new compositions will be performed at upcoming concerts across
Composer and performer Eric Moe '76 finds layers of meaning in his
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
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
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
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
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.