Eric Moe: Uncanny Affable Machines

, composer


Pittsburgh based composer Eric Moe releases a new compilation of several of his works for solo instrument with and without electronics, all of which engage with the concept of mechanization, whether it be the interaction between a fixed media part and a live performer, or the mechanics of physicality of performing on an instrument itself. Featured performers include violist Jessica Meyer, flutist Lindsey Goodman, percussionist Paul Vaillancourt, pipa virtuoso Yihan Chen, and Moe himself on piano.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Performer(s) Time
Total Time 55:21
01Cross Chop
Cross Chop
Paul Vaillancourt, drumset9:31
02Uncanny Affable Machines
Uncanny Affable Machines
Jessica Meyer, viola9:40
03And No Birds Sing
And No Birds Sing
Eric Moe, keyboard9:03
04The Sun Beats the Mountain Like a Drum
The Sun Beats the Mountain Like a Drum
Yihan Chen, pipa8:52
05Frozen Rain, Summer Dreams
Frozen Rain, Summer Dreams
Eric Moe, piano8:19
06Let Me Tell U About R Specials
Let Me Tell U About R Specials
Lindsey Goodman, flute9:56

Composer Eric Moe draws from a wide well of influences, integrating various elements from across the aesthetic spectrum into music that is rhythmically propulsive and preserves an emphasis on melodic development and harmonic context. The works on his latest collection, “Uncanny Affable Machines”, are all engaged, in one form or another, with the paradigm of human/machine interaction. Firmly within a polemical tradition related to electro-acoustic composition, Moe engages with the complex dynamics suggested by a performance involving a live human and a pre-recorded track. Many of the sounds on the playback are “organic” themselves, however, involving manipulated recordings of human performers, or recorded sounds from the environment. And of course, in order to coordinate with the playback, a live performer needs to discipline themselves to execute the passagework precisely with the tape each time, making themselves more machine-like. This is just one of the ways that the medium invites us into a fascinating dialogue blurring the lines between the technological and the human, and Moe is acutely aware of this in his approach. Three of the works are scored for live performer with fixed media. The title track, for viola and playback, performed here by counter)induction violist Jessica Meyer, an infectious pulse propels the electronic part as the live instrument dances around the texture in quasi ritualistic fashion. The Sun Beats the Mountain Like a Drum is a related piece in the sense that the electronics provides a rhythmic environment over which the pipa, performed here by Yihan Chen, plays rolling tremolos and phrases with poignant bent notes. Moe revels in stylistic collage here, placing various cultural references into the tape part and allowing them to collide and transform each other. The inspiration for Let Me Tell U About R Specials is a commonplace scene - a contemporary American restaurant. Moe uses typical phrases from a server, such as “I’m Patti, I’ll be helping you out this evening” and “what can I start you off with?” as the material for the electronic part. The flute part then takes on a coloristic, narrative role, lending distance and commentary on the experience. The structure of the piece is shaped by the text itself, so the closing lines, “Have a nice night” frame the end of the piece as they would the experience of a meal. The other three works on the program engage with the mechanical through the lens of conventional instrumental technique itself. Cross Shop is written for solo drumset and sets up a relentless moto perpetuo texture as Moe takes us through different beats, rhythmic feels, and stylistic references. Moe, an accomplished performer as well, is the pianist on the two remaining tracks, the atmospheric Frozen Rain, Summer Dreams, and the otherworldly world of And No Birds Sing, a work written for an electronic keyboard tuned in a 19 note per octave scale.

