Kelly Moran The New York-based composer talks prepared pianos, signing to Warp, and new album “Ultraviolet”

Photo: Tim Saccenti

The first descriptor that Kelly Moran uses to describe herself in her bio is “composer.” The New York-based artist is also a performer — a pianist whose work fits neatly into that cozy space where contemporary classical and electronic music frequently consort — but on albums like 2016’s The Optimist and 2010’s Microcosms, the music was meticulously created, notated, and, sometimes, deconstructed.

For her new album Ultraviolet, Moran slipped into a new mode of creation. While she was still utilizing the prepared piano that helped form the material for 2017’s Bloodroot, with various sizes of bolts and screws stuck in between the strings to change its sound, Moran spent a day recording free-flowing improvisations, unsure if they would yield anything worthwhile. She just wanted to play.

When she listened back to those recordings, Moran realized that she had something to work with, raw material that she could shape into, for lack of a better word, songs. Adding layers of electronics and with a little assistance from Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) on three tracks, she came away with some of her most thrilling material to date. Even as the normal tones of the piano comes flowing through the mix, it’s dominated by the clanging, pinging of the prepared strings — a sound that finds a midpoint between the percussive beauty of a gamelan or hammered dulcimer, and the hypnotic thrum of a harpsichord. It’s already hypnotizing before the gentle purrs of synths come floating over the horizon.

We caught up with Moran during her trip to Los Angeles recently to talk about the inspiration behind Ultraviolet, the impressive amount of work that went into crafting the material for mass consumption, and signing with Warp Records.

Ultraviolet isn’t your first foray into using prepared piano. What made you want to come back to this method of playing and composing?

It’s funny you say that, because after I made Bloodroot, it wasn’t in my mind to make another record of prepared piano, just because I actually ran into quite a bit of difficulty when it came to performing that material live. There were a lot of venues in New York that wouldn’t let me prepare the pianos. I realized, “Hmm, this is kind of the most difficult thing I could have chosen to tour and try and promote.” It’s a very niche thing. I thought I was going to go in a different direction. It really, truly happened by accident. Bloodroot was a very deliberate exploration of prepared piano, because it was my first time writing for it. I was really trying to work with all these different ways of generating sound from a piano.

It just happened that way this time, because last summer, I was working on a couple of commissions for people that included prepared piano. My piano pretty much stayed prepared for the entire summer. I talk about this experience a lot, where basically all the material for the record was generated during this big improv session I had. I recorded it, and when I listened back, I was like, “Oh fuck, this is my next record!”

When you first started messing around with prepared piano, was there a lot of trial and error to figure out what objects worked best for the sound you were looking for, and to figure out exactly where to put the bolts and screws that you use?

Definitely. The first time I did it, I was at my parents’ house during a snowstorm, and I scavenged through their toolboxes. I had a box of preparations that I had bought in college. I had my own little toolkit, but I wanted to play around with some different sounds and some different screws and bolts. I remember the first time I prepared my piano at home, I did spend a lot of time picking out exactly what screws sounded the best and how a screw sounds way more percussive to me than a bolt does.

So, I spent a lot of time putting every different preparation in and figuring out which ones I liked. Now the way I do it is I have three little baggies that I use every time. I have a bag of screws and bolts that’s for the lower octaves, then a bag of slightly bigger screws for the middle and for the high octaves. So I always use the same ones, but sometimes they go on slightly different notes.

Listening to this album and Bloodroot, and other prepared piano work, it always feels like there’s a balance that you have to strike between the “unusual” sounds that you can create with these objects and trying to maintain the more natural tones of the piano. Is that something that you keep in mind when you are writing for this instrument?

It feels like a completely different beast to me. It really changes the piano so much that I’m not really concerned with making it sound like a piano. I’m actually trying to get it to sound completely different. One thing I really love is when people completely guess the wrong instrument I’m playing. “Oh, it sounds like she’s playing percussion or gamelan.” I work online a lot, so I read comments of people speculating what I’m doing, and I get really happy when people guess wrong, because I am trying to obfuscate exactly what the piano sounds like. The whole point is to make it sound different. So I take a lot of joy in that.

What can you tell me then about the post-production process? You’ve got these long improvisations that you recorded for this. How do you winnow them down to sections or “songs”?

The weird thing about it is I don’t consider myself an amazing improviser. I went to school with actual jazz prodigies and people who do that for a living. I have a lot of fun improvising, but I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to improvise something and walked away feeling like, “Wow, that sounds like a piece I wrote.” Until this day that happened. I think because of my mindset that day, something happened where I was organizing musical ideas in a different way. I was paying attention to how I was developing them. When I listen to the recordings, I actually thought that my structure for my improvisation felt very compositional and very planned, even though it wasn’t.

I spent about two months just obsessively transcribing all of my improvisation. It was a long, long process, but a rewarding one because it had been a really long time since I had tried to decode an improvisation. The last time I did something like that was for a homework assignment in college. It was really illuminating to look at the music and see what kinds of patterns emerge and what kinds of melodies I make when I’m not thinking about structure or harmony or any of those things that you think about when you’re deliberately writing a piece of music. It was really fun.

