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John Moran (composer)

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John Moran
A publicity still from John Moran...and his neighbor, Saori
Born1965 (age 58–59)
Occupation(s)Opera and musical theater composer
Years active1988–present
Known forThe Manson Family: An Opera
Book of the Dead (2nd Avenue)
John Moran...and his neighbor, Saori

John Moran is an American composer, choreographer, and theater artist.[1] He has been called an "operatic trailblazer",[2] and his works are variously described as "unconventional",[3] "innovative",[4] and difficult to categorize.[5] His works bring together a variety of mediums, including recorded music, spoken word, choreography and dance, mime, lip syncing, and video.[2] Additionally, his works have featured a range of performers, including actors Uma Thurman and Julia Stiles, as well as singer Iggy Pop, and poet Allen Ginsberg.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

John Moran was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1965. He lacks a formal education in composition and in fact never graduated from high school. He unsuccessfully attempted to study informally at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where his father was the assistant dean of arts and sciences.[4] But he knew he was drawn to composition and given his experience singing children's parts in operas. When the Philip Glass Ensemble was performing in town, Moran called all the Lincoln-area hotels until he found out where Glass was staying. According to Glass, "this skinny kid came up and gave me a tape, like all the skinny kids with tapes do, and, believe it or not, I listen to them, at least in a haphazard way. And I was struck right away. This was a born theater creator, even at that age, which was about 20".[4]

He moved to New York City in 1988 at age 23,[3] where he befriended and became the protege of the composer Philip Glass.[2] He debuted his first opera the same year, in 1988.[3]


Early career: 1988–2000[edit]

Moran's first opera, Jack Benny!, was created in 1988, and composed entirely of snippets of sound from The Jack Benny Program television series. The piece was staged at New York's La Mama Experimental Theater Club, where it was presented by performance troupe Ridge Theater, and received strong praise in publications such as The New York Times.[6] Although the work was considered a benchmark for modern composition at the time, the work itself was reportedly stolen in a Lower East Side apartment robbery, and has not been presented again. There are many unusual anecdotes about Moran's life at this time, including his living "behind the couch" of Philip Glass for several years, after showing up on the older composer's doorstep and announcing himself Glass's protégé.[7] Glass himself confirmed such stories in several interviews (The Boston Globe, 1997 and The New York Times, 2000).[4]

The Manson Family: An Opera

In 1990, Moran was commissioned by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to create his second opera, The Manson Family: An Opera.[3] A recording of the opera, which starred Iggy Pop, was produced by Glass and released on POINT Music/Philips/PolyGram Records.

This was around the time that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was under congressional scrutiny for its funding of seemingly "obscene" art such as Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ", and Moran and The Manson Family: An Opera were also caught in the crossfires of the controversy.[8] Although the recording was almost immediately recalled by its parent label for obscene language and content (receiving one of the country's first Parental Advisory stickers). This is the only recording by Moran to present, which has ever received public release. In another unusual anecdote concerning Moran's early career, Charles Manson was thought to have taken it upon himself to send a letter to Wall Street Journal critic Mark Swed who published a negative review of the opera.

Everyday, Newt Burman by John Moran

In 1993, Moran's trilogy opera Every Day Newt Burman (The Trilogy of Cyclic Existence) debuted at the larger Annex space at La MaMa in New York City to wide critical acclaim.[9] Owing to the opera, Moran was awarded a Bessie Award. Moran also received a 1995 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award.

In 1995 and 1996 his opera Matthew in The School of Life premiered at The Kitchen in New York City.[10] The work featured vocals by poet Allen Ginsberg and a small part voiced by actress Julia Stiles. As a performer, The New York Times compared Moran with figures like Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp,[11] and as a composer he received an Obie Award. In these later early works by Moran, one can find him expanding into work with theatrical illusions and detailed specifications regarding the works staging. The use of doubled performers, playing the same part were often employed in his scoring of these events, to mimic the effect of cinematic-style editing.

At the end of this period, in 1997, his version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari premiered at American Repertory Theater at Harvard. Concerning Caligari, The Boston Globe described Moran as "a modern day Mozart", but Moran himself expressed an unhappiness with the production, as well as the work's producer Robert Brustein and its presenting partners Ridge Theater,[12] which apparently resulted in a tense and public split with the group. In a 1998 New York Times article the following year, Moran claimed to have seen his staging and visual ideas appropriated by the group, while being publicly uncredited to him by the group's director Bob McGrath.[12] The article itself, perhaps attempting to speak in McGrath's defense, mistakenly attributed several of Moran's theatrical techniques to McGrath (perhaps unknowingly). The article presented other points of view on the subject from the New York theater world of the time, but clearly marked an end to a decade of joint production by the two parties.


