Diamond Pulses, the new electronic album by Daniel Corral, released on Orenda Records and available September 12, is an odd duck. How could it be otherwise, as by Corral’s admission, it “started as a mockup for a microtonal Plinko game/sound-installation.” The Plinko element is referenced on the album artwork, as a glowing grid interacting with a drifting abstract background. There’s a clue.
On the surface of the single, 32-minute track, everything seems perfectly transparent, maybe even grid-like. Insistent, hopped-up Plinko polyrhythms braid together in a dense patchwork of minimalist activity, while oceanic noise waxes and wanes. Or it’s pop electronica, but more desperate, more worldly, shamelessly reverbed. Minimalist motivic transitions speed the texture through harmonic and registral shifts, while rhythm remains constant. Corral knows exactly what he wants us to hear, at what pace, and moody swells of noise give us enough respite to fool us into thinking we’ve made our own choices. Robert Ashley said that music either comes from speech, or it comes from dance. Diamond Pulses is unconditionally from the dance. There are no words here at all.
But there is something else, tugging. What is it? Why the Feldman quote in the liner notes, “Sound is all our dreams of music. Noise is music’s dreams of us.”? The rhythms aren’t just insistent, they’re rabid. Transitions aren’t just inevitable, they’re eerily prescribed. Electronic ephemera churn in atonal relation to pretty guitar-ish licks. Noise swells aren’t just a contrast; they undermine with a mysteriously undercooked autonomy. Things are not as diatonic as they seem.
The piece is not really diatonic, after all. It slowly transforms into an 11-limit tuning system, the middle of the piece swimming in shades of microtonal subtlety. Taken together, the whole is perplexingly different than the sum of its parts. Nothing here quite matches up, as Corral notes, “making it impossible to focus on the endless business of trying to square an imperfect circle.” Grappling with alternative tuning systems has a tendency to bring these kinds of cracks to the fore. Things don’t fit. The illusion of the joints of reality being flush is demolished. That’s the interest in this album; we don’t realize it, but the incongruities here turn us inside-out.
Take a few listens, and see if you notice the flip-flop. Maybe don’t listen to this, despite temptation, while driving. Listen at home, with dedicated ears, to this strangely rigid dance meditation, a fervent solipsism with a disturbingly wild, encroaching reality. Consciously intended or not, Diamond Pulses evokes Los Angeles.
We asked Daniel a few questions about the album:
You mention that the album grew out of an experiment for a Plinko installation. Can you talk a little more about that process of development?
I was at a residency when I sketched out that original Plinko installation idea. I had a great studio right near the beach, and you might be able to hear a cheap imitation of those ocean sounds in the noisy washes that fade in and out during Diamond Pulses. That studio was quite large, and allowed me to imagine what installations might fit inside it. I really like Trimpin’s work, and I think his whimsicality comes out in my music box installations. I was trying to imagine similarly playful sound installations that also have a more conceptually sound footing. I sketched out a just intonation Plinko game on some graph paper, and started thinking about how that might be translated into a performable piece. At the same time, I had a 4-channel audio setup there with which I made quite a few quadraphonic electronic pieces with a tunable sampler. These streams of thought smashed together into Diamond Pulses. Perhaps it is a bit more serious than the original game show-inspired idea, but hopefully still enjoyable.
What specifically made you think that these materials would work as an album-length piece, rather than as an installation?
There are two big factors in the decision to turn Diamond Pulses into an album-length piece: accessibility and space. An installation has a specific time and place in which it can be appreciated, and that unique experience is part of what makes it so magical. On the other hand, an album can find its way all over the world via the internet. Also, live performances of it are solo, so it’s easy to plan and schedule. When my residency ended, I returned back to LA and realized that it would be ridiculous to try and put more installation-type pieces in my small house. But, I could develop the performable electronic piece practically anywhere. For example – I did a lot of programming for it on my laptop during a long Bolt Bus ride with Timur and the Dime Museum. After the first performance of Diamond Pulses at Battery Books, I decided that it would be worth trying to make an album of it. I knew that Orenda Records had put out some fantastic albums of adventurous music, so I reached out to them. I am grateful that they were interested, and they have been great to work with as I developed the piece into what’s on the album!
