I was squatted down in the forest, listening to the sounds of the wind and the wildlife, and all the echoes surrounding me. I asked myself: How can I make music that feels like this: natural, connected, and effortless? Kelly Moran
Based in Brooklyn, Kelly Moran is a young pianist, composer and producer. Classically trained from an early age, the musician taught herself electronic music software and went on to study sound engineering, composition and improvisation. She subsequently developed a passion for electroacoustic experimentation with prepared piano techniques which she explored in a series of self-released albums in the early 2010s. The remarked Optimist (2016) and Bloodroot (2017) established Kelly Moran as a new experimental voice on the contemporary scene with forays into electronics too. Released on 2 November 2018 last on the prestigious Warp Records label, Ultraviolet is a groundbreaking album which marks a turning point for the composer.
Pioneered by John Cage of course in the 1930s, prepared piano techniques have evolved over the years, always in an effort to alter the sound of the original classical instrument. Using hardware, sheets of paper, tape, copper wires, timber, rubber wedges, tin foil, bells and even ping pong balls, musicians have attempted to enhance the percussive nature of the instrument, to elicit new sounds and textures and sometimes turn it into a mini orchestra. Notable prepared piano masters include Margaret Leng Tan who collaborated with John Cage in the 1980s and for whom Kelly Moran recently wrote a piece, or German composer Hauschka. Warp Records’ Aphex Twin also famously experimented with prepared piano techniques on several tracks of his 2001 release Drukqs.
Following a more or less similar set method since the start of her career, Kelly Moran has been preparing grand pianos using bolts and screws of different sizes to generate a new palette of sounds. From a technical point of view, bolts and screws have distinct mechanical properties and tapered or flat heads will generate different frequencies.
Experimenting with precise tone-altering placement of the hardware between the piano strings, Kelly Moran derives a huge range of timbres, overtones and harmonics that magically transform the piano into a very complex sound machine.
Over seven tracks ranging from two to ten-minute-long, Kelly Moran’s prepared piano becomes a music box, a gamelan, a harpsichord, a hammered dulcimer and even a wire-strung Celtic harp at times. With its eerie circular motifs, “In Parallel” for instance seems to quote excerpts from Alan Stivell’s seminal 1972 Renaissance of the Celtic Harp. The pianist also tends to leave the lower octaves “unprepared” as on “Halogen” for instance.
Composition is frozen improvisation – Igor Stravinsky
Ultraviolet signals a clear turning point in the pianist’s creative process. Synthesisers and electronic textures become a lot more prominent on the new album. All tracks bar “Halogen” feature lush harmonic or drone layers and overdubs. On the other hand, the musician also considerably altered her approach to composition. If the pieces on her previous records were formally composed, every track on the new album stems from improvisation.
All the pieces on Ultraviolet originally started as improvisations. One day I just sat down and hit “record” and I just improvised for hours and hours. And when I listened back to it, I was like ‘oh my God, this is the best material I have made in a long time. This is my next record, I have to shape this material somehow’. Interview
The musician subsequently spent months transcribing what she had played, shaping melodies into standalone pieces to be performed and which she then had to relearn.
Sourced from jazz improvisation techniques, Ultraviolet ultimately achieves a mesmerising and natural flow that elicits a huge range of emotions and delights the senses.
There are clear synaesthetic correspondences at play here between sound and light or music and colours. Two official videos released to date on YouTube boast stunning kaleidoscopic visuals. The openly “psychedelic” patterns all feature in Kelly Moran’s live shows, adding a fantastic new layer of significance to the compositions.
“In Parallel” and the live performance video of “Halogen” feature visuals by architectural acoustician Dave Rife and lighting designer Gabe Liberti, founders of Dave & Gabe’s Interactive Installation Studio which aims at uniting “sound, light, and tactility into immersive experiences”.
“I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours” famously noted Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt. “Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.” On Kelly Moran’s Ultraviolet – a band of electromagnetic light frequency that is invisible to the human eye – the prepared piano clearly becomes the prism dividing the piano sound into an entirely new spectrum of timbres.
From a sonic point of view, the spontaneous nature of the music delightfully evokes the randomness of the wind chime. A track like “Water Music” for instance is based on a succession of 6 notes that gradually chime at different intervals while “Nereid” delivers an enchanting flutter of notes. The percussion instrument only plays as the wind blows through the hollowed tubes or bells and causes them to chime. The wind chime is a natural example of chance-based music, a characteristic Brian Eno has been trying to emulate through his various generative music projects over the last twenty years through apps or digital art software and installations like 77 million paintings.
Software-based, generative music describes music that is ever changing, that never repeats itself and that never ends. Since Bloom, a first generative music app for iOS in 2008, Brian Eno has been perfecting his idea of the endless musical loop. The 2017 app Reflection is itself the generative version of his 2 x LP “finite” record Reflection (released on Warp Records too).
Brian Eno’s introduction to the app – “Like sitting by a river: it’s always the same river, but it’s always changing” – finds a fascinating echo in Kelly Moran’s human-generated Ultraviolet – a remarkable album delivering a unique and enveloping sound which is truly unheard of, and which at the same time feels magically “natural, connected, and effortless”.