An almost transcendent state of contentment.
Kelly Moran’s adaption of John Cage’s famed prepared piano technique is a ways away from his original intentions. Cage altered his piano’s strings with bolts, coins and rubber for a percussive end, minimizing emotional and melodic impulses and highlighting the stark, metallic quality of individual notes and rhythms. On her new album – her first for the esteemed Warp label – Moran builds expressive washes of sound culled from a day’s worth of improvisations. The clanging and muted notes from the prepared piano form part of a gleeful chorus here, and each track on Ultraviolet finds a new way to look at the seemingly limitless possibilities inherent in the instrument’s unusual sounds.
Underneath the piano’s timbral oddities and the synthesizer-induced grandiosity, there’s a simple elegance to the music. There are moments that, had they been stripped back to bare piano arrangements, would resemble something off of George Winston’s December. The harmony is modal and progresses in pleasing shifts, often limiting the amount of tension in a track in favor of building colorful atmospheres and inducing wave-like motion. It’s an album marked by a stasis, but what keeps Moran’s music from falling into the realm of inoffensive dinner party fodder is her careful use of the album’s instruments. The prepared piano, even when performing such pleasing music, can never really sound soothing; it always carries a strangely industrial quality to it, complicating the smooth and nondescript tone of an untreated piano.
Built solely out of Moran’s improvisations and layered synthesizers (some performed by her frequent collaborator of late, Daniel Lopatin), Ultraviolet has a relatively limited set of tones. The emotional range, too, hovers mostly around an almost transcendent state of contentment. Even within these confines, though, there’s a wide breadth to the musical results. “Helix” is the most epic cut here, as its solemn opening piano notes swell into a massive set of rolls and arpeggios compounded by triumphant harmonies on deep, distorted synthesizers. It feels truly revelatory, as if it’s finally giving the prepared piano a proper vehicle for the illumination of its strange sounds.
The following track, “Water Music,” presents a foil to the bombast of “Helix.” It’s both more reserved and more unsettling, as here Moran focuses on the cacophony of her prepared piano. Especially in the middle of the track, the clutter of vibrating metal overtakes the mix and offers a key moment of chaos against the steady development of the track’s main pattern. This motif, revolving around delicate scalar rises, is also one of the most memorable on Ultraviolet. With each shift in harmony delving further into moody minor territory, the music gains a level of sorrow before arriving at an airy conclusion that features the most active synthesizers on the whole album.
Since there’s so much focus on breezy textures, the times when Moran deviates from this pleasantness become more important. “Halogen” features some forays into whacked-out dissonance, and it proves to be one of the most unpredictable, riveting tracks here. Moran often lingers on wrong-sounding notes and sets her fluttering arpeggios loose from key centers, and “Halogen” ends up feeling more dynamic and full-bodied than the surrounding tracks.
This track also is the best example of how carefully Moran has chosen and executed her timbres. Preparing a piano is a labor of love in itself, a process of searching for minute differences in screw ribbings, measuring strings and manipulating rubber, but “Halogen” shows the importance of the notes you choose to let ring in their natural color. Towards the end of this track the metallic, high-register motifs are weighed down by clear root notes from the piano’s low end, adding a resonant and grounding depth to the otherwise plunking music.
One of Ultraviolet’s most successful realizations occurs on its final, shortest track, “Radian.” It’s easily the sparsest moment here, with the held piano chords hovering over a warm set of synthesizers. Where some earlier tracks, especially the lengthy “Nereid,” bordered on an overly cluttered mix that complicates forward motion, the sense of openness and care is shining here. Moran’s electronic additions don’t feel like a post-performance addition, rather “Radian” is two and a half minutes of complete unity between the original, in-the-moment source and Moran’s later touches. It effectively realizes the album’s overarching goal just before it ends, offering a final glimpse of the ideal version of this music.