Is this whole piece in 11-limit temperament? Could you give a little more information for readers who may not be familiar with alternative tuning systems?
It’s hard to come to a succinct explanation of tuning, but I’ll give it a try! Most musicians using microtonality do so with systems based on ratios, often with some sort of fundamental pitch as the denominator. A ratio with a lower numerator and denominator is usually considered more consonant, while higher numbers are more complex and dissonant. “Limits” bound the available pitches to a certain level of complexity (EX: a system with a 3-limit will likely sound less complex than a system with a 5-limit). Basically, Diamond Pulses starts super simple, gets more complex, and returns to simplicity in a sort of ternary form. It starts with just one note and very gradually moves to a limit of 3, then, 5, 7, 9, and 11. After reaching a limit of 11, it gradually contracts back to the single note it started with, which is the fundamental that all of the tuning ratios relate to. Because Diamond Pulses starts with just one note and slowly increases it’s limit, the available intervals get more complex as well. When it decreases it’s limit back to one fundamental pitch, it’s kind of like a symphony ending on a big V-I – at least that’s how I imagine it. I put an image of the “score” on my website here, if anyone is interested: spinalfrog.com/projects/diamond-pulses
I’ve spent a fair amount of time with people and works that use microtonality with great skill and musicality, and have long been a bit too intimidated to really share any of my own. Diamond Pulses is the first piece of mine built around a tuning system that I feel comfortable putting out in the world.
If there is one thing you’d want people to listen for in this piece, what is it?
I never have one universal thing that I want all people to listen for in my music. Rather, I hope that Diamond Pulses has multiple levels on which it can be experienced. Someone that has trained his/her ears to hear the tuned intervals might enjoy doing so, while someone else with no knowledge of or interest in that might just like the spacey rhythmic grooves. I want listeners to engage with Diamond Pulses in whatever capacity they see fit.
Check out the official CD release show this Saturday, with special guests Danny Holt and Mike Robbins:
Saturday, September 12, 8pm and 10pm
504 Chung King Court
Los Angeles CA 90012
• Workers Union, performed by Danny Holt and Mike Robbins
• Diamond Pulses, performed by Daniel Corral
• Two Pages, performed by Danny Holt
• Diamond Pulses, performed by Daniel Corral
But tickets online here:
Andrew McIntosh has a lot going on. His new recording of Tom Johnson’s music came out last week (and is great, and is available by clicking here), he’s a full time member of both wild Up and The Formalist Quartet, he runs Populist Records, and, tomorrow afternoon, he’s giving a free performance of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s Mystery Sonatas at the Hammer Museum. He also, based on his photo, takes good care of his cats. They look pretty happy. I’m amazed that he found time to answer a few questions.
Between the cd, the wild Up residency, and performing Biber’s complete Mystery Sonatas this weekend, it’s been a huge couple of weeks for you. How’s it all going?
To be honest, it’s been quite intense. I’ve been up until 1 am or later working pretty much every night lately, because in addition to everything you just listed I also have to finish two compositions in the next week or so, prepare for a violin and piano recital with Dante Boon in Amsterdam in early September, and prepare for a recording session in Berlin of Marc Sabat’s music! The Biber concert is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, though, and I feel pretty well-prepared for it since I started learning the music over 2 years ago. However, it is around 120 minutes of music, so that much material is always going to feel pretty overwhelming no matter how well prepared you are – especially when you are playing in a total of 14 radically different tunings throughout the piece!
As a matter of fact, the whole year has been a bit insane, although very rewarding. For the past several years I have been juggling five different large-scale multi-year projects and 2012 is seeing the completion of all five of them, Biber being the last: the Tom Johnson CD, Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s 80-minute violin/bass duo (performed several times earlier this year), a 45 minute composition for two clarinets and violin (premiered at the Hammer in July), a 50 minute composition for two microtonal pianos (being premiered at the Gaudeamus Festival in Holland this September), and this Biber cycle. It’s an exciting time and I feel very grateful to be able to do all of this work, collaborate with great musicians, and have it all presented!
