Robert Moran

Representative works:

Divertissement Number One [1967]: performers and popping popcorn

Robert Moran’s ‘Divertissement no. 1,’ [1967] often referred to as ‘The Popcorn Piece’ could be considered one of the earliest examples of animated notation in ‘new music’, along with Earle Brown’s ‘Calder Piece’ and Ramon Sender’s ‘Tropical Fish Opera’. However, one must not be too quick to throw away history for the sake of a label. Percussionist and Moran-expert Dr. Lucas Bernier observed this in a recent phone conversation:

“I do not really think he took an certain compositional approach at all; I do not think he intentionally created an animated notation piece. It was not supposed to be new, innovative type of notation. He just wanted to make this really fun piece.”[1]

The inspiration for the piece, as noted by Bernier in his 2012 dissertation ‘The Percussion Ensemble Music of Robert Moran,’ was when “Moran lifted the cover off his electric popcorn popper too soon, and popcorn pieces went flying in every direction. His dog, Charlotte, began leaping in the air to catch the popcorn. Despite the mess in his kitchen, Moran thought the grace of Charlotte twirling through the air was beautiful and wanted to turn the ‘dog popcorn ballet’[2] into a staged performance.”[3]

Humor plays a role in several of Moran’s works, and the performance aspects of ‘Divertissement no. 1’ follow suit: “…he instructs the ensemble to wear over-sized circus sunglasses with five lines representing the musical staff taped on the lenses. A lidless popcorn popper is placed in the center of the stage. As the popcorn flies, the musicians play what they see as the popcorn appears not he musical staves of their glasses.”[4] Bernier goes on to note: “The musicians are instructed to maintain a straight face and serious demeanor throughout. The absurdity of the popcorn contrasts with the seriousness of the musicians, resulting in a visual and musical exhibition.”[5]

Moran describes ‘Divertissement no. 1’ the musical/aural result as “an ultra-complex ‘Darmstadt piece’ in that it would be nearly impossible to notate and impossible to duplicate in performance. In a way, this could be viewed as a comical answer to serial or other highly complex music that could take years to learn yet essentially sounds like an improvisation. Moran claims that the piece is no such reaction, saying with a wry smile, ‘no backlash, just popcorn.'”[6] In other words, framing the indeterminate movement of the popcorn within a clear notational framework provides a practical solution to the performance difficulties of complex notations, even though there is no solution necessary, as it is ‘just popcorn.’

Bernier notes that there is [or at least, seems to be] no ‘score’ for ‘Divertissement no. 1,’ and in fact it “was not always credited to Robert Moran.”[7] However, instructions for score creation exist, even if just transmitted orally. By following these instructions, the score emerges in real-time, existing only during performance, disappearing as quickly as it is created.

Although no video documentation of this piece seems to be publicly available, there was a version recorded at the University of Iowa as part of the concert devoted to Moran’s percussion music. If this becomes publicly available I will do my best to post it here.

1. Bernier, interview, 2013.

2. Bernier, Lucas James, “The Percussion Ensemble Music of Robert Moran” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2012), 20.

3. Bernier, 20.

4. Bernier, 20.

5. Bernier, 21.

6. Bernier, 21.

7. Bernier, interview, 2013.


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