- D. Lippel

  • Track 1 recorded by Brad Andrews, Loft Recording Studios
  • Tracks 2, 4, 5 recorded by Ryan Streber, Oktaven Audio
  • Tracks 3 and 6 recorded by Herman Pearl at Tuff Sound Recording
  • Produced by Eric Moe 
  • Design and layout by Elana Schlenker
  • All works published by Dead Elf Music

Eric Moe

Eric Moe (b. 1954), composer of what the NY Times has called “music of winning exuberance,” has received numerous grants and awards for his work, including the Lakond Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim Fellowship; commissions from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Fromm Foundation, the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Barlow Endowment, Meet-the-Composer USA, and New Music USA; fellowships from the Wellesley Composer's Conference and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts; and residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Bellagio, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the UCross Foundation, the Camargo Foundation, the Aaron Copland House, the Millay Colony, the Ragdale Foundation, the Montana Artists Refuge, the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, the Hambidge Center, and the American Dance Festival, among others.

Tri-Stan, his sit-trag/one-woman opera on a text by David Foster Wallace, premiered by Sequitur in 2005, was hailed by the New York Times as “a blockbuster” and “a tour de force,” a work of “inspired weight” that “subversively inscribes classical music into pop culture.” In its review of the piece, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette concluded, “it is one of those rare works that transcends the cultural divide while still being rooted in both sides.” The work is available on a Koch International Classics compact disc. Strange Exclaiming Music, a CD featuring Moe’s recent chamber music, was released by Naxos in July 2009 as part of their American Classics series; Fanfare magazine described it as “wonderfully inventive, often joyful, occasionally melancholy, highly rhythmic, frequently irreverent, absolutely eclectic, and always high-octane music.” Kick & Ride, on the bmop/sound label, was picked by WQXR for album of the week: “…it’s completely easy to succumb to the beats and rhythms that come out of Moe’s fantastical imaginarium, a headspace that ties together the free-flowing atonality of Alban Berg with the guttural rumblings of Samuel Barber’s Medea, adding in a healthy dose of superhuman strength.” Other all-Moe CDs are available on New World Records (Meanwhile Back At The Ranch), Albany Records (Kicking and Screaming, Up & At ‘Em, Siren Songs), and Centaur (On the Tip of My Tongue). The Sienese Shredder, a fine arts journal, includes an all-Moe CD as part of its third issue.

As a pianist and keyboardist, Moe has premiered and performed works by a wide variety of composers. His playing can be heard on the Koch, CRI, Mode, Albany, New World Records and Innova labels in the music of John Cage, Roger Zahab, Marc-Antonio Consoli, Mathew Rosenblum, Jay Reise, Ezra Sims, David Keberle, Felix Draeseke, and many others in addition to his own. His solo recording The Waltz Project Revisited - New Waltzes for Piano, a CD of waltzes for piano by two generations of American composers, was released in 2004 on Albany. Gramophone magazine said of the CD, “Moe’s command of the varied styles is nothing short of remarkable.” A founding member of the San Francisco-based EARPLAY ensemble, he currently co-directs the Music on the Edge new music concert series in Pittsburgh. Moe studied composition at Princeton University (A.B.) and at the University of California at Berkeley (M.A., Ph.D.). He is currently the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Composition and Theory at the University of Pittsburgh and has held visiting professorships at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. More information is available at his website,
10 Dec, 2018

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Midwest Record

Just to make easy jumps here, some times it feels like progressive music is divided in Steve Reich and everyone else. Moe definitely falls on the Steve Reich side of the line. A long time progressive music staple, this cat is wonderfully adept at not making an extended drum solo sound like pots and pans music---a feat that gets him high marks on that alone. A left leaning ear opener that wondrously invites everyone into the tent, be careful falling in love with this because that will open your ears to too many manqué. Killer stuff that feels like thinking man’s music for is really fun for all.

