On March 18, Daniel Corral’s latest work, Polytope, premieres at Automata as part of this year’s MicroFest, who have named their season after it. We were lucky that Daniel had a minute to answer some questions about this piece, which he will also be performing on March 23 at Seattle’s Wayward Music Series and March 25 at the Center for New Music in San Francisco. Here’s Daniel:
Tell me about Polytope.
I describe Polytope as a multimedia microtonal performance existing somewhere between a string quartet, Kraftwerk, James Turrell, and an Indonesian dhalang (master shadow puppeteer). Another apt description might be to call it an electronic mixture of Arnold Dreyblatt’s Orchestra of Excited Strings and Philip Glass’ classic Sesame Street video, Geometry of Circles.
Onstage there are four MIDI controllers on a small stand and a single video camera directly above the center, pointed straight down. The controllers are not traditional keyboards, but 8×8 grids of buttons that are turned 45° to make diamond shape rather than squares. One musician stands before each controller. The performance happens in the dark, and the overhead camera captures the interaction between the controllers’ colorful grids of lights and the fast-moving silhouettes of the musicians’ hands. This live feed video is projected in the space, creating a larger than life, colorful multimedia experience inspired by Light and Space art that also acts as an evolving visual score.
Polytope will premiere on Sunday, March 18 at Automata as part of MicroFest. MicroFest liked the piece enough to name the 2018 festival season after it, so I hope that might bring people out. The following weekend, we’ll also play it in Seattle at the Wayward Music Series and San Francisco at Center for New Music.
Was there a collaborative aspect to the composition for this quartet, or was it you delivering parts to be played?
I love collaborations, and have a few in the works right now. However, Polytope came entirely from me, for better or worse. I started working on it in early 2017 during a residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Since then, I’ve slowly developed it in between other projects. I had people in mind that I thought would be great to work with (Erin Barnes, Cory Beers, Andrew Lessman), and once they agreed to play Polytope I completed it with them in mind.
Do you feel that it’s a further exploration of your work on, say, Diamond Pulses, or were you more in a mindset of trying something new and different here? I ask this without intending to put a value judgement on either option.
Polytope absolutely builds on what that I started exploring with Diamond Pulses in 2015. I’ve long been intimidated by knowing so many incredibly knowledgeable composers of microtonal music, and Diamond Pulses was the first microtonal piece that I felt confident sharing. In developing more multimedia pieces that build on Diamond Pulses, one thing that has gotten more sophisticated (or complicated, at least) is the projected visual metaphor/score. Diamond Pulses progresses in one direction through a single visual metaphor of expanding and contracting tonality diamonds. Comma, which premiered at REDCAT in 2016, built on Diamond Pulses by exploring a Pythagorean grid through several different visual metaphors (some go up, some go down, some go in circles, etc.). Polytope builds on Comma by expanding it from a solo piece to a quartet, and by using a more complex tuning system. In contrast, my recent piece One Line (which Vicki Ray will play at Pianospheres on April 3) takes the opposite approach by using a mere 8 buttons in a single horizontal row. It’s important to me that each piece is informed by the successes and failures of past work, even if it’s drastically different.
When I was prepping these questions I was thinking “Daniel’s body of really does defy the concept of genre,” and then I read your bio which says almost exactly that. Is this variety something you actively pursue, and is there some sort of artistic mission associated with it? Or is it more just a consequence of your being a curious and open minded musician?
The musical multiverse is a weird and wonderful place! One of my favorite activities is going to the library and checking out a stack of music that I’ve never heard of. Most of it is depressingly adequate, but occasionally you find something either terribly amazing or amazingly terrible, and suddenly the world is a little brighter. It’s also a product of being in Los Angeles, where there are so many music communities existing right next door to each other that often don’t even know the others exists. It can be very exciting to move between them, like travelling between planets in a solar system.
In addition, the question makes me think of an essay by Trevor Dunn, which was published in one of John Zorn’s Arcana books. In it, he declares the platypus to be the spirit animal of the 21st century musician. My sloppy summary is that much like the diverse appendages of the platypus, a modern musician needs to be literate in the idiosyncrasies of a wide swath of styles and genres.
Have you noticed different audiences reacting to different aspects of your work? If so, how?
I used to consider Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” quote to be a bit of a cop out, but it has become very relevant to my musical identity. I think I’ve both won and alienated various audiences by the diversity of what I do. Some people love the caricatured drama of my music for Timur and the Dime Museum, while the LA Times once referred to an electroacoustic piece of mine as an “antidote” to sentimentality. I can only hope that audiences will recognize meaningful qualities in the music regardless of what manifestation it takes. For most of my work, I try to include multiple points of entry and levels of engagement. The multimedia format of Polytope came out of this approach. Audience members can follow along with the musicians’ fingers playing the projected “score,” or they can listen with informed ears to the tuning, observe the tech setup, or just enjoy the music as a surface-level experience.
What other LA musicians/composers/artists are you into right now?
Wow, this list could go on forever! I’m going to try to keep it relatively short, and refrain from listing groups I play in (like Qamar, Featherwolf, or Timur and the Dime Museum)
Dog Star Orchestra
Timothy Maloof and Rahman Baranghoori duo
Los Angeles Electric 8
A Horse A Spoon A Bucket
Anna Homler’s Breadwoman
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for the thoughtful questions, and for New Classic LA keeping a keen eye on contemporary classical-adjacent music in LA! Many other similar websites have come and gone (including my own Auscultations blog), and it’s great that New Classic LA is still going strong.
Also, I hope people will come out to Automata on March 18 to check out Polytope! I’ve put a lot of work into it and am quite pleased with how it has turned out.
Tickets for that show are available at artful.ly/store/events/14666. Follow Daniel and hear more of his work at spinalfrog.com.