Music In Conversation
DANIEL LOPATIN with George Grella
The music that Daniel Lopatin—likely better known as Oneohtrix Point Never—makes doesn’t truly have a name at the moment. He uses electronic means, both hardware and software, to make music that shows, after more than a dozen albums, something of the sound of contemporary electronica across a broad range that encompasses beat heavy sequences, noise, and chip-tune aesthetic (he also pioneered the vaporwave style with a one off cassette under the pseudonym Chuck Person, Chuck Person’s Eccojams Volume 1). But there’s very little in the way of song form in his music, most of it has open, unpredictable, and organic forms that have more to do with 20th century avant-garde classical music.
Two months after the premiere of his staged show, MYRIAD—based on his new album Age Of—at the Park Avenue Armory, he talked with the Rail about his work.
George Grella (Rail): What does the word composer mean to you?
Daniel Lopatin: Having been raised by a piano teacher and a musicologist I usually just think of the classical canon, and I think for the most part, even on some nebulous level, that’s the way people think [about it], so I don’t think my definition strays too far away.
It’s funny because I remember when I moved to New York I was in a lot of drone bands and noise bands and I [composed] on my own, and I would play it for my friends and my band mates who were primarily more interested in doing either aleatoric stuff or noise stuff, and they’d be like, “Well, I think what you want to be is a composer.”
And, okay, I think that did help me orient myself around my expectations for myself, what I wanted to spend my time doing. But I have a hard time with any of these words because they all put a sort of threshold on the way you communicate your art to the world, it just immediately frames it in a historical context or an industry context. And all of these things just exhaust me!
I just like to flow and react to music. Sometimes that means I’m composing music in a kind of systematic way, or sometimes it means I’m just messing around, or sometimes I’m a producer that’s directing moving pieces, other musicians.
Rail: What does that mean in terms of working by yourself with a piece of hardware or software?
Lopatin: There’s been a trilogy of records, Age Of (2018, Warp) being the last one and R Plus Seven (2013, Warp) being the first and Garden of Delete (2015, Warp) in the middle, that I think of as the most formally inclined records that I’ve made. They all kind of have similar chromosomes, and that often involves a combination of starting with an idea, as opposed to starting with a texture, or letting a texture generate an idea of what that might mean in a music-historical sense, and allowing that to fascinate me.
A lot of the time I’m not working from a blank slate in my mind with an insane array of theoretical tools. A really skilled musically trained composer might. I’ve always thought of myself as a non-musician with enough ammo from one experience to the next that I can get through it. I use ideas about music and ideas about texture to inspire me and I often use software and computers to carry me, like a mech suit carrying Robocop. I’m on the brink of falling apart without it. But inversely once I’m inside of that suit I’m much stronger than I could be if I was just approaching things completely naturally. I made three records that way and I think I’ve completely mastered the things that I want to do, and I’m not sure I want to spend the rest of my time here on Earth creating these musical mis-en-scénes or tableaux.
For me the big lesson is a kind of Cageian lesson that sent me on this whole thing, which is that you have to listen to music as ensconced by sound in general, noise, silence and everything else that hugs it and runs through it. Then you can see a real picture of the reality of what you’re hearing. And so that was always a guiding principal that made composition fun, because it wasn’t about writing harmonically oriented music in a vacuum, it was about relationships between things that are musical and non-musical alike, that really is what you hear a lot of times, a kind of picture of music. That was always much more interesting to me than writing a song in a style.
Rail: One way to hear your records is as electronica with some kind of connection to song form. But your tableaux idea is still a radical idea in music.
Lopatin: I can’t judge whether my music is new, but when I hear something that’s more like that than something else, it approximates a future that I’m interested in.
Rail: Do you think working with sound itself is compositional?
Lopatin: Yeah, I’m often doing that because when I’m making sounds . . . it’s usually at a later phase when I’m looking for something really specific. And then that’s architecture in a positive way, when I’m looking to the synthesizer to solve problems, like how do I get from one thing to the next that’s going to hold it together. How am I going to layer this melody to give it force to break through or the brute strength to raise you up. These are the sort of black magic things that I hate talking about because it’s just TMI, these are recipes.
Rail: Is form something that you are looking to fill or something you discover?
Lopatin: I think it’s both, I think you always start out in this idealistic manner, “hey, I’m going to finally create the Sistine Chapel” of some image in your mind that you think you can turn into music, and you set off on this course to do it and it’s totally impossible. It’s like sand through your fingers and you end up with something else and you work with it. It’s as easy as that. I’ve always talked about vague formalism because I was always nervous to somehow . . . like if you look at abstract sculptures of the 20th century, like Anthony Caro, his formalism is very different than mine. There’s an approach with music that allows nebulous terms and just fun and confusion, and there’s a sort of folk aspect to music that can really be found in that creating time. That’s why vague formalism was more interesting to me because you’re striving for something extraordinary and concrete, but you end up with . . . oil floating through water, and you end up with these forms but it’s hard to say what they are.
