Wednesday, February 7, 2018 Alicia Hall Moran’s Unbound Musical Modernism

Moran (left) with Maria Grand, Brandon Ross, JT Lewis, and Melvin Gibbs at a MassMoCA performance in January  
Photo by Aden Seeley; in the background, Maneater by artist Natasha Bowdoin, MassMoCA.

The Village Voice


At January’s Prototype Festival, singer and composer Alicia Hall Moran laced up ice skates and took to the Bryant Park rink to perform. Her original piece, Breaking Ice: The Battle of the Carmens, premiered during public skating sessions and included taiko drummer Kaoru Watanabe and jazz saxophonist Maria Grand in hockey penalty boxes. Its title referred to the 1988 Winter Olympics, where American figure skater Debi Thomas and a German, Katarina Witt, each skated programs to music from Bizet’s classic opera Carmen.

At those ’88 Olympics, Witt won the gold and Thomas took bronze, becoming the first African American to win a Winter Games medal. For Moran, then a teenage member of a precision figure skating team in Connecticut, Thomas was a role model. “Breaking Ice” was a page from Moran’s life, but it worked fine as metaphor, too. A classically trained mezzo-soprano, Moran has a voice that shapes melodies like figure skaters trace arcs — with a grace and precision that turns diligence into ease. She thinks beyond librettos. Her ideas generally ride a well-honed edge. Her performances usually involve what Olympic judges call a “high degree of difficulty.”

Take the way she opens her recent Here Today. She interlaces the “Habanera,” the aria that signals the arrival of Carmen in Bizet’s 1875 opera, with Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” which topped the r&b chart for six weeks nearly a century later. Harmonically, the descending figures that underscore Bizet’s famous melody (played here by a string trio) align neatly with the intro of Wonder’s hit. Lyrically, the tension between these considerations of love is delicious: Wonder pleads, Carmen warns; he makes a declaration of certainty, while she outlines the changing arcs of a love that “has never, ever known a law.”

Moran’s music is guided by the stuff embedded in that track: consonant sounds, dissonant truths, deep ironies, and linked legacies that span styles and eras. Here Today combines concert hall refinement with r&b feel, singer-songwriter intimacy with jazz and chamber-music sophistication. Violin, viola, and cello give way to electric guitar and bass, bound together through an understanding of black music that, from James P. Johnson to Nina Simone to Kendrick Lamar, has always straddled genres and played with meanings. Moran’s voice provides a clear throughline. It can sound transparent, like clean water, or muddy with inflection, like more brackish straits, or both in the space of a song.

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