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On Music and The Sublime: Interview with Eric Moe - Carolyn Ogburn

Reviews of CDs


   The evening’s biggest event, Eric Moe’s 50-minute “Tri-Stan,” could be called a one-woman opera, a blockbuster…It’s based on an arch story by David Foster Wallace that casts modern Hollywood as a Greek myth for our time (featuring a hero named Agon M. Nar). Mr. Moe took this as a way to probe the boundaries between high and low culture. He responded to social parody with musical parody (with quotations ranging from Strauss’s “Elektra” to the theme from “The Brady Bunch”), and he created a tour de force for the gifted mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger (who had to deliver everything from spoken recitative to Wagner excerpts, and did it well) and subversively inscribed classical music into pop culture.
   -- Anne Midgette, The New York Times, April 2, 2005


   Whoever decided classical music can’t be funny and certainly shouldn’t be entertaining would have been dismayed at the multitude of belly laughs Sunday night at Bellefield Hall Auditorium. The chief instigator was a probing but comedic new work by Pitt composer Eric Moe. The world premiere of “Tri-Stan” was the highlight of a concert by visiting ensemble Sequitur, presented by Pitt’s Music on the Edge series.
  “Tri-Stan” is a setting for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra of a David Foster Wallace short story, “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko.” In whimsical, fast-moving prose, Wallace pokes equal fun at pop culture’s repeating of itself and high culture’s lingering snobbishness, ultimately showing the two to be pretty darn similar.
   The twisted plot, purposefully laden with furbelow academic terms, bad puns and mixed mythology, follows the tragic demise of a media mogul’s (Agon M. Nar) actress daughter (Sissee), shot by a demented stalker (Ecko). A pithy synopsis does little justice to the double-entendres and slippery humor of its depiction of how Nar succeeded by recycling the same sitcom, from “Brady Bunch” to “Family Ties” to “The Cosby Show.” Then there’s the ridiculousness of sexy Sissee becoming the star of a cable hit, “Beach Blanket Endymion,” even though all she does is sleep in every episode.
   Faced with such an air-tight text, Moe’s creation was a marvel. Influenced by composer David Del Tredici’s vocal works, the structure of “Tri-Stan” aided the manic text immensely. Mary Nessinger excellently delivered the wordy recitatives and exquisite arias. Under Paul Hostetter, Sequitur oscillated between background ambience and foreground description with fluidity, seamlessly incorporating quotes ranging from TV show themes to Wagner. A wonderfully kitschy video prepared and played by CMU’s Suzie Silver offered “ultra-titles” – a mix of text and images….
   “Tri-Stan” is a major work for Moe, not just in size (50 minutes), but because it’s a culmination of several strands of his compositional aesthetic. For an audience, it is one of those rare works that transcends the cultural divide while still being rooted in both sides. People of differing backgrounds can enjoy and, yes, be edified by its cautionary tale.
   -- Andrew Druckenbrod, “Moe’s marvelous ‘Tri-Stan’… ”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 29, 2005


   Other bright spots:…Eric Moe’s rhythmically vivid No Time Like the Present.
Melinda Bargreen, American Record Guide, September/October 2006


   Eric Moe’s “Legend of the Sad Triad” (2004) seems to have Lisztian roots, heard both in its rumbling, chordal opening and its gracefully lyrical central section. But…once it establishes its links to the past, it moves forward on its own terms.
   -- Allan Kozinn, New York Times, June 14, 2006


   Eric Moe’s “riprap” was a feast of musical imagination – a fine work from one of America’s most gifted young composers.
   -- Stephen Brookes, Washington Post, May 23, 2006


   Although Eric Moe’s No Time Like the Present is based on a dubious proposition, asking what would have happened if Igor Stravinsky had lived in Detroit (Motown) instead of Los Angeles (Hollywood), it is, nevertheless, fun and invigorating.
   -- R. M. Campbell, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 13, 2006


   But there was still much to enjoy in most of the music: Eric Moe’s restless, rhythmic “No Time Like the Present,” for example…
   --Melinda Bargreen, The Seattle Times, May 13, 2006


