Things to See, Hear, and Read in ’11, Part One
It’s great to witness the process of emerging work. This is especially true when the piece is as thoughtful as Alicia Hall Moran’s Motown Project, a meditation on the Motown songbook. Of course, there have been many “covers” of this treasure trove of songs through the years. Even jazz musicians have found them ample fodder for the improvising imagination. But, trust me, Ms. Moran’s take is singular.
I saw the premier of this work in December 2009 at The Kitchen in NYC. I wrote at that time, describing the piece: “The idea of thinking about those Motown recordings as a Schubertian song cycle winding through the stages and associated emotions of a love affair—from declamation, assurance, doubt, disappointment, to anger—was brillant: Hall Moran managed to draw attention to the poignant poetry of the featured songwriters, while also exploring their universal potential beyond teenage wonder and angst. The cycle’s accompaniment underscored the harmonic sophistication and her choice of ensemble acoustic guitar, electric bass, taiko drums, and R&B vocalist] was daring and inventive, and highlighted her vocal control, dramatic talent, and conceptual range.”
The idea was born on an international flight from Europe as she returned home from singing with the Bill T. Jones Company. An in-flight feature of Motown songs conjured images of her parents’ record collection, and inspiration was ignited. To her ears, the themes of love and loss running throughout her serial listening session sounded grand, dramatic, and potentially operatic. Then came research. Described by Ms. Hall Moran as “a passionate love affair,” she began to add Motown to her regular repertoire—her own arrangements performed with pianist Jason Moran, her husband and dependable accompanist when he’s not touring his own projects. As the Motown Project develops—Hall Moran is constantly expanding the accompaniment scope, adding songs, and seeking a balance between the tricky mechanics of delivery between soul and operatic melisma. She has a clear vision for the work’s future, stressing that beyond her plan to add costumes and orchestra, she’s enjoying triangulating her classically trained voice, an engaging and well-known repertory, and the larger conceptualization pulling it all together.
I hear that the audience at the West Village’s Le Poisson Rouge raved when she presented a version of the work in November 2010. I’ll keep you posted about the next performance of this thoroughly original exploration of history, memory, and performance practice that invigorates an important slice of the American musical landscape.
Next up: The innovative Los Angeles-based group, The Supra Lowery Brothers;
Kellie Jones’ new book, Eyeminded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (Duke University Press); and the UCLA’s Hammer Museum’s upcoming and historic exhibition, “Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980.