Deeply Human: An Interview with Composer Daniel Wohl / by Liquid Music

by Michael Hammond

Left: Michael/coffee Right: Daniel/sunlight

Left: Michael/coffee Right: Daniel/sunlight

I've known Daniel Wohl now for a few years. We first crossed paths via mutual composer friends in Brooklyn and have since worked together on Daniel's two album releases for New Amsterdam Records (2013's Corps Exquis and this year's Holographic). We also co-curated Sound / Source, an all-day electronic music festival at MoMA PS1.

The first music of Daniel's I heard was a piano piece called AORTA, performed by Vicky Chow on the Ecstatic Music Festival at Kaufman Center in New York City. I remember being struck by how human the piece sounded, in spite of its highly glitched out source material. I still think that one of Daniel's greatest strengths as a composer is his ability to create something deeply human and emotionally complex out of seemingly lifeless digital sources. Temporarily setting aside my role as "label guy" with a vested interest in his albums, I can honestly say that he is one of my favorite electroacoustic composers working today, and I feel fortunate to call him a friend.

Below is a conversation Daniel and I had a couple of weeks ago over phone (he was in LA at the time, while I was in Brooklyn). I took it as an opportunity to ask about his inspirations and process, as well as the purely logistical challenges posed by the prospect of recording and touring a project as complex as Holographic.

M(ichael):  I'm always curious to learn about composer's first experiences with electronic music and electronic sound. I have my own references for growing up, listening to music and hearing sounds that didn’t sound like they were coming from any sort of source I recognized, whether it was a synthesizer in a Pink Floyd song or some computer manipulations in a Radiohead track.  Those were some of the sounds that jumped out for me.  For you, when you were growing up, what were those kinds of moments that grabbed you and made you think about sound in a different way?

D(aniel):  Hmmm, that’s a great question. It’s tough to tell.  You know how you just go through so many phases, when you’re a teenager... I guess the first song I ever really loved was a Kate Bush song.

M:  Which song?

D:  “Wuthering Heights”  It was a huge hit in France.  I was 5 or 6. I just remember loving her voice and how strange it was.  The timbre of her voice was so different. That was a moment for me, just discovering the magic of music.

M:  It’s interesting you mention Kate Bush.  Her voice is totally otherworldly. It has that quality, this alien thing. Listening to your music, I feel like you put a lot of vocal manipulations into your electronics tracks. Even if they’re not literal samples of voices, they have this cadence that’s vocal in nature.  Do you think about the voice when you’re writing?

D:  Yeah, writing for strings for example, I often sing the part first. I think it’s the best way to emulate the variation of dynamics and color for a string instrument. A lot of composers just make weird noises while we’re writing music [laughs]. Of course, you can use other tools, like virtual instruments and MIDI to do that, but you’ll never get the flexibility that the human voice has.  

For other instruments it’s not as useful. But for strings and winds, you can get a good sense of note length, phrasing, and dynamic shape. The human voice is the most flexible instrument. Sometimes I’ll do a vocal improvisation and then notate that improvisation for different instruments. Translating from the voice to other instruments can give you some  pretty interesting results

M:  Right.

D:  At the same time, I find it pretty hard writing for the human voice. Going back to Kate Bush, I really don’t like “normal” voices. I can love the music and production around it, but if the voice is too conventional it makes the whole piece a bit stale for me.

M:  Another thing I’m curious about is your process. Can you tell me a little about what inspires your writing these days?

D:  I’m always trying to find ways to make music with other people. I find that to be the most exciting. Growing up, I’d just invite friends over and we’d just improvise together. These days, because we’re able to just produce so much music by ourselves, we don’t need to collaborate as much, and it kind of takes the communal aspect out of the picture, which was a huge part of what I loved about music. I do appreciate  that we have so much control today, but at the same time, bringing other people into the process is the most exciting thing for me.

M:  Totally. It breathes new life into the work. It’s very easy to fall into your own habits as a solitary composer.

Holographic Video trailer featuring "Source" w/ Caroline Shaw and Olga Bell

D:  You can see that in some of the tracks on Holographic. For example, “Source.” The electronics were done and the vocals were written and Olga Bell and Caroline Shaw were singing them in the studio. But I always had problems with that track. While we were recording, I asked Caroline do some vocal improvisations. I took a few moments from those improvs and incorporated them into the track.