   In The Sun Beats the Mountain Like a Drum, Eric Moe provided an electronic percussion track, and gave Ms. Wu pipa lines that had the spirit of a freewheeling rock improvisation.
   -- Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, April 8, 2006


   The final work was Eric Moe’s O the flesh is hot but the heart is cold, also a commission from Volti, and another choral gem, setting a kind of surreal fable/mordant political satire by Matthea Harvey, who was in the audience, with consummate serio/comic imagination. In one of its effects, the pseudo-country music song of the work’s title is woven into the description of a dinner attended by “princesses” who exhibit blasé disappointment with the all too familiar dessert of Baked Alaska, as ominous-sounding and politically incorrect a dish as ever was put before a few spoiled girls.
   -- Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, February 19, 2006

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   Eric Moe’s “Time Will Tell” from 1996 provided needed lightness amid the gravitas. Texture and themes orbit a sprightly rhythm that pulses vividly throughout.
   -- Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 30, 2006


   With an electronic “pseudo-canned drumbeat” as anchor, Eric Moe’s Hey Mr. Drummachine Man offered pianist Blair McMillen the chance to show his considerable chops as well as his sense of humor. The slightly cheesy beat jumps right in, then continues inexorably as the pianist rides above it- sort of “Bartók meets techno: (as well as 1970s television, it turns out, with a canny reference to the theme music from The Phil Donahue Show).
   -- Bruce Hodges, Seen and Heard International, January 24, 2006


   But if more people witnessed the accomplished Wu Man perform and talk about the guitar-like folk instrument as she did this night, its popularity might soar. Eric Moe’s “The Sun Beats the Mountain Like a Drum” was a highlight in this fascinating concert of traditional and new music for the pipa.
   -- Andrew Druckenbrod, “Ten Best Classical Concerts, 2005”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 29, 2005


   …There’s something special about reveling in a free association of tones and beats divorced from their original cultural context. That was the case with composer Eric Moe’s boisterous work for pipa, “The Sun Beats the Mountain Like a Drum”….
    Indeed, Wu Man’s renditions of “Dance of the Yi People,” a work from 1960 by Wang Huiran, and of Moe’s work were reminiscent of jam sessions. Using all five fingers as picks, she tore a torrid path across the instrument. Moe, who had never even written for the guitar, created an orgiastic flurry of notes for the pipa, indulging in one technique after the other. Amplified, Wu Man was accompanied by a pre-recorded rhythmic track providing ambience (including a muffled singer).
   Though Moe worked with Wu Man and studied several characteristic pieces, the work did not attempt to bridge cultures. “It is definitely not from Shanghai,” she said with a laugh. It was simply the unmitigated joy of a composer dancing on the surface with tones unburdened by meaning – a different sort of absolute music.
   -- Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 16, 2005


   There were a few quieter moments. Eric Moe’s “Where Branched Thoughts Murmur in the Wind” was stripped-down counterpoint, a kind of mournful two-part invention.
   -- Bernard Holland, New York Times, October 18, 2005


   Finally, Mr. Holzman offered Eric Moe’s “Three Ways to Relieve Tension,” with a tongue-in-cheek title for a piece that revels in tangled complexity.
   -- Anne Midgette, New York Times, October 15, 2005


   The opening work, Eric Moe’s “And Life Like Froth Doth Throb,” snapped the audience to attention. In this short, perpetual-motion tour de force for viola and cello, the two players trade off relentless eighth-note ostinatos. Fragments of themes try to take off but get pulled into the frenetic rush.
   -- Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, September 12, 2005


   Eric Moe’s tongue-twisting And Life Like Froth Doth Throb (repeat that fast twenty times) was as fizzy as its title.  Moe’s short study, for viola and cello, is a brief sketch whose rhythmic pulse would not be out of place in the company of Bartók’s Forty-Four Studies for Two Violins.
   -- Bruce Hodges, Seen and Heard International, September 9, 2005


