10 02 2013
opinion by DREW MALMUTH
Synthesizers are now at the core of mainstream pop music but they were originally designed not for mass media but out of an interest in academia and technological advancement. FM synthesis was developed as a technique for transmitting radio before John Chowning, an academic at Stanford, discovered that by changing the frequency of a waveform in relation to its amplitude musical sounds could be generated. His 1973 paper eventually led to the mass production of digital FM synthesizers; one of the most popular, the Yamaha DX-7, is heard in almost every pop music track made in the latter part of the 80s. While synthesis expanded rapidly into the realm of mainstream music it never completely severed ties with the intellectual and technical considerations that have formed it from the outset. Students of synthesis have continued to examine not only the technical capabilities of synthesizers, but the broader questions of musicality (what is music?), appropriation (is it really new music?), and progress (how can we change music?) that are an important part of the world of new media and digital music. Daniel Lopatin is a student of synthesizers. Since 2003 he has been using them to make a mixture of severe textures, expansive drones, and ambient soundscapes. Yet, with the release of R Plus Seven, he has once again demonstrated what sets him apart: Oneohtrix Point Never, in the tradition of men like John Chowning, is as much an intellectual experiment as much as it is a musical outfit.
R Plus Seven is a fascinating and sonically beautiful album.
Arguably, music shouldn’t be overly intellectual. Some find it at its best when it is an organic outpouring of musicianship – something that can’t be explained and, in any case, doesn’t need an explanation. But it is vital to have musicians who take an analytical approach to their work. They don’t just consider how the music sounds they also take into account the effects of process, the different ways their sounds can be interpreted, the cultural influences on them and their listeners, etc. In other words, they try to make music not just for music’s sake but to make a point about or investigate something broader. Many artists do this subtly but Daniel Lopatin is explicit about the conceptual and analytical underpinnings of his work. Of R Plus Seven he said: “I just want to create a room and decorate it with musical objects. And I want those objects to be naked and stable in a way, but when you touch the wall maybe your hand goes through it. Or maybe you look away and when you look back, certain things have shifted around.” He wanted to create music with “verticality…thats allows for your mind and body to be involved.” This analysis is not meant to be a replacement for the listening experience. R Plus Seven is, absent Lopatin’s interpretation, a fascinating and sonically beautiful album. But when coupled with an understanding of the intent behind its various aspects, the album is drawn into clearer focus and new thought processes are engaged and altered.
In contrast to most everything else he has done, R Plus Seven is precisely structured and often separated into distinct compositional units. The first three albums from Oneohtrix Point Never (one of which, Rifts, was a compilation of Lopatin’s work up to that point) employed various synthesis and looping techniques to create electronic compositions ranging from the harsh to the serene. But these releases all had an improvisational character. The tracks swirled hypnotically, interjected seemingly at random with jarring or lilting samples that had been tweaked and re-contextualized any number of times. This approach reached its logical endpoint with Instrumental Tourist, a collaboration between Lopatin and Tim Hecker that found the two artists creating live electronic improvisations. R Plus Seven approaches many of the themes that Lopatin has worked with (i.e. cultural appropriation, repetition, digital reproduction) but it does so from a completely different angle. Here, the carefully selected synths and source material are placed in pockets of crystallized sound, like small sculptures being precisely arranged on a desk. Some sections are driven by harmony (as on parts of “Zebra,” “Americans,” and “Along,” where the melodic structure can feel strikingly traditional) while others are atonal, making use of texture or rhythm. The overall effect is that the various movements, or songs within songs, are drawn into contrast with one another, and the listener is invited to experience them on their own and as a part of something more intricate. As an exploration of sound, it is an intriguing and vibrant listen.
The dense, snake-like arrangements, like those found on “Still Life,” are the real achievement of R Plus Seven.
The composition of R Plus Seven allows Lopatin to take each sound that he is interested in, hold it up to the light, and see what is reflected back. “Boring Angel” opens with an organ and an ominous sense of reverence. Lopatin has said that he was fascinated with that organ sound and, as it reappears at various spots on the record, he interprets it differently. On “Boring Angel” it is subdued by a flood of arpegiattors and reprocessed synthetic loops. The digital noises end up sounding more angelic than the church organ. The final polyphonic chords are abruptly cut off and, with “Americans,” the scope of the album’s stylistic approach is brought into full view. The opening seconds could be a song from The Field, with the dreamy, off-kilter loops, but things shift and jump abruptly. As the nature samples (bird calls, rushing water) start to intertwine with the bubbly, cinematic instrumentation one gets the sense that Lopatin is exposing the listener to different environments, both natural and man-made. The arrangements snap in and out of focus like a satellite image that is surveying at random. On “Zebra” we hear pristine voices being swept aside, making way for synth tones that seem carved out of stone and a series of passages that pit ominous, metallic clanks against gently ebbing melodies. “Cryo,” like “Along” or “He She,” develops more linearly and allows for moments of relative calm. While not standout tracks, they foreshadow the mechanical and foreboding (as in the case of “Cryo”) or further distort the album’s take on nature (“Inside World”). Still, the dense, snake-like arrangements, like those found on “Still Life,” are the real achievement of R Plus Seven.
The video for a given song has become increasingly less useful as an analytical tool but, true to Lopatin’s cinematic nature, the gruesome images stitched together for “Still Life” are undoubtedly relevant. The song acts as a kind of cultural horror story, exposing and evoking the dark crevices of the digital age through sight and sound. The disjointed series of images mimics a song that splices together dreamy vocals, deep bass stabs, melodies reminiscent of Final Fantasy XI, lightbulbs flashing, a two second rap clip, throbbing synths, acoustic guitar, and what sounds like a sample of a fog machine. This song, and the album as a whole, is successful not because it makes cultural references or because it uses lots of different sounds. It’s because it does both of those things, and does them extremely well. Some of the seemingly mundane sounds appropriated by Lopatin are made interesting through questions of how they were processed, the feelings that they innately bring with them, or considerations of what the song might be trying to evoke. Knowing that OPN is an intellectual project and reading about R Plus Seven‘s background makes us, as listeners, more critical. That is valuable in and of itself. But, more importantly, R Plus Seven delves into sound with a precision and clarity that pays tribute to the technical genius that birthed the synthesizer. It simultaneously respects and warps electronic machines, making for an ideal entry point into the disparate segments of digital life: the horrifying as well as the beautiful. [A-]
Featured, Oneohtrix Point Never