Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight


Moe's new compositions will be performed at upcoming concerts across the country.

Posted December 4, 2002:

Creating new sounds
Composer and performer Eric Moe '76 finds layers of meaning in his work

Composer Eric Moe '76, professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh, writes "music of winning exuberance," according to the New York Times. Fanfare lauds the "ebulliently spiky character" of his compositions.

Moe, whose music has been compared to that of Stravinsky, acknowledges, "I like to write rhythmically propulsive music. I like dramatic, sudden changes, twists and turns." It is Moe's idiosyncratic rhythmic language that sets him apart from other composers of contemporary concert music. Barbara A. White, assistant professor of music at Princeton, and a former Moe student, says Moe is "characterized by rhythms that are brilliant, infectious, and almost familiar — just warped a little bit, which makes them all the more engaging."

He has been described as "maximal-minimalist," because, says Moe, "I try to get the most out of a restricted set of musical materials" — for example, "a scrap of melody, a harmonic progression, or a catchy repeated rhythm." Still, he says, "A piece has to engage the performer immediately at some level, and retain his or her interest. If you are going to practice and practice it, you must continue to find layers of meaning."

Though Moe is himself a pianist and keyboardist, he composes for a variety of acoustic and electronic instruments, and in most musical genres: orchestral music, chamber music, vocal and choral music. Some of Moe's pieces are tonal — meaning, he says, "They have triads, standard scales, such as any classical music concert-goer would recognize. Others are thornier, and nontonal. Instead of taking a C-major triad, for instance, as a reference, I take another bunch of notes and use that as a reference, so that that sound is associated with 'home.'"

Still, "I try to keep my music simple. People have to be able to perform it."

The titles of Moe's pieces are striking and evocative. "New music composers went through a phase where they wrote pieces named 'Untitled No. 3,' or 'Piece for Violin and Piano No. 1,' he says. "The idea was to be as objective as possible. Now, however, I believe a good title helps the listener; it offers an extra layer of meaning, another means of ingress into a work." A wind ensemble piece, "Time, a Maniac Scattering Dust," takes its title from a Tennyson poem. "I liked the image," says Moe. "What music does is compress and stretch time; it take us out of the clock world."

Some titles are clearly referential: "Siren Songs," for soprano and chamber orchestra, is a song cycle incorporating settings of poetry and prose about sirens and mermaids, from Homer's "The Song of the Sirens," through Dante and Kafka, to contemporary poet Janet McAdams. "The Lone Cello" is for solo cello, "in a vein of Western self-reliance."

Much of Moe's work has been done during residencies "at artists' colonies, which are usually in idyllic settings," but he also has a home studio. Typically, he starts "at the piano, with paper and pencil and eraser." He also uses a laptop running music applications and, sometimes, Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) keyboards.

Moe describes his compositional technique as "getting my hands dirty. I don't have anything charted out to begin with. I write maybe 10 notes, and play around with the material until it sounds the way I want it to sound."

Commissions are important engines of creativity, says Moe. "A performer asks for a piece for bass clarinet and synthesizer, and I say, 'Sure.' Then I get an idea for some bass clarinet music, and start putting things together — that's the joy of the enterprise.

"You can't rely on inspiration," he says. "That's a Romantic idea. No one's going to show up in a toga in the middle of the night."

With or without a Muse, " I write music I would like to listen to; music I want to hear, but which does not yet exist."

Moe also composes "music I would like to play." He is unusual in being a performer as well as composer. He plays in perhaps 10 to 20 concerts a year, sometimes solo, often as part of an ensemble, in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, New York City, and elsewhere. Some recent recital programs have featured pieces "by African or African-American composers, and music inspired by them. Some of these composers are well- known here — for example, the bebop pianist Bud Powell — and others less so, like [Nigerian] Akin Euba and [Ghanaian] J. Kwabena Nketia." He also favors music by the British composer Judith Weir and American Lee Hyla. Moe just recorded a CD of waltzes which includes pieces by Phillip Glass, Milton Babbitt *42 *92, Lou Harrison, Charles Wuorinen, and others.

Moe grew up in Carbondale, Illinois, where "I had some musical training, and was an enthusiastic but mediocre pianist. I wanted to write music but didn't know how." A Princeton composition seminar with Professor of Music Paul Lansky "changed my life. I found out I could write music. I learned how to construct a piece." Moe began composing at Princeton. His senior thesis was a setting for voice and chamber ensemble of Wallace Stevens's 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.'

Moe went on to earn a 1982 Ph.D. in composition at the University of California, Berkeley. After teaching at San Francisco State University, he joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh in 1989. Though he had been active in the new music scene in the Bay Area, and was a founding member of the Earplay ensemble, Pittsburgh appealed to Moe because it is "just that much closer to New York, the center of contemporary music."

At Pittsburgh, he teaches composition and theory, working with undergraduate and graduate students. He directs the graduate program in composition, as well as the department's electroacoustic music studio. Although not fond of "committee meetings and memo writing," says Moe, "I like looking at pieces I perhaps wouldn't take a close look at otherwise. And teaching computer music keeps me current with new technology."

He is also co-organizer, with composer and colleague Mathew Rosenblum *92, of Music on the Edge, a new music series, which offers the campus and the community an opportunity to hear ensembles such as Furious Band, the New York New Music Ensemble, and the Rascher Saxophone Quartet.

Moe also serves on the Advisory Council of the Princeton Music Department.

As a composer, has received numerous grants and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship; commissions from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Fromm Foundation, and Koussevitzky Foundation; residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Bellagio, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the American Dance Festival.

His "Sonnets to Orpheus" was featured on the Works and Process series at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 2000.

CDs of Moe's works are available on Centaur, CRI, Koch International, and Albany Records. As pianist and keyboard player, Moe has recorded on the Koch, CRI, Mode, AK/Coburg, and Albany labels.

This year brought a special honor. Moe was chosen by the American Academy of Arts and Letter to receive the Lakond Prize ("My first 'Academy Award,'" he says). The award recognizes "a composer of demonstrated artistic merit." Moe's music, said the citation, "is full of an almost exasperated energy, which all of a sudden can become unexpectedly — and convincingly — lyrical. ... His music never fails to convince us, because of its inherent temporal proportion, its genuine expressiveness."

Compositions by Moe will be heard in upcoming concerts on both coasts, and in between. Soprano Barbara Kokolus will perform "Siren Songs" on November 18 at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey; the Contemporary Music Players will perform "Repeat Offender" in Sacramento (Nov. 12) and San Francisco (Nov. 25), the latter at the Yerba Buena Center. February 14 brings a saxophone trio and "Rough Winds Do Shake the Darling Buds" to SUNY, Buffalo, and a chamber version of "Siren Songs" will premiere March 29 at the University of Pittsburgh. On February 4, Moe will play a concert of the music of David Del Tredici, also in Pittsburgh.

Those who would like to hear Moe, composer and performer, can access audio clips posted in classical recordings at cdnow.com and towerrecords.com.

By Caroline Moseley

Caroline Moseley is a frequent contributor to PAW.