Tell me a bit more about your interest in Biber. When I hear your name and think about the projects I’ve seen you involved in, music from 1675 definitely isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, and the smattering of Bach and Vivaldi on your performance calender is pretty minimal. Is baroque music a passion of yours you’ve been looking to engage with more, or is it this work by Biber in particular that’s got a hold on you?
Well, baroque (and earlier) music is actually something of a focus for me. If that’s not reflected in the calendar on my website than that’s my fault for not keeping it up to date and comprehensive (I’m not as good at that as I probably should be, but a new and more representative website is in the works…). Early music is in fact such a strong focus for me that I actually went back to school at USC recently to do an additional part-time graduate degree in early music performance, which finished this past May. Also, I’ve played a couple of solo baroque concerts in the past year or so (mostly with French and early Italian repertoire), as well as performing with Musica Angelica, the Corona del Mar Baroque Festival, and a variety of other random engagements. A large portion of my CD collection is filled with the likes of Dowland, Ciconia, Couperin, etc.
Biber has been by far my favorite baroque composer since I was first introduced to his music about 10 years ago by my older sister. You may know that I already have an inclination towards music that uses tuning in unusual ways, which Biber does brilliantly. That’s just a starting point, though. Besides that, his music is wonderfully imaginative and playful, using the violin in ways that were not only unique and unheard-of at the time, but which are still very unique and fresh even when compared with the 300 years of violin repertoire that’s been written since. I can’t think of very much music that feels more joyful to me to play, even when the pieces are quite dark or somber. I tend to think of Biber as the 17th century counterpart to Messiaen, another of my favorite composers.
It has been a dream of mine to play these pieces for quite a long time, and going back to school for an early music degree, restoring an 18th century German violin, playing concerts of lots of baroque and renaissance repertoire has all been in a way leading up to this goal. I’ve invested an absurd amount of time and energy in the project so I hope to keep playing the pieces in the future as well.
With a lot of Tom Johnson’s music, as well as music by other minimalist composers, it seems like the challenge in performing it may be more mental than technical (though of course whatever you’re thinking is expressed via technique). How do you go about preparing pieces like these? Is there anything different in your approach to learning and practicing them?
Good question! I’d say that ultimately the challenge of pretty much all music is more mental than technical. I always tell my students to develop their imagination as much as possible, since you can only play as well as you can imagine.
That being said, these pieces are actually excruciatingly difficult from a technical perspective – which is part of why I am attracted to them in a strange way. The simplest music is often the hardest to play, like Mozart, for instance. I imagine that most of the music on the correct music CD would be fairly easy on piano, but on the violin or viola it feels full of risk at every moment. The tiniest little bow squeak or finger movement that you wouldn’t usually even notice sticks out like a sore thumb in Tom’s music. To give you an example, we had to record one of the movements of Tilework for Violin several times simply because it was early in the morning and I’d had a lot of coffee. My stomach kept growling at exactly the same point in the piece and each time it ruined the take – that’s how exposed the music is!
The preparation was a long and multi-faceted process – like the Biber actually. It started with working with Tom in San Francisco at the Other Minds Festival performing a string quartet of his in 2010. I was very struck by the beauty and strictness of the music, and also his charming personality. Naturally, I asked him for some solo pieces and he delivered a great big pile of them. I started incorporating them into concerts and eventually I had enough for an entire solo program of his music. It wasn’t until I was already performing the music quite a lot that I seriously started thinking of recording the pieces. Everything sort of came together very naturally at just the right time (by “naturally” I actually mean “with a whole lot of work”) and Tom was very enthusiastic about the whole thing, so now we have a CD!
The notation in Tom’s music is generally pretty open, so interpretively there are some interesting parallels to early music there: flexible instrumentation, flexible tempos and even register, no indications written for phrasing or articulation. One has to make a lot of decisions when playing Tom’s music, but I always try to approach it from the perspective of figuring out how each piece wants to be played – as if they have their own unique characters and opinions that are just waiting to be discovered.
What, as a composer, initially attracted you to working with just intonation and alternate tunings?
