I heard a concert at the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Concert Hall on 2/29/20. It was a concert of music by two young, contemporary composers, Missy Mazzoli and Kelly Moran, who are also pianists and were the performers.
Mazzoli is a rising star as an opera composer. Her opera *Breaking the Waves* (based on the Lars von Trier film) premiered in Philadelphia a couple years ago and will be done at BAM this spring, with the Met Orchestra. I’ll be there, of course!
The program opened with Mazzoli and violinist Olivia De Prato playing a set of pieces for violin, piano, and electronics. I’d heard a Mazzoli piece for solo violin in a concert a few weeks before and was very impressed, so my hopes were up. False hope! In retrospect the first piece of the evening was the most boring piece of any of them. I’m sure that wasn’t intentional. I tried to manufacture my own interest by listening to the three elements of the piece independently: at first I thought the electronics were the least interesting, but then I started listening to the violin. There was a moment in the middle for piano and electronics that was beautiful and captivating, but the rest of it was pretty dull.
The concert was hosted by John Schaefer of WNYC (a local classical music radio station) and will be broadcast on his show *New Sounds Live.* He did a little interview with Mazzoli before the next set. He mentioned that The Met has commissioned her to write an opera for them, which got applause from the audience. She said, “I love that this is all that people want to talk about!” She’s doing an adaptation of *Lincoln in the Bardo,* a recent book by George Saunders. She said, “It’s fun for me to talk about this, because I’m years away from even writing the music.”
The next set was three short pieces by Mazzoli for violin, piano, and electronics. They weren’t written to be performed together but they performed them without a break and with overlap - - so, for example, the electronics of the first piece were fading out as the violin line in the next piece was starting. That was cool. The first piece in this set was the best piece by Mazzoli on the program: it used live violin, live piano, recorded string quartet, and a reprocessed violin line with a constant beat, the reprocessing giving the rhythm a synthetic quality. I thought the piece would work well as a piece for solo violin, piano, and chamber orchestra, but why hire the damn orchestra when you can just press play?
The middle piece on this set didn’t use piano, and there were lots of vocals on the recorded track. You often couldn’t hear the solo violin, which I thought was interesting. The final piece of the set wasn’t very good but I had the feeling the performers thought it was. It ended with the violinist playing a rapid-fire, screechy solo. I thought of my friend Amy Wilson, who was the star saxophone player of my high school jazz band. We were at a high school competition one day and listening to a jazz band from one of the other schools. The star saxophone player of this group did a solo, which I thought was pretty impressive. I said to Amy, “He’s really good, don’t you think?” And she said, “No, he’s just moving his fingers really fast.”
Next up was Kelly Moran, who I’d never heard of and KNOCKED ME OUT. Schaefer interviewed her about her techniques - - she usually plays on what’s called a “prepared piano,” a technique that was pioneered by John Cage in the 1930s. He opened the lid of a grand piano and placed screws, rubber erasers, and other objects in the strings to create unusual sounds. Moran said she felt this made the piano sound, “broken but pretty…like me…?”
Moran only used screws, and only on some notes. When she played those notes, you could hear the pitch but it had a percussive “clang” in addition to the pitch. The most fascinating thing about her pieces was hearing the mix of prepared and not prepared sounds - - she’d be playing that gentle, clanging thing and then a few notes or a chord would come through that sounded like a normal piano. I wrote two words in my notes to describe the overall effect: bewitching and unsettling. It was often difficult to believe I was only listening to one person playing one instrument, there was such a dazzling array of colors and sounds.
Moran was the only performer in her set, she wasn’t dependent on another performer or a pre-recorded track, and her playing had a wonderful looseness, a liberated sweep to the rhythm and flow. One of the pieces had the gauzy Orientalism of Debussy, but while Debussy sometimes sounds like he’s on opium, this sounded like Debussy on acid. Or magic mushrooms (entirely appropriate, since John Cage was a world-recognized authority on mushrooms).
Moran said that her performances usually have her playing prepared piano, plus some electronics, plus a video projection along the back wall. She decided to strip it down for this show and just play the prepared piano. My brother Howard is a fan of Moran's music and was totes jelly that I got to hear her in "an acoustic show."
The last piece on Moran’s set was written for unprepared piano, what she called “clean piano.” It was beautiful, it reminded me of Joni Mitchell’s song “Court and Spark.”
The concert ended with two world premieres, played by the two composers: a piece by Moran for prepared piano and “clean piano,” and a piece by Mazzoli for four-hand “clean piano” and electronics. Schaefer interviewed both composers before the final set, he asked about their collaboration. Moran said that she doesn’t usually collaborate with people (“because I’m such a control freak”) but she was such a fan of Mazzoli she knew it would be a good experience. The piece they played was like a Moran piece on a larger scale - - rather than hearing the mixture of prepared piano and “clean piano” on a single piano, you were hearing it on two separate instruments. It was more than beautiful, it was intellectually stimulating.
The Mazzoli piece that ended the concert sounded aimless, lots of ideas and effects strung together in a way that wasn’t cohesive or satisfying.
I'm going to finish with a recording of a piece by Moran, "In Parallel:"