CULTURE

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Carman Moore Has Got It Covered

From our new ‘Voice Lore’ print section — composer, performer, and critic Carman Moore talks about his decades at the heart of the NYC music scene

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Let’s start with a two-page photo spread from the March 1968 issue of Mademoiselle magazine, taken near the Sheridan Square offices of the Village Voice. The caption for the piece describes the downtown weekly as a “hard-hitting, no-holds-barred, language-zesty paper dedicated to free opinion on just about everything.” So there’s Deborah Jowitt, dance critic, stylish in white stockings and black pumps, and Howard Smith with a flowing scarf, something right out of the avant-garde culture notes in his “Scenes” column. Nat Hentoff has a sheaf of papers under his arm, maybe a Supreme Court brief or liner notes for a jazz album, depending on what he was writing about that week. Amid these dozen freelance Voice scribes who appeared regularly in the paper, only one was Black: Carman Moore, dapper in a dark suit, patterned tie, and light overcoat and slacks. Under his name is printed simply “Music.”

That one word says it all, because for eight decades, Moore (born 1936) has practiced what he has preached, not only as a longtime writer of music criticism for the Voice and other publications but also as a composer for everyone from avant-garde jazz improvisers to classic rock stalwarts to full symphony orchestras. As Moore tells the Voice in a recent interview, his lifelong musical journey began in a small Ohio town (“20 enormous miles from Cleveland”), where he played first French horn in high school. Next stop was more music training, at Ohio State University, and then in the fall of 1958, the Juilliard School, in Manhattan. All the while he was writing, and at some point he entered a poetry contest hosted by the Village Voice and judged by two heavyweights of verse, Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. His second-place finish made the budding writer think that he could find a home at the weekly newspaper, and add some new perspectives, since the bulk of musical coverage was still in the classical groove.

At first, the pay was “bupkas,” as Moore recalls, maybe subway fare. The greater reward was to be out amid the emerging strains of new sounds in the 1960s. “The Voice itself,” he tells me, speaking not just about music but about the whole postwar cultural scene in downtown New York, “was a statement of that new mentality. It sort of got invented by the need for it.”

With his conservatory training, Moore was as comfortably at home reviewing the Juilliard Opera Theatre’s performance of La Bohème (the orchestra “played with clean and fervent sympathy”) as he was covering a memorial program of chamber music by the American modernist Henry Cowell (1897–1965), noting the composer’s masterful phrasing—sometimes by way of “a piano being pounced upon with elbow and forearm as in ‘Tiger’ or having its strings rubbed from inside the lid, as in ‘The Banshee.’” Both reviews appeared in the same March 1966 column; three months later, in the June 9 issue, Moore was writing about the very up-to-the-minute composer of “tape music,” Steve Reich, in a piece headlined “Park Place Electronics.” First noting that “foam rubber pillows were made available for sitting or sprawling” upon by the audience, Moore described how Reich employed taped and altered phrases, such as, “Come out and show them,” explaining how rapidly repeating the “sh” in “show” replicated “the sound of maracas,” and concluding, “Mr. Reich’s work suggested a raga exercise, distorting and distorting to incandescence.”

Fast forward a couple of years (and past scores of reviews, such as one describing a Ravel composition as “sad sunshine” and a Morton Feldman piece for percussion as “quiet-to-the-point-of-being-little-more-than-philosophy”) and we arrive in that heady year of 1968, when Moore assays a pop quartet that some say was even more popular than Jesus. In the December 12, 1968, issue of the paper, Moore pays homage, from one music fanatic to four others: “I don’t know whether the original idea of doing virtually every popular music style since the ’20s and putting those 30 cuts into a plain, white cover is actually pompous, larcenous, or what. I only know that they invade those fields and end up cutting the heavies in all but two or three of them (even Tiny Tim). The key to this mastery—the easy way to say it—is that while others break their necks inventing styles, the Beatles invent songs. Another way—also easy—is that they are so obviously still respectful and excellent listeners to anybody else’s thing, that something makes them keep improving, and that music is their natural religion and they would yell their voices into hamburger, put their deepest secrets on a PA system, or strip stitchless if music is involved.”