John Moran's Book of the Dead (2nd Avenue)

In 2000, Moran's opera Book of The Dead (2nd Avenue) was commissioned by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and produced by George Wolfe for The New York Shakespeare Festival / Public Theater, in New York City and featured actress Uma Thurman as the work's narrator. The work received less than favorable reviews, however, and in later autobiographical works Moran himself described the production as "one of the most unhappy times of [his] life", owing to "the sheer mechanical hugeness of it all".[7] The work (also designed by Moran) received The American Theater Wing Design Award (now called The Hewes Award) for "Best Theatrical Design in New York City (2000)".

He relocated to Germany and re-mounted his work Everyday, Newt Burman in 2001 at Staatstheater Darmstadt, where he apparently met German dancer Eva Müller who starred in the remounted production. Upon returning to America together, Moran began to create duet works for himself and Müller. Regarding these duet performances, TimeOut Magazine wrote that Moran had "reaffirmed his reputation as one of the most important (and underrated) figures in the avantgarde". Also at this time, in 2003, Philip Glass was quoted to say, "I am convinced that there is no more important composer working today than John Moran. His works have been so advanced as to be considered revolutionary." However, possibly owing to disappointing reviews from his ambitious 2000 work, Book of The Dead (2nd Avenue), Moran seemed to resign himself with smaller venues,[7] such as Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, and Joe's Pub in New York City.

In 2004–2005 Moran spent nearly two years as artist-in-residence for Mairie de Paris (The City of Paris), however these were described by the composer as less than productive times. In later interviews, Moran related having buried the remains of his former works with dancer Eva Müller under a "popular landmark" in Paris, so that tourists would unknowingly take photographs of its remains.[7] If true, this would likely be in an area of Montmartre, next the iconic Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, where Moran resided at the time.

During this period Moran received fellowships from The American Academy of Arts and Letters and PEN America. But it was reported by The New York Times in 2006 that Moran had experienced a period of homelessness upon returning to America at the end of 2005,[3] immediately after the creation of his highly praised work John Moran...and his neighbor, Saori, with Japanese-born dancer Saori Tsukada.[13][14]

Collaboration with Saori Tsukada: 2005–2011[edit]

John Moran + Saori

In 2005, Moran began to work exclusively with Japanese-born dancer Saori Tsukada, who in numerous reviews was described as a performer of unusual precision and stage presence. It was said that after seeing Tsukada from a distance on the street one afternoon, the composer knew the two strangers were "meant" to work together, and waited for her to return during a power outage in 2003.

This seems to have marked a shift in subject matter for Moran, who then began to appear in his works as himself,[7] often telling highly personal stories about his bizarre life, and describing (in artistic terms) an "obsession" with his then next-door-neighbor, Tsukada. In numerous articles Tsukada has been described as Moran's "muse".[3] In Tsukada's description, "If I am the disciplined Japanese girl, then he is the picture of what people think of as a tortured artist.".[3] Their collaborations, under the title John Moran...and his neighbor, Saori seemed to see immediate critical success.

In 2008, Moran relocated his career to play to almost exclusively to European audiences, along with a radical change in format. In interviews, Moran describes having turned away from the type of large-scale multimedia productions he was known for throughout the 1990s and instead began to create intimate works, often for one or two performers, sans any type of theatrical setting.[3] His series of duets under the title John Moran..and his neighbor, Saori—with dancer and performer Saori Tsukada—saw praise and European touring throughout the years of 2005-2011. In 2007, The New York Times described Moran and Tsukada as "one of the most important and innovate collaborations of the year".

In addition to relocating their work to Europe sometime around 2007, Moran and Tsukada premiered several music, dance and theatre works between 2005 and 2010, all of which featured Tsukada and Moran portraying autobiographical representations of themselves.[3] Their work John Moran...and his neighbor, Saori saw much European touring over this five-year period. In 2007, The Guardian described the piece as "a work with genius as its foundation." and The New York Times cited their work as "one of the most important and innovative dance collaborations of the year". The two performed frequently at venues such as Edinburgh Fringe, Dublin Fringe, Amsterdam Fringe, The Arches, Soho Theatre in London, as well as other theatrical venues across UK, Germany, Israel, and Poland.