   Moe’s three movement work [Market Forces] was extremely violent and awe-inspiring in the fast movements (“Volatility” and “The Bottom Line”), heavily contrasted to the appropriately titled “The Sad Story of the Prodigal Princess”, a melancholy ballad strikingly moving in and out of dissonant harmonies.
   -- Ian O’Beirne,, June 26, 2005


   Another of the creative pieces of the program was a setting of Rilke poems by long-time Bay Area resident Eric Moe (Earplay, this venerable “new music” institution, was partly created by Moe, who now lives and teaches in Pittsburgh and New York). If Campion's piece had a good beginning, the striking moment in Moe's Sonnets to Orpheus, which featured soprano Christine Brandes and guest conductor Karla Lemon, was its ending. Not that the close was the only engaging moment of this ambitiously long piece (it occupied the entire second half of the concert); but as it wound down here, the expressive slowness of the music empathized Rilke's dark words superbly. And the very last gesture of the piece (a quick and large leap by Brandes into her extreme high register) was especially intriguing. It seemed to symbolize a final passing into the delirious Nacht that Rilke's poem suggested all along.    
   --Miguel Galperin, San Francisco Classical Voice, January 23, 2005


   The program began with compositions by Eric Moe…beginning with his Nocturne and Pulaski Skyway Waltz for solo piano. Moe’s language is sort of semi-tonal, and does seem underpinned by jazz elements….The Waltz was brusquely charming, with some swingy syncopations intended to emulate the rhythms of driving along the title subject (a raised highway in New Jersey, for non-U.S. readers), and Ms. Nonken here played authoritative tour guide, even finding a bit of humor along the road. But I found Moe’s Siren Songs the most striking, with six texts from a diverse bunch….In a strong evening all around, Nonken and Nessinger made the most of these fascinating songs, intertwining with grace and fire, and seemed completely invigorated by the composer’s inspiration.
   -- Bruce Hodges, Seen and Heard International, December 10, 2004


   As a nod to Earplay’s history, the program began with a reprise from the initial season. “A Whirling and a Wandering Fire,” a tart, fantastical trio by Eric Moe, got a vivid performance…
   --Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle, November 11, 2004


   In [Eight-Point Turn], the obsessive repetition of the fragments worked well in Moe's always fresh-sounding orchestration and musical language. One could almost taste the apprehension, frustration and annoyance stemming from the subject. The nifty trap-set beat that emerged from that texture was club-worthy.
   -- Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 15, 2003


   Eric Moe’s “Rough Winds Do Shake the Darling Buds,” a trio for alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, completed the first half. Moe’s…piece was more tonal than earlier compositions without losing his almost pugnacious assertiveness.
   -- Mark Kanny, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 7, 2002


   The title work [Time, A Maniac Scattering Dust], which opens the program is a fascinating little gem by Eric Moe….By the way, the source of the title piece is Tennyson not The Twilight Zone.
   --Ira Novoselsky, BandWorld, May - July 2001 (Volume 16, #5)

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   Cross jazz with Stravinsky and what do you get? Eric Moe.
    If you want to find a visual image to capture the spirit of Eric Moe’s music you could do much worse than Roy Lichtenstein’s bouncing hat on the cover of ‘Kicking and Screaming’. The postmodernist composer has much in common with the pop-art pioneer – a keenly ironic sense of humor, a knack for finding genuine inspiration in the most banal of sources, and a palpable love of pop culture that maintains its spirit even while transcending it.
   It’s not surprising that the Pittsburgh-based pianist/composer communicates such sentiment directly in his own playing. What’s particularly gratifying is that his compositions bring out a similar reaction from others. Rachel Rudich proves a responsive collaborator to both Moe’s acoustic piano playing in Fled Is That Music (1998) as well as his keyboard samples in Dead Elf Tugboat (2000).
   Pianist Alex Karis brings to Kicking and Screaming (1994), the composer’s jazz-inspired chamber concerto, all the rhythmic underpinnings of its musical sources while smoothly communicating the piece in all its edgy metrical complexity.
   The works on ‘Up & At ‘Em’ succeed for the most part at an even greater remove, since Moe himself is usually at the sidelines. The quintet of players in Time Will Tell (1996) paint some imaginative auditory hues, varying between pointillist attacks and broad brush-strokes. Cellist David Russell in The Lone Cello likewise alternates between driving rhythmic bowing and lovely lyrical playing to great effect.
   Moe is back at the helm in the album’s title-track, Up & At ‘Em, this time opening with acknowledged debts to bebop and moving through extended drones and a bouncy scherzo-like texture. The results sound rather like Stravinsky, if the great composer had actually grasped the spirit of American jazz rather than just approximating its surface.
   -- Ken Smith, The Gramophone, March 2006


