James Díaz: [speaking in a foreign language]

, composer


Composer James Díaz releases his debut recording, [speaking in a foreign language], an album length collaboration with violinist Julia Jung Un Suh. The layered, processed, and reorganized violin material results in a psychedelic audio experience that places the violin in a reflective hall of mirrors, sometimes distorted and sometimes luminous.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 56:19
01atardecer en 8-bits
atardecer en 8-bits
02they became his angels
they became his angels
04Fire walk with me
Fire walk with me
05Periodo tres
Periodo tres
06[Speaking in a foreign language]
[Speaking in a foreign language]
08Noche digital
Noche digital
09they don’t see us
they don’t see us
10todos los dias son viernes
todos los dias son viernes

From the scintillating, prismatic opening pitches of James Díaz’ [speaking in a foreign language], it excavates new sonic territory for an electroacoustic work. The piece vacillates between immersive textures and dialogic ones in which the violin and electronics comment, spar, and interact with each other; in Díaz’s words, the concept is “violin as electronics.” His frequent use of pitch shifting alters the listener’s sense of sonic reality, putting us in a hall of mirrors, or perhaps analogously through the looking glass of layered linguistic reinterpretations. His vocabulary of delays, FM synthesis, and reverb settings (all generated from Julia Jung Un Suh’s violin) are all put at the service of a quasi-ritualistic thread that runs through the album. Díaz also takes a compositional approach to the recording process itself, using immersive close-micing and expansive digital processing to stretch the expressive range of the violin. Throughout, the music retains a soulful core, with a clear expressive voice emerging from Suh’s poignant violin regardless of context.

In “atardecer in en 8-bits,” Suh’s violin tones undulate and gently collide with each other, as Díaz marshals the resources of his electronics palette to create a sinewy, synthetic chorale. At times, Suh’s violin sounds like a pipe organ, only to have its towering tones disrupted by glitchy hiccups. “they became his angels” opens with discrete acoustic violin material. Fragments of melodic and gestural ideas sigh and circle around central pitches. The electronics are heard flitting around the perimeter, high pitched ricochets pinging off the walls of an imaginary cavern. As the track evolves, the duration of the responsive sounds in the electronics increases, with searing long tones filtered through FM synthesis heard in the “distance.” “they became his angels” ends with Suh playing pointed pizzicato chords that are gradually detuned.

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“INSIDE THE BOX” creates an accordion-like texture, as Suh’s harmonized violin inhales and exhales in microtonal swells. Shimmering behind these swells are quietly swirling sound objects, processed from circular bowing gestures. While central pitches emerge from the wavelike texture, they appear within constellations of pitch areas, as Díaz constantly changes harmonic direction and context with the introduction of a new collection.

“Fire walk with me” opens with a driving figure in the violin that alternates between a repeated note and a higher answering pitch. The electronics respond with triggered, stuttering delays and tolling overtone series based bell sounds. Suh begins to play a double stop figure that accelerates and decelerates as its inner voice moves in microtonal increments.

“Periodo tres” brings the focus back initially to the tactility of the acoustic violin sound, with a series of ricochet bowing gestures. The music goes through sonic looking glass just after the three minute mark, and the violin seems to recede behind a filter and into a processed haze. The title track suggests a quasi-chaconne harmonic progression at its opening, cycling through a similar set of sonorities as they vary, both in the violin techniques as well as the electronics processing. Later, the electronics are in a close, symbiotic rhythmic relationship with the violin, shrouding attacks in glistening pitch artifacts.

Like “Fire walk with me,” “PINK ROOM” activates the electronics through an insistent, repeating figure in the violin, this time starting high and answering low. “PINK ROOM” fixates on a central pitch for more than four minutes, creating a harmonic wash before shifting focal points to a frequency that is surrounded by microtonal inflections of itself. This migration delineates the movement’s structure even as the foreground material is actively changing.

The opening violin solo in “Noche digital” hints obliquely at the fiddling tradition before turning to a dark drone of double stops and eventual electronic pedal points. It ends with an elongated rallentando, like the resultant creaking of an old swing set slowing down. “they don’t see us” features sighing gestures not unlike what is heard in “INSIDE THE BOX,” with more space between iterations that are steadily filled in by repeats with a delay effect. As the movement grows, the delays become more and more prominent, overlapping one another, and eventually overtaking the violin completely. For the first time on the album, we don’t perceive the violin sound in the foreground, and instead are swept up in an ocean of oscillating electronics.

The final short movement, “todos los dias son viernes,” is a series of minor chord articulations, each separated by four seconds of rest. Lingering behind the clearly marked chords are high register pitches that form a surreal resultant scale with subtle microtonal inflections. The trajectory of the album travels from placing violinistic elements in the fore in the opening movements, to absorbing them into the technological instrument entirely by the last two sections — process music as mapped onto timbre. The result is an elegantly seamless fusion of the violin into the electronic realm, preserving its integrity but cultivating something compelling and exhilarating.

