On Broken Ice with Alicia Hall Moran

On 11 January 2018, singer Alicia Hall Moran took to the Bank of America Winter Village Rink in New York City as part of the 2018 Prototype Festival to stage her latest vocal experience. Breaking Ice examines the mythology behind what came to be known as the “Battle of the Carmens,” when skaters Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas coincidentally chose Bizet’s Carmen as the music for their long routines at the 1988 Winter Olympics. For this 20-minute piece, offered under cover of burnished clouds and surrounded by the skeletal trees of Bryant Park, Moran was joined on the ice by Kaoru Watanabe on taiko drum and Maria Grand on saxophone, along with skaters Elisa Angeli and Jordan Cowan. Drawing upon her own experience as a figure skater, Moran turned the rink into a personal concert space. With microphone in one hand and blood-red bouquet of roses in the other, she was compass, vessel, and map in one.

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Songs from her new album (see my full review for All About Jazz here), including the poignant original “Not Today” and a “Habañera” mash-up of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” threaded by passages of improvisation and vocalese, delivered a mood and message that was distinctly Moran’s own. But that was only the surface.

Here’s what was going on underneath.

First, one must consider the space itself as an extension of its sonic foci. Before a single note flew, Moran made the rink her own by marking off its center, almost ritually, with a circle of orange and green traffic cones. Although suggestive of Christmas, if only by association with the enormous tree behind, they were first and foremost a sign and signal of self-containment. This was her circle, and the act of laying it out reminded us of all-too-rare a thing in this historical moment. At a time when politics (and the words that constitute their violence) have become so fragmented that it’s all we can do to keep from getting slivers, Moran showed us that the orthography of change will be written not on walls but across open borders. Still, despite the porosity of her circle, in communion with the drums she was bound by no other rules but her own.

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Even as the circle was an invitation, it was also a warning, symbolically drawn as much to keep herself protected as others from invading. In this reversal of colonial power play, she threw her voice like a net—to see not what she could catch but how much she could filter out. This was the heart of each moment: to see and feel the audience breathing through all those things that let us through. Just as the wind found no purchase in the branches above her, so did she pass without contact through the tangle of flesh and blades that was her gypsy forest.

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Before she strapped on her skates, ice was already speaking. The Bryant Park fountain had frozen to a crisp, its flow ephemerally memorialized as a drip too ponderous to visualize as movement. Not unlike Moran’s songcraft, which in any context slows the march of time so that we may examine its soldiers in much the same way, that which is frozen is open to the possibilities of interpretation.

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The rink, too, was its own reflective surface, distorting the cityscape before a single note was sung: a heart of urban ventricles and an aorta honed in glass unfolded across a flat plane.

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By the end, Moran had sent us back into the cold with a morsel of warmth, and in so doing showed us that the power of a song lies not only in what goes into it but also where it is unleashed. A song is nothing to ignore, but something to be reckoned with and, from the open hands of her delivery, proves that a language of one must be a language of all.

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The Women in the Room

Throughline
(Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Throughline
March 28, 2017
7:30pm
Cornell University, Kiplinger Theater

I can tell you that Alicia Hall Moran is a singer with countless biographies woven into her lungs; that Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon are poets of vast interpersonal awareness; that LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is a sensitive purveyor of visual and sonic incisions. But this conveys only who they are on paper and not what they became in person when their forces cross-pollinated in Cornell’s Kiplinger Theater on March 28, 2017.

The title of their performance, THROUGHLINE, felt like both descriptor and mission statement as they drew lines through the curio cabinets of our minds even while rearranging them, jumping from soul to soul until only a singularity of verbal perfume was left. Amid top notes of citrus and spice, girlhood’s questioning turned into womanhood’s indestructibility and floral mids scented the skin of forgotten children, while a base of grasslands and burnt umber evoked the muck of conflicting narratives from which these four singular artists excavated common themes.

Moran’s voice carried ahistorical futures written in historical registers. Presenting selections from her debut album, Heavy Blue, as well as new songs composed around the poetry of her sisterly collaborators, Moran spotlighted the nooks of maturation in which understandings take deepest root. Whether intensifying her mezzo brilliance in the original “Open Door” or modernizing the spirit of John Dowland’s “Flow My Tears,” she proved that emotional celebrities must first unlock their own silence before preaching to the silenced. Throughout her collage of serenades and broken dreams, she pulled at the seams of self-proclamation until “self-” dropped off and fell into the lottery of brighter tomorrows.

Griffiths likewise blurred languages of light and grain, ever the auditory bokeh in our depth of field as listeners. She took Moran’s photorealistic impulses of yearning and spun them into a pastiche of reflections. Her lyrics were odes to lived experience. Through pulling of moon and tide, creation and womb, a life-giving dance took place in everything she embraced. In her world of submarine maternity and spirits within spirits, she rendered birth pangs as tactile substances to be fashioned into words. Like a child looking upon her mother for the first time, every poem was precious and beyond worthy of the swaddling by our attentions.

