How Tori Amos Inspired Kelly Moran to Follow Her Piano Dreams
Here at CLRVYNT, we haven’t been shy about heaping praise upon the black metal-tweaked “prepared piano” jabs, stabs, yanks and tickles of Kelly Moran, a composer from the school of John Cage. Best known for her time in orchestral art-metal crew Voice Coils and no wave-punk noisemakers Cellular Chaos, Moran stepped out of the shadows of those two bands in late 2016 with Optimist, a haunting labyrinth of keys-hopping grandeur that snarled traces of black metal, classical music and minimalism.
Just a few months later, the prolific avant-gardist followed up Optimist with the Colin Marston-mastered Bloodroot, a cinematic sprawl of electronic clang and clatter that is sublime as it is extreme. Her epically contorted and melodious soundworld would fit right in either at metal hub Saint Vitus or the majestic experimental venue Roulette in downtown Brooklyn.
Here, we finally have tapped into Moran’s free-thinking musical mind as she picked four records that influenced her path towards her singular craft. They're not what you’d expect.
TORI AMOS, BOYS FOR PELE (1996)
Someone familiar with your work would think you'd pick an influential record by a composer like John Cage, but one of your top picks is a Tori Amos record. When critics are talking about Bloodroot and name-dropping Cage and comparing your music to his, are they completely off the mark?
Not at all! I totally get why people instantly make the connection to Cage. He is, after all, the inventor of prepared piano. His work is absolutely very important to me in so many ways, and it was certainly directly influential to an extent for me on Bloodroot, so the comparisons aren’t off the mark at all. The thing is, I didn’t want to create prepared piano music that sounded like something John Cage would write. I’ve performed and studied many of his prepared piano works, so I have a very deep familiarity and understanding of his style and what goes into his preparations. I wanted to take a different approach because there’s no point in trying to replicate something he originated and mastered. I had actually never tried to compose anything for prepared piano until I started writing Bloodroot in early 2016, despite having studied his music for nearly a decade, because it just seemed too daunting to attempt. The parallels will be drawn immediately, so I tried to go as far away from him stylistically as I could while still being true to my own voice as a composer. Of course, he still snuck in there. After I finished the record and listened back to it, I noticed that one of my pieces [“Aster”] completely copied a rhythmic idea that happens in Cage’s 13th Sonata. It didn’t even occur to me when I composed it — it was buried that deep in my subconscious!
On to Tori Amos. Her first two records were huge back in the day. How and when did you discover her music?
I first heard Tori when one of my girlfriends played her music during a sleepover in sixth grade. My friend Evelyn put on “Blood Roses,” and the sound of the harpsichord was completely arresting to me. I had been used to hearing a harpsichord sound really delicate and restrained in baroque music, and Tori played it with such unbridled intensity. I had never heard a harpsichord sound like that before, and coupled with how raw and unrestrained her vocals are, it was one of the most wild songs I had ever heard in my life. You can feel Tori’s energy bursting through her music, and it was awe-inspiring to hear a solo female keyboardist sound so confident and daring. She instantly became my idol. Growing up, I had very few female role models that were pianists, so when I heard her music, it was like I found Jesus.
What is it about Boys for Pele that speaks to you and why is it more influential than either of her first two records?
Boys for Pele speaks to me for so many reasons. It was my first introduction to Tori, but it still remains my favorite album because of the variety of styles on it. Something that took a long time for me to get used to was the fact that sometimes her melodic phrases can be quite irregular — she’s not one to stick to even, four-bar phrases that fit neatly into a song. But something about the way she composes her melodies, nothing sounds unbalanced. I also remember being really stunned by her lyrics, because they convey such a fascinating dichotomy of outspoken, direct honesty coupled with some of the weirdest, seemingly nonsensical metaphors one can imagine. She’s not always writing for her audience to be like, “Yes, that lyric is totally me! I, too, would like to have Mr. Zebra’s sweater!” A lot of the time, I don’t know what she’s talking about, but then she slips in something quite heart-wrenching and confessional, and it feels like it hits you twice as hard. I don’t know a lot of artists that accomplish the same effect with their lyrics the way she does. And I also remember this album being important because it was how I learned about rape and sexual assault. Being so young, it wasn’t something I had been exposed to yet, and it was really shocking for me as a sixth grader to suddenly discover what rape was through Tori singing about it. But this album taught me you can be a survivor of sexual assault and it doesn’t have to define you. Knowing that Tori had been through so much trauma and was still this powerful, successful musician instilled in me from a young age that you can survive horrific experiences and not let them prevent you from accomplishing your dreams. I love Little Earthquakes a lot, too, but something about Boys for Pele has always affected me deeply.
KAYO DOT, CHOIRS OF THE EYE (2003)
From Tori to Kayo Dot is pretty out there. In your mind, what common ground is there, if any, between the music each of them create? Do you hear any similar aesthetics?
For me, I think it's the fact that both of them have these underlying classical elements that are transformed in different contexts. With Tori, it's her classical piano training and use of the harpsichord, and with Kayo Dot, it's their use of chamber instruments within an ensemble that crosses so many different genres.
How and when did you get into Kayo Dot? Did you discover Kayo Dot by way of Toby Driver's first band, Maudlin of the Well?
