FEATURES Experimental Pianist Kelly Moran on Electronics, Religion, & Running to Future By Zachary Goldsmith · April 07, 2017

From the moment she first sat behind the piano at the tender age of six, Kelly Moran has been learning and growing, perfecting her craft and tackling monumental feats of composition. She’s mastered several instruments and used them to create a personalized musical language. Moran attended the University of Michigan, majoring in Performing Arts Technology, focusing her studies on piano performance and composition. It was there that her interest in electronic-inspired composition flourished.

After releasing her fourth album, Optimist, on her own last year, Moran moves to the well-respected Telegraph Harp label for her next record, Bloodroot. We met up with Moran to chat about electronic composition, musical language, stress relief, and rituals.

I said I was going to ask you about superstitions, and we’re sitting here conducting this interview on Friday the 13th, so what’s your superstition?

I don’t have any. Really. I just don’t. That’s why I was totally fine doing an interview on the 13th!

Do you have any rituals? Anything you do before you play?  

Not quite, but one thing I keep in mind is something I heard Philip Glass say at a Buddhist temple in Ann Arbor a few years ago. Someone asked him, ‘How can you make music more spiritual, like a religious experience, even if you’re not religious?’ Glass’s answer was that you should make music a ritual, a sacred ritual, by doing it at the same time every day.

Have you tried it?

I have, yeah. I have a lot of anxiety and certain habits that border on obsessive compulsive, but I need to have a certain number of things accomplished before I can sit down and feel ready to compose. If I’m going to perform, my only ritual would be playing through the most difficult piece.

Your own song, or something you learned to play before?

My own, actually! Like, I did a show last Friday at a church and haven’t been in a church in a long time. It used to be a huge part of my life when I was being raised and now, it’s just something I don’t practice anymore. My father was like, ‘Your grandparents would be so proud!’

Was it a Roman Catholic church?

It was, yeah. It almost felt like being home, in a strange way, since I spent so many years going to church when I was younger. But, it’s weird—there I am playing all these modernist jazz ballads in a church. It was not the return to church I expected.

Did you get any messages from the Lord? Did you feel anything?

Not quite, but the friars at the church were there, and they actually helped put on the show. It turns out they really liked my playing. One of my friends overheard them talking about me after the show like, ‘Oh the show was great, that pianist was really sensational.’ That’s the closest to divinity I’ll get!

Have they invited you back yet? 

Yeah! It’s a church in Greenpoint [Brooklyn] called the San Damiano Mission. it’s a Roman Catholic church that puts on shows. They have a grand piano there, and the sound is just amazing. So, yeah, to conclude: I don’t really have any rituals before playing, it’s just become such a regular part of my life now. I’ve played piano every day of my life for hours for the last five years or more. So, when I sit down at the piano it feels like I’m at home. I really don’t do anything necessarily to get there. It’s more the other way around. Piano is just really natural for me. So, if I have quirks it usually manifests in other ways. Like, I have to run at least four or five miles before I start my day. Before I do anything.

That’s a lot. 

Yeah. I’m a pretty anxious person, and it really helps me quell that nervous energy. When I was in high school, I developed an anxiety condition that was sparked by all my college auditions. I was applying to all these classical conservatories and, even though I had never been a nervous performer, one of my teachers accidentally planted this seed in my head. She said, ‘I would always get so nervous before I auditioned, so nervous that the pedal would shake.’ It really drove home how much the 15 minutes of that audition weighed on my future. There was so much pressure on just 15 minutes of me playing piano. That idea really terrified me, and I ended up developing an anxiety disorder where I was constantly feeling ill. I lost a ton of weight and felt perpetually weak during the whole audition season, but I actually ended up getting into the schools I wanted to go to despite all that. I tried so hard to deal with my anxiety through meditation and Xanax, yet nothing really worked. It wasn’t until I was actually in college and took up running and exercising that I really got it under control. I think routine is more important for me than ritual. I like having some kind of consistency that structures my day, which is difficult to maintain when you’re freelance. This is the one thing that keeps me grounded every day.

Running can be really, really meditative. 

There’s always a musical element as well. One of my friends gave me this awesome advice that, if you’re running and you get a cramp, or get tired, you should change your breathing to 5/4 time—inhale for two steps, exhale over exhale. So, if you’re always running in this pattern of 4/4 and then you swap to 5/4, it breaks it up and helps you physically. It changes the fact that your exhalations are always on the same side and helps balance out your breathing so you get less tired.


What do you listen to when you’re running?

