Kelly Moran remembers her eureka moment like it was yesterday. It was a balmy afternoon last summer, down in the woods near her childhood home on Long Island. “I was squatted down in the forest, listening to the sounds of the wind and the wildlife, and all the echoes surrounding me,” Moran recalls. “I asked myself: How can I make music that feels like this: natural, connected, and effortless?” At the time of her epiphany, Moran had spent the better part of her career immersed in the painstaking, pedagogical praxis modern composition: a journey that, however personally and creatively rewarding, had come to an impasse. Her only way forward was to bottle up her stream of consciousness and boldly sail beyond her own boundaries. Such are the origins of Ultraviolet, Moran’s Warp Records debut.
On the self-produced follow-up to last year’s Bloodroot, Moran pulls off a nearly impossible feat: the annihilation of experimental music’s imposing, esoteric, über-academic status quo in the name of pure, unbridled intuition, of human joy. “By re-examining my process as an artist, I freed myself,” Moran explains. “Accordingly, I ended up making songs that were more untethered, less inhibited.” It wasn’t so much an compositional endeavor, she says, as it was an exercise in worldbuilding: “I was seeking to create these soundscapes with different synths and electronic textures, so it sounds very lush and dreamy, but also natural.” To that end, every song on Ultraviolet, from “Autowave” to “Radian”, comes from improvisatory roots, hence its playful, protean form — composed and recorded by Moran in-house, top-to-bottom, in its entirety.
Moran’s horizonless vision is partially owed to extensive academic rigour. Shortly after earning her B.M. in piano performance, sound engineering, and composition at the University of Michigan, the artist enrolled as a fellow in University of California, Irvine’s Integrated Composition, Improvisation, and Technology MFA program in 2010. It was there that she finally fused her lifelong loves of dance and composition, perfecting the art of music in motion. Consider her master’s thesis — a series of electro-acoustic chamber compositions penned to accompany modern dance performances — a precursor to Ultraviolet’s fluid, dance-ready DNA, inherent in its arrangements.
After completing her studies, Moran could be found in the studio, recording her own music, or taking the stage at area venues to perform alongside artists from across the avant-garde spectrum. To date, the artist’s collaborative resume encompasses stints in the no-wave rabble-rousers Cellular Chaos on bass, the avant-rock band Voice Coils on synthesizer, and the experimental outfit Charlie Looker Ensemble on piano, to name a few; she has also composed alongside fellow pianist and long-term John Cage collaborator Margaret Leng-Tan (confirming Moran’s direct connection to the New York scene), the Manhattan Choral Ensemble, and the esteemed percussion quartet Yarn/Wire.
Bloodroot proved a massive success for Moran, not to mention the avant-garde community writ large. One of the most prominent experimental records of 2017, the album received glowing reviews from The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and finished strong on countless year-end lists across classical, experimental, avant-garde, and metal genres. So impressed was the revered producer Daniel Lopatin — known to most as Oneohtrix Point Never — by Bloodroot, that he immediately enlisted the pianist for his live band, and made her keyboardist for his global Age Of tour. To top it all off, she netted a Yamaha sponsorship, and was also awarded one of Roulette Intermedium’s coveted 2018 Van Lier fellowships, enabling her to develop artistic endeavors even further.
This omnipresent balancing act between studied precision and free-form liberation forms the crux of Moran’s art: to experience her music is to shed any semblance of genre, of canon, and indeed, of common sense. Moran’s breakout album, last year’s Bloodroot LP, thrilled primarily through feats of “prepared piano:” a experimental, grand piano-mangling playstyle pioneered by Cage, which contorts an otherwise austere instrument into a vessel of chaotic whimsy. Ultraviolet, by contrast, plays to a wider, more arresting array of stylistic influences: dazzling inflections of jazz and dream pop, neoclassical and black metal, darkness and light, encapsulated in a single, mystifying LP.