Water Music

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Along the Incan trail to Machu Picchu, Hayley Moss halted to maneuver her microphone above a congregation of wide-eyed children. They'd gathered round, eager to sing for her - though chances are, not as eager as she was to listen. This composer knew that a mere photograph would fall far short of capturing this moment. Nothing but a recording would do.

Even as a kid, Moss often could be found, ears pricked and tape recorder in hand, seizing surrounding sounds. Her childlike fascination with the auditory has never ceased, and as luck would have it, her career thrives on this natural inclination. After composing for commercials, films, and albums as a freelancer for years, the synthesizer-crazed, thirtysomething Moss craved a change. She responded to an ad placed by Detroit-based Yessian Music, and within no time her Tribeca studio had become the New York headquarters of the music house. "I never wanted to be signed with anyone," admits Moss. "I always wanted my independence."

Now, about six months into the job, she sees the benefits of the ol' ball and chain. Having someone else deal with the red tape affords Moss the luxury of sticking to the fun part of the job, the music. Full-fledged representation from Yessian wasn't the only thing the free spirit had failed to foresee in her younger years. Her involvement with advertising was anything but planned. In fact, with a father who worked as a lawyer in the ad world, the thought was quite unappealing. "I swore to God that I'd never go into any form of advertising, just because my father did it."

Little did Moss know how well-suited she'd be for commercials work. Back in the early '80s, while studying performance art at the San Francisco Art Institute, Moss dreamed of directing videos, drawn to the electronic dance music that was making major inroads at the time. As her collection of recording devices, computers and synthesizers grew piece by piece, it became a studio of sorts and her primary interest shifted to music creation. "I started exploring these primitive keyboards," she recalls, "and I knew nothing; I just experimented."

Back in New York, her hometown, jobs scoring student films and features like the 1989 cult horror flick Flesh Eating Mothers introduced her to directors, who in turn, introduced her to the wonderful world of advertising, where her first ad work accompanied a British Petroleum spot. Her music for Yessian has been heard in commercials for clients like Wisconsin Tourism (twangy, languid guitar) Audi (eclectic electronica) and the Indosat calling card (subtle, muted worldbeat). But her most prominent job to date is "Holiday," a Kinka Usher-directed, ominously sound-designed spot for Qwest Communications and JWT/New York, which is showing as a TV :60 and a cinema :90 (see p. 18). "The Qwest ad is my favorite so far just because it has such a positive message and it's so much what I believe in, about believing in your dreams," Moss says of the spot, in which a little boy makes it snow with sheer mindpower. "It's something where I can really say I'm practicing what I preach."

That ethereal quality of dreams is present in all of Moss' compositions, whether they be for commercials, remix albums or film scores. "There's always a dreamy quality about my music," she notes. "It's very watery - very liquidy." Electronica is how Moss encapsulates her sound styling, but it's much more than that. There's a sparse lushness to her sound that almost defies words. The eeriness of a single staccato piano note, a bittersweet flood of pan flute-like tones or the unsettling tremor of tribal drum beats can instantly establish a mood and transport the listener to another plane. "I have a very seductive quality to my music, and I think that's really effective in advertising, and in film as well. You have to be seductive as an advertiser; you have to pull them in - and that's really a very feminine thing to do." So why are there so few female commercials composers? In the past, "Women were not trusted to be in charge, and when you're a composer, you're in charge in some way - the commander of the ship," Moss surmises. But the tide may turn, as more men in the industry realize that "emotion as a communications tool is such a women's thing."

There's always another side to the coin, though, and in this case, her second-sex status has become something of an asset. That `female composer' cachet may bring Moss some distinction, but what she laments as much as the dearth of female colleagues is the lack of original compositions in commercials. She concedes that when using licensed tracks, "If it's done smart, I think it's great." The problem, claims Moss, is that "most of the time it's done because people are lazy and they don't want to deal with getting original music. They're too afraid of dealing with the composer, too afraid of getting the wrong thing. It's very easy for them, but it's not very creative."

However, Moss' musical concerns continue to range well beyond the ad world. Recent side projects include scoring an upcoming production of the Joe Orton play The Ruffian on the Stair, and an ongoing underground trance/house music collaboration with DJ Alex Lauterstein called Three Wing Butterfly. "When I'm working on the long-form stuff, I'm in the vein of what's out there," she says, in contrast to commercials, which usually feature what was out there. "I'm conscious of what's going on in the music scene and dance market. It's very easy to become stagnant if you do commercials all the time."

It's also easy to forget that the music, if it's good, can easily transcend its commercial purpose. To ensure this, Moss maintains, "I always make sure that I'm communicating love. As soon as I set that in motion, I can basically close my eyes and the music writes itself. It opens me up to a higher force."

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