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Virtual reality meets ‘Holographic’ imagery

Daniel Wohl (left) and Daniel Schwarz at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.Michael S. Gordon for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Fair warning: After listening to Daniel Wohl’s music, you may begin to question your senses.

“I’ll start with a percussionist or a string player recording a sound,” explains the 35-year-old electroacoustic composer, “and then 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. So when you listen to the album, it’s kind of a mystery as to what’s being played live and what’s electronic.

“I think it’s interesting to see the work performed live,” he adds, “and be able to solve that mystery.”

On Saturday at Mass MoCA, new music lovers will have an opportunity to do just that, with a multimedia performance of “Holographic,” Wohl’s latest collection of gorgeously perplexing soundscapes. The work-in-progress performance features imagery by audiovisual artist Daniel Schwarz, culminating a weeklong residency for both artists in anticipation of the album’s performance premiere in New York on Jan. 21, and the Jan. 29 CD release on New Amsterdam Records.

“Holographic,” which was co-commissioned by Mass MoCA, is only the second full-length album for the Paris-born, LA-based Wohl. His debut venture, “Corps Exquis,” garnered praise from The New York Times and NPR, among others, and placed Wohl squarely on the new-music map for his surreal blurring of boundaries between electronic and acoustic instruments, weaving complex, richly textured tapestries of sound that live in the interstices of sonic perception.


Even watching Wohl in rehearsal at the museum, moving regularly between the instrumentalists onstage and the electronics on his computer, it can be difficult to distinguish between live and pre-recorded sounds.

“A lot of it comes from what I listen to,” says the classically trained Wohl, who cites everyone from modern composers Steve Reich, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Krzysztof Penderecki to electronic artists Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Lucky Dragons — with whom Wohl collaborated on “Shapes,” the closing track on “Holographic” — as influences on his work.


“Part of it, too, is that I can’t imagine living without electronic sounds in today’s world — it’s such a big part of what we’re hearing,” he says. “Yet at the same time, there’s something really beautiful and tangible about seeing someone produce a sound in front of you. So combining those two has always been the best of both worlds for me.”

Along with processing real instruments, Wohl incorporates field recordings, samples of other music, and snippets of vocals into his multilayered compositions, which shift effortlessly from rhythmically propulsive to gratingly discordant, and to darkly romantic and droney. He also likes to experiment with translating musical ideas between forms: imitating a vocal sample with another instrument, or even transcribing electronic sounds for live instruments.

“The thing that makes Daniel’s music cool is that the electronics and the live instruments are really blended seamlessly together,” says composer David Lang, whom Wohl studied with at the Yale School of Music. The Bang on a Can All-Stars, house band of the composers’ collective and festival Lang helped to found, is one of several groups featured on “Holographic.”

“He builds these hypnotic super-instruments out of acoustic and processed sounds,” Lang says. “The live and the electronic feel organically connected to each other. It can be magically disorienting.”

By incorporating visual imagery into his live shows, Wohl hopes not only to offer audiences a richer sensory experience, but also to bring an additional layer of meaning to his music. “I think that visuals complement my music quite well,” he says. “And I like working with other artists who are going to bring a new perspective to the work, and augment what I’m doing in a way that I couldn’t predict.”


For “Holographic,” Wohl and Schwarz spent months working closely together to create a “metalanguage” that synchronizes their machines. Schwarz built custom software that reacts in real time both to live feeds from the musicians and electronic inputs from Wohl, and generates visuals that range from geometric shapes and color shifts to live news feeds and publicly available satellite imagery.

“Daniel’s compositions are very visceral and powerful, and evoke a multitude of images and associations for me,” says Schwarz. “One of the biggest challenges was the complexity and breadth in ‘Holographic,’ ” he says. “It’s an extremely diverse project, and this is also what I love about it.”

But while he’s excited about creating engaging multimedia performances of his complex compositions, for Wohl it’s ultimately about how people feel when they close their eyes and simply listen to his music.

“When I listen to an album, I want an artist to take me on a journey: to show me something that I may not have realized was beautiful at first, until I get into their world and see it through their eyes,” he says. “When I hear someone’s work and I both connect to it emotionally, and am also perplexed by it in some way, then I know that there’s really something special there.”



At Mass MoCA, North Adams, Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $18, preferred seating $22, advance $12, students $8. 413-662-2111,

Stacey Kors can be reached at