Warp's latest signing is classically trained but was sick of playing music by the same four dead white dudes
In the summer before she went to the University of Michigan to study music performance and composition, while in a practice room at the Manhattan School of Music, Kelly Moran had a moment of clarity. “I could hear someone next door practicing the exact same piece, and they sounded so much better than I did,” she recalls of her pre-college preparation. “It was really disheartening, and I just thought ‘ugh, I don’t want to do this’. I want to do something that makes me stand out.”
Up to this point, having been obsessed with the piano since seeing one on TV when she was six, Moran was on the road to becoming a classical concert soloist – or, at least, that’s what her teachers wanted: “They told me that I needed to focus on piano and get serious. They were telling me that if you keep fucking around with recording and playing bass and playing in all your bands, you’re never going to be good enough at one thing to be successful.”
Turns out her teachers were wrong. A decade-plus-change on from that chastening day in the practice room, the outcome of Moran experimenting with musical pursuits beyond (and within) the piano is the kind of uncategorisable career that can only result from concentrating on more than one thing. After a spell as the bassist in Voice Coils, the acclaimed underground prog-metal band once fronted by Mitski, she has slowly become one of Oneohtrix Point Never’s most trusted collaborators as part of the producer’s ‘Myriad’ and ‘Age Of’ live band, while also accepting composition commissions from noted avant-garde performers – none of which, one imagines, would have happened if she’d given herself obediently to the rigours of the traditional concert hall aged 18.
Primarily, though, Moran remains a pianist, composing and recording three solo albums of experimental music for electronics and prepared piano since leaving college, with a fourth, ‘Ultraviolet’, landing this autumn via the hallowed turf of Warp Records. While that may resemble, albeit obliquely, the same goal of professional solo pianist that she was set in her teens, the sort of music that Moran writes and performs today remains several steps removed from what her teachers presumably had in mind: fluttering and timbrally rich, with moments of both extreme dissonance and prettiness, Moran’s pieces are full of furrows and dense thickets of notes masking slyly insistent hooks, with modernist buzzes and burbles betraying the music’s rather romantic, impressionistic DNA. While gently repetitive and pulsing, Moran’s music is too slender to dance to, but nonetheless it shares characteristics with home-listening electronica of both abstraction and sophisticated intricacy – indeed, her latest album appears uncannily palindromic.
How Moran arrived here, though, is almost an accident. Her classical piano continued into her first year at university, where she reports she “was tortured into playing Haydn sonatas for a year and was fucking miserable”, with her course leaders refusing to acknowledge any music written after 1950 as worthy of study. It was only thanks to the help of a professor in the music technology department, who offered to teach Moran avant-garde piano for the fun of it, that she threw herself into the world of mid-century modernist composers, with their unconventional, provocative approaches to making music.
She talks fondly about discovering via these lessons Schoenberg and twelve-tone compositional techniques, Philip Glass and minimalism, but more than anyone else, Moran fell for John Cage. The American composer is perhaps most famous for his “silence” piece ‘4’33’, but Cage was also a pioneer of prepared piano, and that subversion of inserting foreign objects into the body of a piano to alter its sound was catnip to Moran’s long-rebellious personality. “I had never seen or heard any pieces that use these sounds, so in college, when I started learning about extended piano techniques, I was like, holy shit you can generate so many different sounds from a piano,” she enthuses of her discovery, and her subsequent thankful escape from the ubiquity of the piano’s traditional sound. “I immediately knew that’s what I wanted to explore: I wanted to spend my life unearthing every possible sound you can get from this instrument.”