Beethoven + Disneyland = ?

As a composer, theater artist and choreographer, John Moran aims to lead his audiences by the eyes and ears through a magical world.

John Moran 88 224 (photo credit: Dmitry Tyulpanov)
John Moran 88 224
(photo credit: Dmitry Tyulpanov)
When he was a little boy in Lincoln, Nebraska, John Moran prayed "to be like Beethoven because he was serious about his work, but I also wanted to work at Disneyland. That was the apex for me as a little kid. So there were these ideas, a synchronicity between serious Beethoven and the Magic Kingdom." Moran never did get to work at Disneyland, but he has become a much-praised composer, theater artist and choreographer. He's appearing May 21, 22 and 23 at the Clipa Aduma international festival of performance art and visual theater in Tel Aviv with "John Moran's show meets (after some difficulties) the dancer Michal Herman." According to Clipa artistic director Idit Herman, who saw the piece five times at last year's Edinburgh Festival, "the show asks 'what is truth?' but he does it in a very light way. It's funny, but also very serious. I've left his show laughing and in tears." Every fraction of every movement, sound and text in a Moran show is manufactured. The performers lip-synch, yet it looks spontaneous. It's like the creation of the multiple images in an animated film, and, yes, like Disneyland itself - "which takes and leads you by the eyes and ears the way it wants you to go." WHEN HE was 10, Moran wanted to build a Disneyland of his own at home, but of course he couldn't; so he built elaborate sound castles with tape recorders "and a person would be the animation using a frame-by-frame technique to fit it to the sounds I'd made. That's why the performers are silent in almost everything I've ever done, and it still works essentially the same way." At 43, the young-looking Moran is skinny, gentle and has a direct, ingenuous gaze. He was adopted and is an only child. His father was an opera vocal coach, his mother an opera singer who became a nurse. His formal schooling ended at 14, at which point "I knew I was going to be an artist." During his teens he experimented with the guitar, with bands, with painting "and at 18 I decided I was a composer." Fast forward to 1987 when 23-year-old John Moran knocked at the door of Philip Glass's home in New York's East Village clutching Jack Benny, his first opera. It was produced in 1989, received huge praise, and the following year the Lincoln Center commissioned his second opera, The Manson Family, that starred punker Iggy Pop. Other large shows followed, such as Book of the Dead with Uma Thurman and Matthew in the School of Life with Allen Ginsberg. Moran also directed the shows. "I'm going to be your protégé," Moran had told Glass when he visited Lincoln, and the composer gave the boy his address. Moran lived in the Glass home for 10 years, and the stars in his operas were among the many celebrated guests there. The generous Glass took his young genius everywhere, and if at the time he had a bit of a swelled head from all the praise he got, now "the little things he said every day keep coming back at me. He was a great teacher." Glass and Ginsberg "were very serious about Tibetan Buddhism," continues Moran, "and that has influenced my work in that the life of this world is an illusion, to me a musical illusion. Yet because words, sound and movement mesh perfectly, the illusion is one of reality." THE SOUNDS in a Moran score are very specific. Together they create an aural tapestry that's "like a pointillist painting. It takes approximately 300 sound cues to make a natural-sounding minute." Naturalism for Moran equals the common human patterns in speech and movement and he has a huge computerized library from which to draw. Moran's works in the 1990s were multimedia spectaculars but after Book of the Dead in 2000, "I said 'let's simplify.'" In 2003 he started what has been a five-year collaboration with dancer Saori Tsukada. The critics who came to his shows then were from the dance world "and so now I'm a choreographer." There is praise, there is fame, but there is also frustration and even penury. Moran spent two rather fruitless years in Paris as an artist-in-residence. When he went home in 2006, he had no home to go to. He's given up his flat to come here, and would like to stay until he goes to Ireland in September. "Money and I are not friends," he says wryly. With him, the work really is what's important, no matter what, "and I made that decision very young." It's still Beethoven and Disneyland, and a whole lot more.