Kelly Moran
Telegraph Harp; LP, CD, DL

What does a breakthrough sound like? To borrow a tetchy old turn of phrase, you might not know how to define it, but you know when you hear it. And bloodroot, newly released by Kelly Moran, a New York-based composer and multi-instrumentalist, absolutely qualifies. The album, Moran’s debut on the artist-run Brooklyn label Telegraph Harp, follows a string of increasingly confident self-released efforts. Those earlier recordings remain well worth exploring, but bloodroot is the ideal place to become acquainted with Moran and her signature sound: a style clearly beholden to Erik Satie and John Cage, but influenced as well by her work in a wide variety of situations and idioms.

An instrumental polymath, Moran worked her way through the woodwind family in high school, during which time, she confessed in a recent interview, she also fixated on jazz-fusion electric bass maverick Jaco Pastorius. In college she devoured the experimental-piano fundamentals of Henry Cowell, whose ghost-harp strumming enhances bloodroot, and Cage, whose junk-gamelan dances for prepared piano are vital to Moran’s conception.

What’s imperative to understand in approaching bloodroot is that Moran’s stylistic wanderlust never abated, but instead enriched her outlook. Studying formal composition didn’t preclude adapting Billy Corgan’s EBow-enhanced siren song. Likewise, in analyzing minimalist compositions by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Moran found affinities with black metal acts like Burzum and Krallice.

That wide-angle approach to music appreciation has guided Moran’s professional career path. Beyond her work as an accompanist at Barnard College and the Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance, Moran has played keyboards behind Mitski in Sam Garrett’s atmospheric art-metal outfit Voice Coils, and bass guitar in Weasel Walter’s frenetic no-wave quartet Cellular Chaos. Further standout collaborators include fellow omnivores Toby Driver (Kayo Dot) and Charlie Looker (Extra Life).

All of which said, don’t come to bloodroot anticipating black-metal minimalism and a piano with daggers jammed between its strings. Yes, the album’s bold clarity and confident veneer – polished to a sheen in mastering by Krallice member Colin Marston, extreme metal’s Leonardo Da Vinci – conveys a metallic swagger. And yes, some of Moran’s spidery configurations suggest common cause with electronica, too. Really, though, what you hear is an artist whose knack for internalizing her myriad disparate influences is comprehensive.

The dominant instrumental voice on bloodroot is that of Cage’s old contraption, the prepared piano, but with a contemporary twist: Moran, according to a label press release, “sampled plucked and ebow piano strings and mapped them to MIDI controllers so I could trigger the samples and play them on a keyboard.” (An insert provided with the album thoughtfully spells out what’s live and what’s sampled.)

The resultant control Moran gains over what otherwise might be an unpredictable palette is evident in pieces like “celedine,” with its tightly woven interplay between natural and altered piano tones, and “freesia,” where brittle, metallic notes prick a radiant corona of sustained resonance. Moran’s EBows are integral to “aster” and “heloconia,” providing a soft, continuous layer of sound over which hammered notes (prepared and otherwise) twirl and sway.

But what impresses most about bloodroot is that the ingenuity with which this music was planned and executed just serves to accentuate what a strong, compelling composer Moran is. Listen to the piece that shares its title with the album – a concise and engrossing drama, from its stark, deliberately paced introduction through its gradual blossoming into a tender ballad awash in wistful harmonies and ambiguous timbres – and you understand what’s truly significant: Moran is a substantial artist secure in her personal vision and craft, and bloodroot is, to say it once more, a breakthrough.

Kelly Moran performs at Joe’s Pub on April 29 at 11:30pm;