Fractured Visuals: Oneohtrix Point Never's R Plus Seven

Daniel Lopatin has been making music and videos under the name Oneohtrix Point Never since 2007. After a flood of cassettes, LPs, and CD-Rs on small underground labels like No Fun Productions and Arbor, 2010’s Returnal was released on the venerable Editions Mego. The record introduced Lopatin to a larger indie music audience. With its eclectic mix of noise, digital manipulation, and sprawling, almost new-agey analog synth passages, Returnal managed to strike a balance between pop appeal and experimental headiness. 2011’s Replica, released on Lopatin and collaborator James Ford’s Software imprint, continued to skate along this border, this time foregrounding a collage-based approach to sound production, with Lopatin pulling samples from old television commercials. Linking up with contemporary tropes of music-making, from hip-hop to electronic dance music, the record offered a nostalgic gaze at an earlier moment of computer-based music production. However, any sentimentality was checked by a palpable violence. Lopatin’s precise approach to sampling felt almost surgical, especially when used on the human voice. Throughout Replica, the listener is constantly questioning whether the record is an homage to or condemnation of the cultural detritus of which it is constructed.

Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven (Warp).

For his latest release, R Plus Seven, Lopatin has switched directions, joining the legendary British label Warp Records, known for its support of electronic experimentation and left-of-center dance music. Despite the broader audience that Warp’s support can bring him, Lopatin has chosen to release his most challenging and complex record yet. Whereas Replica balanced its conceptual rigor with a dose of pop accessibility, most of R Plus Seven’s tracks eschew pop song structure. The inspiration here isn’t free-form experimentation but rather its exact opposite: an incredibly mannered, tasteful, and academic Minimalism, composed with a palette of distinctly dated digital sounds. In this regard, R Plus Seven feels like a response to James Ferraro, specifically his divisive 2011 release Far Side Virtual, released on the Hippos in Tanks label. On that record, Ferraro employed a similar, early digital sonic palette, using low-grade MIDI instruments and functional sounds from computer programs. Both records feel synthetic, unfocused, and uncontained. Far Side Virtual, however, uses this to great effect: The vacant quality of its sonic palette speaks to music’s lack of autonomy in the digital environment. The sounds coming from Spotify or iTunes might as well be the same as those from Skype or Netflix.

R Plus Seven is a struggle in this respect. A number of tracks—in particular, “He She,” “Inside World,” “Cryo,” and “Still Life”—sound like sketches that have been stitched together. They share the distracted quality of the Ferraro record but lack its humor. Still, interspersed among these underdeveloped tracks are truly astounding pieces which, in their intricacy, function as miniature symphonies. Although it begins unevenly, R Plus Seven gains some footing with “Zebra,” a track tucked into the record’s middle. Opening with a propulsive, arpeggiated synthesizer, it dissolves midway through into an ambient drone. In the third section the melody reappears, distorted and fragmented and at a noticeably slower tempo. “Chrome Country” strikes a similar balance between structural complexity and melodic consistency. Lopatin adds piano, choral samples, and other sounds to soothing, sustained synth passages, creating an airy, spacious arrangement that doesn’t overwhelm the richness of his sonic palette. These tracks are entirely self-contained and almost classical in structure, in that whatever themes are introduced are completely resolved by the end of the composition.

However, the looseness and ease that made Returnal and Replica such pleasurable listening experiences are missing on R Plus Seven. The sequencing, rather than hold the record together, fractures it. And this seems to be a larger theme in electronic music, with artists like Dean Blunt, Actress, and Zomby, with varying degrees of success, making records from what appears to be a series of unsequenced sketches. In interviews around the release of Replica, Lopatin has remarked on listeners’ shortened attention spans, and how digital listening environments have affected the timing of his own work. On iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube, individual tracks are less connected to the larger context of the album. The idea that an album is a vehicle for a series of singles is old hat for pop records, but today’s listening environments affect every genre, whether popular or avant-garde.

R Plus Seven’s lack of unity and cohesion might reflect how we listen today, but it also speaks to Lopatin’s ambitions beyond music. While Replica was a pop record taking on the conceptual rigor of a work of art, R Plus Seven might be the reverse, a record more appropriate for listening—or viewing—in a gallery than on the computer or portable device of the casual music listener. Lopatin has shown an inclination towards visual art. In 2009, he released the DVD-R Memory Vague, which showcased his collage-based approach to audio as well as visuals. He also has an ongoing collaboration with visual artist Nate Boyce. R Plus Seven is accompanied by a website that features visuals, videos, and experiences designed by artists Jacob Ciocci of the Paper Rad collective, Cory Arcangel, Takeshi Murata, and Nate Boyce. All of these artists use digital technologies and at times evoke their histories and pasts to humorous and uncomfortable ends. Online, the fractured experience of R Plus Seven begins to make more sense. It’s not that the record needs accompanying visuals to be complete; rather, R Plus Seven requires a different mode of listening, one that doesn’t seek narrative or cohesion and is closer to how a listener experiences sounds in the context of the visual arts.

Contributor

Andrew Cappetta

ANDREW CAPPETTA is an art historian, educator, and writer. He has taught at Parsons the New School for Design, Hunter College, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Art History at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and a Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art.

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