In 2009, the independent American music label “No Fun” released a limited edition CD-R entitled Rifts, which collected three albums and other unreleased material by Brooklyn-based experimental musician Daniel Lopatin, who goes by the name of Oneohtrix Point Never.
The album artwork, designed by Tom Scholefield, assembles a set of visual and conceptual tropes around which Daniel Lopatin’s individual and collaborative audio-visual compositions can be theorized.
The sculptural object rendered in computer-generated imagery seems to depict a clunky mass of chrome objects: arrows, ridges, spikes, and a female nude figurine. The dynamic shuffling of these illuminated and reflective pieces evokes Futurist works such as Umberto Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Racing Horse & House: a sculptural collision in which velocity becomes a disfiguring force. The artwork for Rifts, made almost a century later, seems to heed to Boccioni’s call to an “abstract reconstitution of the planes and volumes which determine form”. However, the artwork’s digital implosion of simulated industrial form stages a world modulated by both actual and virtual patterns of vision, consumption, and production. What looks like a computer screen at the center of the image seems to spill over the object, transforming it into a crystal of information and light, a sort of digital museological artifact that appropriates features of different media. For instance, although computer-generated, the image displays a lens flare, an optical effect proper to a camera.
In the work of Daniel Lopatin, images of the sort do not float in a purely visual sphere. They are often designed as material waiting for a sonorous intervention to be engineered in coextension. This paper seeks to map out the multiple currents that run through Daniel Lopatin’s live and recorded audio-visual assemblages, projects that provoke the following questions: How does one design sound for non-narrative images? What is a sonic imitation? And what is a sonic abstraction?
In order to begin to examine the live performances and audio-visual releases of Oneohtrix Point Never, it is essential to first discuss his audio work separately, independently from the visual accompaniment it is coupled with in live settings and DVD releases. We will not be constructing a comprehensive musicological analysis of Lopatin’s albums, but will rather proceed by drawing out several principal vectors that characterize his sound. Two albums will we explored. The first of which is Rifts, which comprises Lopatin’s first three full-length records: Betrayed in the Octagon, Zones without People, and Russian Mind.
Almost 150 minutes long, Rifts is a sprawling series of exercises in sonic design. Alternating between short pieces and long drone compositions, the album juxtaposes two sonorous registers: the musical and the extra-musical, building undulations of arpeggiated melodic synths within washes of static and soft noise. The album finds Lopatin designing a cloud of free-floating and angular electronic sounds that neither stimulate an auditory nostalgia nor conjure a futuristic soundscape. The music, instead, feels placeless and atemporal, resonating like an onslaught of sonic probes or an apparatus of capture chiming across the electronic infosphere. What Lopatin himself calls a “structural approach to noise”, fuses the dissonance of abstract electronics, with a melancholy musicality. The track titles, moreover, function not as mirrors to the sonic content of the album, but as elements that propel the listener to forge connections, blurred memories, and specters of bygone sonic, televisual, cinematographic, and computer economies. Titles such as Laser to Laser, Computer Vision, Format & Journey North, I Know It’s Taking Pictures from Another Plane, and Transmat Memories elicit mental associations in which political economies and military technologies are fed back into familial viewing settings and devices such as the VCR.
Before proceeding to examine the aesthetic and theoretical entanglements of Lopatin’s synthesis of the aural and the visual, I will be speaking briefly about another album by the artist in which he sketches an approach to found sound that, as we will see, is simultaneously complimentary to and autonomous from his use of found footage. The album in question is entitled Replica, and was released last year on Software Records.
“ It’s the closest thing you’re gonna find to a real live time machine. It’s just like I’ve captured the past and brought it into your home. Here’s an opportunity to step into the climax-age of television when it was at its best.” This is taken from the website for “Videomercials”, a small company that sells DVD compilations of uninterrupted 80s television commercials to customers hungry for a session of “retro rejuvenation”. This production of accelerated and intensified nostalgia, of televisual retromania, provides Daniel Lopatin with raw material for the tracks that populate the radiophonic terrain of Replica. The artist isolates specific instances of vocal utterances extracted from these television commercials, and submits them to a series of electronic interventions by which what is enunciated, what is being sold through the medium of speech is hollowed out and reduced to looping vocal snippets. A voice freed of the burden of signification. A stutter, a deep breath, and a gulp form the skeleton of the track “Sleep Dealer” by which the act of swallowing a soft drink acquires an unnerving and fleshly aural quality through a process of amplification. “Child Soldier” initially loops a fraction-of-a-second long voice of a child soldier, only to be intercepted by another displaced, drained, and anonymous singing voice. Stripped down, the voice resounds as an inscription of bare life, a “sign of pain and pleasure”, in the words of Giorgio Agamben. This makes for a consuming listening experience that is more somatic than semiotic.