I don’t think I can provide a simple answer to this question. I remember experimenting with tuning quite a lot as a kid. I grew up in a rural area of the Nevada desert and I had a lot of time on my hands to practice, but I almost never practiced what I was supposed to (to the eternal frustration of my poor teachers!). Instead I would spend hours improvising and “composing”, although I rarely wrote down my compositions at that age, and many of those improvisations involved retuning the violin and bending notes and who knows what else. Sometimes I tried to notate these improvisations or play them on piano, but I often couldn’t figure them out once I tried to analyze them – and in retrospect I am pretty sure that it was because I was using microtones but didn’t have the vocabulary to actually understand what I was doing. When I shared some of this kind of playing once with my violin teacher she didn’t know what to do, so she gave me a CD of Alban Berg and said I should see if I liked it, which I didn’t at the time. To her credit, she was actually a very good teacher and I was probably a very stubborn and difficult student to teach. I wish I had some kind of documentation of these improvisations to go back and listen to, but unfortunately no such thing exists.
When I was exposed to the music of Gerard Grisey and Harry Partch in grad school at CalArts I finally felt like here was the harmonic language that I had been looking for all along. My music generally sounds nothing like either of those two, but nonetheless they are the ones who first inspired me to move in this direction. I was also studying microtonal theory and some composition at the time with Marc Sabat (who, together with Wolfgang von Schweinitz, developed the Hemholtz JI notation that I use), and so my path became more clear once I had a way to notate and articulate the musical thoughts that had been percolating since childhood.
Just intonation is more or less just a representation of the way that sound works naturally, and that’s always been a fascination of mine. I don’t exclusively write in just intonation, though, because I believe that imperfection and compromise are also very important ideas for music.
It seems like we’re seeing a resurgence of the composer/performer persona in concert music in recent years, and while I have a feeling it’s got something to do with those of us who are establishing themselves today having grown up steeped in popular music, where that’s the norm, I’m interested in your take on the subject. Are performing and composing, for you, two sides of the same coin of being a musician?
I don’t really have much to contribute to the composer/performer resurgence discussion, other than that it seems to me a very logical and stimulating way for music to be made. As a matter of fact, and this has been said by many people recently, composing and performing went hand in hand for most of musical history. Perhaps the middle of the 20th century will be read about in history books as the time when musicians were uptight and judgmental and thought it necessary to limit ones activities in order to be taken seriously. I tend to see the more recent trend as a logical return to a very healthy way of making music.
For me, they are two strongly related pursuits, but definitely not two sides of the same coin. For instance, anyone who knows me well knows that I hate performing my own music (although I often end up doing it anyway). Composing is something done in solitude and it doesn’t develop linearly, whereas performing is done in a community and happens in real-time. Composing is meditative and freeing, while performing is thrilling but stressful. I guess they are both acts of artistic creation, but they fill very different roles in my own life and it’s an ever-increasing challenge to reach a balance between them.
Also, I often seek out music to perform that will nurture and develop particular ideas in my writing. A few years ago I was performing a lot of Grisey, Nono, and Feldman for this reason. There was something in the music that I could only truly learn and understand by performing it, and now that’s a very valuable experience to have had. More recently I’ve been playing Tom Johnson, Schubert, Biber, and Wolfgang’s music for that reason.
What are your thoughts on the LA scene? What’s good about it, and what would you like to see change?
It’s a little hard to define even what the “LA scene” is, since it’s a constantly-shifting and not-geographically-centered entity, but I can say that there is an exciting community of musicians here who are dedicated to their work, very talented, and great people. My wife and I were confronted with the opportunity to move to Montreal a few years ago and thinking about that made us realize how much we like it here and appreciate the people around us. Obviously, we’re still here!
It would be nice if LA could develop a little bit more of a support system for its modern classical music (and early music!) – in terms of venues, funding, education, infrastructure, and things like that, but these things seem to be gradually developing anyway. I’m excited to see what the music scene will be like here in a decade or two.
Same here. Thank you, and good luck this weekend!
Thanks to you too!
For details on tomorrow’s show, visit wildup.la/events/chamber-music-andrew-mcintosh-plays-biber. More about Andrew McIntosh can be found at plainsound.org.