   I’ve heard and read of Eric Moe (b. 1954) for several years now, but never heard his music, so I leapt at this opportunity to get to know his work….
    Moe, it must be said from the outset, is a wonderful pianist. Indeed, on the basis of this sampling, he seems to be one of the finest composer-pianists of his generation (the only comparable one in his age bracket who leaps to my mind is the Boston-based John McDonald). Three Ways to Relieve Tension, Grande Étude Brillante, Where Branched Thoughts Murmur in the Wind, Dance of the Honey Monkey, and Nocturne (respectively 2001, 1991, 2000, 1999, and 1997) show him as confident, virtuosic, and expressive. These solo piece negotiate a wide range of expressive states and technical challenges. As some of the titles suggest, Moe has a deep love of, and evidences affinity with Chopin, while Where Branched Thoughts Murmur in the Wind is distinctly Debussian. But there’s never a sense of a cheap imitation here; all the pieces speak through a personalized modernist sensibility.
   For the remainder of this disc, that modernist side comes ever more to the fore. Dead Elf Tugboat (2000) is an ingenious and infectious piece for flute and keyboard sampler. Moe turns the latter into a rich percussive orchestra (an update in some ways of Cage’s prepared piano), which simultaneously is sufficiently “electronic”-sounding to never deny its true nature, an honesty I appreciate. It’s also very witty in the interplay of acoustic and electronic sound. Fled Is That Music (1998) is a darker, more moody work, with hints of Bartók and Stravinsky. It touches more moments of poignancy (in its first movement) than almost any other work in these programs, but the intricate chase between flute and piano that makes up its second movement goes on a little long for my taste. Kicking and Screaming (1994), however, a concerto for piano and a chamber orchestra of 10 instruments, is a knockout. Here Moe’s greatest asset comes into play – rhythm. He is able to create sustained, driving passages that constantly mount in energy and drama, yet he does not rely on simple ostinatos (repeated modules). The music is constantly darting, dodging, ducking, and weaving. There’s great athleticism in it; at times, iteven rocks out. It can be angular, even abrasive, throwing its elbows around like an ornery player on the basketball court. But like that image, it can also translate such aggressive behaviour into sudden grace and elegance. It’s often highly chromatic, but somehow the rhythmic templates are so clear that one doesn’t need a strong melodic character to grasp the music on a visceral level. Indeed, the mention of Stravinsky is particularly apt, as one very strong influence on Moe would seem to be the master’s late serial works, whose spiky concision he seems to have taken to heart….
   The 1996 sextet Time Will Tell projects the same sort of rhythmic energy and invention as Kicking and Screaming. It also has an extraordinary ending: as the woodwinds suddenly take a long and placid melodic line, the strings are buzzing at an almost subconscious level with sinister tremolos – perhaps an image of time ticking away without concern for our sentiments….The Lone Cello (1998) grabbed me. It’s one of the best solo string pieces I’ve heard in quite a while, in large part because Moe’s humor comes to the fore, as he translates a host of Western/cowboy tropes into his own idiom….
   I highly recommend that listeners looking for a charge of energetic, imaginative, engaging piano music check out Albany 597.
   -- Robert Carl, Fanfare, January/February 2006


