Between them, musicians-cum-performance artists Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran have created expansive multimedia and interdisciplinary works to shine a light on and interpret a wealth of Black American history and culture: Motown. The titanic jazz greats Thelonious Monk, Fats Waller, and James Reese Europe. Tulsa’s Black Wall Street and its devastation by racial violence in 1921. The Great Migration.
For “Family Ball,” the commissioned work the couple will premiere at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Friday and Saturday, they’ve turned their focus inward. The performance, set on a stage designed by Maggie Ruder inspired by their own living room, will examine their intense, sometimes chaotic creative process and the music and art it has yielded through a mix of live and recorded music, dialogue, and video imagery.
The Morans discussed how this will manifest itself onstage in an hourlong Zoom session last week that itself illustrated their collaborative back-and-forth. Alicia checked in first from the couple’s actual living room in Harlem, seated at her computer. Jason joined a few minutes later, at the wheel of his car. He would spend the bulk of the interview driving home from an art installation he created for the Luhring Augustine gallery in Brooklyn.
“There are moments when their sound is present,” Jason answers when asked if their twin teenage sons would be part of the performance, referring to sound clips recorded when they were little.
“Alicia, you could correct me, but part of what we’ve never shied away from is a biographical approach to our music making. When you study music at the conservatory, you’re rarely asked to take the history class about the music history of yourself. You take the music history of everything else.
“Part of ‘Family Ball’ is about this turning in to one another, rather than turning out to the big world of the big idea: the Great Migration and work songs and lieder and jazz piano history and all that. That stuff that gets magnified. When in reality, the stuff that is getting magnified from our point of view is the way we relate to one another.
“And ‘Family Ball’ is a way of us looking at each other’s work, too. It’s not this wide thing. It really is us examining each other’s music repertoire, canon of songs: my favorite songs of Alicia, Alicia’s favorite songs of mine. So it’s us looking at that. It’s the way that two people who love each other live with the work that we make about each other.”
“It’s really a listening session,” Alicia adds. “Like a radio show happening: You could close your eyes and listen to the whole show. You would hear songs. Those songs are by us. Those songs every now and then feature key collaborators we’ve had over time. You can hear two minutes of Brandon Ross, you can hear two minutes of Thomas Flippin on my end — those are two guitarists on which I leaned a lot of my musical meaning. You can hear six minutes of [Jason’s longtime trio] the Bandwagon, in a live recording we did.
“You also hear Jason speak about his own music on his own terms. We’ve heard Jason speak about James Reese Europe, on Jason’s terms. We’ve heard Jason talk about Thelonious Monk, on Jason’s own terms. This is Jason, in his own piece, talking about Jason in his own terms — while his wife watches and interrupts.”
“And vice versa,” interjects Jason. “Same for Alicia.”
“And that is ‘Family Ball,’” she declares.
“‘Family Ball’ also warps time,” Jason adds. “So though I say that part where we’re not looking at history, we are using the way that history abrupts — interrupts — time and marks it so we are making bits of a timeline about how we met each other, our wedding . . . ”
“. . . Marks time,” cuts in Alicia. “Jason made a [spoken] typo in what he said that was actually the dopest part. We ‘abrupt’ time. That is what he said that is true. Then he fixed it to ‘interrupts.’”
“Yeah, I like ‘abrupts,’” agrees Jason.
“Not ‘abrupt’ as a description,” Alicia clarifies. “We ‘abrupt’ as a verb. It’s genius.”
Soon afterward they find themselves talking over each other until Jason insists on having his important point heard.
“The thing you’ve got to know about us is Alicia is a Leo, and I’m an Aquarius. That is fire and air, and each needs the other. I can listen to Alicia forever, because I’m the air for her fire: I can blow on it and make it go wild. Or I can suck the air out and make the fire . . .”
He takes his hands off the steering wheel and draws them together momentarily to suggest bringing the fire under control.
Talk turns to what inspired them to scrutinize themselves and their own work in the new project.
“Part of it came from a photograph I took of Alicia in Maine, maybe five years ago,” says Jason. “That is a photograph of her in this window in this kitchen of this house. I kept the camera on the tripod and then set it on timer. And then we took this portrait, which is probably the image I should send you, because it is the basis of where this piece started from. Right, Alicia?”
“I would say Jason’s habit of photographing us in black and white is where the visual evidence exists that it would work if we do this,” she replies. “There is a photograph of us where I am pissed, Jason is confused. It’s the dead of night, we’re both also very tired. But Jason has this piece of technology — this camera he just got — on this tripod, and he wants to test it out. A mad wife is as good to photograph as any other wife . . . ”
Jason begins laughing.
“And then he says, ‘Stand there, the light is great’ — and it was this ugly fluorescent light, on top of me like this.” She snatches the Zoom lighting for her computer and holds it over her head to illustrate. “And I’m washing dishes looking at him. And then he’s like, ‘Look over there.’ The tripod is there, and we just kind of look out. And it’s a great picture of who we actually are.”
So great they re-created that black-and-white photo in color earlier this year with multimedia artist and filmmaker Katherine Freer for the ICA show’s video component.
Alicia fetches another photo from across the room, a black-and-white of herself in an elegant black dress, and holds it up for inspection.
“Then Jason took this picture of me. He has this up on his computer. It’s like a million pictures of me in the midst of something very stressful. This is backstage before a concert in Scandinavia. And then there’s a picture of me coming down the stairs. And I’m like, ‘Fool, what are you doing?’”
“It’s the most incredible picture,” Jason cuts in, laughing again. “Maybe I’m looking to document a moment of tension. I think Alicia’s right: I didn’t know that I was using an instrument to capture the moment when life as a couple is most intense. For me, the worth of anything good is that it must have that tension in it. And it must flirt with the possibility of disaster.”
A couple since college, married in 2003, the Morans began flirting with disaster on multimedia projects — Alicia injecting the theatrical impulses derived from her work in opera and theater into her jazz pianist husband’s commissioned works — since Alicia joined Jason and the Bandwagon for “Milestone” at the Walker Art Center in 2005. Two years later, she helped him prep “In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959″ for the San Francisco Jazz Festival.
“Literally, while Alicia was in the hospital holding in the twins, because they were about to be born too early at 24 weeks, she walked me through every song,” Jason recalls. “We talked about the videos and talked about the narrative. As soon as we finished, got to the end and said, ‘OK, so this is what the form will be,’ her water broke.”
Now comes “Family Ball,” which the Morans may bring to other venues after its ICA run.
“It’s the only one for now and we’ll see,” says Jason. “We’re really making this for each other and for Boston right now.”
Alicia begins elaborating, but Jason has arrived home and is parked downstairs waiting. They have somewhere else to be.
“Alicia,” he urges her, “say bye and get in the car, c’mon.”
JASON MORAN AND ALICIA HALL MORAN: FAMILY BALL
At the Institute of Contemporary Art. Nov. 18 and Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. $25-$35. icaboston.org
Bill Beuttler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.