Freaked Out Yet? That’s His Goal
Posted May 31, 2018 6:11 p.m. EDT
TROY, N.Y. — It takes a lot of planning to conjure chaos and ruin.
On a Sunday afternoon in mid-May, the electronic composer Daniel Lopatin, who records as Oneohtrix Point Never, was rehearsing at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, a starship-like modern-architecture apparition in this upstate city. With a brief residency in a state-of-the-art black-box rehearsal studio, Lopatin was leading his first full group of live musicians under the Oneohtrix Point Never (or OPN) moniker to prepare for the multimedia production “Myriad” — Lopatin calls it a “concertscape” — that had its premiere at the Park Avenue Armory May 22 and will go on to tour other festivals and arts spaces like the Barbican in London.
The music was from OPN’s new album, “Age Of,” which was concocted in studios and on computers but was now being painstakingly reverse-engineered for real-time concert performance. Like the rest of Lopatin’s extensive catalog, “Age Of” is high-concept and then some, in both its sounds and its intellectual underpinnings. The new album involves, among other things, a theory of historical epochs, a post-human artificial intelligence, a sonic palette drawing from folk and Baroque music — with plenty of harpsichord — as well as glossy and grating electronic timbres and, most of all, a deep distrust of anything approaching stability.
“Age Of” has euphonious moments, but sooner or late Lopatin makes sure to sabotage them. “Every song is an opportunity to freak somebody out,” Lopatin said during an interview in one of Empac’s conference rooms while his band got set up. “Generally my response to seeing something really symmetrical and perfect is ... it’s the scene with Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the first ‘Batman,’ the museum scene,” Lopatin said. “Him just spray-painting the Mona Lisa, and whatever, with his goons. It is really the most satisfying thing you could do, is to just put a little scratch in something that thinks it — that has the arrogance of knowing what it is. But it is sort of funny that I just do that over and over. It’s very bratty.”
At the same time, he added, “It also works well in the inverse. I also like to take chaos and structure it so it has a kind of comprehensible pulsation.”
Since he began releasing music a decade ago as Oneohtrix Point Never — a name he derived from a Boston soft-rock station, Magic 106.7 — Lopatin, 35, has worked on the far fringes of pop. He doesn’t make electronic dance music, ambient music, hip-hop, electropop or any other easily labeled genre. Instead, he manipulates a broad and deeply idiosyncratic array of genres, samples, sources and strategies, from Minimalism to collage to noise. He often uses snippets of material — ad jingles, saccharine pop productions, throwaway dialogue — that he can’t entirely dismiss as kitsch. “The dumber the thing is, the more excitement I get from imagining a very complex world of truth around it,” he said.
And where the digital tools of electronic music favor numerical precision and exact repetition, OPN’s music has often counterattacked, using glitches, wobbles, smears, interruptions and seeming non sequiturs, constantly undermining expectations. “Formally, things have to become other things, or else I feel unsatisfied and/or like a con man,” he said. “Because then I’m not being honest about my perspective on things.”
In an era of overwhelming information and options, Lopatin feels that committing to a single style would be, for him, a lie. “The thing that I’ve always been a little bit jealous of is a complete, a total giving to one form, like a genre, and just a mastery of it,” he said. “My thing is very different. It’s a complete embrace of something, but I’ve never been able to say, ‘I believe in this.’ The only thing I believe in is that I’m in this perpetual state of disbelief.”
Lately, he has been calling his approach Compressionism, with a capital C; he’s working on a manifesto. “It’s dealing with the overload of knowing about too much stuff, about being exposed to too many historical inputs, and then turning it into some kind of coherent jumble,” he said. “It’s still a jumble, but it’s a kind of coherency of drawing connections between things.”
Jumbled or not, Lopatin has been widely enlisted as a collaborator. He composed the soundtrack that ratchets up the tension in the 2017 thriller “Good Time,” which includes a song featuring Iggy Pop; he has also been a producer or remixer for Nine Inch Nails, FKA twigs, David Byrne and the avant-pop singer Anohni (who also appears on “Age Of”).
After seeing Lopatin in concert with Anohni, Usher asked him to send a track, but rejected what arrived: “This very strange little song,” Lopatin said. OPN reclaimed it for “Age Of” and it became “The Station,” a ballad punctuated by whistles and gusts of white noise, with lyrics like “It’s an open invitation/To try to find the bottom of a bottomless hole.” Lopatin worked intermittently on “Age Of” amid his other projects. For the final push, he found a unique Airbnb rental: an egg-shaped glass house without right angles on a hill in Southbridge, Massachusetts. He decided, “I have to experience this,” he said, “because knowing me, something interesting and neurotic will happen here that won’t go as planned.”