   In a charming new disc [The Waltz Project Revisited: New Waltzes for Piano] on the Albany label, Moe offers 22 waltzes: 10 drawn from the original project, the remainder from a new generation of composers….The full range of modern American classical music is represented, from serialism to minimalism….Moe lavishes loving care upon each piece, and his beautifully recorded playing has a body and weight that never threatens to become cloying.
   -- Joseph Dalton, Time Out - New York


   It’s taken more than two decades, but ‘The Waltz Project’ finally has a dancing partner….Moe’s command of the varied styles is nothing short of remarkable.
   -- Andrew Druckenbrod, The Gramophone, January 2005


   What I like best about Eric Moe’s new disc [Kicking and Screaming] is how much fun he seems to be having with his composing. I reviewed another disc of his last year. It was very good, but of a very different nature. Siren Songs (N/D 2001) is a well considered, thoughtful recording that reveals Moe’s introspective side. Kicking and Screaming is a perfect title for the new disc, which is overwhelmingly playful and fresh. I like the first track, Three Ways to Relieve Tension. It’s a funny title, because it’s an energetic and funky piece. Even the middle movement, which relaxes a bit, still moves forward. I found my toes tapping and my head bobbing. The second track, Dead Elf Tugboat, has a most curious accompaniment with the keyboard sampler. The sounds are itchy and ticky but danceable. Speculum Musicae turns in an excellent performance of the title piece, though it’s not nearly so much fun as the rest of the works. Moe has talent, and these new works make me smile.
   -- PaytonMacDonald, American Record Guide, November/December 2003


   This [Kicking and Screaming, Albany 597] is composer Eric Moe’s third release in two years. Moe’s muse is as inventive as ever, with titles such as “Three Ways to Relieve Tension” for solo piano, “Kicking and Screaming,” a piano concerto, and “Dead Elf Tugboat.” But don’t be fooled by the titles – Moe’s music has strong underlying connections to the tonal language of the past. Dramatic impulse flows through a piece such as “Dance of the Honey Monkey,” and Moe’s idiosyncratic piano writing translates itself.
    Listening to Moe’s music often is like watching a foreign film: you don’t need any subtitles to tell that characters – or his themes – are mad, melancholy or moved.
   The movements of “Three Ways” are brilliantly conceived exercises. The first, “Song of the Mackerel,” is a minimalist foray; “Well I Wish I Was a Catfish” is a subverted blues progression; and “Catch and Release” is a piece in perpetual motion. Moe plays the three as if he’s winking the whole time. Pieces such as “Grande Étude Brillante” and “Nocturne” show Moe’s deep appreciation of forms of the past, of the music [of] Chopin and Liszt.
   I have been a fan of “Kicking and Screaming” since I first heard it almost four years ago. It is a rhythmically driving work, but its quasi-tonal progressions allow the piano part to really communicate profound emotion.The first movement is the classic struggle between tutti and solo, with the pianist, here the capable Alex Karis, in a bad mood from the start. The second is more pointillist, with lyrical strains supporting almost music-box playing. The marking “Extremely incisive and energetic” describes the vigorous last movement perfectly. “Kicking and Screaming” shows that there is still much to be said in the older forms. Speculum Musicae, under the direction of Donald Palma, captures the relevance and urgency of the piece (I especially liked the understated use of trap-set percussion), although I would like to see a major orchestra take notice of it.
   Two pieces for flute, “Dead Elf Tugboat” and “Fled Is That Music,” played exceptionally by flutist Rachel Rudich, round out the disc.
   -- Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 23, 2003


   On a new disc [Kicking and Screaming] of solo and chamber works, Eric Moe is showcased not only as a versatile composer (whose influences range from Chopin to Hendrix), but as a virtuoso pianist and a creator of very clever titles navigating such terrain as the appropriately anachronistically-titled Grande Étude Brillante to the more contemporarily titled and sounding Three Ways to Relieve Tension.
   -- Frank Oteri, New Music Box, Soundtracks: October 2003


