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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