Composers often pick up nearly unshakable identifiers in the press that follow them like a tagline. For Daniel Wohl, that call-out has been praise for the remarkably seamless integration of the acoustic and electronic timbres that thread his compositions. It’s a talent that generated significant buzz after the 2013 release of his album Corps Exquis, and it’s a modifier that will likely only cling more tightly in the wake of his full-length follow-up Holographic.
Which is all well and good since it is remarkable. Wohl says that while some artists make use of placing these sounds in opposition, they’re all just sounds to his ear, without distinction. It’s a way of working that comes naturally and simply offers him an enhanced palette that he finds more engaging.
“I feel like a lot of things are born out of being dissatisfied with something,” Wohl acknowledges, further explaining that electronics make acoustic instrumentation more exciting to him, while instrumentalists add vital energy, especially in live performance situations. “And so why not [use all of them]? You can do all of that today, so it doesn’t make sense for me to have arbitrary distinctions between the two.”
In an age of boundary dismantling, this sounds entirely sensible, but the distinctions he makes between live and recorded performance is equally compelling. Taking the album version of Holographic as an example, several of the works were created independently for live performance. These and the other pieces included on the disc were later recorded by a range of (often their commissioning) ensembles—Iktus Percussion, Mivos Quartet, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Olga Bell and Caroline Shaw, and Mantra Percussion. (Lucky Dragons even pops up with a writing credit on the closing track.)
“When I’m writing commissioned works, I definitely think about the album as well,” Wohl admits. “I think the album is a great way to bring it all together,” allowing each work to have a longer and more polished life and to be heard by a much larger group of people. “For me that feels like a very comfortable place for what I’m doing because the studio becomes an instrument and you can really fine tune. I don’t always have the luxury of recording, but it’s great when it works and makes sense.”
The recording for Holographic wrapped last September, but the work was not yet finished. Wohl arranged the music to suit a touring ensemble (after stops in New York, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Minnesota, one show remains on February 27 in Los Angeles) consisting of percussion trio and string quartet, plus Wohl himself holding down the electronics. During a weeklong residency at MassMOCA in early January, Wohl further refined the performance with the live players and added the final essential element—a visual accompaniment special to the live presentation created by Daniel Schwarz.
While Wohl considers the album complete without the video work, he finds that the live performance is enhanced to the point that “I don’t think I would do it without the video.”
Even for the well initiated, laptops in performance can seem an enigma. Here, Wohl and Schwarz sit together within reach of the other performers on stage, Wohl’s MIDI designed to communicate with Schwarz’s visual software. In terms of content, the setups mirror each other in a sense—some of the material pre-rendered and some of it mixed live, allowing in-the-moment control over movement, shading, dynamics, and other effects.
It leaves Wohl the room to be involved enough in the performance to feel like he’s another performer on stage playing his part. “Definitely not as much as a violin,” he’s quick to point out, “but certainly I feel like I’m having an impact on the way the strings are reacting to the electronics.”
Still, why leave room for mistakes?
“I don’t really have a conceptual problem with someone who presses play, but I like to be entertained while I’m doing it so I leave as much as I can handle to the live process. But someone could probably handle more than I can, and other people just want to sit back and enjoy the performance themselves.”
On reflection, Wohl’s most distinctive skill may be his knack for balance even more than blending, the music swinging across a wide range of timbres that can carry a piece without slipping the noose of his control.
Born and raised in Paris (his father hailed from Los Angeles, if you’re wondering where his accent is hiding), then educated at Bard College, University of Michigan, and Yale, Wohl recently made the jump from New York to LA, for “no real good reason except that I wanted a little bit more space and better weather,” he jokes. But on a more serious note, he underlines that commonality of being moved around by the economics of being an artist—the seemingly straightforward yet complex equation involved in securing the time and space to create new work.
“People ask your reasons why you’re making things, and sometimes you have some and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it’s really simply, ‘I’m making something,’ and your intuitive, creative approach is all it’s about.”
It’s something that makes him self-conscious at times, but he suggests that perhaps artists are simply searching for some sort of ideal. “Sometimes we get close to it and sometimes we fall short, but we’re all looking for this idealized version of what this music could be.”
Part of that ideal for Wohl is in that mix of acoustic and electronic sounds, which he feels reflects a broader cultural conversation. “We’re looking for something that’s interfacing with technology but just stays human—doesn’t lose the flaws and what makes us interesting.
“That’s an ideal we’re looking for in our computers, but also in the music we’re making.”