Moore wasn’t alone in his assessment of the so-called “White Album,” but his ardent observation that the Beatles were passionate students of their art has held up as well as the tunes under review more than half a century ago. The broadly educated critic with a voracious appetite for music of the now was also in a position to give props to a song that baffled more than a few Beatles faithful at the time, deeming “Revolution 9” “a not-badly-formed avant-garde outing.” But it wasn’t just the music of the moment that Moore was covering—he was also defending its creators. The February 16, 1967, front page of the Voice featured a Fred W. McDarrah photo of a distraught Charlotte Moorman (a cellist and seminal performance artist) being arrested for the crime of, as Moore described two months later in the paper, asserting “any female cellist’s right to play Massenet’s ‘Melodie’ in a bikini made of blinking light bulbs or Brahms’ ‘Lullaby’ topless.” Moorman had been playing the cello in Fluxus artist Nam June Paik’s “Opera Sextronique,” the various costumes or lack thereof being part of the performance. In that April 27, 1967, issue, Moore described the scene at the Criminal Court hearing of “The People v. Moorman”: “Three rather scruffy policemen discoursed on Bach and cellos bowed with violins, flowers and such, masks and modern art forms. Confusion entered the case here and never left it. A courtroom screening of a subpoenaed CBS movie of the concert seemed to turn that afternoon session into a stag night. Court was adjourned.”

At one point in the performance, Moorman had attached little propellers to her breasts, which the news film had captured, leading to this exchange in court the following day, as recorded in Moore’s article:

The People: Did you use your breasts in any other way than by exposing and affixing propellers to them?

She: What?

T.P.: I mean like using them to play the instrument or something.

She: Well, you saw the film. I don’t know how to do anything else with them.

Moore testified for the defense, seeing Paik’s production as “a tweaking (Judge Milton Shalleck thought he heard ‘squeaking’) of the nose of a sexually unhealthy society, as well as a dig at our electronic society in the idea of wiring a female body.” An unsigned report in the May 11, 1967, Voice was headlined “Moorman Guilty, Suspend Sentence,” and noted that while Judge Shalleck found the cellist “guilty of giving a lewd performance,” he decided not to send her to prison because it was her first offense.

So, the times they were a-changin’ and Moore was traveling with them. He tells me during the interview that the collisions of musical ideas came—then, as now—from “spending a lot of time in New York City, where everything’s going on, and a lot of things are appreciated that are not in the standard set-up.” For instance, there was the night he spent in a little club called Ungano’s, on West 70th Street, where, with fewer than 10 people in the house, he was transported by the guitar alchemies of Jimi Hendrix, Leslie West, and B.B. King jamming together.

Like the Beatles, Moore has always been an ecumenical listener, and early on he realized he wanted to start not just playing and writing about music but composing it. In a video interview from 2014 with the nonprofit Composers Now, an organization that promotes living artists, Moore speaks about playing French horn and cello as a youth, and then says, “I never thought I would become a composer until I started hearing things in my head. I felt I should check that out, because hearing things in your head could mean one thing, or it could mean another thing. The one thing was that these sounds and this music was original with me.” In 1975, his composition Gospel Fuse premiered with the San Francisco Symphony. Speaking with The New York Times shortly before opening night, he described the piece as “almost a church service,” one that included the brilliant sax improviser Sam Rivers and a gospel quartet led by Cissy Houston. Moore said at the time, “At first I thought of Aretha Franklin but Cissy is fantastic. She’s Dionne Warwick’s aunt, and taught her to sing.”

