Saturday night in Manhattan, the ultimate place to be for music was at Merkin Concert Hall, where two of the world’s most distinctively brilliant composer-performers, Missy Mazzoli and Kelly Moran, put on a spellbinding twinbill that ended with their first-ever collaboration. It was a moment that someday may be regarded as pivotal – or at the least, extraordinarily significant. Even better, the concert was recorded and will air and stream at a future date on John Schaefer’s New Sounds Live on WNYC.
The famous press quote about Mazzoli is that she’s New York’s Mozart, but her work has much more in common with Bartok, with a bristling, sometimes stark, sometimes downright harrowing interweave. It’s easier, and more accurate to characterize Moran as New York’s current-day Debussy. In a brief conversation with Schaefer, Mazzoli jokingly alluded to stalking Moran on Instagram prior to being engaged for this event. Moran, who seems as humble as her piano chops are prodigious, confessed to being intimidated by the prospect of working with her, although she also saw the opportunity as a no-brainer. It turned out to be wildly successful, probably beyond both composers’ expectations.
Both works were for twin pianists. Moran’s Don’t Trust Mirrors featured the composer playing prepared piano, with her signature pinging, metallic timbre – “Pretty, and broken, like me,” as she’d described it to Schaefer earlier. Mazzoli anchored it with one of her own signature devices, an ominously pitchblende low-register resonance as Moran built a surrealistically twinkling, sometimes hypnotically circling, sometimes turbulent, restless highway tableau at the opposite end of her keys.
While Moran likes to collaborate with visual artists, Mazzoli is a band person. Watching her elegant, terse phrasing on a concert grand piano, from a comfortable auditorium seat, was in many ways 180 degrees from seeing her do the same thing on her trusty Nord Electro at the kind of dodgy Williamsburg industrial spaces where her art-rock group Victrola used to play over a decade ago. They would soon change their name to Victoire, put out a great album….and then Mazzoli would go on to a fearsome career as a composer of darkly historical new opera, among other things.
Her diptych, The Night Ahead and No Real Fate – inspired by paintings by Sam Pink – reaffirmed how well each composer has assimilated the other’s style. In many ways, it was a more midrange take on Moran’s artful, circular variations, Mazzoli again holding down the lows with her new bandmate at the top of the scale, enhanced by subtle, atmospheric electronics from Mazzoli’s mixer. Her allusive chromatics and persistently uneasy, sometimes Philip Glass-like modes anchored Moran’s delicately intricate flights overhead.
Each composer also played a solo set. Mazzoli set a tone of persistent, pensive unease with her dynamic opening number, A Thousand Tongues, ranging from dusky horizontality to moments of gritty insistence and occasional white-knuckle franticness. Again, Mazzoli was abetted by the mixer – she has a vast library of samples, and employs them orchestrally – as well as by her longtime Victoire bandmate, violinist Olivia De Prato. The two made a mini-suite out of Tooth and Nail, Vespers for Violin and Orrizonte, shifting from broodingly sparse interludes, to starry stillness and more creepily kinetic phrasing, De Prato expertly enhancing the enigmatic haze with her ghostly harmonics, microtonally swooping accents and occasional slashing flurry of notes.
Mazzoli wound up the set with the viscerally aching, persistent modal gloom of A Song for Mick Kelly, De Prato adding textures from a wintry whisper to a rather savage coda.
Moran seemed to have smoke coming out her ears for much of her set [and asserts that perception is completely off-base, that she was actually in good spirits that night. Rashomon moment?]. Whether that might have been triggered by the prospect of having to drive home on the Long Island Expressway on a Saturday night, or something else, her plaintively pointillistic volleys of notes underscored how musicians sometimes reach new heights when they’re pissed off. She went completely off script with the program, icily told the crowd to hold their applause and then swayed on her bench, building wave after rising wave of gamelanesque gleam. This was a short set for her: she can play for three hours straight and seemingly not break a sweat. And she can be just as compelling, and purposeful an improviser as she is a composer. There was a persistent, sparkling freshness to the music, on what appeared to be an endless quest for solace and closure: Moran’s music is all about transcendence, and that translated viscerally to the audience.
This concert was part of the ongoing mostly-monthly Ecstatic Music series at Merkin Concert Hall. The next one is April 2 at 7:30 PM with Canadian instrumentalists Bell Orchestre and Metropolis Ensemble; tix are $25.