M:  Interesting. Yeah, these days that's almost an old-fashioned approach (hashing things out in the studio). Now there’s more virtual collaboration, whether it’s taking something someone’s recorded and chopping it up. Or doing remixes. Remixes have been some of my favorite things to work on. That’s always a really fun problem to solve.

D:  It’s really interesting to look into someone’s process at the level of the stems.

M:  Yeah, it’s like looking into someone’s bedroom closet. That relates to another question I was going to ask you about your writing process. I remember in Berlin you were editing sounds and constantly re-editing / re-mixing. Often the pieces would turn out very different from the way they were performed. How do you know when you’re finished with a track?

D:  I think each piece ends up having it’s own  process. All methods are available. For example, on Progression I wrote a chord progression, then I created a texture, and then I started figuring out when chords changed and what sounds would come in and out of the texture. After that it was performed a couple times and I re-edited it and worked out  some more samples to include. It had its own life. But that’s a totally different process than ”Source” – which is more of an electronic track in some ways. Also “Holographic,” for example, was a piece I originally wrote for Bang on a Can, and was much more of a straight ahead composition. When it came time to get it on an album I ended up slowing down the entire piece by about 6 BPM. I don’t think any of these are a typical process but every piece needs what it needs.

For each track, you go through a relationship. There are a lot of moments where you fall in love with it, and then you hate it, and then you love it again. You have to do the work to find something new to love about it.  

M:  You gotta keep the magic alive [laughs] And it’s totally different when you write the piece for a commission to be performed than when you’re thinking about writing for an album.

D:  I think we’re in a cross-section between performance art and album art. Classical music is very centered  around the  performance aspect. It’s meant to to be seen as much to be heard, whereas albums are meant to be heard. And what I’m trying to do is write something that can be both seen and heard. Frequently one of those elements is lacking, but I’m attempting to do both. Sometimes the best music is just one long held note, and that is really boring to watch but it can sound great. And some really impressive music to watch, when you close your eyes, just doesn’t have any meaning.  Finding that balance is really difficult.

Daniel 'at work'

Daniel 'at work'

M:  Especially because Holographic has so many moving parts. You’ve got the chamber players, the electronics, and you have the visual element. All the pieces existed before the album, so I imagine the performances have changed, too.

D:  Also, the live instrumentation is not the same as the recorded album. I had to re-arrange some of those pieces for new instrumentation [laughs].

M:  Yeah that’s a really unique, interesting way to go about it.

D:  Yeah it’s a hard balance to find.

M:  I imagine logistically it’s just way more challenging to do that kind of album and tour rather than a self-produced bedroom project. My own music has tended toward the latter, for practical reasons. I know you’re talking about how much you love collaborating, so I imagine you get a buzz out of other people performing your music, but logistically that also seems difficult.

D:  Yeah, it’s pretty challenging. I‘ve got to stop doing that [laughs]. I think on the next album, if I need to work with a  violin I’ll just ask a violinist. And I won’t necessarily use full ensembles.  Holographic has a different ensemble on almost every track.

M:  Right, but it doesn’t sound like it. If I didn’t know it was different ensembles, I wouldn’t think about it.

D:  Yeah, and that’s what I want. I didn’t want it to be a collection, or a document of a bunch of different pieces. Because that doesn’t make a good album, you know? I wanted it to have it’s own distinct sound world. And that’s the way it’s recorded. It was all recorded in the same place. Working with Paul Corley (producer and mix engineer) was another way we achieved that sound.

M: Is there any kind of narrative to music or are your pieces about anything in particular or are you just focused on the aesthetics of what’s pleasing to you in the moment?

D:  It’s a little bit of both. Invariably when you’re dealing with sound, you’re dealing with what you think is beautiful or satisfying and that comes with a certain context and culture. There’s always a narrative about what you’re doing, even if it’s not overt.

You could say this album has to do with my ideas about mixing electronic and acoustic instruments – organic vs. digital etc. There is the organic vs. electronic element, and the idea of deriving electronic sounds from acoustic instruments. But it’s hard to put everything into a neat little box. 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 produce.