Essay: Modules in Machine Modernism with Oneohtrix Point Never

Adam Harper takes a closer look at the world of Daniel Lopatin's 'R Plus Seven', and its "reinvention" of the musical game.

If you have listened to 'R Plus Seven', make a list of ideas that R beautiful now that you have listened to 'R Plus Seven'. Here's mine: savannahs, stairwells, Mondrian, electric blue suits, cursors, a sharpened set of colouring pencils neatly arranged in order from red to violet, skylights, orchids, cleaning the windows of Liberty Place on a crisp April morning, a plane, learning to draw the human body, collonades, Sid Meier, vanishing points, heuristics and finite sequences of steps, amino acids, chess, self-constructing and self-replicating factories, ateliers, the set of all real numbers, the set of all recursive languages, the old weird technocracy.

To say that somebody 'reinvents' music would be a pompous cliché best left to jaded press releases and the twentieth century, wouldn't it? No one 'reinvents' music these days, they just reverently but despondently turn over its coals and prod its embers, or so we're often told. And yet there's no denying that reinventing music is precisely what Oneohtrix Point Never has been doing for the past few years, and more and more with each new release. Even if they melted into abstraction over time, there was something palpably 'neo' about his earlier releases that slotted nicely between the graveyard tributes of hauntology and the dumpster-diving of hypnagogic pop. But then there was the curveball of 'Replica', an album which people talk about in hushed tones as if it were a giant baleful asteroid hanging in the sky and just watching us going about our daily business. 'Replica' was a mystery humanity may never solve, an ancient curse on the limbic system, a system of doorways leading only to other doorways. It managed to unify enormous godlike emotional forces and apparently inconsequential little sonic granules in some kind of fuck-me, Klein-bottle, infinite-Escher-ascent scenario. It was an album that could only be explained with the principles of string theory (and partially, at that) and yet made as much sense as does fleeing from an oncoming beast.

This new album 'R Plus Seven' is so quizzical that it only barely interfaces with a human player on levels such as familiarity and emotionality. It cares nothing for your human need for unity. It cares nothing for your human hierarchy of musical signs. It cares nothing for your human categories of culture. After decades of 'new' music only reflecting our own expectations back at us with a veneer of subversiveness, this is what interfacing with reinvented music should feel like - like learning to listen all over again, like being an infant and not yet knowing how things are supposed to go together. 'R Plus Seven' is ahead of us, self-generating its own logics, but this is not to say it is inhuman. When needed, in response to demanding environments, the domain of humanity expands to encompass new logics and new forms of expression. And 'R Plus Seven' is a demanding environment.

"These sounds interbreed like a broth of protein strings, creating new sequences, new heterogeneous textures and new organisms galloping over the plains with their strangely bending limbs."

Well, maybe there's the occasional scent on the wind of mid-to-late eighties Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, or some other synth wizard, but at what point do we proto-humans, Daniel Lopatin included, inevitably read these things off the technological surface itself (relatively untouched since then as it is)? 'R Plus Seven' is at least halfway between the yuppie/adult-contemporary 80s kitsch of hypnagogic pop and something else without name or form. Oneohtrix has been 80s as Games, Ford & Lopatin, Chuck Person (the latter being how, like some Greek mythological figure with a weird wound, he gave rise to vaporwave) and others, but the least you can say about the recognisable objects of 'R Plus Seven' is that they appear in strange contexts - there are few games of spot the reference here (a game Ferraro has mostly given up on as well). Or if there are, they're paltry, not nearly as fun as whatever game those kids over there are playing, the ones eight feet tall with blue skin, ten limbs and magnificent crania. If people are left cold by 'R Plus Seven' this might be the reason, that it's all but stopped playing those same old games. Oneohtrix is no longer here to simply to remind you how cool 1970s and 1980s synthesiser music might have been back in the day.

And how do we navigate in this game? See for yourself. For me it's about pure sense, snatching an information packet as it rushes past and comparing it with another one. Same or different? How so? After a while, one can begin to sketch up a new cladogram. 'R Plus Seven' has several species of soft sounds (not as in quiet - woozy, hazy, pastel-coloured, rounded) and hard sounds (pinging, slamming, tinny, metallic). It is singular sounds (this note, that one, that pipette-blob of whatever it is) and multilicious sounds (bells, bunches, combinations, conglomerations). Organic sounds (human voices, water, was that a bird?) and non-organic sounds (for which only formulas can currently be given) - well, they're all both organic and non-organic and neither, really, 'R Plus Seven' makes it difficult to draw the lines. Discrete sounds (attacked, decayed, sustained and released into the silence) and continuous sounds (drones, breezes, atmosphères). And then you realise that actually all these species can interbreed, and are doing so rapidly, like a broth of protein strings, creating new sequences, new heterogeneous textures and new organisms galloping over the plains with their strangely bending limbs. And so surely enough, with all the joy of a Carl Sagan hand movement, complex life is born, music reinvented.

"'R Plus Seven' is such a reinvention of the musical game that it strikes me as a world generated almost from scratch by an artificial intelligence. The album might be what the computer that used to work for the Art of Noise does on its own time."

And the life is definitely up to something, whether we know what it is or not. Most tracks are built in a modular fashion, with wildly different bits and pieces - sometimes starkly monophonic - bolted together like parts of a space station. This is what other producers are doing, even Kanye, much of whose 'Yeezus' was constructed in the same way - one thing, then another thing, then another thing, all different musical images but dispensed one at a time, laid out neatly in a row, like in a museum. After all the crowing about maximalism, the cutting edge seems to be a modular/sequential minimalism, but for Lopatin this also comes from an interest in quasi-modernist 1980s graphic design I think, with its immaculately rendered tropes of abstraction (for a light-hearted look at which, click heresee also Steph Kretowicz's piece on the role of 'object fetish' and 'masculine' synthesiser presets). The process is not just jarringly and disruptively absorbing, the infinite made countably finite, but a kind of storytelling too. What might be 'happening' in tracks like Zebra and Still Life? We can hear the plot - that A gets to B gets to C - but what's the story?

This whole adventure throws a new light on everything. Maybe all kinds of things, things in sequence and combination, can be beautiful and absorbing in the same way. Maybe there are things we forgot were things, or never even noticed were things before. This is where blundering about in non-human games gets you. 'R Plus Seven' is such a reinvention of the musical game that it strikes me as a world generated almost from scratch by an artificial intelligence. The album might be what the computer that used to work for the Art of Noise does on its own time, an AI enthusiastically generating art, who once wouldn't admit to preferring modernism to postmodernism but now refuses to be ironic or ashamed of the so-called uncanny valley. 'R Plus Seven' wouldn't quite be the sort of thing to play to the tech-investors next time they come around, maybe we'll stick to 'Moments in Love' and 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' but we'll keep it on diskette, maybe one day humanity will have ascended to the point where it can be grateful.

Herein lies a drawback of 'R Plus Seven', not that it's robotic but that at times the facade of the non-human logics slips and we get something recognisably human or even sentimentally human, some structure of melody or harmony that might have come from the soundtrack to a movie about hopes and dreams. This is especially true of the final track, Chrome County, which feels a bit too much like a happy ending, as if in the midst of the sublime Oz-spectacle Lopatin pulls back the green curtain and gives a little wink. The same thing happened at the end of 'Replica,' everything became pleasant and relatable (if I'm reading the runes optimally, and I'm probably not). I don't want to be welcomed home - home was a lie and it's doomed anyway - I want to be taught how to be more than human, to evolve, to interface with non-human environments and make humanity there. I hope it isn't just me. Would you like to play a game of chess?

Warp released 'R Plus Seven' in September 2013.

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