When Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran take to the stage for the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts Artist Lecture on Wednesday, September 16, things might get messy. And that's just the way they like it.
The couple, who've been collaborating for 20 years and married for 12, are adept at pushing the boundaries between art genres, challenging audiences and exploring what partnership means, both with each other and in their own respective careers. Jason was born in Houston, went to school at the High School for Visual and Performing Arts, and has been named a MacArthur Fellow and the jazz artistic director for the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Alicia was raised in Redwood City, California, has performed as Bess in a Tony Award-winning production of Porgy and Bess on Broadway and was recently named an artist in residence at a newly-opened state-of-the-art music performance venue in Brooklyn called National Sawdust.
To describe the couple as a jazz pianist and composer (Jason) and a mezzo-soprano (Alicia) is to oversimplify the many forms in which they work. In 2012 they held a five-day performance art residency at the Whitney Biennial called BLEED, which featured dance, theater, literature and video collaborations. Currently the couple are featured at the Venice Biennial, where their joint project Work Songs explores the history and evolution of Black American work songs, and the ways in which they are sources of improvisation and inspiration for modern-day music.
Improvisation and inspiration are key themes for the Morans. One aspect of their artistic philosophy is about letting the audience see the sometimes dirty reality behind how art gets made. They'll address some of that philosophy in their performance at the Mitchell Center, which will include both music and video.
“We think of the stage as our predecessors have,” says Jason, who met Alicia at the Manhattan School of Music in the mid-'90s. “The stage is a portal. It's not a place to stay safe in. It's a space that we learn to tamper with all the time. In this lecture, which will be the first time we've spoken in public for a long period of time together, we'll present material which we think is important to how we work, and also the failures of how we work together. We have to confront (those failures) honestly because we have to then go to sleep with each other at the end of the night.”
“We're going to perform our way,” Alicia says. “People who see the process live will be able to answer some of their own questions about the more mysterious aspects of working with another person. We're going to let them see a few bumps, and we're also going to let them see us at our finest in the music that we love.”
It should be no surprise that the couple who experiments in so many art forms finds inspiration in a variety of venues too. On his Twitter, Jason recently posted about watching skaters at the Kennedy Center Skate Park (yes, there is one) and about seeing the industrial punk/hip-hop band Death Grips as a family. (The Morans have twin boys who are seven years old.) For Alicia, who is working on an entire evening of music written and composed by her as part of her National Sawdust residency, inspiration came in the form of a recent magazine interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the mastermind behind the current Broadway hit Hamilton.
“I was actually moved by how candid and transparent he was about his process for writing the songs,” she says. “Very typically a composer hides from you his actual process. Getting interviewed by a reporter is a fantastic time to tell people a story about the image you would like them to have of your process — saying mystical and magical things, or spiritual things, or brilliant things about other composers who are usually dead. But Lin-Manuel's approach in this particular interview was to really say 'I pick up a pencil and I go to this park,' and he named the park, and 'I would go to this rock,' and he said where the rock was. It was just a very specific, very clear retelling. And I thought to myself, 'I too have a rock I like to go to. I can do this!'”
It's that kind of lifting of the curtain that the Morans seem to strive for in their own performance. One of the most vulnerable aspects of performing is letting your creations loose into the world, where you can't control how they are received, says Jason.
“We have our own ideas of what our performance is, but our audience has an entirely different idea,” he says. “For me, there was a pivotal concert we gave that I thought was—I won't say it was a failure, but it was something very dangerous. We've had people remember that concert so vividly in their minds for other reasons, because of what was exposed that evening. As clear as we think we'd like to be, as specific an emotion as we'd like to hone in on, we still are kind of punching in the dark. That's why we may as well just lay it all out there.”
Wednesday, Sep. 16 at 7. Free. Moores Opera House, University of Houston, 120 School of Music Bulding, 713-743-3009. mitchellcenterforarts.org