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In Writing

Cage fighting: an interview with Kelly Moran

April 2019

Since her 2018 release Ultraviolet, a suite of kaleidoscopic and flowing pieces for prepared piano and electronics with swirling visuals to match, composer Kelly Moran has had a busy year. A multi-instrumentalist and prolific collaborator, she’s also been touring as part of Oneohtrix Point Never's all-star MYRIAD ensemble, alongside Daniel Lopatin and Eli Keszler.

Made up of demos and unreleased material written during the making of Ultraviolet, her new EP Origin is released by Warp on 17 May.

Emily Bick: I’d like to ask about all of your brightly coloured psychedelic imagery. I've heard that you've said in other interviews that you've got some synesthesia.

Kelly Moran: Yeah, I have associative synesthesia, which means that I associate specific colours with certain pitches. For me it can take in the form of certain keys feeling like a certain colour or specific pitches, and it's basically related to my perfect pitch. I know this is going to sound so crazy, but when I was in middle school, I found out that I had perfect pitch. I was in a play at a musical theatre summer camp and the accompanist could tell that I could start all of my songs without a starting pitch. So in order to train my brain to remember which note was which, I started to develop these really random but very strong colour associations with keys and pitches, and it’s related to the kind of emotional content of the songs that I reference in my head. I wanted the imagery [for Ultraviolet] to reflect that. So for me it’s about like trying to communicate to the audience how these songs feel for me to play and just translating that visually for them.

On your previous album Bloodroot, were the flower themes – the smell or the images of the flowers – also connected to the way that you perceive sounds?

For me the notes sounded so fragile and so delicate that they just reminded me of the fragility of plants and flowers. I named a couple of tracks after plants and flowers, and then I was like, the whole record just needs to be about plants. I like to stick to themes with everything I do, especially for albums, because you're creating a whole experience for someone.

The latest album Ultraviolet seems to have themes of water, waves, radiation and movement patterns. What was the main thinking behind those pieces?

So all the pieces started as an improvisation, and all the material was generated in one day. Basically, in the summer of 2017, I was working on a commission for another musician who was giving me a lot of difficulty, pushing me in a direction that didn’t feel very natural for me and I was struggling for months. And so I decided, I’m not making any progress. I just need to have like a day or two where I don’t think about music and completely turn my brain off so I can just reset everything and figure out a new approach to this.

I invited one of my friends over to where my parents live, by a nature preserve in Long Island with all these hiking trails that lead to the beach. My friend and I had this really amazing day where we were hiking in the woods, we went swimming in the water. We were having fun and communing with nature. And when I was walking on the way back, I was sitting in the woods. I know this sounds really cheesy, but I was doing some deep listening in the woods and listening to the sounds of nature. I was listening to the wind and the trees and the insects and the birds and everything and I realised that nature doesn’t have to try hard.

I started improvising and it was the first time in a really long time that I had sat down and made music with no goal in mind except to just play and let my body respond to the instrument, and I started doing things that I’ve never done before. I started letting myself experiment with stretching and compressing time in different ways. The next day when I listened to it, my improvisations sounded like fully formed pieces. They don’t sound meandering or unfocused. They really sound like I'm developing these ideas and I’m paying attention to the direction.

So I spent the next few months transcribing my improvisations, and I made them into scores. I was very obsessive about doing it, and it was really a good exercise for me to transcribe what I had done without thinking, because I felt like I was learning about myself.

When you’re writing for prepared piano, you have these great elegant geometric shapes that come out of the fluid melody lines, but then alongside that, all the stuff that’s stuck in the strings to prepare it clicks and clacks along and it’s sort of unpredictable. So you’ve got these two separate elements not really working against each other but working in parallel. I was wondering, first, what inspired you to work with prepared piano, and second, is this balance of these two different elements something that you think about when you’re composing?

I got involved with prepared piano when I was in college. I was kind of a double major. I was studying electronic music and I was studying classical piano, but pretty much by my sophomore year all I wanted to learn was contemporary piano music, and none of the piano professors taught it. So I started studying with one of the music technology professors who knew all the contemporary piano repertoire. He did an illegal concert every year at The University of Michigan in the dance school, because that was the only place where they let you prepare a piano.

I remember my first year when I saw him do it. I was like, oh my God, that’s the coolest thing I've ever heard. I was starting to incorporate a lot of extended techniques into my compositional practice as a pianist, but I didn’t touch prepared piano at all for a long time because I knew that the second I did, people would draw comparisons to John Cage. As a composer in college that was completely daunting to me, so I didn’t even try because it was like no, that’s John Cage’s thing.

In 2016, I was visiting my parents and there was a snowstorm so we couldn’t leave the house for a day or two. I got my dad’s tool kit and took screws and bolts out of it, and I prepared the piano, and for the first time I sat down and started playing and improvising, and I feel like once I gave myself permission to work with it, I was like, oh I have so many ideas! So I let go of the notion of being afraid of touching Cage’s legacy, because I realised that I approached prepared piano and in a different way than he did and I have my own compositional voice. I just tried to focus on staying true to what my inclinations were as a composer and not really put blinders on it.

Bloodroot is primarily prepared piano, but there are electronics on the record that are also generated from plucking the strings or E-Bowing the strings. So it felt like I was incorporating like the totality of my studies with extended techniques into this one record. Pianos just have such a wealth of sounds that you can get from them. And I just love those resonances so much. They’re endlessly inspiring to me in terms of how there’s this element of it being very controlled, but also a lot is up to chance when you prepare the piano.

And that’s very John Cage!

Yeah, exactly.

You experiment so much, not just with prepared piano and compositions, but all the other things you do on the side. You've been in so many different bands, where you played all kinds of different types of music. I mean everything from touring with Oneohtrix Point Never for Myriad, to prog with Voice Coils to full-on noise in Cellular Chaos with Weasel Walter.

I thought that I wanted to be a professor. I thought that was going to be my path but then once I was in grad school, I saw how miserable my professors were and I was like, I don’t know if I want to do this. My thesis advisor was like, you know, when you move back to New York, you should just like be a dance accompanist for a bit. I ended up doing that, but freelancing took up so much of my time and so much of my personal energy.

I didn’t release a record between 2012 and 2017 or 2016 because during that time I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, and I started to doubt my future as a composer. It became easier for me to just be involved in other people’s projects. I was involved in a really amazing experimental music scene, and I still am! That’s why I started playing with Cellular Chaos, which is like a crazy punk no wave band, which is so much fun. And then I played in Voice Coils, which is sort of like prog dream pop. I don't know what you would even call it.

But I really enjoyed those projects and I grew up playing in bands. It felt very natural to focus on those projects and engage in them. But then I woke up one day, right when 2016 hit and I was like, oh my God, I haven’t made my own music in years – I need to get back into this! And so it was that day at my parents’ house when I was like, what if I just prepare the piano like that? It helped me find my way again as a composer because I realised, oh, I do have my own point of view. I just had to sit down and do it.

Ultraviolet and Origin are released by Warp. Stream new single “Night Music” or watch the video for “Water Music” below. Origin is available for pre-order now.

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