In 2010, Moran and Tsukada debuted their work, John Moran and Saori (in Thailand). Its crediting cited joint production between The Arches, in Glasgow, Scotland, and Pumpenhaus in Münster, Germany. The work received praise[15] internationally, and toured extensively throughout Europe, UK and United States over 2010-11. It was presented at the inaugural Days & Nights Festival produced by Philip Glass in Carmel, California, in August 2011.[16]

Other works by Moran and Tsukada include Saori's Birthday! (2007), commissioned by Performance Space 122 in New York City, and which in addition to Tsukada featured performance artists Joseph Keckler and Katherine Brook, and a somewhat minor work titled Zenith 5! which played at The Spiegeltent in New York in 2006.

Solo works: 2012–2015[edit]

In 2012 Moran unveiled a solo work titled, Etudes: Amsterdam, a joint production of Mayfest Bristol (England), Spoleto Open (Italy), and Fringe Amsterdam (Netherlands) which toured extensively throughout Europe over subsequent years. In 2017, his 1990 opera The Manson Family received a new production in Germany, commissioned by Hellerau Center for European Arts (Dresden) and Schaubühne Lindenfels (Leipzig).[17]

In 2012 Moran unveiled a new solo work (which continued his portrait series, started with John Moran in Thailand) titled, John Moran: The Con Artist (Etudes: Amsterdam), later renamed Etudes: Amsterdam. The work was premiered at Mayfest Bristol, England in May 2012, and performed frequently throughout European venues since its premiere. The work was described as a co-production of Mayfest (England), Spoleto Open (Italy) and Fringe Amsterdam (Netherlands). It won 'Best of Fringe' at Spoleto Open (Spoleto, Italy) and Amsterdam Fringe (Amsterdam, Netherlands) in 2012.[18]

In 2013 Moran completed the trilogy of solo-performances with Goodbye, Thailand (Portrait of Eye), the third installment being a commission from Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), London England, and Mayfest Bristol, England. As a solo-performer, Moran was described by Venue Magazine (UK) at its premiere; "It is almost disconcerting, the ease with which Moran appears to leave his body, his own personality entirely vanishing to make way for the personality of the character he creates. His body language, the way his facial muscles move, and of course the voice, every aspect of a person is seamlessly brought together in a minutely detailed portrayal of the protagonists of the story."

Critical reception[edit]

Publications like The New York Times has referred to Moran as "one of the leading vanguards of American music-theater", and The Boston Globe has written, "Moran is a modern-day Mozart".[19] In 2003, Philip Glass was quoted as saying, "I am convinced that there is no more important composer working today, than John Moran."[18]

Moran has been twice commissioned for large-scale works of musical theater by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (New York),[4] as well as American Repertory Theater at Harvard (Cambridge), The Joseph Papp / New York Shakespeare Festival (New York), Battersea Arts Centre (London), Mayfest (Bristol), The Arches (Glasgow, Scotland), Pumpenhaus Münster (Germany), Hellerau Center for European Arts (Germany) and others. He has received numerous fellowships and awards, including from PEN America, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.[1] His work Book of the Dead (2nd Avenue) received the Henry Hewes Design Award for "Best Theatrical Design of New York City" in 2000, as well as a Village Voice Obie Award in 1995, and several Best of Fringe awards internationally.[1]

It seems attributable to the highly specific nature of Moran's works, that although they have been well received, in general have not seen a larger audience in a commercial sense. These works, while often described by critics in glowing terms, would not serve well as the background to other scenarios. For example, most all of the work's by Moran's mentor, Glass, could be equally suitable for the background to another subject. One could say that Moran's works however, are created with unusually specific purpose from their inception. Arguably, one cannot appreciate the music of Moran, without the specifics in place for it to be understood. Perhaps owing to this, recordings of Moran's work and scores can be found, but are extremely rare.[citation needed]

Compositional techniques[edit]

Although much of Moran's works have contained what could be called "traditional" music (or "underscoring", which often simulates orchestral passages by use of synthetic generated sounds), the main emphasis in composition for Moran has always been so interwoven with specific actions called for in the work's narrative, that it would be impossible to separate his compositions from the action and staging they have been designed to correspond to. For example, when a character in the work is seen to walk, the footsteps of the performer seen on stage are intended to be (silent, and) in exact synch to a recording (or rather, many recordings) of the character's footsteps in the work's soundtrack. Likewise, the voices of the characters have also been pre-recorded and presumably edited in similar detail. The environments of his dramatic scenes have been constructed likewise. For example, when a character stands or sits using a chair, there are a myriad of separate sounds (or "samples" as they are called) which construct the event, defining not only the action, but the nuance of its specifics: is it a wooden or a metal chair? How heavy or light is the character using it? What is the nature or emotion of the character as they interact with it?[20]

