Cold On Skin: The Gothic Candescence of Alicia Hall Moran

By Nala Duma

Thursday, September 7, 2023

I had a feeling Alicia Hall Moran would beat me to the Hungarian Pastry Shop.

As I approach the famed literary haunt on 110th Street, Moran is already idling in the queue, which spills out onto the sidewalk. She’s fresh out of a pilates class, and I’ve arrived in some fast-fashion get-up. After a brief introduction, she suggests we ditch the sweaty pastry shop line for a low-lit pizza parlor next door. 

Alicia Hall Moran is a studied mezzo-soprano of classical voice. In the rich course of her decades-spanning career, the singer and composer has performed on Broadway as part of the 2012 revival of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess; collaborated with a slew of preeminent Black talents, including Bill T. Jones, Carrie Mae Weems, and Simone Leigh; and created commissioned work for such institutions as MoMA, the Kitchen, and Art Basel Miami. 

She’s also an ice skater.

“I was obsessed with Debi Thomas growing up because I'd been ice skating growing up,” Moran explains. In a quiet corner booth, we’re fiddling with menus as a waiter checks in a bit too frequently. “My parents met at Stanford University—same as Debi Thomas—so I thought I would love to go there. I went to Stanford one day, and [Thomas] was talking in a phone booth. I said, ‘Hi, I am a big fan of yours.’ She's like, ‘Oh, thank you.’ I couldn’t believe I met her for half a second.”

For a young, Black ice skater growing up in suburban Connecticut, the 1988 Olympic bronze medalist was a revelation. Many years later, Moran would compose and perform an original opera piece on ice based on Thomas’s historic rivalry with German ice skater Katerina Witt at the 1988 Winter Olympics, known as the Battle of the Carmens.

In Moran’s 2018 presentation of her own Battle of the Carmens, she stands in the center of the ice rink at Bryant Park in New York, clutching a flash of roses. Between a handful of glides and revolutions, Moran croons Stevie Wonder’s 1970 hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” over the signature, syncopated riff of Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen. It’s a peculiar mélange of influences—ice skating, pop, and classical music—indicative of a performance art landscape re-carved for the post-Tumblr era. However, Moran’s cross-cultural interests predate that digital procession.

“When I came to [the Manhattan School of Music] for college, and I was 20, I went to a club downtown and I heard this [artist] called Imani [Uzuri]. Opening for her was Santigold. I was studying classical music, but culturally looking for something that felt more like what I saw when I would go out at night. I never saw any conflict [between pop music and classical music] because [classical music] is embedded in the culture because it came first. And I don't mean it came before all other music. There were whole continents and centuries of music before Baroque music. So, I don't mean that. I mean in my record collection.”

When you listen to Moran’s latest full-length release, Here Today, her vision becomes clear. Across 16 libretti, she illumines the gothic theater of the opera with the soulful candescence of her voice. The record features renditions of Stevie Wonder, Bizet, Nina Simone, and Billie Holiday songs set to piano, guitar, bass, and strings, arranged sparingly. The effect is that of a chamber music session set in an age-old family cabin. Inside, Moran summons potent Black spirits via aria—flitting between bluesy and operatic vocal registers—stirring the quiet circumstance of the home into a sublime phantasmagoria.

Moran is not alone in her absorptions. In the last year, several emergent Black pop musicians (mostly based in New York) adapted their live sets for theatrical shows. In June, R&B/soul experimentalists keiyaA and Dawuna played a short series of EU shows featuring a stage set like a living room; in August, singer-songwriter and composer Cleo Reed performed Black American Circus, a circus-inspired set comprising live music, dance, stage magic, and theatre, for Afropunk Brooklyn; and this September, serpentwithfeet will premiere Heart of Brick, a theatrical production inspired by queer nightlife, featuring music from an upcoming album.

Moran isn’t familiar with any of these artists, but she is familiar with their musings.

“A seminal collector of forms and thought about the canon of Black music from the 1960’s [and] forward is George Lewis. He talks about composers like Olly Wilson—Black people in computer music in this post-Civil Rights era—and he talks about hybridization. That’s the era we’re in now: 100 years of [pop] music. It’s all about this mix with this mix. This music plus jazz. I just saw that play Fat Ham, and in the middle of it they just sing a rock song.”

James Ijames’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Fat Ham, reimagines Shakespeare’s Hamlet for Broadway. The play follows Juicy, a Black, queer, college kid who is visited by their late father’s ghost at a family cookout and tasked with avenging his murder. In a climactic, fourth-wall-fracturing scene, Juicy sings Radiohead’s “Creep” as spotlights close in on the family gathering. The set suddenly resembles a concert stage. On one hand, Juicy’s white English indie rock selection signals his Black (queer) alt-ness; on the other, the use of the song in a Broadway show signals a larger dissolution of barriers that used to separate underground culture from mainstream culture.

“Before, you would have to go to the club and know the scene. And now people can just get it the way they get anything: quick. You don’t have to go anywhere. You don't gotta know the guy. If you were in a garage band, and you [wanted] little cassette tapes, somebody [had] to sit there and record that dub, and that takes an hour, and they only get one tape. You gotta know a guy. You gotta get into that party to hear that thing. And then it might get released, it might not. And then radio: you gotta know what time to tune in to hear someone's record. I'm at the tail end of that age.”

Sitting across from Moran, I sense a bit of frustration. 

Not with young (or broke) people having greater access to culture at large; rather, a depthlessness and isolationism that modern modes of engaging, creating, distributing, and sharing (music) may engender. 

Nonetheless, Moran recognizes that class privilege largely shapes these dynamics too.

In the early 1970’s, Moran was raised in a Black upper middle class household in Manhattan. Her father was an investment banker on Wall Street, and her mother was one of few Black women editors who worked at a New York publishing company—in the same cohort of editors as Toni Morrison, for example. Thus, Moran was frequently exposed to “the great art of Manhattan” at the time.

“I saw James Earl Jones in Othello. I saw Stephanie Mills in The Wiz. I was five. My dad said he took me three times. Shirley Verrett’s daughter was my playground friend on what’s now 90th Street and Riverside Park.” And at home, her parents listened to “really good male singers” such as “Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Al Jarreau, and Hugh Masekela.”

A strong knowledge of canon appears across Moran’s works and collaborations. Speaking with her feels like surfing through a massive library on rolling ladders, tossing back and forth crumpled book pages from disparate aisles. Her work is no different.

When I ask what we can expect from her upcoming performance at National Sawdust, she explains:

“I’m collaborating with dancers and musicians on this, including The Hands Free: accordion, upright bass, violin, and guitar. They’re going to be set on an iceberg, and we’re doing all [these] songs that I’ve been mesmerized by that are on this [iceberg] place or subject or context: cold on skin.” 

Knowing Alicia Hall Moran, the piece is sure to give us goosebumps.

About Nala Duma

Nala Duma is a musician, choreographer, and writer whose critical lens on popular culture and contemporary music takes up Blackness as the break that might rupture our attachments to Worlds, territories, and Man.