The abstract deployment of the disembodied vocal sample, in that case, can be conceptualized as the production of misremembrances. The album designs a sonic exercise in remembrance whereby sound itself, now artificially grafted into an alien milieu, begins to draw abstractions of other sounds. The tracks on Replica can be thought of as mnemonic devices, artificial memory aids that isolate brief yet persuasive pieces of information such as the gulp in a soda advertisement and the snippet from a military chant. The listener, upon hearing these pieces of information, now disconnected from their visual environments and made into loops, is conditioned to think about the nature, proliferation, and affective power of sounds that have become universal signifiers, but also physical, vocal marks of global consumption, speech, and audio technologies.
One can also examine an album that induces a sense of estrangement through the deployment of the auditory misremembrance. Released in the same year as Lopatin’s Replica, James Leyland Kirby’s An Empty Bliss Beyond this World, both phonically and structurally imitates the ways in which an Alzheimer’s patient recollects passage of music. Kirby (or the Caretaker) samples ballroom jazz records, using some of the same loops repeatedly in different tracks so as to mimic the appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of music in an Alzheimer’s patient’s memory. As opposed to Lopatin, which employs the loop to intensify the sourced sound, Kirby diffuses the original sound, transforming it into a specter of itself. Furthermore, he drenches the entire album in crackle, positing recording itself as a mimetic act that acknowledges the disappearance of an original sonic event.
One is thus invited to identify two compositional currents in the work of Daniel Lopatin, the first being imitation, the form of the structural mirror, or the replica, and the second is abstraction, which will be theorized as a process that is not only linked to the mechanisms of memory, but also aesthetic and economic concerns.
How can the synthesizer, the vocal sample, and the misremembrance, then feed into the image, more specifically Lopatin’s Memory Vague DVD, his solo audio-visual performances, and his live collaborations with visual artist Nate Boyce.
Philip Brophy, in an essay outlining the use of the synthesizer in film, defined the synthesizer as a “non-definable, distanced instrument, devoid of its own identity yet capable of calling up simulated timbres in a breathy, hazy way”, adding that it is an instrument of “indifference and asynchronism”. It is through an alliance between the synthesizer’s asynchronicity and the looped sample as an instrument of disfiguration, that Lopatin negotiates with the image.
The first work in which this method is at work is Memory Vague, a roughly 30-minute long collage of Lopatin’s music and manipulated television commercials.
Sourced entirely from YouTube, the low-quality, looping visual sequences are often coupled with audio loops, a process Lopatin calls ‘echo jams’.
One of these ‘echo-jams’ featured on the DVD is entitled ‘Unmaking the World’. It juxtaposes computer-generated moving images with slithering, liquid synths. The first images are of a simulated bird’s eye view traveling shot of a city reduced to its geometric outlines, unpopulated. Then, Lopatin cuts to a gauze-like morphing digital sculpture, then to a neon-lit flight across crystalline skylines and light rays moving across digital cartographies. The synthesizers and sequencers in turn morph from aerial and spacious, to more intense, thicker, and faster variations, mimicking both the activity of a shape-shifting object and the speed of traveling light rays.
At first glance, it is tempting to evaluate this approach to composing for images as similar to the compositional techniques of the ciné-concert, whereby artists create new soundtracks for films. The famous examples are too many to enumerate, but one can perhaps refer to Jeff Mills’ dystopic Techno reimagining of the soundtrack of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, in which Mills uses drum machines and loops to parallel the visual representations of whirring factory machines, assembly lines, and the roboticized movement of laborers. The second major approach used in the ciné-concert format is the engineering of mood, whereby artists compose soundtracks that fabricate a general mood or ambience as opposed to sonic descriptions of visual action and movement. If there is one persistent mood designed by Lopatin’s synth, it is that of suspension, what Philip Brophy, in reference to John Carpenter soundtracks, calls the synthesizer’s ‘hovering still’ sensation”.
