In my teenage bedroom, I had a PC in one corner, on which I listened to all of my music. Two speakers sat on either side of the monitor. The wiring was bad and, although both speakers worked, all music came through in mono. Certain songs that heavily used panning were always one-sided. I learnt to live with it.
Music filled my bedroom constantly. If I was awake, the computer was on and a growing collection of pirated MP3s played throughout the day. (Often, I left music playing throughout the night as well. Brian Eno’s Ambient series. The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid.) You could always hear the muffled sounds of my sonic universe wherever you were in the house. I must have been a noisy nightmare to live with. (I live alone now, but my friends and I will gather. There is always music playing.)
On the few occasions I turned my music off and left my teenage bedroom silent, a parallel universe was barely audible downstairs. My Dad had a very similar set-up. We were both Internet and music addicts. He sat in front of his computer smoking cigarillos whenever he was home from work. We rarely crossed paths, avoiding each other’s worlds. I didn’t rate his taste in music that highly, nor he mine. But whenever we were in the car together, we’d find common ground. The Beatles, Lindisfarne, Yes, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. Sometimes he’d subject me to Clannad. Sometimes I’d subject him to Can and nu metal. Moments of compromise before we returned to our respective dens.
I was reminded of our oddly elliptical orbit of each other whilst sitting on my sofa, holding the twelve-inch cover of Oneohtrix Point Never’s new album, Again. The third speaker from the left — I’m sure we had those… I’m sure many other people will feel the same. Six generic objects made wonderfully iconic. I imagine what might be playing through them, how the sounds would comingle together. As the speakers are constricted, melted, their edges bleeding into each other, would the sounds they made do the same?
Again begins with this bleeding. New sounds are constructed from the mesh, as if the strands are pulled apart again, rewoven, remodulated, remanipulated. I think about how memory works, how neural pathways are retrodden, such that memories are always events reimagined. We return again and again to the past, but it is never the same.
Martin Faldbakken’s sculpture provokes an almost Proustian response in this regard, as I recall the limitations of those sonic worlds once inhabited, the constrictions we thought little about as we immersed ourselves in the sounds available to us. But it is like returning to a dream. I remember how it felt. The details are murky.
A description of Faldbakken’s practice from Simon Lee Gallery suggests that it “holds in perpetual tension the forces of proposition and cancellation, vandalism and erasure, aesthetic generosity and conceptual restraint, the possibility of language and its abstraction into illegibility.” I think about how the very act of remembering holds these same tensions in play. I think about the music my Dad and I proposed to each other when we disconnected from our ethernet tethers. The music we proposed for our shared listening, the tracks or albums we denied each other or asked the other to skip. The poor acoustic environments, the sounds always determined by the room or the car or the dodgy wiring. The anarchic generosity of the early Internet and the limited free time during the day we had to listen to new downloads, encouraging a compulsive bingeing of always too much music, the impossibility of absorbing it all meaningfully but the abundance of meaning all the same. The way that sharing music, successfully and unsuccessfully, was a way to communicate without actually talking to each other. My growing interest in dance music, which he hated, and my growing distain for his trad-folk predilections. The chaotic collisions of our total sound worlds. Talking drums talking past each other.
When I left home, I found a buoyant raft in the sound worlds of Oneohtrix Point Never. Lopatin has soundtracked many formative moments of my early adulthood (which I’ve reminisced about previously) and has continued to. His work also soundtracked many moments afterwards. Over a decade of sonic companionship, at this point. MOPN being a soundtrack for lockdown is only the most recent sonic attachment of profound personal significance. I could tell you about all the others, but I won’t. The details are unimportant and probably uninteresting, but this in itself is notable. No other discography triggers such erratic cascades of memory, a bittersweet thrill so internal that relaying it to another feels no better than sharing dream narratives on waking: punishing for the listener, as you scramble to articulate an affect knowable only to the unconscious; embarrassing, as you watch boredom creeping over the eyes and ears of the person who could never have been there. Communication is hard; significance is unstable and subjective. Profundity and mundanity are constantly in each other’s orbit.
For this reason alone, Matias Faldbakken is the perfect artist to adorn the cover of the new album. Just as our dreams drift from grand creativities to mundane anxieties, “the objects he adapts often veer between the iconic and the almost painfully generic.” The same can be said of Oneohtrix Point Never Again. There is nothing pejorative about this slip between the iconic and the generic, however. It is what makes the album feel so totalising. In fact, the album is at its most affecting when I allow it to become purely environmental. I hit play and let the record fill my flat as I sit down to write or get up to tidy or cook, my mind at work the whole time, travelling. Memories feel at their sharpest when they emerge amidst peripheral activities.
