If it wasn’t for the rabbit plushie in his hand, the goggles the toddler was wearing would have given him the poise of a very small blimp pilot, or a tiny blue-collar professional. His lackey, an adult woman (also goggled) snacked on a cheese stick as she navigated his stroller across the concrete floor. She wove through a mass of patrons who all wore the same dorky headgear, which seemed to grant everyone the quality of having recently been dropped onto earth. Near a concrete pillar was a woman performing what looked like her idea of tai chi. An Australian in cross-and-dagger earrings spun around the room’s outer ring. An elderly man in a wheelchair held his head cocked upwards the entire duration of his stay, as if he were looking for something important he’d forgotten in the rafters.
From up high, on the second floor, all this woozy moseying gave the afternoon the texture of an exotic aquarium. The current moved courteously, building berths around those who chose to sit or lie down or do martial arts. With odd regularity, someone would brake to gesture upward. Behold, they seemed to ask their companions, and drink it all in.
Funny, then, that the main atrium of the ark-like space at lunchtime on a Saturday was close to empty. There was no tacit art along the walls of Pioneer Works’ main, hangar-sized hall in Red Hook this afternoon—no ambitious canvases, no blobby stoneworks, no dyed textiles, no cryptic lightshow. There was, however, a composer named Kelly Moran, who was seated at a large piano near the room’s nucleus. For five full hours, she addressed the keys with bright and pacific authority—not quite in control of the crowd’s drift, but not without a certain jurisdiction. It also helped that Moran, who has a head of flaxen, bench-grazing hair, and liked to sway it as she played, gave off the impression of a beautiful artificial fish.
Off the coast of Costa Rica this spring, high-definition video of a nest of tube worms about the size of a minivan surfaced from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. With their cameras pointed at a bush six thousand feet underwater, scientists from San Diego identified an entirely new species of eelpout—a pinkish, pasta-shaped fish—that had moved marine biologists into reverie.
Up until that Saturday, I’d known nothing about the fish, but I’d bumped into a pair of acquaintances in Pioneer Works’ main hall who were eager to show me photos of the tube worm on their phones. We all smiled and cooed at the eelpout, which has an undeniably cartoonish, googly-eyed beauty, but we were especially charmed by how kin the discovery felt to what was blooming before us—something also promisingly subaqueous, mystic, novel. It was an installation named Medusa, a conceptual piece of “mixed reality” art that debuted at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2021, and was now housed here, for four weeks, in maritime Brooklyn. An ambitious gesamtkunstwerk of Japanese architect Sou Fujimuto, the production studio and avant-garde tech developer Tin Drum, and its “Chief Science Officer” Yoyo Munk, the day promised all the trappings of an elaborately furnished, multisensory experience (it had a VR element, it had QR codes). But it also held real earthbound promise, personally, for two reasons.
The first was the sheer presence of Kelly Moran, who was the exhibition’s only living feature, perhaps its cardiovascular system. Moran is, for my money, one of the most formidable classical composers alive. She signed to Warp Records in 2018, a label home to seismic artists like Brian Eno and Aphex Twin, and also to big speculative musicians like Lorenzo Senni—who makes trance music like pointillism paintings—and the extraordinary operatic soundscapes of the late and beloved Mira Calix. More importantly, Moran is one of those classically trained prodigies who is mused, if not lightly aggrieved, by the possibilities her instrument poses. Hers is a music often compared to John Cage’s, both in its minimalism and in its affinity for the prepared piano—a piano that’s been modified, whether digitally or by screwing down bolts to the piano’s strings, such that each note operates erratically when the keys are hit. But at a certain point, her meticulous compositional approach—and she says this in interviews with cheery candor—sounded too much like she was “trying really, really hard.” Improvisation, then, became a limiting device, and its practice has earned her luxuriantly neurotic rewards. (To boot: “Water Music,” a single off her 2018 release, Ultraviolet, was made after a total five month’s work of improvisation, transcription, study, and rerecording. It is so strange and serous—so uncannily metallic, like Persian hang drum work—that it seems like she’s replicated what the Caspian Sea might sound like on a windy night with a laser of moonlight casting through it.) Her m.o. is in part “trying to obfuscate exactly what the piano sounds like,” but also to repeatedly defamiliarize herself with—and develop new relationships toward—her irritating, if admirably, limitless medium. I have always found this a noble attitude.
For Medusa, she performed on a Yamaha Disklavier—a kind of next-gen player piano the size of a Zamboni—that made Moran “feel,” she archly noted, “able to clone [her]self as a pianist, and then give [her] clone steroids.” As such, the steroidal piano lived in the room, preset with prefabricated compositions, and Moran tinkled with and to them, which leads us to the second most promising appeal of the exhibition: the presence—in a way—of the Japanese maestro, Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Sakamoto, who passed away just three days after the official start of the exhibition, was and remains one of the contemporary world’s strangest, sweetest, most formidable composers. He belonged to one of those increasingly diminishing classes of genius: a true rarity among polymathic producer-actor-pop-stars who seemed to have emerged spontaneously out of a snag in space and time. His output in the ’70s was rich with an attitude that feels totally clairvoyant of modern pop’s capacity for self-satire (there is a song called “The End of Asia,” on his beautiful 1978 album Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto, that blends kitsch and sinisterism in ways that prefigure the entire oeuvre of Moran’s collaborator and labelmate, Oneohtrix Point Never), but his later life came to be defined by motifs of curse and quest. In his last years, his turn toward music less as a pop consumable, and more as a sort of museum piece—nearly always themed around silence and chaos, and the limitless implausibilities of both—were inextricably linked to his repeated and ripening cancer diagnoses, which would come with newer, uglier finality with each announcement.
