Music by VICE

Get Lost in Kelly Moran's Multi-Dimensional Piano Music

The composer and pianist, now touring in Oneohtrix Point Never's band, has a new album of more free-flowing improvisatory music called 'Ultraviolet.' It feels both personal and infinite.

by Sam Goldner
Nov 2 2018, 6:02pm

All photos by Tim Saccenti/Courtesy of the artist.

Kelly Moran is something of an obsessive when it comes to professional figure skating. “It’s such an aesthetically pleasing sport to watch,” she tells me from the L.A. apartment she’s camped out in for the week while on tour with Oneohtrix Point Never. We’ve been chatting for a couple hours at this point, having the kind of relaxed, meandering conversation that’s to be expected when talking to someone who’s just trying to catch their breath in-between stops on a major album rollout and international concert tour. But once the topic of figure skating enters into the conversation, Moran completely hits pause on everything else to start eagerly waxing poetic about her favorite sport.

"These are the most inspiring people to me. You have to work so hard to be able to do this,” she says, pointing to a video of 2018 Olympic champion Alina Zagitova from the 2018 Winter Olympics full of immaculate splits, double axels, and death drops. “This to me is the apex of human expression right here. This is on par with Starry Night, or Bach, or whatever.”

Moran is no stranger herself to pulling off incredible feats of poise and prowess. The previous night, I’d seen her deliver a twisting, graceful performance as part of Oneohtrix Point Never’s operatic new show MYRIAD, helping to bring his proggy new album Age Of to life with her hallucinatory approach to electroacoustic piano music. “If you had asked me a year ago who I’d want to work with, he would absolutely be the number one person,” she says. “This whole experience has just been a surreal dream.” If that wasn’t enough, she’s preparing to release her transcendent, enveloping new album Ultraviolet this week—her debut album for the legendary electronic label Warp Records.

Though all this recognition may have originally come to her as a shock, it’s easy to see why Moran’s enchanting, celestial music has resonated so much with listeners. On Ultraviolet, Moran tackles the piano with a highly personal approach, brushing away all the stiff academia that permeates the classically trained crowd she hails from to make room for music as boundless and heady as it is welcoming.

The first time I listened to the album was on a short visit to my hometown in Colorado, putting it on in the dark one night as I drifted off while staying at my girlfriend’s old house. As I lay there in this place that’s held so many memories for me, Moran’s music seemed to fill the room with a ghostly, nocturnal presence, one that felt both private and infinite in the same breath. The way she plays piano has a way of seeming still even as it shifts about in all directions at once. She often focuses on just a few sparse notes that pirouette endlessly around each other, like feet gliding down a spiral staircase. While it reminds me of the melancholy chamber music of Ryuichi Sakamoto, or perhaps Lubomyr Melnyk's highly textural approach to piano, Moran’s latest record ultimately finds her tackling a wavelength all her own.

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A Long Island piano prodigy born with perfect pitch, Moran started her journey on a fairly traditional path. Studying music at the University of Michigan and completing her MFA at the University of California, Irvine, Moran sought to explore the ideas of 20th-century composers like Steve Reich and John Cage in her work, much to the disdain of her professors. “I never really felt accepted by the classical music world,” Moran tells me, recounting stories of being frowned at for performing Philip Glass pieces in class, and even getting kicked out of a lecture for not knowing that the final movement of a Schoenberg suite was meant to represent the bells at Mahler’s funeral.

“All of these programs right now are still very old school, and they’re run by people who believe that we have to preserve the canon,” she says. “It’s so much easier to be in an experimental music scene than a classical music scene because people don’t have those same notions of adhering to genre or tradition. They’re more free about it, and that’s how I am.”

She jumped coasts the moment she got her MFA, finding a new home for herself in Brooklyn’s local avant-punk community. After spending a few years playing with noisy bands like Cellular Chaos and Voice Coils, she began to experiment with “prepared piano”—a technique usually attributed to John Cage that involves inserting screws and various other objects into the strings of the piano to alter its timbre—and set out to incorporate the practice into her own music. “I had played prepared piano before, but I had never composed anything with it,” she says. “It really changed my writing process. All the overtones and the different sounds I was hearing, it altered my approach to harmony. Something about it sounded more delicate.”

