Composer, Pianist and MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran Gives Annual Rapaport Lecture
The college held its annual Rapaport Lecture, titled “The Sound Will Tell You” on Feb. 18, featuring Artistic Director for Jazz at The Kennedy Center Jason Moran. A musical innovator, composer of 16 solo albums and jazz pianist, Moran was named a winner of the MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship in 2010 for “blending a variety of musical styles in genre-crossing performances that expand the boundaries of jazz expression.” He released his latest album, “The Sound Will Tell You,” in early January. During his lecture, Moran discussed how he became a musician, how jazz functions as a narrative device and answered a question about his dream music project. The lecture and following Q&A was facilitated by Professor of Art and the History of Art Sonya Clark.
The Rapaport Lectureship in Contemporary Art Fund was established in 1999. The fund supports an annual lecture by an artist with the goal of increasing awareness and appreciation of contemporary art among the Amherst community.
Moran began the lecture by describing the influence of the novelist Toni Morrison and poet Audre Lorde on his album. “Morrison has been the most important voice, besides my wife and my kids, during the pandemic,” he said as he began to read a passage from Morrison’s book “Song of Solomon.”
“I always get worked up because I can’t say those words without choking up,” he said. “The layers of sounds we must understand, the layers of color that we must recognize, and we feel those too. And that they move. And Toni Morrison said Black is the rainbow,” he expressed, referencing a song in his latest album.
He continued by describing his beginnings as a musician. Moran was first captivated by music while in elementary school in Houston, Texas. Using pictures, he showed the first stage, located in his school’s cafeteria, where he remembered hearing music. Yelena Kurinets, director of the Suzuki Music School of Houston, taught Moran how to play the piano. Her most important lesson, Moran said, was “When you press the note down, you might think you’re finished. But her idea of technique you have to learn how to caress the sound.”
A defining theme of the lecture was how jazz operates as a narrative: how it tells a story. As Moran showcased his work, he told stories about his inspirations, named who worked with and “I think about how sound can predict things about the future, for those of us who want to listen that way,” he said. “Mostly, it tells us about how we need to listen to the past.
Moran moved next to discuss his most recent album, “The Sound Will Tell You,” released in early 2021. It is his third solo piano recording. During the Q&A session, Moran explained that he made the songs in his album a bit slower to fit the mood of the year. According to the album’s description, Moran used a filter “to allow the sound to cast a shadow. The Drip gives the note another gravity. These pieces are marked by ‘tear,’ ‘honey’ and ‘shadow.’ Moran, from Houston, also recalls DJ Screw’s ability to give a song a new sluggish gait. Drawing out the drawl and sinking the beat into the mud. The music moves in slower motion.”
The album was released alongside art at the Luhring Augustine Gallery in Tribeca, New York. The artwork is meant to resemble the album in physical form, Moran said.
“Over the past few years, I’ve thought about how music is transferred,” he said. “Mostly how the piano is an instrument that is built on what we call ‘the attack,’ how the hands hit the keys.” The artwork for his album emulates that attack, he said. “We’re trying to figure out how to use paper to document the attack, much like we use the microphone to document the sound. We’re making a series of works that show what it means to play a key, to leave an imprint.”
For the first time in front of a live audience, Moran played his song titled “Toni Morrison said Black is a Rainbow.” Following the piece, Moran and Clark held a conversation and Q&A. The first question referenced Moran’s twin children, and how their voices might differ.
“We have videos of my boys making up gibberish. They hear language, from around them, and then think that they can speak it … sometimes we improvise language battles with them,” he said. As an international traveler who has a refined ear for language, Moran noted that he’s able to tell his children’s voices apart.
Another audience member, through the Zoom’s chat feature, asked about Moran’s dream project: What would it look like if there were no money or time restrictions, and who would he work with? Moran answered that he loves working with students. You never know what they will produce, he said. “I’m working with a performing arts high school in Harlem,” Moran said. “And I have no idea what we’re going to do! But we’ve set a date at the end of May.”
Clark then asked “What will the sound from this long year, the pandemic, protests and political turmoil, be?” Some of the answer is in “The Sound Will Tell You” record, Moran said. “For me, the sound of the time was much slower. I also added this effect which I call ‘the drip,’ to make the sound a drawl, to make it weighed down. And I couldn’t simply do it by playing the piano. In the studio, we added something to the recording.”
When the year is over, Moran believes that there’s a renaissance waiting. “That’s what history tells us,” he said.
“We have to have radical hope, right,” Clark responded.
The full Zoom lecture is available to the public on the Amherst College YouTube page.