Rail: Do you want to make abstract art, not a functional song, but something to experience?
Lopatin: Yeah, I think I’m actually pining for that after all this. I’ve been living in symbols for the last six years, I’ve been making highly symbolic music, really testing myself to understand my thoughts. Also I was so inspired by things like Fantasia—and just obsessing over that kind of story telling experience that does have a sort of abstract layer to it—that I really thought was the finest approach, the best approach that seemed to make the most sense to me. And then I listen to a Mark Fell piece or something like that and I get so jealous, I just want to experiment and let things mean absolutely nothing. The only problem with that is that when I do it I always feel a little guilty, like I’m not being totally truthful to the way I think, because then I’m basically just putting a black sheet over a sculpture that already exists in my mind and saying don’t worry about my pathology at all. I don’t totally know why I would do that!
Rail: Now in Age Of you are working with an ensemble . . .
Lopatin: I really do like working in a group setting, but when it came to when I was making a new record, it was very difficult to think of it in any other way than in my studio, working it out. So in my quest to be very autobiographical I felt like it was totally weird and wrong to not involve other people in the record I was making, because I was finding myself working with people all the time and sharing ideas, and they were impacting me and I was impacting them. There’s a sort of cult of OPN that wants it one way and it’s paradoxical in a way because every record that I’ve made . . .
Rail: Is very different from each other . . .
Lopatin: And so I don’t exactly know how to satiate everyone and I’ve stopped being too overly concerned with that. Age Of is in a sense a letting go record, it’s a good way to end this trilogy of records that I’ve put out.
Rail: What was it like composing for ensemble?
Lopatin: It was very difficult at first because I wasn’t familiar with the sort of . . . I was probably making a lot of faux pas, stopping every two minutes and being very annoying. It’s kind of like when I was directing the “Black Snow” video and it was just kind of mechanical things I didn’t understand, like how to call cut or action. And it’s the same working in an ensemble setting. So at some point I found it really helpful to just let things go, just deeply listen and take notes and go around to each musician and have personal conversations with them.
The thing about the ensemble is that everyone in the band is so insanely skilled at what they do, I mean seriously, that even when they’re doing something that doesn’t totally line up with my idea, it either makes me reassess my idea or its very simple to work out within just a few alterations, and then we’re there.
The final note I’ll say is that the musicians were so good that after our initial sitting down listening to the record as multi-tracks, picking parts and deciding who was going to do what, this miraculous thing happened, which is that everyone went off for months with the record, with the material, and we reconvened at EMPAC, and everybody just fucking knew their parts and what they were doing. Maybe that’s normal and I assume that is with very high level musicians, but I’m literally like a maniac director that’s decided to surround himself with maniac musicians, and the combo’s so awesome. Everyone is just sort of able to be extremely interesting at all times without any limitations being put on them.
Rail: Are you already thinking about what comes next?
Lopatin: It’s hard for me to imagine another record, and it’s also really easy to imagine one that would be made with just a couple hardware synths like I used to, to see if it feels good and if the material’s good. But I definitely want to get away from this sort of process we’ve talked about.
Rail: Do you feel that you want to compose for records?
Lopatin: No. I would much rather compose for ensemble...I don’t even understand what a record is anymore. What was so great about Age Of is that for me sort of the Platonic ideal of a record is a 1975 singer-songwriter record, a Carole King record or something, and there’s a reason for that. It really does suit that format, the amount of time on an LP, the experience of flipping. [That] became the CD and this seventy minutes of shit or whatever. The compact nature of the vinyl experience was also made really interesting in that people were making these epics for this twenty-five minute listening experience. I was always so obsessed with that, the sort of “wish you were here” experience of home listening, and that’s what the last few records of mine were like, they were kind of still in that world but with my parameters.
Working more in film and production, working for pop performers and seeing how the industry is moving, I get envious of the immediacy, and the instant microwave dinner vibe of streaming is like, streaming is actually really, really inspiring. I think it’s a cool way to do things if you have the material for it. So I wouldn’t be interested in making records except in the old school way of making records, the three minute track.
Rail: Is live performance opening up for you?
Lopatin: Yeah, it really is. There’s just so much dynamism you can explore, it really extends a piece of music to its limits and it’s so interactive and crazy. I’m like, this is really where my interest in improvised music comes back into play, because you create these pockets of freedom with the band that surprise yourself the audienace, and if the audience knows the repertoire they’re that much more interested to see what you are going to do with it. This is fundamentally the most exciting thing that can happen with music, it’s much more interesting than a record.