Accompanying the majority of Moran's works, have been overhead maps of the works staging, including what position on stage the event occurs. This has been done so that the sound(s) appear to emerge from where the performers are seen on stage (i.e., left, right, near or far). Performers in these works are then expected to memorize highly complex sequences of action, wherein each movement is performed in exact adherence to the composition.[citation needed]


Certainly influenced by Philip Glass (as well as others in the minimalist genre; Steve Reich, Terry Riley or Arvo Pärt) the use of repetitive structures is often employed. However, taking this beyond the realm of music, and into the staging of dramatic events, Moran has sought to find repeating events portrayed with an exactitude, which (more and more over the time-line of his productions) called for the use of trained dancers. Although not performing what would traditionally be thought of as dance, the works required performers which could execute their movements in such detail as to faithfully reproduce the events as they repeated. Some have made the case that Moran's works were actually "dance" from the beginning.[3] However what is clear, is that these works have blended these different forms to an extent not seen before. They cannot be rightly called "opera", nor could they adequately be described as "dance", "theater" or any one classification. They are rather, a blending of these forms into a singular expression.[citation needed]

Tempo and harmonic relationship[edit]

In all of Moran's works, one finds these edited events have been finessed in order that the peculiarities of their internal rhythms align to an underlying tempo. In other words (to revert to the example of a chair), if the character sits and then stands, not only does the score express the nature of the character's actions and the setting, but also that the event itself be constructed as a work of music (i.e., the nuances of the event's details are on a shared tempo). The use of more traditional underscoring then, serves the purpose of defining this tempo, as well as defining or emphasizing the structural patterns of the scene. These events are not only unified by tempo, but also by their harmonic relationships. The separate elements of the events are heard to be "tuned" (or subtly pitched) in order to create harmonic relationships together, again emphasized in part by the work's underscoring. In these works, all events are presented as music and choreography.[citation needed]

In this way, in that the events are composed as music, yet call for a precise physical execution on the part of a live performer, and that together those two layers create a third, theatrical level, Moran's works have merged the mediums of music, dance and theater into a singular expression.[citation needed]

Another structural technique used by Moran throughout the majority of his works, is the technique of a single performer changing character(s), in rhythmic and repetitious sequences. The movements of the performer are asked to "flow seamlessly from one character to the next" as they continuously move through a variety of characters and situations. The effect is like a rapidly shifting overview of many different people at once, each in their own unique time and situation, but somehow unified in their shared experience of this musicality. Among many examples of the technique is the entirety of the third act solo of Every Day Newt Burman, titled The Little Retarded Boy.[citation needed]


Another structural device often used by Moran, has been that of cycles, or loops of action where the end of a sequence leads seamlessly into its beginning. This seems to have been a major interest for Moran through all his works. Owing to the sounds and events (i.e., the stage action) being unified by a shared tempo, the use of separate but simultaneous cycles can be particularly striking in these works. Often, he has employed a method whereby seemingly separate events from different moments in the work's narrative, are later brought together to show a complex, rhythmic counterpoint to each other, in overlapping cycles. In other words, each section forms a separate cycle of sound and action, and each cycle is of a different length, yet both share the same tempo and harmonic relationships. So in having these aspects in common, the various cycles could start at the same moment, but then run for extended periods of time, always remaining in rhythmic counterpoint to each other, but in a constant state of evolution as the process unfolds. One example of such overlapping-cycles can be found at the conclusion of his opera Mathew in the School of Life. And a more intimate example at the conclusion of his chamber work John Moran and Saori (in Thailand).[citation needed]

List of works[edit]

His best-known works include Jack Benny!, The Manson Family: An Opera, Every Day Newt Burman (The Trilogy of Cyclic Existence), Mathew in the School of Life, Book of the Dead (2nd Avenue) and John Moran...and his neighbor, Saori.

