I don’t remember exactly how, but Kelly Moran’s single for this album came up on my feed and I just clicked on it. I later learned that she was an Oneohtrix Point Never collaborator, has been somewhat widely praised in the classical community and, honestly, the she played the piano.
At the risk of grandstanding a la New York Times on Bradley Cooper, the core of music journalism is the idea that we can find a greater musical truth at the intersection of the real life experience of listening to it and an education on the process behind it or at least the context surrounding it. In some ways this is impossible because so often we’re following along with artist’s careers for a long time and, in the internet era, we know what they’re up to. The “real life” experience is always an educated one and we loose track of the experience of simply enjoying a work as an unsuspecting fan might. However, sometimes we still come across something that sounds good and gradually dig into how it was made and perhaps why it sounds so good.
Having gone through the traditional piano avenues–masters degree, traditionally composed contemporary classical album with New York Times support–Kelly Moran may be slightly more out on the trapeze wire with the process behind her first release for Warp records. The album is built on an extended improvisation session that followed a moment of peace in nature and later recieved electronic treatments, a situation that is cliche to the point that Moran herself tends to refer to it in a self-deprecating way, but the result is detailed and sprawling, yet strikingly natural in its flow–certainly a product of the freedom to explore that Moran felt when making it.
Admittedly, there’s a bit of a feeling of sameness. I almost get the sense that you could play Moran a 5-10 second clip from anywhere and she might not know exactly where in the record it falls, yet there are moments of resolution and tension. Autowave opens with stagnant beauty, before the extended length of Helix sees the piece deal with more open space, allowing ideas to float out into the air and dance around each other before the quaking synths arrive and the energy peaks with furious melodic contours. Water Music emphasizes the prepared feel of the piano as the strings clang around like wind chimes and In Parellel is stunning in its stark, high-range emotive melodies.
At first click, Helix reminded me a little bit of this one four-tet song where a stringed instrument figure wanders through a haze of rhythmic fog. As we know from his infamous tweet about the process behind that piece, Kieran Hebden didn’t have a piano or a harp at hand for him to pluck out a melody and then edit to hell so I wasn’t really thinking along the lines of Moran being classically trained. It sounded like an eerie ambient-leaning electronic musician almost like Kelly Lee Owens with a more abstract rhythmic drive, but still felt firmly rooted in electronic music.
By the end of my first listen of the whole album, after I had learned about Moran’s backstory, I managed to reach through the synthesizer fog and immerse myself in the sound world enough to come out the other end feeling like I was listening to a piano record. Maybe there’s some piano graduate student out there cringing at the idea that a music journalist would’ve listened to any amount of this and not known that a piano was involved, but this album is, in essence, an ambient record in a lot of ways so the turn-your-brain-off first listen is still valuable.
This is not a record about the micro-melodic movements, rather it is affective in its big picture motions and moods. Ultraviolet is a place where motion never stops, but it doesn’t tell you where it’s going and the entire texture is flattened into one breathing mass. It operates like a world-building electronic music opus so maybe the listener shouldn’t be thinking about a piano the whole time. Maybe the work is equally valuable to those concerned about the process and those concerned about finding bliss.