American Composer: Beata Moon

By Kyle Gann

I was going to start out saying, time was when self-trained composers were indistinguishable from the others. But then, the first two self-trained composers who came to mind were Wagner and Schoenberg, who were hardly like anyone else at all. But at least they were much of-their-time: Wagner modeled his operas after Spontini and Marschner, later learning new harmonies from Liszt; Schoenberg struggled to fuse the conflicting influences of Brahms and Wagner. "In today's pluralistic situation, however, the school-trained composer generally comes from some identifiable direction - New Romanticism, serialism, minimalism - whereas the self-trained composer throws a wrench in the works by having no known stylistic identification. Harry Partch was a dramatic such example, and Beata Moon, more quietly, is another.

No one can quite say how Moon, raised in the flatlands of North Dakota and Indiana, suddenly acquired a composer's career in New York City - through sheer charm and chutzpah, I'm tempted to say. She was, however, superbly trained as a musician, having graduated from Juilliard as a pianist, a student of Adele Marcus. Only after graduating did she suddenly take up the pen (much like Juilliard-grad flutist Elizabeth Brown, whom I've also profiled in this space), and since that time, less than a decade ago, she's put out two compact discs and created her own crack ensemble of local virtuosi to give chamber orchestra concerts at hot venues like Columbia's Miller Theater. The performers tend to be all women, the composers ditto. I guess if you want to form an orchestra in New York, having gone to Juilliard provides all the contacts you need; still, it's disconcerting to see Moon achieve so much with no prominent composing mentor behind her.

Equally disconcerting is listening to her music, and in the same way. Unlike Partch, she has not invented her own idiosyncratic lingo, nor, unlike Wagner and Schoenberg (at least, not yet), has she laid down laws for other composers to eventually pay obeisance to. Rather, her music is a peculiar blend of all influences and none. A passage here and there sounds like Aaron Copland, falling into the national diatonic lingua franca. Ostinatos and propulsive motor figures make the music sound like it was composed in the wake of minimalism, but there is none of minimalism's concern for static textures or slow process, and even the preference for consonance is intermittent. A tendency to ground the music in recurring sound images brings Messiaen to mind, though she doesn't sound like him. The reliance on motivic logic in a harmonically free idiom might elicit comparison with Sibelius, though her bright energy could hardly be more disparate from his gloom.

In short, Moon just composes, with what is, for the critic, a maddening absence of dogma, ideology, or stylistic pedigree. Sometimes the result is a kind of eclectic originality, other times a kind of stylistic anonymity, a music that could be by almost anyone. Her most fetching quality is an unforced rhythmic freedom, often couched in odd ostinatos such as the chirpy opening 13/8 line of her violin/clarinet/piano trio Moonpaths (1998). (She's not above the temptation to play off her name - her second CD is called Earthshine - but she does it sparingly.) Moonpaths is her most Coplandesque work, quite in the vein of Quiet City or Appalachian Spring, with jazzy lines over odd-rhythmed ostinatos in the keyboard. One of my favorite pieces of hers, the mixed quintet Safari (2000), opens in a quick 11/16 and switches around among 10/16 and 12/16 as well, using the opening measure's 5-note figure to establish one meter, and its 6-note figure for the other. It seems like it'd be hard as hell to conduct and keep track of, but the parts are well written for playability.

Moon's is, in fact, a performer's music, though without the usual faults of the genre. She gives her players opportunities for gratifying solos, but doesn't chase after virtuosity - a quality I'm so tired of in modern music - or let the nature of the instrument overly dictate. She has a special affinity for mallet percussion, and has written an intricate set of marimba solos called Illusions (2000) as well as using that or vibraphone in several chamber works. One of her first works, Antelope Vamp (1996), groups vibraphone with electric violin, percussion, and piano, and its almost pop ostinato rhythms give you a feel for where she came from. Baartok is an occasional strong influence, especially in her pieces for string quartet, one of which is almost unnecessarily subtitled "Homage to Bela." Some of her early works sport a curious quasi-naivete. Mary (1996) for soprano, violin, percussion, and piano, features a wordless vocalise that is simple to the point of new-ageyness, but accompanied with thoughtful counterpoint, and the piece even ends in contemplative bitonality. If a little odd at times, Moon's music is never cheap. Her naivete, it is clear, is intentional.

There's certainly nothing naive about the way Moon has gone about her career. She has a knack for eliciting help from high-profile performers: soprano Joan La Barbara and violinist Tom Chiu of the Flux Quartet appear on her CDs (traceable through her web site,, and Lara St. John has soloed with Moon's ensemble. Other composers may find in Moon's music an exasperating indifference toward the concerns of present-day composition - no postmodernism, no reflection of or rebellion against serialism, no return to romanticism, no development of the postminimalist language, no experimentation with anything more exotic than meter. In avoiding conventional training, she also sidestepped the 20th century's aesthetic disputes. One could almost resent that her music, even when dark and dissonant, is so untortured. But it is a natural, intuitive, performer's music, eminently playable, imagistic, and unified by recurring qualities rather than theoretical quests. It is also cheeky, engaging, and memorable, and, despite the composer's name, fundamentally sunny in disposition.

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