Composer, pianist, teacher Eric Moe is a busy man. Not only does he compose, quite often on commission; teach composition and theory at the University of Pittsburgh; and occasionally lend his keyboard talent to the cause of other composers, he is also codirector of the Music on the Edge, a new-music series that brings many of the leading lights of contemporary music to the city. His music has been widely recorded, and while his name is familiar to me, probably through his Philadelphia connections (he once taught at the University of Pennsylvania and his Eight-Point Turn was commissioned by the Philadelphia new-music ensemble Relâche), this is the first time I've caught up with his music. "Caught up" is probably an apt phrase since his work is often jet propelled—a manic series of stuttering ostinato figures that go flashing by in constantly changing instrumental garb. As note-writer Andrew Druckenbrod observes, Moe's "musical language is informed by major compositional trends, but he’s in no camp, not even the big ones such as post-minimalism, neo-tonal, indie-classical, or eclectic."
Like many contemporary American composers, he incorporates pop elements in his music "without having to turn in his academic badge." The pop references are clearest in Superhero and Kick & Ride, the former a tone poem in five movements that portrays the exploits of a comic book superhero, the latter a sort of concerto for drum set and small orchestra that starts with a tribute to Ron Wilson's wild drumming in the Surfari's surfer-rock classic "Wipeout." However, whereas in the work of, say, Michael Daugherty the pop elements too often seem to commandeer the music, in Moe's work the popular elements are subsumed by and woven into the fabric of the composer’s unique musical language. As in the music of John Adams, you occasionally catch whiffs of the work of other classical composers—I hear definite echoes of Stravinsky, including Stravinsky's use of instrumental color, in Eight-Point Turn—yet just as with Adams, Moe ultimately sounds like—himself. Whether his music is unique in a good way or a bad way, you'll have to decide for yourself. I can imagine some listeners being turned off by the frenetic pace and the fragmentary nature of the music, thanks to the brief ostinato cells that drive each work. I find the high energy exciting, and the subtle changes of instrumental color that Moe weaves throughout a piece manage to engage the intellect as well as the ear.
Driving rhythms aren't the whole story of Moe's work, either. As he says of Superhero, "My evocation of the genre [comic books] is affectionate and serious, not ironic. The two slower reflective sections are the saddest music on the CD. . . ." Sad and beautifully written: the first section, "early loss," features a contrapuntal dialog for clarinet and flute that unfolds over a strangely droning, thumping bass that sounds like a funeral march heard from far off, heard in shreds of sound. The second, "existential crisis (what's it all for?)" finds the superhero questioning his own world-saving mission in life; again, it's a lovely duet, this time for violin and cello over a nervous backdrop of repeated piano notes. Still, maybe the most arresting movement is the first, "learning to fly," in which the chugging stop-start rhythms cleverly describe the action of the title.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project once again proves its skillful commitment to the music of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American music. Is this the same orchestra that captured the various neo-Romantic impulses of Virgil Thomson, Lukas Foss, and Alan Hovhaness in earlier recordings? Eric Moe is quite a change of pace for the orchestra, which here appears in a greatly pared-down version of itself: in Superhero, we have the often-encountered ensemble of violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano, and percussion that Schoenberg used in Pierrot Lunaire. I don't know if this is a one-off departure for the Project or if we'll be hearing more music for smaller ensembles from the group. Whatever the case, I hope they keep exploring composers with a unique voice and something new to say, which sums up my reaction to the music of Eric Moe.