A swath of neon pink light washed over the audience who slowly bopped their heads as the bass smoothly dropped and the image on the screen morphed from blues to reds to rainbows to black. They were entranced by an artistic landscape, captivated by the sort of heightened sense that is aroused when experiencing a total immersion in sound and visual art. The evening ended in a silent lowering of lights to darkness and no one took a breath. We were suspended in the air of ending, coming back to Earth from whatever emotional state we were transported to. Words did not need to exist for us to go to that other place: just pure sound, harmony, intention.
Kelly Moran, an electro-acoustic composer and pianist, performed her upcoming album in its entirety at celebrated experimental music venue Roulette, for an audience that was comfortably full. Moran’s music centers on the piano’s ability to shift tones — she manipulates its strings to create new sounds, some electronic, some percussive, some fuzzy and mysterious. This album is no different in its creativity centered on the piano, creating layers abound of sound. Not “piano.” Sound.
You walked into the concert hall and a Steinway sat unassumingly on the center of the stage and a projector screen hung silently in the background. Roulette, in its current location, oftentimes feels like a cross between a high school auditorium and a small-town church, with a balcony decorated by ornate sculpted wreaths and, simultaneously, a stage with a giant black curtain that every school stage seems to have. Everyone was friendly, waiting with drinks in hand to enjoy during what was about to be complete encapsulation by art.
Moran performed this world premiere in its entirety without stopping, fully allowing us to succumb to the feeling the sound erupted in the room. The evening began with a soft, high-pitched, chime-like sound. From there, the harmony built gradually, lower pitches slowly entered the fold as did other types of sound. The music was textured, layered by the chime-like sounds flowing on top of fuzzy held drones. It felt improvisatory, the melodic pitches were flowing however they were meant to flow, precision was not the end game of the melody, the feeling of motion was. Each time a deeper drone entered, the room itself buzzed, adding to the sense of fullness the music created.
The air of fluidity streamed through every artistic intention, even titles (one of the movements was, in fact, named ‘Water Music’). Sound was accompanied by visuals, which were comprised of slow-moving splashes of color. In the climax of the evening, during the first Interlude, the room was engulfed in red light and the screen flashed reds, yellows, oranges. The bell-like piano sounds were gone and all that remained was the deep fuzzy drones moving in syncopation to create different harmonies. The floor, walls, and seats vibrated together. The room was on fire.
At some point during the performance I realized I was thoroughly entranced. There is something about sound that can encapsulate us, that can arise deep emotion. Words do not need to exist in the musical landscape for this to occur, which is something that has been a question since the beginning of the Western art music tradition and has never really been answered. From Plato’s assertions toward controlling which musical modes people should and should not listen to in The Republic, St. Augustine’s fear of sin for that music itself aroused him more than the psalms he was singing, to the modern times, where questions of which harmonies reign superior, dissonance or consonance, have caused unbelievable fracturing in communities for decades. I don’t wonder so much why we are entranced by music, as I’m sure that there are studies that show how different neurons fire when we hear harmonies, but I wonder why there has been such historic fear around music’s ability to arouse us?
I will focus this discussion on the ancient Greek ideals. Plato asserts in The Republic and additional writings about music within the Greek political landscape that certain modes arouse negative, harmful emotions in their listeners, and therefore should be banned to keep society virtuous. Maintaining order was of the utmost importance, and music could be used to control people into evil. It is important to note that his argument is not based on lyrics, but rather the structure of the harmony itself. The sound itself could arisen disorderly conduct, even the formation into groups that could cause the crumbling of democracy, an uprising.
It is, however, impossible to assign one absolute meaning to any given musical mode. Today, we associate the minor key with sadness, but in the past the minor key was associated with happiness. We assign meaning to sound based on the trends of the times, by what we know in this or that moment. How can we assure one universal experience when hearing instrumental music? We can’t, and that’s what makes it so much more powerful: it can arise a unique emotional experience in each listener, in each decade in which it’s being heard.
While it is true that sound has the power to entrance us, as evidenced by the absolutely mesmerizing performance Moran gave at Roulette, it is important to note that the experience of captivation through sound, even through sound that encapsulates anger, pain, and sadness, is worth experiencing. With emotion comes thought, understanding, discussion. It would be misguided to ignore that the human existence contains multifaceted dimensions. Without the understanding of negative feelings, how can we begin to appreciate the beauty of living?
I do not believe each audience member felt the same thing when the neon lights turned off and the drone faded off into the distance as Moran’s head stayed bowed to the piano in silence, but I know we all felt something. An intangible emotional energy. At that point, it’s not even about what the emotion is, or why you’re feeling something. The fact is: you are. And that’s what matters.
Kelly Moran’s album ‘Ultraviolet’ is due November 2nd on Warped Records. You can check out the first preview below.