What did you do after you had decoded this material and edited it down? What did you do and add to it?

After I had that experience, it was kind of like fate where I had made all this music, and then two days later, I got an offer to do a show at a classical music venue in New York. They asked me if I had new material. Suddenly, I had a deadline. I just went to work. I transcribed all of the pieces, and I played most of them pretty faithfully at that concert. I was pretty faithful to the exact structures of the piece, because I think I was trying to replicate what I had done that day.

After that concert, I had spent two months playing this music and getting a feel for it. It felt really, really good to play. So I didn’t end up changing too much of the structure. I will say the biggest structural change came when I started incorporating electronics into it. I really wanted this to be a record for piano and synth. I really felt like the songs really lent themselves well to other soundworlds. It’s something I really enjoy doing, coming up with these different timbral soundworlds to envelop it. So once I was done recording all the piano material, I started messing with a little bit more by recording synth overdubs and bringing all these other elements into the recordings. I think that really had the biggest impact on shaping the material, as a whole.

I wanted to ask at least one question about Daniel Lopatin’s contributions to the record. I know he only played a small part in the process, but was this an instance where you felt you needed another set of ears and hands to help finish those songs?

Dan got involved with producing the record literally the first day that I met him in person. We had been in contact about me doing some performances for his live shows, for the Age Of live arrangements. He invited me to his studio to show me the record and talk about it. We ended up hanging out for a while and talking about music, and he asked me what I had been working on. I started telling him about my record. And I did volunteer the information that I felt like this was the first time where I started to feel like I needed a little bit of help because it was getting so ambitious. Even though I had studied recording and production, I felt, for once, that I could really benefit from having someone else come in and help me shape the material a little bit. Everything was mostly finished. I just needed a little refinement to everything.

As soon as Dan heard it, he got really excited and was, like, “Who’s putting this out? Who’s helping you produce this?” I told him I didn’t have a producer, but I kind of feel like I need a little help. He said, “I would love to help you produce this, since you’re helping me do so much stuff.” At that moment, my soul just kind of left my body. I was so happy I could not believe it was happening, because Dan is one of my all-time favorite producers. It really was like a dream for him to offer to be involved. I was curious to see what he would do with it, because something I joke about with him sometimes is that I’m always trying to get him to expand things and add more repeats and just let certain sections go on a bit longer. He’s always trying to get me to be a little bit more concise. We kind of meet in the middle. I really love everything he did with the material.

Photo: Tim Saccenti

What does it mean to you to be working with Warp Records for this album?

It’s going to sound so cheesy but it really means so much to me. So many of the artists on Warp have had a huge impact in my development as a musician and my interest in electronic music. When I first started listening to electronic music, it was all about Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada and Autechre and Squarepusher. So to be on the same label as them is a very surreal thing for me.

When I was shopping around Bloodroot, I got so many rejections from labels who were really blunt in their criticism, saying prepared piano was not cool enough for the label or they didn’t think it was appealing enough or it was too different. I got all these rejections that were very much related to me not fitting in. So to have such an amazing label interested in me because of my uniqueness was a really validating experience for me.

You’ve talked in other interviews about your Roman-Catholic upbringing and growing up in the church. What impact do you think that had, if any, on the music you make today?

I have to say probably none, because I was really never a regular churchgoer. I had a phase in 7th grade where I was really into praying and I got quickly disillusioned. By the time I was in eighth grade and I made my catechism, I was pretty much agnostic. I enjoy liturgical music, and I love sacred music, but I wouldn’t say that that actually impacts me musically. It did give me a lot of shame as an adult. I still carry that!

I know you are likely going to be in the swell of promotion for Ultraviolet, but are you already thinking ahead to a new album or a new project to work on?

I haven’t actually. I feel like the label might be expecting that since I had a pretty quick turnover with the past couple of records, but I was still working on Ultraviolet this summer. We spent quite a bit of time mixing and mastering it. It was just finished a couple of months ago. And I’ve been really busy touring with OPN in the meantime. A lot of my time has been spent figuring out how to perform this record live. I’ve been working on new material sporadically, but nothing has really coalesced in a major way. I feel like I’m probably going to hole up somewhere in early 2019 and make the next one.

I’ve been spending a lot of time working out how I’m going to do the live presentation for this album. A problem that I have had as a composer is that I’ve written a lot of music that is not performable for me. It’s not what I’m thinking about. If you listen to Optimist, I’m making these pieces that have so many keyboard lines and so much electronics that it would either take several performers to do it or it would involve really complex live processes, dubbing out loops and all of that.

So, I haven’t done a lot of solo performances of my past material. But this is the first time that I’ve made an album that feels like a performance album from top to bottom. This summer, I had a fellowship and I basically spent the entire summer figuring out how I’m going to play the piano with the electronics in the backing tracks and crafting a live show. There will be touring, but I think I’m going to wait until 2019 so that the record has had a chance to make its way around the world. I want people to hear it and let it digest.

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