  • The Taming Power of the Great (1986), an album released on cassette, with Kristin Schleif, limited to 100 copies. Features material written in 1985 and 1986, including excerpts from two operas ("Changing of the Season" and "The Idiot") and a short ballad ("By the Sea"). It may have been released only in Lincoln, Nebraska.[21]
  • Jack Benny! (1988–89) Music-Theater in 3 Acts
  • The Manson Family: An Opera (1990) Music-Theater in 3 Acts / Commissioned by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts featuring Iggy Pop. Also released as a CD in 1992.
  • The Hospital (1991) Music-Theater Commissioned By "Meryl Vladimer" for La MaMa
  • The (Haunted) House (1992) Music-Theater Commissioned By "Meryl Vladimer" for the Club La MaMa
  • Every Day Newt Burman (The Trilogy of Cyclic Existence) (1993) Music-Theater in 3 Acts featuring Julia Stiles
  • Meet the Locusts (1993) / Point Music, Unreleased,[22] featuring Allen Ginsberg
  • Matthew in the School of Life (1995–96) Music-Theater in 4 Acts, featuring Allen Ginsberg and Julia Stiles
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1997) Music-Theater in 2 Acts / Commissioned by A.R.T. at Harvard University
  • Book of the Dead (2nd Avenue) (2000) Music-Theater in 3 Acts / Commissioned by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, featuring Uma Thurman
  • John Moran with Eva Müller (2003) - Variety of Performances
  • Bonne Nuit (2004) - Commissioned by Agitakt Theater / Paris, France
  • A Lake of Tears (For Cabell) (2004) - Orchestra and Computer / Commissioned by Musique Nouvelle en Liberte, Paris
  • John Moran and his Neighbor, Saori (2005) - Variety of Performances
  • Zenith 5! (2006)
  • Saori's Birthday (2007) / Commissioned by Performance Space 122, New York City
  • John Moran and Saori (In Thailand) (2010) / Commissioned by Pumpenhaus, Münster and The Arches, Glasgow, Scotland
  • Etudes: Amsterdam (The Con Artist) (2012) / Commissioned by Fringe Amsterdam, Netherlands, Spoleto Open, Italy and Mayfest Bristol, England.
  • John Moran: Goodbye, Thailand (Portrait of Eye) (2013) / Commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre, London, England, and Mayfest Bristol, England.
  • everyone (2019) / Commissioned by Schauspiel Leipzig (Germany) and Hellerau - Center for European Arts (Dresden, Germany).


  1. ^ a b c d "John Moran". Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Retrieved 28 March 2021.
  2. ^ a b c Smith, Steve (26 June 2011). "'John Moran + Saori': Collaboration at 72 Beats Per Minute". New York Times. Retrieved 28 March 2021.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Kourlas, Gia (August 29, 2006). "From Opera to Dance: His New Style, No Sweat". The New York Times.
  4. ^ a b c d e Kozinn, Allan (November 19, 2000). "Innovative? For Sure. But What Is It?". The New York Times.
  5. ^ Hutera, Donald (10 April 2008). "John Moran and His Neighbour Saori at the Soho Theatre". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 28 March 2021.
  6. ^ Rockwell, John (September 30, 1989). "From Bits of Jack Benny, a Quasi Opera". The New York Times.
  7. ^ a b c d e Field, Andy (April 7, 2008). "Rambling man: John Moran's enigmatic cabaret". The Guardian. London.
  8. ^ "Cult Fave The Manson Family: An Opera Receives Immersive Staging". Broadway World. Retrieved 28 March 2021.
  9. ^ Ross, Alex (March 22, 1994). "Classical Music in Review". The New York Times.
  10. ^ Holden, Stephen (October 6, 1995). "It Ain't Over Till the Robot Lip-Synchs". The New York Times.
  11. ^ Rockwell, John (April 7, 1991). "'Hospital,' By Protege Of Glass". The New York Times.
  12. ^ a b "A Downtown Troupe Revels in a New Sci-Fi Opera". The New York Times. October 11, 1998.
  13. ^ Hutera, Donald (April 10, 2008). "John Moran and His Neighbour Saori at the Soho Theatre W1". The Times. London.
  14. ^ Gardner, Lyn (April 10, 2008). "Theatre review: John Moran and his Neighbour Saori / Soho, London". The Guardian. London.
  15. ^ "John Moran and his neighbor Saori in Thailand! |Amsterdam Fringe 2010 | Fringe Review | Fringe Theatre Reviews". Fringe Review. 2010-09-02. Archived from the original on 2012-03-15. Retrieved 2012-04-12.
  16. ^ "2011 Schedule". The Philip Glass Center. Retrieved 16 August 2017.
  17. ^ "HELLERAU - The Manson Family". www.hellerau.org.
  18. ^ a b "The Amsterdam Culture Group". Meetup.
  19. ^ Hartigan, Patti (Feb 23, 1997) "A Peek Inside The Cabinet" The Boston Globe
  20. ^ Macaulay, Alastair (January 11, 2008). "Of a Birthday and a Baby, on the Very Edge of Mime". The New York Times.
  21. ^ John Moran, The Taming Power of the Great, liner notes
  22. ^ Moran, John. "Herbert, The Saddening Clown". SoundCloud. Retrieved 28 March 2021.