The product of her work was 2017’s Bloodroot, a dissonant, crystalline album that, while beautiful, found Moran tying herself to a pretty specific niche of experimental music. “I started contacting labels, and I got so many rejections,” she says. “Like hilarious rejections. There were people who were just like, ‘Thank you, but we would never, ever touch prepared piano.’” Against all odds, however, not only did Moran find a sympathetic partner in Brooklyn avant-garde label Telegraph Harp; Bloodroot ended up launching her into the spotlight, garnering end-of-year placements in The New York Times and Rolling Stone, and introducing a new wave of people to her strange yet accessible style of neo-classical experimentalism.

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That summer however, Moran experienced a major epiphany that altered her entire approach to making music. It came to her one day when she was wandering in the forest near her childhood home in Long Island. “I had this moment where I was listening to the echoes of the trees and the birds and everything I was hearing, and I was thinking about how beautiful and how effortless it sounded,” she says. “These sounds weren’t trying to happen—they were just happening naturally. It kind of reminded me about how hard I had been trying to force my music out, and I had this moment where I was like, ‘How can I make music that feels like this? How can I make music that doesn’t feel like I’m sitting at the piano, writing out every note?’”

Kelly returned to the house that day, and sat down to play the piano, but with a newfound sense of inspiration. “When I started playing piano that day, I literally had no intention at all. It was just to improvise, and it was purely out of joy,” she says. "And when I let go of all of the preconceived ideas that I had about making music, it really freed me.” Moran knew a little bit about improvising from her day job playing piano for ballet recitals; but she had never considered incorporating it into her own work before, and she suddenly found her music becoming more textured and emotional than ever before. “Usually when you’re composing, you’re comparing, ‘does this sound better? Or does this sound better?’ When you’re improvising, different connections are happening, and music just came out of me differently that day because I wasn’t trying; I just let it happen.”

Soon, Moran began studiously transcribing her improvised recordings note for note, and gradually re-taught herself how to perform them for her next album. “Transcribing was a trip,” she tells me, “Because I was like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe this is what my brain does.’ I just made tonal decisions that I never would’ve made if I was really sitting down and planning it out.’”

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In this way, the album represents a meeting between two schools of musical thought, blending free-form improvisation and meticulous, precise notation to create a spiralling, ethereal song cycle. When Moran shows me the sheet music for her song “Nereid” (which was originally titled “Running Music,” because it essentially consists of her fingers doing a marathon), all I see are countless pages of notes cascading up, and down, over and over again, like a hypnotic tide unfolding endlessly across a sea of staff paper.

Moran’s linking up with Warp Records was as fateful and fluid as her recordings. Around the same time that she was looking for a label to help release her latest work, she received a surprise message one day from one of her favorite artists of all time: Daniel Lopatin. “I was literally wearing a Garden of Delete shirt the first time he ever messaged me,” she says. “It was fucked up.”

Lopatin appreciated Moran’s ear for timbre and arrangement, and DM’d her out of the blue one day to ask if she’d like to go on tour as his backing keyboardist. Like an underground-synth fairytale come true, Moran was brought onboard for OPN’s monumental new MYRIAD concert tour—and when Lopatin caught wind of Moran’s unreleased new album, he was so impressed with what he heard that he agreed to help her put the finishing touches on it. He soon passed it on to his buddies at Warp, who decided to ink a record deal.

It’s been a rollercoaster year for Kelly Moran, but throughout it all, she’s managed to remain level-headed and true to her original passion for the piano that started it all. As we flip through video after video of ice skaters and discuss how she got to where she is, she pulls up a video of Alena Kostornaia set to a gentle, moving piano ballad by Max Richter (one of Moran’s favorite contemporary composers). Watching such feats of strength appear so elegant, effortless, and mesmerizing all at once, Moran suddenly turned to me with palpable excitement. “In figure skating, you need that extreme athleticism, but you also have to make it artistic,” she says to me. “If you’re not both, then you’re not going to be successful. That’s what I love about skaters. They’re technicians, and they’re artists. And that’s what I am.”

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Sam Goldner is a writer based in Los Angeles. Read more of Sam's work on Twitter.