A friend showed me Choirs of the Eye right after it came out, actually. I think I was a freshman in high school, and I had just started getting into heavier music. He sent me the song "The Manifold Curiosity," and suggested I put it on and just lie down with my eyes closed to listen to it. I did that, and as soon as the song hit its [first] climax with the gorgeous, triumphant clarinet solo soaring over the guitars, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I got more into Maudlin's oeuvre in college, which I also love, but Kayo Dot is probably my favorite band of all time.
He's explored many different musical styles in KD, constantly reinventing the band with its deconstruction of metal and its subgenres, jazz, classical, etc. Is that a trait you've tried to replicate with your own music over the course of your five records? It seems like you follow a similar path.
Absolutely. What I really admire about Toby's music is the fact that he's always been so ambitious with incorporating influences from different genres into all of the Kayo Dot records. Each album sounds so uniquely different and has its own character. Few bands have the sort of range that they do, and I think it's important for composers to keep exploring different kinds of music to push their own aesthetic boundaries. I'm not a big listener of jazz, but I've studied it and practiced a lot of jazz theory, and it's helped change my approach to composition a lot. What I like about Toby's music is that he distills so much from other styles and conjures up something that is entirely original and sounds unlike anyone else. That's something I definitely strive to achieve in my own music.
Driver has a solo record out now, and the last two Kayo Dot records are great, too, as you mentioned. What is it about Choirs that made you pick that one out of his entire canon?
Toby's new album [Madonnawhore] is gorgeous, and I actually recently had the privilege of performing some of that material with him last month at Roulette. It's so different from Kayo Dot, but still has so much emotional depth, and all of the compositions are really beautiful in their deceptive simplicity. I picked Choirs because it was such a game-changer for me, and it still holds up to this day. At the time, I hadn't heard a lot of heavy music that incorporated classical instruments in a way that didn't feel cheesy. On Choirs, you have horns, woodwinds and strings, and they never once feel out of place or superficial on tracks that are so heavy and metal-influenced. It's also about the multitude of timbral worlds contained within single tracks; like on “Marathon,” you have a mournful solo horn melody accompanied by guitar (and later flute) that evolves into a doomy, apocalyptic metal breakdown that's then followed by a really an eerie, foreboding Fender Rhodes melody. All in the span of five minutes. There are no other bands that can pull off all those shifts within a single track like Kayo Dot can, and have it work to such a devastating, awe-inspiring effect.
NICO MUHLY, MOTHERTONGUE (2008)
Nico Muhly has played with some heavyweights and works for Philip Glass. He's a big deal in the classical world. Did you discover his work by way of his work with another musician?
I first got introduced to his music when I was a sophomore in college and really started delving into contemporary composition — particularly post-minimalism. A friend of mine in the composition program at UMich gave me his CD Speaks Volumes, and I was immediately floored by his writing. It had the rhythmic vitality and repetitive elements of minimalism, but instead of feeling cold and mechanical, it contained all the emotion and drama of romanticism.
Have you seen Nico perform live?
No. I want to, though! I hope I can meet him someday; in my mind, we are best friends. He just doesn’t know it yet.
What is it about Nico's compositions that has had an influence over your own works?
I think of myself as a composer who tends to be more skilled working with textures vs. melodies, and I am really drawn to the fact that Nico uses a lot of the same instrumental combinations that I like, but he has such a strong grasp on writing melodies that I find really inspiring. He is also very good at something I try to do, wherein he works in worlds that tend to be mostly tonal, but have just the right amount of dissonant deviation to add tension. His music is just so fucking pretty, but it’s never, ever cheesy. But I think it’s also that his compositions have so much heart and emotion in them that is very palpable. I think that’s why he stands out to me in a world of so many academic composers whose works can tend to be very dry and emotionless.
TELEFON TEL AVIV, FAHRENHEIT FAIR ENOUGH (2001)
Telefon Tel Aviv are known as pioneers in the IDM movement. How deep into IDM were / are you?
Pretty deep, actually! I listened to a ton of Squarepusher, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin and Autechre in my formative years as a teen. TTA was kind of my first introduction to all of that. My friend sent me the track “Fahrenheit Fair Enough” over AIM, and as soon as I heard it, I felt like I knew this track was going to change my life. I realized that there was an entire genre of music existing that I was completely unaware of, yet completely loved. Something about it just resonated with me. I was really obsessed with the complexity of the glitches over the really pretty, simple melodicism of the underlying instruments, and how the songs achieved a perfect balance between acoustic instruments and electronic elements.
Members of Telefon Tel Aviv have worked with Nine Inch Nails. Is NIN a fave of yours?
Definitely I’m a huge NIN fan. I could go on and on about how much I love Trent Reznor’s music. With Teeth and The Downward Spiral are currently my favorite NIN albums.
Fahrenheit Fair Enough is super laid back. Do you mellow out while listening to it? Is it background-type music for you?
These days, yeah. It’s a very sentimental listen for me, and it’s my go-to album when I have company over because the compositions aren’t super overbearing. I love showing it to people who’ve never heard of TTA before.
Bloodroot is dominated by prepared piano techniques. Have you wanted to dabble in more electronics-based beats and rhythms like Telefon Tel Aviv?
I actually have! When I was in college, I was very much into making glitch music and got pretty good at making beats. I was at that point that most young composers go through when you’re trying to emulate the style of your musical icons, and I was very much attempting to do that with TTA. I cannot overstate how influential this album was for me; it literally changed my life because it caused me to start writing electronic music. In fact, the first string quartet I ever wrote had electronics and glitch beats in it. But it’s not really my style at this point in time. I have a feeling I might venture down that path again at some point, though …