Van Clief-Stefanon drew a vertical axis to Griffiths’s horizontal, exploring hierarchies of musical impulses, chemical time signatures and the types of choices that fuel epiphanies of social justice. Her breaths of transitioning spring held their shape despite the infernos of ignorance that have beset our present age, and tipped her scales of allusion toward the popular canon — polishing, for instance, Rihanna’s diamond until its dark matter threw open the wings of an intergalactic politic. Pulling names from the depths of her blood, she homed in on key tones of physical relationships and lifted valor with gloved tongue as an object worthy of study. Flipping over male dominance like a fish in a pan, she captured its briny smoke in her nostrils and exhaled sweet critique.

Diggs’s conveyance of videos and stills taken by Griffiths was the rhythm section behind the soloists, to which she added her own interdisciplinary foraging as filtered through a tabletop array of electronica. Her digitally altered singing worked at molecular levels, made clear as the artists laid down a path of composites aching from the grammar of their integration. Diggs divided the moon like an egg and deferred her feel for montage to three women who shelter all the beauty of the world in their consonance.

The THROUGHLINE project sees something beyond the obvious. Experiencing it was akin to seeing a dream you once forgot now being laid bare, newborn edges and all. Its discourse was so precise that it sharpened blades of memory until only reality was left by their slice. It was music for those that fortune once threw into a pool of amniotic fluid and walked away disappointed when they didn’t drown. Music for those who’ve since learned that every change of dress is another chance at remembrance. Music that looked us straight in the eyes and said: You want to know what real privilege is? Sharing the duty of those dismantling its infrastructures, throwing away the master’s tools, and rebuilding — letter by letter — the temples of our bodies without warning signs, fire escapes or trigger alarms.

Moran, Griffiths, Van Clief-Stefanon and Diggs were their own microphones, amplified through self-expression — the strongest form of faith — and built on the assertion that nothing is real until spoken, nothing spoken until real. These were the women in the room, voices of a collective body whose signatures imprinted ears and eyes with every individual step forward, and the honor of unfolding said signatures out into this tightly and artfully folded world will stay with us. Perseverant. Honest. Unafraid.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

A Little Bit Wiser: Jason and Alicia Hall Moran

Jason Moran piano
Alicia Hall Moran voice
Barnes Hall, Cornell University
April 11, 2013
8:00 pm

JAHM

In January of 2012, pianist Jason Moran and his wife, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, were slated to perform on Cornell University’s intimate Barnes Hall stage. A Broadway gig prevented Alicia from being able to appear and bassist Dave Holland was kind enough to substitute. The result was an unforgettable evening of music. Yet I always wondered what spells the original billing might have cast. At last, some 15 months later, that magic was realized. There was something about the way that Jason opened with his solo rendition of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” that assured us we were in for something special. His flourishes were straight from the heart, not the least bit rhetorical. He took those classic threads and re-spun them: same colors, different weave. It was the first of a handful of solo pieces, which also included John Scofield’s “Fat Lip” (a jauntier affair, coated in silver and wine) and some original music written for Alonzo King. The latter revealed the gentler side of an artist whose panache lays it all on the table: diamonds, clubs, hearts, and spades. Or maybe it was the way in which Lucille Clifton’s “blessing the boats” tumbled from Alicia’s lips. A poetess in her own right, she took to the platform fully prepared for the power of love in a world riddled with hindrances. Her resonance filled the room, sharing the rafters with spiders’ webs and history. Like Clifton’s timeless words, she manifested a fully embodied style, her pulse audible during sustained notes.

may the tide that is entering even now the lip of our understanding carry you out beyond the face of fear

Alicia used these interludes as doorways to personal reflection. Not only because she wrote the melodies, but also because in her was a storyteller whose loom was strung with moonbeams. By the end of the night we knew how she and Jason had met and fallen into oneness, how music had called to them as equals and set their phasers to shine. Their autobiographical transparency cut the fourth wall like butter.

may you kiss the wind then turn from it certain that it will love your back

A soulful rendition of a Stevie Wonder classic, endearingly altered as “I Was Made to Love Him,” set off a string of standards. Of these, “My Funny Valentine” stood out for its rasp, traversing a bridge of good fortune into a swinging “Summertime.” Leonard Bernstein’s “Big Stuff” was the icing on an already optimistic cake, boxed and tied with a bow.

may you open your eyes to water water waving forever

Two pieces by Jason from a commissioned suite based on hymns of the quilters at Gee’s Bend, Alabama were the reigning portion of the set. “Here Am I” was downright transcendent, melding supplications into sustained, train-like chords from the keys. “People are more important than things,” Alicia sang, and we could feel that theory made real in practice. This was followed by “You Ain’t Got but One Life to Live, You Better take Your Time,” the notes of which rubbed up against one another as Alicia looked us all in the eye and straight into our hearts. She walked offstage, her voice still carrying before boomeranging back to encore with Duke Ellington’s “I Like the Sunrise.” A glint of light at the end of this long winter, it glowed until we were warmed.

and may you in your innocence sail through this to that

By this point, we had experienced something more than a show. It was a life lesson. Thus spoken and sung for, we carried snatches of post-concert conversation in our pockets out into a maze of streetlights, strung to the gills with joy. Carry on, butterflies, carry on.