And remember that Voice poetry contest, back in the day? Well, it came full circle in the mid-1970s, because it turns out that Felix Cavaliere—he of soulful organ and heartfelt vocals for the chart-topping pop group the Rascals—enjoyed Moore’s Voice articles. When Cavaliere decided to go the solo route, he called Moore, who tells me, “Felix said, ‘I’m looking for a lyricist.’ And I said, ‘I’ll give it a go,’ and I became a lyricist [laughter].”  Moore wrote the words for all the songs on Cavaliere’s first solo album, and some of the lyrics for later albums. Plus, Foghat anyone? In 1974, a Cavaliere-Moore track gave the title to the blues-rock band’s Rock ’n’ Roll Outlaws album. Lines such as these no doubt helped the disc achieve Gold record status:

Undercover of the silver moon, run for cover

There’s a lover with a magic tune

Gonna work you over, roll you in the clover

In 2006, another tune by the duo, “Everlasting Love,” was sampled by Busta Rhymes (joined by Stevie Wonder) in “Been Through the Storm.” Moore’s willingness to “give it a go” has always led him down interesting pathways. During our interview, Moore mentions that John Lennon attended a New York Philharmonic program at Lincoln Center that included works by Stravinsky, Mozart, and Moore’s “Wild Fire and Field Songs.” Shortly afterward, Moore tells me, laughing, the ex-Beatle sent a postcard reading, “I really loved your piece, but I could’ve done without the Mozart.” (Moore eventually became friends with the Liverpool legend, which led to another court appearance, this time testifying on behalf of Lennon, who was fighting a deportation case brought by the Nixon administration—a battle Lennon eventually won).

Then there was the collaboration with a luminary of the literary sort, Ishmael Reed, who in 1980 needed someone to score Personal Problems, his “meta soap opera” about an African American nurse living in Harlem who is also a poet, her transit-worker husband, and a musician whom she is in love with on the side. Moore tells me that when they met, he felt that Reed was “another character, like John Lennon, in a way, different from other people. So, he said, ‘I’ve got this film I’m gonna make and I’d really like you to do the score,’ and I said, ‘Okay, just give me a few bucks so I can hire some people.’ And I just started knocking it together.” The 165-minute film, shot with improvisational verve on then cutting-edge videocassette cameras by director Bill Gunn, was re-released in 2018 to positive reviews. Jake Perlin, artistic and programming director for the Metrograph theater, in New York, who was instrumental in the 2018 restoration, told an interviewer at the time, “I think what a lot of people respond to is that this is obviously a film by people creating exactly what they wanted to, without compromise or influence by any cultural gatekeepers. The artists’ voices are unmediated, unstifled.”

Which also describes what Moore has been doing for decades. Beginning in the 1980s, he has given great jazz improvisers room to spread their wings with his Skymusic Ensemble. The aughts brought meditational compositions with such apt titles as Balloons After Noon, Stargazer, and Home. His 2015 homage to Nelson Mandela, Madiba, premiered at Carnegie Hall; 2017 saw a Skymusic Ensemble piece performed at the Museum of Modern Art, inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s prints riffing on Dante’s “Inferno.”

Also brought forth in 2015 was Moore’s Concerto for Ornette, its moody strings imparting film-noir vibes from the 1950s until suddenly we’re swooping into new times through fetching bleats and skronks on the solo sax inspired by Moore friend and colleague Ornette Coleman (1930–2015). Moore’s arrangement captures the era when Coleman was creating new chops and is rife with the anxious, evocative innovations of the man wailing on the plastic sax who split opinions in the jazz world—Dizzy Gillespie: “I don’t know what he’s playing, but it’s not jazz”—yet enraptured such up ’n’ comers as Lou Reed. Speaking of one of Coleman’s seminal compositions, the rock trailblazer once said, “I heard ‘Lonely Woman,’ and that changed my life. The harmonies. That was it. There’s not a day goes by when I’m not humming ‘Lonely Woman.’”

Moore channels such impact and devotion with the steeplechase melodies that thread through Concerto for Ornette’s three movements, a piece that could only be realized after decades of playing instruments, writing words, composing music, and wandering New York to hear what there is to hear, whether in cramped clubs, spacious concert halls, or just out on the streets—experiences that a young Black man from Ohio has made into a long life’s work. Toward the end of our conversation, Moore reminds me of a Duke Ellington quote: “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” Better than most, Moore knows the difference.   ❖

R.C. Baker has been writing about art, politics, popular culture, and sports for the Village Voice since 1994.

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