the record?
I mainly used my Prophet 12 synthesizer for the electronics on this record. I’ve been slowly exploring it because I’m very new to working with it, so for Ultraviolet I would experiment in creating new patches and custom sounds on the synth to use with the piano. I really just wanted to experiment with creating a new unique timbral world for each track, although I clearly have some favored synth sounds I keep returning to.
There was also a bit of production that Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) contributed on certain tracks. He added some MIDI and soft synths at the ends of the tracks “Water Music” and “Helix”, and he conjured these really spectacular perspective shifts on “Nereid” that make the piano sound completely deranged and disorienting.
I believe you also engineer all of your works. Did that process continue with Ultraviolet? Do you feel you have more freedom and control over the music when you engineer it yourself?
Yes, to an extent. I recorded all of the pianos and synths and did most of the production on the record, but I had the record mixed by someone else, which was a first for me. I quite liked working with the engineer for this record because I had a very clear vision of what I wanted and happened to be working with someone I really trusted.
I’ve never really let other people touch my music — namely men — because women often don’t get credit for their production world, and that’s why I’ve always tried to be so self-sufficient as a producer. I’m just really stubborn and want everyone to know I did all the work. But this record was different because I wanted outside help due to the nature of this album just being more ambitious technically in a lot of ways for me, so it felt good to be able to enlist people I trusted to help me realize the ultimate vision for it.
What equipment do you use for mixing your music? Is it all done in the box or in a hybrid combination? Do you also master the music?
I use two Rode NT5 condenser microphones on my Boston grand piano, and then my interface is a Fireface 400. For synth I have my trusty Prophet 12, and I have M-Audio monitors for mixing and Sennheiser HD 380 headphones. I’ll usually record the piano at my parent’s house in Long Island (where my piano lives) and then work on all the electronic elements at my studio in Brooklyn. I don’t master my own music because that’s a really specific skill and it’s always worth having an expert do it for you.
What are your future plans? Will you be touring for the new album? May we expect another release in the form of an EP or collaborative album?
I plan to tour and perform the album frequently in 2019. I have a visual component for my performances I’ve been designing with a video artist, so I will be debuting that for the first time at my album release show in New York on November 8th [ Future Space, Brooklyn] and then taking that on the road with me in the following months. Right now I’m still not far along enough in my other projects to talk about them, but there will be more music to come in the future, for sure.