– Dan Lippel

Composed, recorded, recomposed, mixed, and produced by James Díaz

Mastered by Murat Çolak

Supported by Paola Buitrago

Recorded at 310 Penn Music Studio, Philadelphia, PA

James Díaz

Called “stark, haunting elegance” with “intimate focus” by The Washington Post and "ethereal" by The Wire, the music of Colombian-born composer and electroacoustic musician James Díaz embodies a spectrum of compositional practices, blending digital techniques and collaborative exploration. From electronic compositions to amplified solo works, orchestral pieces, and multimedia creations, his music strives to evoke distinctive sonic textures, assemble resonant sound masses, and construct psychedelic immersive environments.

Díaz has won multiple international and national awards. In 2022, Díaz was selected as one of the commissioned composers for the Composition Inclusion program and one of the winners of the National Sawdust's Digital Discovery Festival New Works Commission in 2020. In Colombia, Díaz has won all the major composition awards, such as the 2015 National Prize of Music in Composition and the 2014 National Prize for the Reopening of the Teatro Colón from the Ministerio de Cultura de Colombia, the 2018 Bogotá Philharmonic Prize in Composition, for his orchestral piece "Frack[in]g", as well as the 2015 Bogotá Philharmonic Prize for Wind Band, and the 2012 Bogotá Philharmonic Prize for Chamber Music.

Díaz’s works have been performed by leading orchestras including the Basel Sinfonietta, the Cologne Radio Orchestra (WDR Sinfonieorchester), the Sinfónica Nacional de Colombia, La Nueva Filarmonía, American Composers Orchestra, Orquesta Filarmónica de Medellín, Xalapa Symphony Orchestra, Nashville Symphony, Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá, and the Orchestra of St. Luke's and by ensembles such as The New York New Music Ensemble, Longleash, Sō Percussion, Yarn/Wire, HUB New Music, TAK Ensemble, National Sawdust Ensemble, La Sociedad, Unheard-of//ensemble, among others. Díaz’ music has been featured in festivals such as Time:Spans in New York, ACHT BRÜCKEN, and SinusTon in Germany, Culturescapes in Switzerland, and the International Winter Festival of Campos Do Jordao in Brazil. Similarly, in collaboration with filmmaker/producer Leticia Akel, his film music has been presented at the SIFF Seattle International Film Festival ShortsFest, Palm Springs International ShortFest, Madrid FCM-PNR Festival, Cinemaissí Festival (Finland), and the Huesca, Quito, Sao Paulo, and Santiago international festivals.

Díaz, serving as the first-time ever composer-in-residence for the Orquesta Filarmónica de Medellín, premiered "RETRO," his largest work for orchestra and electronics in 2019.

Díaz's music is exclusively published by Project Schott New York (PSNY).

Julia Jung Un Suh

Julia Jung Un Suh is a South Korean violinist and proactive artist specializing in multidisciplinary contemporary arts. She loves collaborating with composers, sound artists, visual artists, and filmmakers. She recently began her career as a film composer as well and tried to challenge her artistic limit beyond performing. A strong advocate for new music, she was the founding violinist of Quartet121, a string quartet described as “slashingly relevant” and a “magnet for world premieres” by New York Music Daily. Quartet121 was passionate about working with emerging composers, promoting equity, and expanding its stylistic range to reach wider audiences.

As an orchestral musician, Julia has performed with the Brooklyn Chamber Orchestra, and the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra in Switzerland, where she served as a principal second violin in 2016 under renowned conductors including Matthias Pintscher, Alan Gilbert, and Susanna Mälkki. She also collaborated with San Francisco Contemporary Music Players under the artistic director, Steven Schick, for the X-SCAPE concert.

Julia performed with pop artists, such as Japanese Breakfast and Whitney, in venues including Brooklyn Steel and Central Park Summer Stage, as well as recording for the album, “Live At Electric Lady '' with Japanese Breakfast.

She earned a Bachelor’s degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music under Milan Vitek, with a minor in Music Theory, and received her performance studies diploma from San Francisco Conservatory of Music under Ian Swensen. Julia holds her master’s degree in contemporary performance at the Manhattan School of Music, where she studied violin with Curtis Macomber.

She enjoys listening to any type of electronic music, painting, swimming, watching films, finding visual inspirations and hunting for beautiful nature views during her spare time.



I Care if You Listen

Picture an electrically charged violin that buzzes and swells as it rotates inside a compressed magnetic field. Enhanced by electronics, the acoustic instrument bustles with kinetic energy, despite being confined to a narrow enclosure. [speaking in a foreign language], the debut album from Colombian-born, Philadelphia-based composer James Díaz with violinist Julia Jung Un Suh, feels like that — an experience both stimulating and stifling.