However, Lopatin is not creating sound environments in tandem with cinematographic images. Instead, he is confronting the task of imitating what is already in itself a low-quality, infinitely reproducible copy, a replica composed of vector graphics, simulations of light rays, infographics, animated neon helixes, digital cartographies, and waves. Everything is already an abstract, virtual reduction. It can be said that Lopatin’s audio-visual environments are mimetic in the sense articulated by curator and writer Anselm Franke in his essay “Like, Like Being Like – On Mimesis, Mimicry, and Mimétisme”. Franke writes: “Mimicry is diabolic, mimesis is symbolic, we mays say, but in the form of the mimetic faculty, they belong to one and the same, that is the ability to imitate, create an effect with a gesture, to make copies, mirror the world and be mirrored, immerse and become.”
Luigi Russolo, in the early 1900s, was performing a similar procedure of imitating an abstraction by moving across a reversed path. Russolo was fabricating visual representations of sound forms. In a recently published book Luigi Russolo, Futurist, Luciano Chessa analyzes Russolo’s paintings. He writes: “In Solidita della nebia (1912) of the same year, Russolo once again confronted the problem of representing waves, though the type of wave remains unclear.” Then, in a discussion of another painting by Russolo, Impressioni di bombardamento shrapnels e granate, made in 1926, Chessa writes: “Russolo actually painted these noises of the war with the shapes that are rather close to Leadbeater’s description of the sound-forms generated by warfare noises.” Although Lopatin’s figurative representations are evocative of those of Russolo, his compositions also deviate from those lines, primarily because the images he is dealing with, and the timeframe in which they are produced and within which they circulate, are radically different.
The sequences Lopatin manipulates are often television commercials that demonstrate the functioning of consumer electronics: digital traveling immersions into the worlds of fiber optics, networked communications, tapes, and cathode ray tubes. This is the world of what philosopher Jodi Dean term ’communicative capitalism’, a late form of capitalism under which “ideals of access, inclusion, discussion, and participation come to be realized in and through expansions, intensifications, and interconnections of global telecommunications”. The images in the infomercials are communicative capitalism’s renditions, now digital, of waves of information, light, and sound. Although these representations cannot be true-to-nature or exact, they do visualize the propagation of matter invisible to the naked eye. This material that Lopatin works with heralds from an economy of access and circulation that is not causal, chronological, or vertical. The temporality is horizontal, constituted of archived audio and video material existing side by side.
If there is a plot, a dramatic tension in the original infomercials, it has been transformed into a series of affective reductions: a face, a tactile gesture, a suspended gaze… And Lopatin’s sonic compositions, in turn, follow this pattern. The instrumentation doesn’t build into a climax, nor does it employ a pattern of composition by which a synthesizer, for example, designs ecologies of action, ecstasy, fear, or suspense in synchrony with onscreen activity. Instead, the synthesizer and the loop draw abstractions of information as opposed to narration, summoning the streams of Muzak and the tones of public information.
The last component of Daniel Lopatin’s work that I will be briefly sketching here is his live audio-visual performances, some of which are collaborations with visual artist Nate Boyce. Loptin’s approach to composition here sees him sidetracking the fluctuations in velocity, texture, and movement in the image and opting for a process of sonic sculpting that plays with other parameters set by Nate Boyce’s CGI videos. Although both the image and audio track are designed in conjunction, one cannot conceive of them as synchronous. What is at stake, rather, is an exploration of the residual nature of sound and image.
With “Reliquary House” for instance, a live collaboration between Lopatin and Boyce, the video screen displays 3-D renderings of modernist works by Isamo Noguchi, David Smith, Jacob Epstein, and Anthony Caro. Boyce subjects these sculptures to a set of digital experiments, the result of which is that the original sculptures are transformed into immaterial ruins, flattened, duplicated, or mirrored, their geometric build now aqueous, melting into synthetic virtual landscapes made of planes of color gradients and artificial clouds. These plastic mutations of art historical objects hint at the artworks’ reproducibility, at their circulation as economic abstractions. Exchangeable and elastic, they are transformed into virtual quantities. What Nate Boyce identifies as a “neo-materialist understanding of digital information” can be considered to be a motif for Lopatin’s compositions. Field recordings, vocal samples, synthesizers, and streams of noise are uprooted from their original bodies, deformed, and finally compounded into a mineral torrent of digital detritus.
– A paper presented as part of the conference: The Status of Sound: Writing Histories of Sonic Art ,at the Graduate Center, City University of New York on November 30, 2012