Humane Digitization: Bolstering the Acoustic with the Electronic in Daniel Wohl's HOLOGRAPHIC
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Humane Digitization: Bolstering the Acoustic with the Electronic in Daniel Wohl’s HOLOGRAPHIC

Posted February 3rd, 2016

Much of the talk about Daniel Wohl’s latest album Holographic points to the artist’s proficiency in seamlessly melding the digital with the analog, employing his background in composition, and interest in electronic music to create something unconventional and adventurous. This, however, just feels like scratching the surface. Wohl has a remarkable talent for blending those elements, but such a concept is not exactly new to music. So why, despite this, does Holographic feel so contemporary? What I often find most striking on the album is those instances when he lets the veil slip: a momentary interjection of a vibraphone, a sudden crash of breaking glass, a mournful bowing of a violin. These moments of unmanipulated instrumentation help mark the listener’s path through Wohl’s labyrinthine compositions, and imbue the work as a whole with a sense of unpredictability. These moments can jar, they can bring relief, but regardless of the outcome they ground us in the work’s human reality while its immersive digitally altered atmospheres swell all around.

Final Cover

Daniel Wohl’s Holographic, out now via New Amsterdam Records. Cover: “The AK-47 vs The M16.” Design by DM Stith. Photo by Nathan Lee Bush.

While the initial recordings may be organic—such as the gentle drone that opens “Replicate, Pt. 1,” recorded by a microphone placed on a resonating snare drum—Wohl alters and layers these samples until their sources become indecipherable. “I’ll process it in different ways, and stack up the recorded versions against the live, acoustic performance to create a sort of augmented reality,” the composer revealed, speaking to The Boston Globe, adding, “When you listen to the album it’s kind of a mystery as to what’s being played live and what’s electronic.” This process yields innovative, slyly disorienting results, with each track possessing its own enchanting ambience, echoing the works of influential compositional and experimental music innovators, both forebears and contemporaries. “Formless” is marked by the ebbs and flows of a muffled beat, recalling the loop-based works of William Basinski and ambient techno explorations of Wolfgang Voigt. “Pixel” flies by in a gleeful rush, like a toy piano ensemble covering one (or maybe all) of Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano. The chopped and screwed, otherworldly vocals of “Source” nod to the sonic experimentation and voice manipulations of Katie Gately and Holly Herndon, but utilizes them to much different ends.

With such a vast palette of sounds it’s near impossible to distinguish every musical element at play at any given moment. Grasping the full breadth of the work becomes difficult without seeing it performed and witnessing its many moving parts, but don’t expect an exact live recreation of the album. In an interview with Liquid Music, one of Holographic’s co-commissioners, Wohl revealed he had to rearrange some of the music to fit the demands of touring. This poses an exciting opportunity to hear these tracks take on new shapes to meet human abilities and limitations, maintaining the notion that the work, regardless of electronic manipulation, remains deeply human at its core. However, that does not mean the performance will be lacking a clear digital presence.

Describing the album version of Holographic, WXPN’s The Key asserted, “Listening to the music alone suggests a visual experience, something like gazing on a natural landscape through a kaleidoscope, only for the scene to be distorted by an unexpected digital glitch.” Though a visual component does not come part and parcel with the album, a major facet of the live presentation of Holographic are the projections created by LA-based visual artist Daniel Schwarz. Schwarz created a meta-language using both musical and visual information that allow his large scale projections to react to the musicians’ performances in real time. “Timing, pitch, volume and sound source will stand in close relationships to the graphics,” he told the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul, who also commissioned his visual work on the project. Though Schwarz created the parameters through which the visuals interact with the music, the manner in which they behave creates the illusion of natural reactions, a responsive digital entity. This spectacle further bolsters the musical concepts of the work, the notion of the digital and organic blending into a largely indistinguishable whole, but the variety of graphic sources help to ground it in reality as well as slip it into abstraction.

wohl und schwarz

Wohl (left) and Schwarz at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, one of Holographic’s co-commissioners. Photo: Michael S. Gordon for The Boston Globe.

“Our work process itself is very fluid: Daniel and I had countless conversations about how the imagery will interact with the music, and what sort of images and topics we want the final performance to address,” Schwarz said describing his collaborative process with Wohl. “Some of it will be very formal and abstract, representing the sound the instruments make. In other instances, the visuals will move further away from a direct representation into something more figurative and representative of the overall composition. Other times we will include pre-recorded footage, time- and site-specific content, and are also looking into using our own original material by using 3-D cameras — sort of bringing real elements into the composition and furthering the idea of merging of the digital and analog.”

With Holographic, Wohl has established an affecting sound that affords him the luxury of retaining both human disparities and electronic polish in a way that sounds unified. It’s an aesthetic that imbues those brief moments of unaltered sound a vastly greater depth than they would possess in a strictly instrumental piece. In the Liquid Music interview, Wohl pointed to narrative ideas at play within the work: “There’s the notion that we’re living, as human beings, in a time where interfacing with technologies is one of our main preoccupations. It’s about keeping some sort of human element in the electronic component, like the inconsistencies of human playing in live performance, while at the same time being able to have an infinite amount of sounds available to you and not being limited by what we can humanely [sic] produce.” If Wohl is interested in exploring the pervasiveness of technological impositions on our lives, those moments of clear instrumentation become crucial, functioning like brief, fleeting reminders of our humanity amid a sea of alluring digital background noise.

—Hugh Wilikofsky

Stream the album version of Holographic, out now via New Amsterdam Records, on Daniel Wohl’s Bandcamp, and come see the live presentation at FringeArts, February 5 at 8pm. This is a special, one-night only multimedia event you won’t want to miss!

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