Premiere: Experimental Composer James Wolf Gets Metaphysical In A Cryptic New Video

By Justyn Withay

Composer/violinist James Wolf has no particular fondness for titles, which makes his new track, “Haa,” that much more cryptic. Taken from On se lève, his new album, the piece consists of a single note flickering wildly among overdubs of neighboring tones. It’s a moment of pure tension, and the title gives it a slant that seems cynical, or even sinister.

Wolf, however, sees it in a more cathartic way.

“I thought of it as a long exhalation,” he says. “I do yoga and I got the sense that this is a Lion’s Breath: this is the sound, ‘ha,’ stretched out over a long period of time.”

“Haa” is taken from a 2015 live recording, capturing a cathartic section towards the end of a longer work. Wolf aims his attention at the essence of the transition itself. It’s a philosophy espoused by his hero, legendary German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

“His compositional method was understanding a piece as a group of forces, allowing those forces to have particular moments where they dominate, and then have them come back under and play a more supportive role,” says the resident of Arlington, Virginia, who is a regular collaborator with other local experimental acts and a member of post-rock band The Orchid.

“Haa” and On se lève were released in May through D.C. experimental label Verses Records. He paired the track with a video of surreal images like ghostly faces, growing frost and close-ups of blood vessels, appearing and reappearing along to the music.

The video was put together by fellow artist and Verses label head, Dennis Kane, who used the minimalist tautness of the music as visual inspiration.

“There’s this suspension of time and movement and yet, in the layering, there is this ebb and flow,” Kane writes in an email. “I used the women as shades of movement and the various microscopic images as a push and pull element — like the microtonal movements in the piece.”