Simulacra & Simulation: An interview with Oneohtrix Point Never
The hazy hypnogogia of his earlier releases has been transformed into high-def ‘living scenes’ of arresting music and video.
Steph Kretowicz explores OPN’s new uncanny valley, plus five scenes of his creative plunder. Photo by Timothy Saccenti.
Describing his childhood self as being an “above average student but not excellent,” Daniel Lopatin grew up with Russian parents in Boston. The son of professional musicians, his father was also educated in engineering, Lopatin presents qualities of both: a mathematical mind combined with a talent for music production—art, science, and philosophy feeding into his latest album as Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven. Stripping back and reshaping his sound from the hazy hypnogogia of his name-making releases—Rifts, Replica and Returnal—to the high definition “living scenes” of sonic miscellany, Lopatin goes beyond just redefining music to completely reform it. Working with and being inspired by visual artists and friends Takeshi Murata and long-time collaborator Nate Boyce—he makes explicit reference to both in the “lyrics sheet” for track “Still Life”—Lopatin wants to take music beyond the realms of the abstract and into a visual, physical ‘other’. Like Replica and his collaboration with Tim Hecker Instrumental Tourist, R Plus Seven sounds like everything and nothing I’ve ever heard before.
R Plus Seven is a complex composition of samples, synthetic voices, and instrument emulators, stitched together in a playful, though deeply unsettling, patchwork. The undulating reverb of “Cryo” generates an ominous sense of the unknown. As it tunes in and out of different frequencies, jarred vocals and twitchy, layered samples create havoc on “Inside World”, itself a fractured and fragmented portrait of perception. A squawking accordion sound scuttles across a brief arpeggiated synth-line. Simulated barking becomes a hooting owl, or something else entirely. More than mere audio, all these elements become visual simulacra; manmade organisms that populate an overarching structure of found objects, where those objects are the sounds themselves.
That sense of ‘unreal realness’ goes some way in describing the complex logic behind R Plus Seven, as Lopatin freely explains the shattered subjectivities and destroyed narratives it draws from, with accompanying videos by Boyce and Murata visualizing them. Sat across a wooden bench outside London’s Warp headquarters and wearing a familiar deep khaki shirt and UNO record label cap, he casually expounds on his influences. From social constructivist Bruno Latour, philosopher Manuel De Landa, abstract impressionism, surrealism, tableau and procedural poetry to Ableton Live 9’s audio to MIDI conversion, text to speech software, and Spectrasonics Omnisphere, R Plus Seven is an entirely constructed, synthesized experience.
Above: The video for Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Problem Areas” uses a pre-existing work by Takeshi Murata for its video
You have a lyric sheet?
Yeah, it’s weird. We made all of these scripts and had text-to-speech programs read back all of these scripts that we had written. Then we sliced it up, put it chromatically on the keyboard with sampler instruments, and then just applied pre-existing MIDI from the music. Just plopped it into the track that had all of the text and it kind of played.
So you had those vocals cut up chromatically, essentially remixing the text.
Yeah. And then whatever happened to be on whatever octave, or whatever note in the piano roll that correlated with MIDI from another track that was playing whatever melodic line would just happen. But then on the record, you just hear it in these oblique moments of just a single word of something. So, a lot of that stuff ended up becoming specific to a moment. But we decided to include the lyrics anyway, even though they don’t really exist.
That reminds me of Nate Boyce’s video for “Still Life”. It’s sculpture but it’s not because its digital. There are forms but it’s also formless.
Yeah. They have this sort of undercurrent of art history to them; they’re historicized objects and then heavily displaced. That’s why we [Lopatin and Boyce] link up so well, generally, because we just see the world the same way. You can actually have both operating at the same time, in a way that is an honest appraisal.
I guess it’s part of this malaise, or frustration that you can have with music that’s no longer presented as an object, it’s become this other thing.
Exactly. I think the market is probably concerned with it on some other level, but then music often doesn’t even recognize how it’s changing. It continues to just be music, which is a little tedious to me. I still love it and I still need it and I still want to use it the way that I want—like If I’m cooking, or if I’m taking a shower or whatever, there are practical aspects to it. But, in my own work, I think I’m primarily interested in getting away from those things a little, or at least trying to find a way to characterize the whole experience. It would be cool to literally make objects, and I’ve been trying to for a very long time, but the objects I want to make are very expensive [laughs]. For now I like the format of the record because I can do it.
In terms of your references, you seem pretty informed when it comes to the history of certain forms of art.
I do, but I absorb it in a kind of juvenile way, informally. I want to know the crux of many things and then I’m kind of abusive, in that way. My parents always criticize me for it, because—well, their background is they’re very Russian. So they learned in a very specific way, and they learned to respect history in a very specific way. I was always just like, “I’ll take this. I don’t know why. I just want it.” I understand the rudeness of that, but at times I think it helps me make generate new work.
I suppose respecting history is respecting it in a specific way that someone else decided was respectful.