Mostly hip-hop. I think I listened to Future more than any other artist in 2016. But, lately I’ve also been running to the new Cobalt record. Metal is interesting for workouts. It can almost be a little distracting, because I always feel like I want to scream along while I’m running.

You play a ton of instruments: clarinet, oboe, bass, guitar, piano, etc..

I started playing piano when I was six, but when I was in fourth grade, the orchestra teacher said they needed someone tall to play the upright bass. I was tall, so I thought ‘Why not?’ and just hopped on it. It felt really natural to play for me. That same year, I picked up clarinet, and the following year, I started playing oboe. So, by the time I was 10, I was already playing four instruments. By the time I hit sixth grade, I also picked up electric bass and guitar. Later, I moved on to teaching myself percussion. I just wanted to do everything! Kids tend to have short attention spans, and for me, it was enjoyable to play one instrument for a while and then move to the next one.

I had this urge to explore a lot of styles. I grew up playing in classical youth orchestras and later went to National Guitar Workshop to learn jazz bass. I got really obsessed with Jaco Pastorius and saved up for a fretless Warwick bass for my 16th birthday instead of having a party. I ended up teaching myself a bunch of Jaco pieces. “Portrait of Tracy” is still my favorite.

So you’re into bass chords?

Yeah! When I first started out and started writing for bass, I really enjoyed chordal writing and stacking intervals. I actually had that fretless bass for years, and then in college, I started getting serious about sophisticated means for recording. I sold that bass to buy a set of condenser microphones so I could start recording piano.

By my sophomore year, I really wanted to play piano repertoire that was written after 1900. I became obsessed with piano writing from composers like Henry Cowell, John Cage and Philip Glass. The downside was that none of the piano professors were well-versed in modern [repertoire]. They were all very old-school and traditional. One of the technology professors was actually an expert in modernist piano music, so he proposed an independent study to teach me. I had finished all my performance requirements, so my piano teacher, the head of the technology department and the professor that was going to teach me actually teamed up to write a letter to allow me to learn this newer form of piano rep to the piano department. And the school actually rejected it! They didn’t think it was what pianists at the school should be studying for credit. Despite that, the teacher still met with me every week and taught me for free, for no credit. I worked super hard learning pieces by Webern, George Crumb, Schoenberg, John Cage … and made all that repertoire part of my junior recital, even though I wasn’t getting credit for it.

So when did you get into electronic music?

I had started writing electronic music when I was around 15, because that’s when I first got Logic and started experimenting with recording. But it wasn’t until my junior year in college when I started really incorporating it meaningfully into my compositional practice. I wrote a couple pieces for string quartet and electronics, two pianos and electronics, things like that. Just trying to merge the acoustic and electric worlds in classical composition. Junior year in college was when I started really getting into prepared piano and extended techniques, and that’s when I learned there was a whole different world of sound that you could get out of a piano. I started sampling extended piano techniques to build my own sound worlds in Kontakt—plucked strings, muted strings, things like that. One of my favorite things I learned is that you could e-bow piano strings. And that was so exciting to me, because growing up, the Smashing Pumpkins were one of my favorite bands, and so many of Billy Corgan’s iconic guitar solos involve e-bows. I ended up writing a piece for my senior recital for piano and four e-bows. I kind of became obsessed with writing drone music on piano, so in grad school I got a grant buy even more e-bows and ended up writing a piece for piano and six e-bows.

I don’t want to freak you out, but it’s theoretically possible that a broken piano string could shoot off and kill you.

That’s definitely how I’m going to die.

I’ve come close. I broke a piano string, and it’s like a cartoon when it happens.

I’ve seen it happen once. When I was in high school, I went to Beijing for a classical music festival. I was studying with a professor from Manhattan School of Music, and he took his students there to play, study and travel. I remember watching a girl there play “Totentaz” by Liszt—a crazy intense piece—and she played so hard that she broke the low E string on the piano in the middle of a concerto competition. She had to keep going, and it created this sinister resonance, because she had to keep hitting the string. It was really sick. A once-in-a-lifetime performance.

So, which instrument, out of all of them, are you most connected to? 

Piano. It feels like I’m home when I’m in front of one. I’m most capable musically on piano, and feel like that’s where I can best express myself, more so than bass or guitar. It’s always felt like something I was meant to do, because no one in my family is remotely musical. From a young age, I knew it was what I was most interested in. I was six when I saw someone playing piano on TV and asked my parents to get me one.

That’s a big ask. 