-Chris Spector, 8.4.2018, Midwest Record


Best of Bandcamp Contemporary Classical August 2018

This bracing portrait album by Eric Moe offers six disparate solo pieces, half of which require the performer to interact with electronic or pre-recorded elements. The composer clearly has a penchant for pulling phrases apart, not only in the electronic elements, but in his written scores. Cross Chop opens the album with a giddy rush; Paul Vaillancourt gives a stunning reading on the drum kit, starting with a straight-up adaptation of the trademark opening rhythm of the Surfaris’ classic “Wipe Out.” But instead of falling into a dance groove, the music shifts radically into a dizzying display of polyrhythmic, melodic power—a fully notated drum solo that could bring fans to their feet in a rock club. And No Birds Sing is a solo piano piece, performed by Moe, on a grand piano retuned with 19 notes to each octave—an absurd proposition—to deliver a work of triumphant dissonance and otherworldliness. Of the interactive pieces, on the title track violist Jessica Meyer tangles with a chaotic fabric of percussive, electronic pings, and abstract gurgles, while Yihan Chen’s pipa-playing on The Sun Beats the Mountain Like a Drum contrasts with a variety of global percussion traditions, from Afro-Cuban congas to Indian tabla, to say nothing of some ghostly work song chants.

-Peter Margasak, 8.28.2018, Best of Bandcamp Contemporary Classical August 2018


New Music Buff

Here I sit with an album by a composer with whom I have no familiarity. Fortunately Eric Moe has a delightfully tenacious public relations department (at least with this particular record label) whose prompts did finally get me listening. OMG, it says “electroacoustic”. That could be really bad or obtuse. Well, I did promise to review it so here goes.

Eric Moe (1954- ) is a composer with a very well organized web page. A quick glance at that web page informs that this is the 12th or so disc from a man who boasts what looks like a list of over 100 compositions. Moe is also a performer and participates on this disc. This graduate of Princeton (A.B., Music) and Berkeley (M.A. and Ph.D., music) teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and is also an active performer of both his and others’ music.

This discs contains 6 compositions for solo instrument (mostly) with electronics. Now that combination has given this writer pause because the genre given the name “electroacoustic” can be a mixed bag. Sometimes these works can be ponderous or obtuse with meanings obvious to the composer and, hopefully, the performer.

However your reviewer’s neurotic fears were apparently unfounded as the tracks played some truly wonderful compositions. Each track features a different instrument. The instruments, in order, include a drum set played by Paul Vaillancourt, a viola played by Jessica Meyer, a solo 19tet keyboard played by Eric Moe, an unbelievably virtuosic pipa played by Yihan Chen, solo piano played by Eric Moe, and flute played by Lindsey Goodman.

Suffice it to say that all the soloists here come with a high level of virtuosity as well as the ability to interact meaningfully with the electronics. Far from being a nightmare of impenetrable experimental music this is rather a very entertaining set of pieces which tend to avoid the worst cliches of this genre.

Rather than attempting to describe each of these pieces (a task which would likely be more painful to read than write) it is best to simply provide assurances that the combination of this talented composer combined with the more than capable soloists provides a stimulating and interesting listening experience. These are wonderful performers with great material.

The listener will want to hear each track more than once to get a good idea of what the composer is doing but, fear not, this album is much more adventure than ordeal. It shows a composer at the height of his powers producing art which stimulates the senses and provides an emotional experience. While there is clearly intellect behind the creation and performance of these works they tend to speak rather directly to the listener providing a stimulating entertainment that leaves the listener with a shred of hope that classical, even modern classical is far from dead.

Kudos to professor Moe and his collaborators and a nod of thanks to the tenacious publicity folks who would not let this release go quietly into the good night. You shouldn’t either.

-Allan J. Cronin, 9.1.2018, New Music Buff


I Care If You Listen

In his new album on New Focus Recordings, "Uncanny Affable Machines", composer-pianist Eric Moe unveils a collection of his works for solo instrument, both with and without electronics. Exploring the interaction between fixed media and live performer, or the relationship between live performer and the instrument itself, the album features a powerhouse of musicians including violist Jessica Meyer, flutist Lindsey Goodman, percussionist Paul Vaillancourt, pipa virtuoso Yihan Chen, and Eric Moe on piano/keyboard.

In Cross Chop for solo drum set, percussionist Paul Vaillancourt’s limbs act as a cog in a unremitting mechanism. Drifting in and out of stylistic references, Moe creates a rhythmic marathon. Even quoting Surfaris’ “Wipe Out,” the piece is a wild ride on a wave of frenetic energy. In this case, Vaillancourt is both human and machine, allowing artistry to govern with a large palette of colors and an expressive range of dynamics.