For the 10 pieces on the album, out April 19 on New Focus Recordings, Díaz employs a highly specialized toolkit equipped with reverb, frequency modulation synthesis, delays, and pitch shifting, all of which he uses to alter the sound of Suh’s violin to invariably startling effect. The composer explores the affinity and the contrasts between his electroacoustic pairing, which results in nearly fully textural music that foregrounds sound quality. The violin galvanizes the electronic processing in intriguing ways; deploying the electronics, Díaz is on equal footing with Suh as half of an electroacoustic duo, though sometimes he engulfs her violin almost entirely, stretching and distorting it to the limit.

A vortex of juxtaposed tones that swirl and spin restlessly makes up “INSIDE THE BOX,” whose coruscating texture is replete with distorted notes that sizzle and hum, falling and rising in microtonal increments. Other tones shine brighter, bristling in a supercharged atmosphere.

“they don’t see us” also builds an expansive soundscape, this time with a sci-fi-esque edge. Eerie oscillations move in slow cycles, suggesting the atmosphere of a vast exoplanet. Like in “INSIDE THE BOX,” the acoustic sound of the violin is completely swept up by the electronics here, rendered into a hazy, silvery matte.

“they became his angels” takes flight from the most conventional violin sound on the album; it starts with Suh playing near the bridge, which creates that scratchy, corrosive sound that is distinctive of contemporary composition. But Díaz processes and layers the acoustic sound with echo and tiny beeps, as the surrounding soundscape reverberates and expands.

A suddenly detuned violin pattern jolts “Fire walk with me” — the title surely a nod to auteur David Lynch. Halfway through, a harsh buzzing noise is mixed with arpeggiated violin figures and spectral tones that seem to emanate from subterranean depths, butting against the distorted violin.

Elsewhere in the album, the effects don’t deviate much from the pattern that Díaz sets early on. In “PINK ROOM,” the electronics activate a buzzing halo that develops into a feedback loop. There are quivering violin figures in “Periodo tres,” pulsating with an aggressive edge. The title track also has nervous acoustic attacks, with the electronics giving off a hum that sometimes resonates like small metallic disks; later, the violin sounds as though submerged underwater.

Other compositions benefit from a more distinct structure. In “Noche digital,” the opening melody returns after a droning contrasting section, followed by a coda that fades out slowly. And in “atardecer en 8-bits” — likely a reference to 8-bit music: synthesized “chiptunes” you hear in old videogames — a heavily distorted violin motif comes back in different guises. Suh’s vibrato-less performance is cold and stark as she etches the violin figure. In the second half, the electronic manipulation makes the instrument sound like an accordion.

Throughout, Díaz skillfully manipulates, distorts, and distends Suh’s violin. But his single-minded focus on turning the violin into an electronic instrument can also be daunting over the course of the album’s 56-minute playing time. Missing are the compositional elements that define some of the composer’s other works — the organic rushes of sound and turbulent crescendos that soar and linger, and the development of initially static textures into thorny symphonic thickets, united by a perceptible multi-part structure. You can hear a brilliant execution of that in Díaz’s psychedelic orchestral highlight Detrás de un muro de ilusiones, for example. Still, [speaking in a foreign language] succeeds in laying bare the stark contrast between the electronically processed violin and its purer, acoustic timbre, ultimately exploiting specific compositional methods to reconcile the differences.

— Esteban Meneses, 4.16.2024


Avant Music News

Depending upon how you look at it, the foreign language of composer James Díaz’s [speaking in a foreign language] is the language of electronics. Or it is the language of the solo acoustic violin. The album, Diaz’s first solo recording, is an electroacoustic collaboration with violinist Julia Jung Un Suh; it represents an instance of reciprocal translation in which each instrument takes on the inflections and accents of the other.

Diaz’s stated intention is to compose for “violin as electronics,” hence to make the acoustic instrument speak in a language foreign to it. But at the same time, the violin imprints itself on the electronics, making them speak in the foreign language of an acoustic string instrument – in particular, with its phrasing and its warmth of expression. The latter is a surprising quality to find in electronic music, but there it is, thanks to Jung Un Suh’s performance and Díaz’s sensitivity in choosing timbres and electronic overlays that by turns complement and enhance the violin’s unaltered sound. Díaz creates sound masses from the violin, loops it, alters its overtone profile, has it mimic a reed instrument, makes it surge and shimmer, but nevertheless its voice comes through the manipulations and distortions intact, particularly on “they became his angels” and “Noche digital,” where the instrument is allowed space to soliloquize in its native tongue. The electronics are an integral part of the hybrid voice that emerges in the album’s ten pieces, coming in as they do at two points in the compositional process: first while interacting with the violin in real time – which I suspect is a significant factor in the remarkably nimble interplay between the violin and electronics – and then afterwards in the studio, where Díaz “recomposes” – his term — the sound into its final form.

This is largely textural music, but not entirely; there is an underlying lyrical element that makes itself felt as a constant throughout all of the sonic evolutions the music undergoes.

— Daniel Barbiero, 4.21.2024