Daniel Wohl: Corps Exquis
New Amsterdam Records

Listening to Daniel Wohl's debut album Corps Exquis, I find myself repeatedly hearing it as an exploration of Dionysian and Apollonian forces, or more specifically as a struggle between the two enacted in musical form. In Greek mythology, Dionysus is associated with wildness and intoxication, and in essence involves the releasing of one's anarchic spirit, whereas Apollo is the level-headed counterpoint who symbolizes order and control (parallels to Freud's Id and Superego obviously can be drawn). On much of the fifty-minute recording, the Paris-born and Brooklyn-based composer's music bursts with Dionysian energy in a way that threatens to dismantle the Apollonian order at the music's core.

Of course, it's not simply Wohl's music that exudes Dionysian force; credit for that must also go to TRANSIT, the new music quintet (cellist Evelyn Farny, violinist Andie Springer, clarinetist Sara Budde, pianist David Friend, percussionist Joe Bergen) that brings the album's nine settings to life (Aaron Roche, Julia Holter, and So Percussion also contribute vocals and percussion to selected tracks). Wohl recasts the ensemble's sound by electronically processing its acoustic instruments, resulting in a hybrid that is literally electroacoustic in nature.

The album's pulsating opener “Neighborhood” finds So Percussion and Aaron Roche adding to its percussive sound-world and in so doing weaving into the vibrant track textures reminiscent of the kind heard in Chinese opera; also boosting the material's euphoric swirl are TRANSIT's strings and Wohl's organ playing. Exotic sonorities likewise inflame “323,” whose percussive and string elements roar like some celebratory fireball, while “Cantus” remains steady throughout its opening minutes before a Dionysian implosion scatters the instruments in all directions. A volcanic rumble also persists throughout “Insext” in a way that makes it seem ready to devour the other elements at any moment. A hint of jazz seeps into “Plus ou Moins” by way of Budde's free-form bass clarinet runs, even if Friend's hyperactive piano patterns return the music to classical terra firma by giving it a Louis Andriessen-like kick.

Also effective is the album's trajectory, as it moves through multiple robust pieces before eventually arriving at comparative calm at the end. “Fluctuations” receives its unusual timbral character from the presence of three melodicas (it's noticeably percussion-free as well), while the album's most moving piece is the wistful closer, “Corpus,” whose undulating strings, vibraphones, and vocals (by Holter) give the piece the feel of a battle hymn played to commemorate the dead.

The title, incidentally, is a French term that translates as “Exquisite Body” and also references the parlor game “Exquisite Corpse” that the Surrealists developed in 1920s Paris, whereby each player is asked to complete a section of an artwork, having only seen a small part of the previous player's contribution. Consequently, a participant only sees the total piece after all of the individual sections are finished. Even here one witnesses evidence of the Dionysian sensibility, specifically in the openness to randomness and chance—tendencies that go against the orderly world of the Apollonian. It's not stretching things too far to see Wohl's Corps Exquis as not just an electronic-acoustic fusion but a marriage of the Dionysian and Apollonian, too. (One final note: the album review was written before reading Wohl's own wonderful account of the album's pieces, which can be read here, so as not to be influenced by the composer's own comments.)

June 2013