The title track of the album, Uncanny Affable Machines, performed by violist Jessica Meyer presents two parts: a lyrical viola and the mechanical undercurrent of the electronic track. The two parts, human and machine, are not in dialogue at first, only occasionally acknowledging the existence of the other. Meyer exhibits the ability to execute beautifully-disciplined technical mastery, soaring into the stratosphere of the high strings, forging hand crafted, wrought iron machinery like a blacksmith. The viola and sound file begin to trade material, and finally converge, creating a third entity independent of both parts.

Though the preternatural And No Birds Sing features Moe himself on keyboard, it evokes imagery of a piano that plays itself. Written for a keyboard tuned in a 19-tone octave, it’s as if this piece is trying to express something in an unknown language, only growing more urgent and more articulate with time. Here, the machine itself speaks–equal parts uncanny and affable.

Pipa virtuoso Yihan Chen brings dynamism and vibrancy to The Sun Beats the Mountain like a Drum. Moe exploits extremes and the large range of performance gestures required of the pipa, and though Chen acts as the live performer in this electro-acoustic relationship, her ability to actualize all of the passagework is almost inhuman. She delivers rolling tremolos and expressive note bends over the electronics with incredible command, creating stimuli that sparks the various cultural references within the tape part. The result is a lively montage of sounds both live and recorded.

Frozen Rain, Summer Dreams, featuring Moe on piano, reveals something new: a “soft machine.” It begins with a mechanical, pulsing high note that disappears into a cold, wispy melodic line. It’s through this piece that Moe negotiates the relationship between performer and instrument, the boundary between human biology and the sophisticated, yet limiting confines of an acoustic medium.

Described by Moe as “a meditation on a commonplace narrative,” Let Me Tell U About R Specials, presents flutist Lindsey Goodman and fixed media. The electronics use phrases like “I’m Patti, I’ll be helping you out this evening” and “What can I start you off with?” Goodman’s flute playing functions as a sonic narrator, commenting on the contemporary American restaurant scene with colorful resonance and clarity. The text acts as a framework upon which the piece rests as Goodman guides us through the meal, delivering each phrase with diligence and intent. The album concludes: “Have a nice night.”

With Uncanny Affable Machines, high-tech and low-tech interact pushing each performer to an individual extreme. Eric Moe invites listeners to explore the relationship between human and machine, generating a space in which the soft and the inflexible can coexist.

-Jillian DeGroot, 10.5.2018, I Care If You Listen


MusicWeb International

The notes tell us that Eric Moe is currently the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Music at Pittsburgh University. He is clearly a pivotal figure in the musical life of that city and founded an important new music series there. Occasionally his name filters through onto the release schedules: composer portraits have been released on labels such as bmop/sound, Albany, Naxos and New World. In addition, he is an accomplished pianist – indeed he reveals as much in performances of two of the pieces on the present disc. On the basis of my encounter with these pieces I would suggest his work is characteristically well-crafted, rhythmically propulsive, and often shot through with wit or occasionally melancholy. The half dozen works here are entertaining without being life-changing.

The odd title Uncanny Affable Machines actually characterises the nature of much of this music rather well. Three of the pieces, those for viola, pipa and flute, involve interaction with pre-recorded electro-acoustic material. Although the other three do not, at least two of them involve music that could be described as mechanistic; the third is the piano solo Frozen Rain, Summer Dreams. This begins with rapid, repeating notes which may on the one hand seem to evoke a mechanistic pulse; in fact, they instigate what I feel is the most conventional music on this disc, evocative though it undoubtedly is. Its ABA structure begins and ends with an impression of a cold autumnal walk in Montana while a more pentatonic, central section characterised by wide intervals inhabits more of an Oriental aesthetic. Like all the works on this disc it comes in at around the nine-minute mark; pleasant as it is - the ending is glassy and enigmatic- I did feel that it rambled a bit.

