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.