   Composer/pianist Eric Moe…presents two substantial song cycles on this release [Sonnets to Orpheus and Siren Songs, Koch 3-7524-2]. Both prove to be well-crafted, intelligent entries, ripe with music of much focus and personality. And neither is a carelessly thrown together hodgepodge of unrelated items-both are focused, carefully thought out collections where much care is taken in progression of mood and overall architecture.
    Written for soprano and piano, Siren Songs sets poetry and prose by six different authors ranging in chronology from three thousand years ago (a snippet from Homer's Odyssey) to today (work by living poets Janet McAdams and Paula McLain). The feel here is predominantly introspective, subtle, almost dreamlike, the primary exception being the brittle song based on McLain's "Beauty, That Lying Bitch." Text setting is mostly declamatory in nature, backed until the final song primarily by high tessitura piano writing. One might be tempted to guess that the accompaniments owe a lot to Stravinsky or Barber when one reads that Moe liberally employs ostinato and pedal techniques within a harmonic language that is simultaneously tonal and unstable-but one would be wrong in doing so. Moe's usage of patterned material is not expressed with a lockstep regularity: the patterns vary subtly in length and actual pitch content, parallel in some ways to watching the ocean, where waves roll in but exhibit slight differences in actual shape and size. The poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke provides the basis for Sonnets to Orpheus (1997), a wide-ranging collection scored for voice, string quartet, piano, and oboe that traverses numerous emotional states ranging from playfulness, anger, forcefulness, mystery, and warmth. But owing to a tendency to pair up songs that complement each other's emotional states (the third and fourth are respectively impish and nervous in feel, while movements VII and VIII are by turns pensive and enigmatic), one feels an overarching sense of drama that lends much appeal. The altered ostinati much heard in Siren Songs are only one of many techniques Moe uses to spin out his music; the composer delineates these strongly etched emotional states with a wide ranging textural variety.
   -- David Cleary, New Music Connoisseur, January-May 2003


   The liquid imagery of Moe’s exquisite song cycle “Siren Songs” aptly suits his fluid musical language. This collection of songs for piano and soprano hits the ears like cool water on the face….
    Moe’s writing is light and pointed, evocative and rhetorical at the same time. His unpretentious discourse flows from measure to measure with an inevitability not unlike that of tonality, but it’s always a little odd. The melodic gestures make sense emotionally, but notes and phrases occasionally swerve off in surprising and fresh directions. Moe’s language is personal and universal simultaneously.…
   “Sonnets to Orpheus”…is equally as introspective, with extraordinary drive and poignancy that shows Moe has quite a knack with the genre.
   -- Andrew Druckenbrod, CD Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 19, 2002


   What Eric Moe offers on this disc [Siren Songs & Sonnets to Orpheus] is a pair of attractive, well-wrought song cycles that treat the voice as the melodic instrument it is. Siren Songs is a piece in the tradition of Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs or Copland’s Emily Dickinson settings, but with the bite and rhythmic sense of John Adams. There are glowing melodies (“In the Hour Before Dawn”) and quirky settings (“Eyewitness Account”) where the text is spoken in rhythm – which isn’t a cop-out because the accompaniment is so charming, the declamation so forthright and clever….Moe scores Sonnets to Orpheus for piano, string quartet, and oboe, and though this is a proper chamber ensemble, Moe makes it sound orchestral. He doesn’t feel compelled to have all the instruments playing throughout, which is how he manages to get such varied textures- he uses all materials at his disposal, orchestration being one of them, to create musical interest. Jaqueline Leclair plays the oboe beautifully and subtly, and the group comes together under J. Karla Lemon as a tight, forceful ensemble.
   -- Daniel Felsenfeld, Classics Today

   …I have to say I prefer his [Moe’s] settings [of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus]. His music is consonant, lyrical, and quite expressive. There are a number of currents running through his music, including hints of both Hindemith and Minimalism in its Bachian mode, but mostly he is about beautiful settings of words. His text-setting is very good, something seemingly quite difficult to do in the context of the art song sung in English. Perhaps as important – whether declamatory, as in the first song, or lyrical, as in the second – he writes genuine melodies that, though demanding, must be grateful to sing.
   -- John Story, Fanfare, November/December 2001

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