Yeah. That’s why it felt a little suspect to me. But if I was to say, “OK, speculative realism informed my album,” it’s both a lie and a truth. I would never phrase it that way. I would just say that my friends and I were sending each other random Wikipedia links of a Bruno Latour pdf because I was too cheap to buy it, and I would just skim it or just randomly find stuff; sometimes copy and paste text and throw it in with this procedural poetry stuff I was writing.
It reminds me of hearing a philosopher say it’s not so important to understand the whole text but to take what you can.
Even, I think, Derrida said to just open up to the middle of the book. I think it’s a healthy thing to do. But I would hate to be on a panel discussion at Oxford or something, with people that actually know. And I’m sitting in a room where I say, “Well, I just abuse this shit but go ahead ask me questions.” I’d like to think that I’m not a parasite though; that I have a way of coexisting. But I’m definitely an exploiter; that’s my role.
A lot of the sound palette sounds really familiar but totally alien at the same time.
The palette just comes out of just being selfish I think. I really love Korg Wavestation, Korg M1, this sort of early ersatz, uncanny valley attempt at emulating real instruments.
I caught the uncanny valley reference with that mask in your press shot.
Exactly. [laughs] That was a really happy accident that the photographer, Timothy [Saccenti], just brought those in because his wife was a prop designer. He just brought a box of bullshit, and then I saw those masks and I was like, “Perfect, lets do that.” That sort of creepy moment right before things are real is a sweet spot for me.
Your whole album embodies that creepy moment for me.
Definitely. I want that but I still have this narcissistic need to make it personal, to have some sort of oblique sense of narrative, even if it’s a feeling of narrative. Not narrative itself but just the feeling of, like, tableau. It’s very specific but I think that’s what I got from that. It’s like, “Yeah, this is strange when I don’t know what’s going on, because I can kind of sense a sort of classical aspect, of tragedy or comedy or whatever. But I couldn’t tell you what the fuck’s going on here.” That’s something you can do with music so wonderfully, and I’m always, like, “Why isn’t everyone doing this?”
Impressions of an “exploiter”—five scenes of Lopatin’s creative plunder (Titles in bold indicate selections by Lopatin himself):
Citing procedural poetry technique, OULIPO (an abbreviation for the French “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle” and roughly translating to “workshop of potential literature”), as a major influence, it’s not hard to see the connection between Lopatin’s “slicing” his vocal simulations across the melodic line of tracks like “Still Life” and Raymond Queneu’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes (A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems). Inspired by the horizontal strips of those exquisite corpse-like children’s picture books, Queneu applies the same technique to a book of ten sonnets, where each page was cut into fourteen strips to generate infinite syntactic possibilities.
One also gets the sense that the original lyrics sheet follows a Oulipian constraint of “N+7”, where every noun is replaced by the seventh noun after it in a dictionary, except that ‘N’ is replaced by ‘R’ for the album title—R Plus Seven. What the recurrent ‘R’ of all the most recent Oneohtrix albums stands for is anyone’s guess.
2. Get Lamp
A talking heads documentary following the stories and the people behind early “computer adventure games”. In the early eighties, enthusiasts in universities and engineering companies created these primitive text adventure games, spanning a maze of puzzles and stories to create a world of “living books” in a computer. Lopatin also attempts to embed his own personal narrative in the “interactive fiction” of R Plus Seven the album and beyond.
3. Tableau Vivant
Tableau vivant, which is French for “living picture”, was an early form of entertainment, predating radio, film, and television, and peaking as an art form in the late 19th century. It combines stage, painting, and photography into a scene posed by costumed and theatrically lit models.
As another level down the strata of inspiration, tableau is cited as an influence on the development of the “visual novel”. It’s a branch of the aforementioned “interactive fiction” and prevalent in Japan, where static, usually anime style-graphics, complement narration of these programs made for PC.
4. Georges Schwizgebel’s The Rapture of Frank N Stein (1982)
If you watch this ten-minute animation by Swiss filmmaker Georges Schwizgebel, you’ll not only recognize the haunting, bare, and dreary room of the R Plus Seven album cover, you’ll also notice the similarly eerie tone of its soundtrack. And that’s not mentioning the apocalyptic connotations of its title reflected in the recently banned video for “Still Life (betamale)” by artist Jon Rafman. (Although banned from YouTube, as of time of writing it is still viewable on Vimeo and OPN’s own site.)
According to online electronic music community Data Garden, Lopatin and media archeologist Daniel Rehn are developing an interactive model based on Schwizgebel’s film.
5. Omnisphere Spectrasonics
If you listen through this demonstration of the patches available on Spectrasonics’ virtual synthesiser Omnisphere, you’ll recognise some of the sounds in R Plus Seven. When talking about some of the sounds he used, Lopatin had this to say: “I was getting really in into MIDI and getting really into the micro detail of MIDI, that I could do finally that I never could do before; getting really specific about note placement and changing tempos, stuff like that. I just thought “He She” sounded right with an upright bass. What you heard was some sort of plucked instrument, like ‘Kind David’s Lyre’ was the name of it, it was really funny.” ~
Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven is out now on Warp. He plays Berhain in Berlin on Friday, October 4th.
Published September 30, 2013. Words by Steph Kretowicz.