Thursday, September 25 2014
Oneohtrix Point Never
Although composer Daniel Lopatin’s R Plus Seven contains many familiar sonic touchstones for listeners who have followed the acclaimed electronic music composer’s development over the last half-decade, his Warp Records debut is a major departure from his previous work; Lopatin’s experimental inclinations lurk behind the scenes – in the concepts and procedures he adopted to create the tracks – while the music itself comes as close as Lopatin has ever gotten to anything resembling traditional song structure. Which, for Lopatin, is only so close: The work is full of overlapping, abstract musical through-lines, puzzle-like pieces that, taken together, might allow you to glimpse an overarching tableau. But it’s more about the journey than the destination. R Plus Seven is disruptive and hypnotic in equal measure, and the fun of it lies in trusting Lopatin as he guides you past – and often through – its succession of walls and mirrors.
The Brooklyn-based artist has always deftly balanced the experimental with the accessible: He has released several albums under his Oneohtrix Point Never moniker on various independent labels – including the 2013 3-CD/5 LP Rifts, a compilation of his early work – as well as amassing a large catalogue of mini-album tape releases. His most recent disc, 2011’s Replica, was built around samples of television commercials; Sasha Frere Jones of the New Yorker called it “music that gently triggers a series of images and feelings, none of which you can name and all of which seem entirely common.” He has built live soundscapes at the Museum of Modern Art; collaborated with Montreal-based ambient electronic music composer Tim Hecker on the largely improvised 2012 Instrumental Tourist; and recast the title track from his 2010 disc Returnal as an elegant and emotive piece for piano, featuring the otherworldly voice of Antony Hegarty. Advertising powerhouse Saatchi & Saatchi tapped Lopatin for an installation event at the 2012 Cannes film fest and Sofia Coppola’s longtime cohort Brian Reitzell invited him to create original music for Coppola’s The Bling Ring. Said the Saatchi execs, “There’s this grandeur to his music, but it’s always counterbalanced by moments of irony and lightness.”
“There’s a lot of allegory on this record,” Lopatin explains. “Sometimes they are meant to be oblique hints at layout and scale—like the distance between objects, or a partition between ideas. Sometimes they just ask you to consider the materiality of musical style, through abstraction.”
The cover art is a literal and figurative entryway into R Plus Seven, an image adapted by Lopatin’s longtime visual collaborator Robert Beatty from a mesmerizing 1982 animated short by Swiss filmmaker-graphic designer Georges Schwizgebel, Le Ravissement de Frank N. Stein, in which score drives the mysterious visuals, a constantly changing succession of rooms.
On a more conceptual level, Lopatin was inspired by avant garde novelist Georges Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi (Life A Users Manual), highly regarded for its intricate, almost game-like structure. The idea that a 600-page novel could depict a split-second moment in the life of a Parisian apartment block became a creative jumping off point for the record. Perec was also known for his commitment to Oulipo (a French acronym for “workshop of potential literature”), whose adherents used constraints – arcane rules or strategies – on their writing as a creative technique. Procedural poetry found its way into RP7 by way of Lopatin’s narrators, synthesized text-to-speech voices that Lopatin programmed to read back scrambled text he’d gathered from online Interactive fiction databases and catalogs. Manuscripts, walkthroughs, menu lists, instructions, legal disclaimers—all were subjected to Oulipo techniques, narrated by synthetic voices and then spread chromatically as sample instruments. It’s a technique prefigured in his work last year with visual artist Doug Aitken. Lopatin devised a haunting arrangement of the pop standard “I Only Have Eyes For You,” the words cut up and rearranged granularly, as a soundtrack for Aitken’s mammoth projected installation on the walls of Washington D.C.’s Hirschorn Museum. On RP7, he even includes a kind of lyric sheet – a form of text art, really – for the physical album sleeve. But the purpose of the narrators’ presence, despite the laborious effort it took to edit all the raw sounds Lopatin had collected, is a simple one: “When they speak on the record, it’s to signal certain musical pivots, questions or motifs that emerged from the text. Deciding how to fit the text stuff to the musical themes I was working on was purely intuitive. In that sense, the ‘procedural’ aspects of the record are actually not that important. They just perform a generative function, in that they give me suggestions on what my next step, musically speaking, should be.”
Absent from this disc is the sound of the vintage Roland Juno 60 analog synthesizer that the young Lopatin had first experimented with in the basement of his family’s home in the suburban Boston area. Lopatin is the son of Russian immigrants, both with musical backgrounds. The keyboard belonged to his father, formerly an engineer in the Soviet Union, and it figured prominently on previous albums. Here Lopatin, working in his Brooklyn apartment, relied for the most part on software synthesizers to build his tracks; then, with engineer Paul Corley, he mixed it down on an analog desk at composer-producer Valgeir Sigurðsson’s Bedroom Community studio in Iceland. A significant part of the digital gear that he used to striking effect comes from “software instrumental suites intended for commercials, television and films as score or underscore. I wanted to employ ersatz instrumentation to convey a sort of subliminal Hollywood sound.” The album opens with portentous, cathedral-sized organ riffs that wouldn’t be out of place in The Omen, giving way, as the album progresses, to seemingly more uplifting, almost heavenly choirs, gleaned from preloaded sounds that were often labeled as “spiritual.” RP7 takes you through a labyrinth of twisted idioms, where genre and emotionality engage and grapple with each another in the dark.
“By the time we got to Iceland,” Lopatin recalls, “the record had this larger than life digital presence to it. I tried to complicate those ersatz ensembles with room color, so that the end product was ambivalent in a way; no longer in a vacuum, but by no means natural.”
With all of its aural hallways and corridors, Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven is a kind of choose-your-own adventure, reflecting the complexly structured yet utterly freewheeling process behind its creation. Concludes Lopatin, “I aimed to make a record that had this sort of digital plasticity to it. There is a conversation in the world right now about super-computing power becoming mainstream, rendering anyone a producer. That is aimed directly at my generation and onwards. No one in their right mind would make this record other than myself, but I did so using a palette that is readily available. I’m concerned about these new notions of technological freedom because, although there is no pedagogy saying, ‘this is how you make a record’ anymore, there is a highly regimented and socialized cultural marketplace that reinforces style, which is utterly inspiring to me. It’s the control I need to introduce my variations. It’s the process of saying ‘thanks, but no thanks.’”