I know. They first got me a mini-keyboard just to see if I was going to still be into it. I just grew into it really quickly, so they found me an old antique piano to properly learn on. Before I read music, I would make up melodies and put tape on the keys, because I didn’t know how else to document them. Around the time I was 16 or so, I upgraded to a small Boston grand piano. It lives at my parent’s house in Long Island, because I live in Brooklyn. That’s the instrument I do all of my recording and most of my writing on, since I can freely experiment with preparations and other extended techniques on it that a lot of studios in NY won’t let you do to their pianos.

So, I want to kind of turn face here and talk about social media. You’re at a point where your personal media is actually you. You’re not a verified account with the whole “these views are my own and not the views of X.” So, if someone finds you on Twitter, for example, where you get pretty personal and open, they’ve actually found you and your political leanings. Have you ever thought about having a second account? 

I haven’t, actually. I think that I’ve developed a very thick skin because of my history as a female musician in male-dominated programs and scenes. I had to figure out very early on how to defend my views and my work unapologetically. I don’t really distinguish or separate my identity as a musician or artist from my identity as myself—an opinionated, politically leftist person who is outspoken about mental illness and other issues. I’ve never invented another pseudonym or identity for myself. I’ve only ever felt connected to my given name. And, I’ve made a whole bunch of music that isn’t really cohesive under that name. So, I’m comfortable with that.

I’ve lately encountered a lot of vitriol directed at primarily female artists who have stood up to the administration or offered to donate their band’s proceeds to the ACLU or Planned Parenthood or whatever. It’s just mind-boggling.

How can you actively want to support the work of female artists and bands and yet, at the same time, want to support an administration that wants to curtail women’s rights? It makes no sense.

I feel like we’re at a point where a lot of artists might want to separate their views from their work to avoid backlash, but it should be OK for artists to express their political viewpoints. I don’t necessarily need anyone to agree with me and if people don’t want to support my work because of my political leanings well, I’m OK with that.

Who else better to be the ones with the most progressive views about society and where we should be headed other than artists? Artists suffer greatly from capitalism. We live the struggle just by trying to exist off of our work. It’s not like artists always have the right or most informed viewpoints all the time but, as musicians, we put our hearts and souls out there already, so why not be open about our political leanings when the work we’re being driven to create is a product of our current political climate? I understand that a lot of artists just want to let their music speak for them and not have to directly address things on social media, but I feel like right now we’re not in a position where we should stay silent, especially if we have a platform.

At the same time, I see how people want celebrities to reflect their viewpoints, like how many people are empowered by the fact that many celebrity women are speaking out against the administration. It can be comforting to hear your own opinions being mirrored by someone who is well known, I think that can be great. But, the danger is we can’t rely on celebrities to be the mouthpieces for us. We have to affect our own change. It has to be a collective action from all people. There are so many people that haven’t previously engaged politically are getting out there now, which feels more effective in bringing about resistance than knowing where certain celebrities stand on our president.

I wanted to bring something up, because I saw what you said on Twitter and I liked it—there was a bit of the whole “men make a problem and expect women to fix it for them.” You were commenting on the fact that fans wanted Lady Gaga to fall on the sword and ‘save us’ in her Super Bowl performance only a year after Beyoncé was lambasted for being “too black.”

I saw that Beyonce got attacked for being “too pregnant” recently! Like, people said she rubbed her belly too much at the Grammies! Women are just stuck in a position of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” And I feel silly commenting on things like the Super Bowl, because that’s not what matters in the long run, and I don’t think that’s where our focus should be. But when I logged into Facebook the morning after the Super Bowl I saw multiple male musicians writing diatribes against Lady Gaga, saying she didn’t do enough politically in her performance. The Super Bowl is one of the most capitalist and tightly-controlled performance situations possible. But people were still upset at Lady Gaga because she didn’t do more, put her own career on the line, over that whole thing. She’s not a perfect human, maybe she doesn’t always use the right terminology, but her heart is in the right place and she’s done so much to be an ally to marginalized groups for as long as she’s been famous. So, seeing a bunch of men going after her, it’s like, ‘Have you ignored her entire career of activism? It’s all about this one moment?’ It’s just not our fault, you can’t expect women to just do everything and fix all the things in society that men are largely responsible for. Literally none of the men I saw criticizing her have come remotely close to doing as much as she has to empower or help people not as fortunate as them the way she has. It was very frustrating. It was just like, ‘What the hell have YOU done?’

So, I’m all for artists being outspoken, but we have to be cautious as audience members and consumers. It’s a very thin line where we can co-opt that sentiment into something that you can profit from. Like, most of the Super Bowl advertisements this year were somewhat political, companies profiting off an anti-administration leaning. Political awareness is not something that should be for consumption.

—Zachary Goldsmith

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