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Daniel Wohl

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Daniel Wohl: Holographic
New Amsterdam Records

There's a real ‘go for broke' quality about Daniel Wohl's Holographic, and that's meant as a compliment. Rather than play it safe, the Paris-born, Los Angeles-based composer throws all of his cards on the table and in presenting his music so boldly makes the strongest possible case for himself. In at least one sense Holographic perpetuates the approach of his 2013 New Amsterdam debut Corps Exquis in featuring a number of different artists: whereas the earlier album includes appearances by Julia Holter, Aaron Roche, and Sõ Percussion, the new one features Olga Bell (Dirty Projectors), Caroline Shaw (Roomful of Teeth), Iktus Quartet, Lucky Dragons, Mivos Quartet, Bang On A Can All-Stars, and Mantra Percussion. In both cases, Wohl's vision is well-served by the input of such creative voices.

Though the recorded presentation is obviously restricted to sound, Holographic was conceived to be a multi-media work that in its live form complements the playing of string and percussion players with projections by LA-based visual artist Daniel Schwarz. That it was co-commissioned by Liquid Music, MASS MoCA, Baryshnikov Arts Center, and Indianapolis Museum of Art also gives it a special status amongst contemporary sound works. In Wohl's own words, “Holographic is about exploring different worlds—improbable combinations of sounds—hidden and imaginary sonic landscapes both acoustic and electronic,” and involves the electronic manipulation of traditional elements such as strings, percussion, and the human voice. It's an attempt, in other words, on the composer's part to reconcile the electronic and the acoustic realms and incorporate into its design the imperfections typically associated with both.

The music on the album sometimes engenders a sense of disorientation in the listener, which happens at the outset when “Replicate Part 1” begins with what sounds like an electronically generated drone; in fact, the sound turns out to be one generated by placing a microphone on a resonating snare drum. Said disorientation gradually recedes, however, once vibraphone and percussion treatments emerge to lend the material stability and even a related sense of calm. But lest anyone get too comfortable, the composition's second part brings about the proverbial storm in the form of eleven convulsing minutes of dense, at times raucous electro-acoustic interplay. Not only is it the album's longest track, it's also the most challenging in the way it uncompromisingly immerses the listener within an unpredictable soundworld. Relief arrives seven minutes into the piece, however, when the pulsating sparkle of vibraphone arpeggios surfaces to re-instate order and sanity—the electronic and acoustic dimensions satisfyingly aligned.

That interplay between the murky electronic realm and the more clearly defined acoustic plays out repeatedly, regardless of the changes in personnel. During “Formless,” for instance, string textures produced by the Mivos Quartet ripple across a pulsating mass of blurry electronics, resulting in a sound portrait that constantly loses and then regains focus as it advances. With wordless vocals provided by Olga Bell and Caroline Shaw, “Source” likewise shows how seamlessly voice and electronics can be integrated, something especially apparent in those moments when the two indissolubly merge.

While it is often challenging, Wohl's music isn't abrasive and neither is it inaccessible; in fact, the see-saw of “Holographic Intro” is so entrancing, it could lull an infant to sleep, and the closing “Shapes” similarly catches one off-guard for being so unexpectedly pretty and elegiac. The title track proper is comparatively more dynamic, especially when it's the Bang On A Can All-Stars who're called on to help bring its metronomic mix of woodwinds, electronics, strings, and percussion into being. And while Wohl is of course serious about his work, he also makes room for playfulness, too, as exemplified by the intricate polyrhythmic cross-talk that develops between a prepared piano, strings, and percussion during “Progression.”

February 2016