Few albums for a single instrument are this immersive and psychedelic.
Kelly Moran’s Origin EP is meant as a companion to Ultraviolet, the New York composer’s awesome album from last year. It documents the improvisations that gave rise to that album’s compositions, which were then fleshed out by master producer Daniel Lopatin into shimmering, aquatic Saint-Saëns reveries. That was the kind of album that’s hard not to love or at least appreciate once you’ve heard it, a record seemingly designed to make itself known by word of mouth. But the 36-minute Origin arguably surpasses Ultraviolet, or is at least the superior artistic achievement, because it transports us to that rarified world of hers without even seeming to try. Few albums for a single instrument are this immersive and psychedelic.
The instrument in question is the prepared piano, best known as applied by John Cage and accordingly one of the immediate clichés of avant-garde music alongside free-jazz sax skronk and Yoko Ono screams. Prepared pianos are more often ugly than not and tend to emphasize the metallic, percussive fact of the piano through dull thwacks and thuds. In Moran’s hands, they’re graceful and dignified, undulating like free-swimming tunicates or skittering like bottom-feeding crustaceans, upending how we think of pianos, prepared or otherwise. From that instrument alone Moran conjures astonishing textures, and it’s only gradually on “Reflexive Music (Autowave)” that we realize we’re hearing a piano rather than the distant, bullish thrum of a steeple bell.
The most “finished”-sounding piece is “Love Birds, Night Birds, Devil-Birds,” an Adult Swim single, which retains the buzzing synth-drones of Ultraviolet; Moran drags her notes through the thick film of a swamp’s surface until they emerge slippery, dripping and damaged. Elsewhere we can more easily see into her process. On “Helix II,” for instance, her piano is only half-prepared, and she slams on the instrument’s lowest and most neglected notes to import the same bone-rattling physicality we hear when Cecil Taylor treads in the same deep waters. The piano on “Halogen” has no adornment, and it’s up to her runs and arpeggios to make things weird. Her melodies don’t resolve neatly but festoon in all directions (that this album is largely improvised means those wary of classical music due to a lack of formal musical education need not worry about “getting it”).
What Origin brings to mind most often is Harold Budd’s 2006 album Perhaps, documenting a 73-minute live piano improvisation. That album sounds best when you’ve heard a few other Budd albums, have an understanding of how his brain works and what musical ideas he likes and are curious about how, why and when he applies them. Likewise, Origin is best heard after you’ve familiarized yourself with Ultraviolet, not just because you might recognize how bits and pieces of these improvisations integrated themselves into the final work, but because you can appreciate how well Moran is able to conjure up the same magic with none of the accoutrements. Ultraviolet is a fantastic album that sounds like little else, but it might sound a little filigreed in retrospect now that we know how much she’s capable of on her own.