Moe is also the performer of the strange keyboard piece And no birds sing, which employs a grand piano adapted to incorporate nineteen notes in each octave. This interference renders the standard piano sound (and our perception of traditional harmony) redundant. Its extra-musical inspiration is Keats’ ballad La belle dame sans merci which contains the line that forms its title. I wrote the phrase ‘post-apocalyptic elegy’ in my listening notes and it seems from Moe’s own comments that this is the mood he’s trying to convey here. Tunes try to escape from the sounds; they exist but the temperament in which they are projected puzzles the brain – with good reason. At around 1’57”, the music takes on a more virile shape, and emerges as yet more dissonant and unhinged before the gently haunting dysfunction of the work’s opening returns; the landscape may be a little more familiar to the listener, but it’s no more consoling. This often Partchian sounding piece is most impressive, and is sensitively rendered here by the composer.

The other unadulterated work here is the drumkit solo Cross Chop, whose mechanistic nature is characterised by its clockwork precision, provided with seemingly surgical accuracy by the percussionist Paul Vaillancourt. Cross-Chop is nine minutes of virtuosic, impressively taut rock drumming, which occasionally references non-Western cultures by nods in its gentler sections to steel drums and gongs, creating unpitched music that somehow sounds pitched. In fact, “Cross Chop” is a surfing term, and this piece repeatedly namechecks the famous repeated drum-break from the 1962 surf-rock instrumental hit ‘Wipeout’ by the Surfaris. (The band may be long forgotten, but ‘Wipeout’ is part of the human collective unconscious – all readers will know its opening guitar riff whether they realise it or not). At my local jazz club, drum solos tend to be the signal for punters to go to the bar, but this is a riveting piece, brilliantly performed by Vaillancourt. Indeed, it’s perfectly regular waves of sound threaten to overwhelm the performer - that they don’t epitomises Vaillancourt’s virtuosity.

To my ears, the pick of Moe’s pieces with electro-acoustic content is the quirky title track. Uncanny Affable Machines begins with taped, clinky sounds over which Jessica Meyer’s somewhat drily recorded viola soliloquises. The weird electronic interference soon morphs into bird noises. The viola line occupies a sound-world similar to that of Lou Harrison’s pieces for solo strings, most obviously perhaps his Concerto for Violin and Percussion. The electro-acoustics feature some winning gamelan- like textures – while the viola is kept constantly busy, with agitated material which harshens in the last couple of minutes, during which the work entertainingly degenerates into something of a rock jam, the viola like a feedback-laden guitar.

As I have often found on discs of new music, the pieces with the best titles seem to convince the least. Under normal circumstances, I am very taken by the very sound of the pipa but in The sun beats the mountain like a drum, the rock posturing which Moe applies to it just sounds plain wrong to me, nor is the piece improved by the electro-acoustic collage, a hotchpotch of references from what sounds like a distorted blues singer to dislocated antique cymbals. As one might guess, the cultural reference of Let me tell U about R specials relates to the throwaway, robotic lines of staff in fast-food or chain restaurants. Some of these feature in this piece but they are delivered in such a po-faced, unnaturalistic way that their impact seems blunted to my ears. Despite Lindsay Goodman’s lively, quirky flute playing and the brilliant title, for me, at least, the piece simply doesn’t manage to integrate its wantonly diffuse elements sufficiently.

Ultimately, Eric Moe’s music is rhythmically propulsive, imaginatively conceived, and aesthetically diverting. It must be fun to play and at its best it’s captivating and enjoyable. I used the word ‘quirky’ to describe one of the pieces, and I think that gets to the heart of all of these works. It is revealing then that I found the bleakest piece here, the piece for adapted piano And no birds sing the most successful. However, those listeners with a taste for unusual works for single instruments may find something to tickle their fancy here.

-Richard Hanlon, 10.16.18, MusicWeb International

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