The house, transparent and exposed during his preferred nighttime work hours, turned out to be an ideal incubator for a sense of isolation and paranoia, leading to songs like “Warning,” with a choppy pulse, vertiginous stereo ricochets and vocals that go from a heavy-breathing whisper to a yell.
When he was nearly finished with “Age Of," Lopatin got the songwriter and producer James Blake, a fellow connoisseur of eerie, untethered sounds, to assist him on the final remix. “Daniel is an original — a rare find, musically and personally,” Blake wrote in an email, adding that he learned “to think cinematically” working with him. “Daniel seems one part composer, one part movie director, one part conductor. I had no idea how Daniel was coming up with his sonics so I was intrigued to learn his secrets, but even after seeing under the hood I’m none the wiser.”
At times, “Age Of” moves toward relatively straightforward song structures. During his recent collaborations with singers and songwriters, Lopatin was “exposed to other people’s perspectives on what it is that I’m doing,” he said. “All my collaborators unilaterally said that I need to just stay on one idea for longer. And of course I understand that. I like to switch gears a lot, and I like this kind of sloppy attitude. You don’t stay too long on any one idea, or else they’ll know you’ve committed. But I definitely came away from all of that stuff wanting to make my version of a kind of a singer-songwriter record — even though it’s not.”
Indeed, a handful of doleful, electronically skewed ballads — “Black Snow,” “The Station” and “Babylon” — bring OPN only marginally closer to anything like pop on “Age Of.” There’s also a stately processional with a Ping-Pong rhythm section (“Toys 2”), a drone punctuated by buzz-saw zaps and manic TV samples (“We’ll Take It”), a sparse, diffident, Asian-tinged instrumental (“RayCats”) and a haunted, through-the-looking-glass finale, “Last Known Image of a Song.”
The album has a convoluted underlying story. “Age Of” and the “Myriad” production, Lopatin explained, divide human history into four ages: the primordial paradise of Ecco, the agrarian Harvest, capitalist Excess and the grim Bondage. “It’s a kind of dumb system for understanding the world,” he said, “but it yields all of this hilarious insight into your personal way of dealing with things. It’s not a truth. It’s actually just an amplification of your subjectivity.” In the album’s mythology, human history has been consigned to the past along with humankind itself. “The stage is a memory, a sort of projection, an idea, a dream that an artificial intelligence at the end of time might have of its ancestors, us, of Earth,” Lopatin said. “They sit around dreaming all day at the end of time, trying to imagine what it was like to be stupid, to not understand everything. It titillates them to no end. In fact, they have the ability to create other universes, not to stay and linger and loiter in the cemetery of this one, but they do because they’re nostalgic.”
In the Empac rehearsal space, the asymmetrical shape of the Armory stage had been laid out in tape on the floor around four nests of instruments and electronics. The band included Lopatin and another electronics-oriented musician, Aaron David Ross, along with two conservatory-trained virtuosos, the keyboardist Kelly Moran and the drummer Eli Keszler, who was playing a drum kit, assorted percussion instruments and digitally triggered samples mapped to areas of a drumhead via a sensor.
During some songs, Keszler changed sticks four or five times to get the exact impacts required. “A lot of this music is just this imagined space,” Keszler said. “And when you put it in physical space, to really get the sound right requires an incredible amount of changes. It redoes the way you imagine your instrument.”
Behind the musicians were irregular-shaped projection screens that would be stacked up even higher, over 30 feet tall, at the Armory. Nearby were deflated black inflatables, looking like giant garbage bags, that would symbolize looming environmental disaster.
The Armory show brought in even more elements. It spotlighted two 300-pound resin-coated sculptures suspended overhead, fusing forms associated with pairs of ages; Harvest/Excess involved a rat, plows, a cornucopia and an accumulation of detritus. Five line dancers, in cowgirl hats and face masks, appeared in “Black Snow.” An ornately illustrated libretto offered extensive annotations that ended up even more cryptic. But the music didn’t have to explain itself. It billowed and throbbed, tinkled and crashed, swooped and pealed around the grand space. No narrative, no matter how cosmic, could match the sound.