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Kelly Moran - Ultraviolet Music Album Reviews

The prepared-piano specialist abandons the meticulous compositions of her previous albums, editing down improvisations and bejeweling them with layers of synthesizers and effects.

Musicians can be their own worst critics. Look no further than New York pianist and composer Kelly Moran, who, since 2010, has doggedly pursued her idiosyncratic vision of post-classical piano music through modern-dance soundtracks, concert recordings, and fusions of prepared piano and electronics. Her last album, 2017’s Bloodroot, was her most intensive study of the prepared piano’s mercurial sonics yet, earning acclaim from The New York Times as one of last year’s best classical pieces. But speaking to Pitchfork recently, she bemoaned its premeditated and belabored qualities. Composed “sitting at the piano with staff paper, writing every note down,” she said, it was “very much about how the harmonies and melodies sounded, not so much about how it felt to play the music.” Then she dealt the death blow: “It sounds like I’m trying really, really hard.”

On Ultraviolet, Moran puts down the pencil and goes with her gut. If Bloodroot was an exercise in cartography—plotting points, measuring distances—Ultraviolet is pure flow. Where Bloodroot bristled with bright, dissonant clusters, Ultraviolet is consonant and warm, with steady rhythms and reassuring harmonies. It is a spring rain rather than a freak hailstorm.

The album began taking shape during a bout of writer’s block last year. Putting notes on paper just wasn’t working, so “Fuck it,” she decided. She took the day off, headed for the woods, swam in the ocean. Taking a page from John Cage, she even got down on her haunches and listened, trying to key in to the rhythms and frequencies of nature. Something clicked. As Cage might have put it, her ears were now in excellent condition, and so, apparently, were here hands, because she headed back to her grand piano and spent the rest of the day improvising. The recordings felt refreshingly “unbridled and joyous.” She began paring them down, building collages, and painting on layers of synthesizer for atmosphere.

Given their shared origins, it makes sense that many of these seven tracks follow a similar trajectory. They mostly begin with a tentative, repetitive melodic figure in the right hand. A synthesized buzz begins to grow underneath. Brighter, hard-hammered sounds with the tone of a copper bell may flood into the mix. There are elements of Philip Glass in her cyclic motions and hints of Tim Hecker in the foggy glow. Her melodies do most of the work, moving in circles but frequently deviating from their path, carving new courses and seeking out new terrain. It’s a thoroughly Romantic take on minimalism, emphasizing not just the hypnotic nature of the patterns but also their restlessly expressive character.

Part of the pleasure of the prepared piano—an instrument that’s been treated by placing bits of metal, wood, or paper among the strings and hammers to create phantom rattles and clangs—is its unpredictability. A clarion note may lead to another that buzzes like a broken doorbell. Moran's compositions make the most of those contrasts, feeling them out and subtly emphasizing the muted overtones and inharmonics that are thrown off like soft sparks. The effect is particularly pronounced on “In Parallel,” where a crisp click occasionally leaps from one of the speakers, quietly interrupting the lulling reverie established by the synths or reverb or whatever that is swelling up from below like a deep black pool.

Leaping versus lulling: That’s the music’s motivating contradiction. “In Parallel” is one of the album’s most successful tracks because it exploits the tension between concord and discord. Moran’s playing here challenges the dominance of the overarching key as the sound becomes steam, notes trickling back down in rivulets of dissonance. In the 10-minute epic “Nereid,” an even more engrossing song that ventures further into atonality, the liquidity of her playing finally overwhelms the containers she’s created for it, spilling over and splashing out. The excess is thrilling. It’s here where Moran feels the most unfettered and uninhibited—not just balancing opposing forces, but reveling in their collision and savoring the way the frequencies fly, like raindrops buffeted by gusts of wind.

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