The prepared music within—or rather, exhaling from—Moran’s Disklavier, built upon the score Sakamoto composed for Medusa's first production, which spatialized and combined recordings of undersea drones with patient piano patterings. Moran, at the keyboard, developed Sakamoto’s gestures, thrillingly alone but aimlessly purposeful. She played, then, not so much as a partner, but in dialogue with Sakamoto—like a braid, or a loom, or a helix. With the knowledge of his passing so top of mind, being in the exhibition didn’t just involve listening to musical progeny; it was like watching a gift survive. W. H. Auden, describing the death of his fellow poet Yeats, had a better phrase for this sensation. “He became his admirers.”
That Saturday, a companion and I waded into the exhibition like bathers in a lazy river. Slowing down to match pace with the drift of the room, there it all was: the thalassic tinkling of the piano, the Sakamoto-inspired recordings, which gave off a pleasant low fizzing, like bacon crisping on a griddle, and Moran, corvine in all black, swaying gently throughout.
There was, of course, a sexier, third element to the exhibition—the one that flatters contemporary fascinations for artificial intelligence, elaborate digital design, expensive accessories. Near the entry of Pioneer Works’ main hall was a crush of onlookers standing in line for the “virtual reality” segment of the exhibition, which was billed as something that would lift us “to a sensory realm, unlike anything seen before,” and would, feasibly, explain why so many in the room were stuck staring at the ceiling. We crowned one another with a formidably steampunk headset, stared at each other, at a code on the wall, then into the atrium—and waited for meaning to unfurl.
It turns out that the optical metamorphoses were satisfying in the way that screensavers are satisfying. They were like monstrous cilia the shape of tapeworms, or eelpouts, or hot dogs—a set of always-moving tubes fanning, waving, and draining from the roof. They seemed to breathe—opening and closing in a satisfying, quasi-erotic way—shifting tones from Tiffany Blue to sunblind white, imitating the colors of an airplane window at cruising altitude.
It was a pleasure to watch it move, silky and aqueous, allegedly learning from our movements, and taking, per Medusa’s copy, “memories of previous iterations, changing and transforming as it interacts with new audiences.” I can promise that nothing momentous happened, but that’s likely the point. Whether or not they moved differently was beyond me; all of it felt like watching the natural wobbling of a large sea reef. It replicated the sort of dislogic one feels while swimming, or playing an instrument, or in the moments before sleep. Goggles on, I let Medusa lead me into a milky unconscious. I believe I briefly napped.
In the late 1930s, John Cage was tasked to write music for a class in modern dance at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. Conscientiously, he agreed, but he was in over his head. Musician’s block. “I decided,” he recollected in a foreword for Richard Bunger’s The Well-Prepared Piano, “that what was wrong was not me but the piano. I decided to change it.” This defiance, he cites, was the genesis of what we call “prepared piano.”
What was likely not lost on Cage was the beautiful oxymoron built inside the phrase “prepared piano.” To prepare a piano is, in many senses, to unprepare it: whether by shoving a plate between the strings, nailing down quarters, screws, bolts to frets—wedging any object inside the instrument so as to alter the sound of the key being struck. These are qualities that make noise unreliable, and the act of fixing music, or rendering it faithfully repeatable—impossible. “Instead of the possibility of repetition,” he offered, “we are faced in life with the unique qualities and characteristics of each occasion.”
It replicated the sort of dislogic one feels while swimming, or playing an instrument, or in the moments before sleep. Goggles on, I let Medusa lead me into a milky unconscious. I believe I briefly napped.
At Pioneer Works, the imagined Sakamoto who was dispersed in the air and the Moran who was there, building gently off her absent double, felt a bit like bearing witness to a Cagian conjuring. It was an alien feeling—a set of unknowns presented to us in first edition with every note—and asked us to consider the evolution of the music, and its fruits, as a theater of growth. As they shared the same space, Moran multiplied herself, feeding on Sakamoto’s original considerations, then heaping herself—doubling, tripling, germinating in orders of magnitude. “Now he is scattered among a hundred cities,” as Auden put it.
Time, which was still on my mind, was not behaving normally that afternoon. With the absurd and blissful suddenness usually reserved for waking from a dream, it was abruptly 5 pm. Anticlimactically, Moran stopped, stood up from her chair, and stretched. (“I’m three for three,” she announced to me later, on the question of not taking a single bathroom break during any of her performances.)
Earlier, I’d seen both the families of the baby and the old man leave around the same time. As their keepers wheeled them out, now de-goggled, their faces hung in a satisfied and sibylline way. I like to imagine it was because they had felt something that reminded them of the unknowably mystic points near the front or rear doors of life. As my friend and I left the room, the transient sense of revelation—of what Moran played, the searchingness of improvisation, of that veiled, hidden whatever—felt like a hallucination already evaporating along with the declining sun, only surviving in the valley of its making. As we decided where to go next, across the visible sea, a boat bleat its horn oddly, like a piano key struck underwater. ♦
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