This weekend, two lightbulbs popped in my flat. The light in the bathroom and the light in my bedroom. It’s an annoying little inconvenience and I have yet to find the time to walk into town and buy new ones. But manoeuvring myself in the dark, I remember that fascinating quirk of human anatomy — we generally see better in the dark through our peripheral vision. I set my sights on a vague middle distance and navigate my way through tasks by paradoxically casting my attention on that which is barely looked at. I listen to Oneohtrix Point Never Again the same way, and continue to hear new details on every subsequent listen. I am repeatedly surprised by the shifting symphony, as particularly recognisable motifs appear when I least expect them, before then hearing a section I swear I’d yet to register, some two dozen listens in…
My mind wanders. The album is almost exactly an hour in length, but is over before I know it. I start to live in it. I hear other sounds bleed through. I think about other songs by other artists. I feel like my whole collection of music is on shuffle. But everything nonetheless coheres in spite of the chaos.
The album feels so wonderfully derivative when I listen to it in this way. Or, to bastardise the French like only Anglos know how, it is dérivative. Like Garden of Delete (most explicitly) before it, it is a wandering through sound worlds. But whereas the sonic palette on GoD was particular, OPNA feels like a walk through the neighbourhood, as sounds pan past your ears on the march forward, the whole world experienced through the Doppler effect. I think about the walk I take every few days between my flat and my local pub. headphones on for the duration, different playlists curated for different modes. OPNA suits them all, as if it travels and I only wander alongside. I wonder if the album might also be derivative in a more mathematical sense. Despite its evocation of so many other worlds, we know we are in Lopatin’s. He is the constant, the formula, as we gain a new sensitivity to the outputs that are conjured by shifting inputs. It is a soundtrack not only for but of life, of the in-between, of the wandering between old memories and new ones presently forming.
Talking over email in late 2020, Lopatin recommended Philip Brophy’s 100 Modern Soundtracks. I can’t find the book now; I have moved too many times since then. Things get lost. But Brophy’s website is a treasure trove of writing on the psychedelic construction of total sonic worlds — that is, sonic environments that are all-encompassing. Not just the music being played but every other sound that intrudes marvellously upon the intentional. The best example of this kind of psychedelic construction is undoubtedly a film soundtrack.
To say OPNA is cinematic verges too close to cliche, but it is that and so much more. “Imploding the perceived distance between score / environmental sound / dialogue track is a psychedelic act”, Lopatin writes in a pandemic email. Brophy goes even further on his website — just as Lopatin does now on OPNA — writing about the deeply pleasurable semioblitz of a modern cinema-going experience. Not only the total bombardment of surround sound but the sound of the audience laughing, hollering, crying, eating. Cinema is noisy, but also so much noisier than we realise. It always has been.
For the intelligentsia, early 20th century cinema was nothing but noise. The possessed patrons, the infernal machinery, the diabolical din of it all was everything the angels in the wings of theatre had strived to obliterate. The baseness of cinema would have been as attractive to theatre critics then as death metal mega-bill concerts would be the concert music critics of today. The noise of production and consumption is a hallmark of 20th century exchange, typifying industrialization as a cacophonic manifestation of the warping of time and speed that increased manufacture brought to bear on modernist economy. Audiovisual entertainment of the originating milieu was bound to be similarly ‘noisy’ through its hybridity, malleability, compaction and condensation of all traditional art forms. The modernist tropes of collage, fusion and rupture quite organically increased the aural and the sonic primarily through a ‘live multi-tracking’ of events and occurrences. Voice, sound effects, music, atmosphere, and a mix of controlled and unplanned circumstances fuelled equally post-vaudevillian and proto-cinematic monstrosities, creating audiovisual chimera whose sensational effects and spectacularized presentations embraced the essential quality of noise.
I think about the cinematization of everyday life. I imagine Lopatin in his Williamsburg studio, pushing tender buttons, a salvagepunk sculpting sonic worlds from everything around, making sonic sculptures in much the same way Faldbakken does.
Mark Fisher on OPN for The Wire:
By opposition to postmodern pastiche, in which any sign can be juxtaposed with any other in a friction-free space, salvagepunk retains the specificity of cultural objects, even as it bolts them together into new assemblages. That’s precisely because salvagepunk is dealing with objects rather than signs. While signs are interchangeable, objects have particular properties, textures and tendencies, and the art of salvage is about knowing which objects can be lashed together to form viable constructions.
Lopatin has always excelled at this, and with a decade of film scoring now under his belt, Oneohtrix Point Never Again feels like a fitting evocation of the Brophy blitz. It is a suite of music that feels so cohesive, and yet shifts like a walk through a city, a drive across a country. It is Steve Reich’s Different Trains, swapping the sound world of post-war railways for post-internet information superhighways. You hit play, travel on, walking a path as the scenery changes seamlessly. It reminds of a Mount Eerie song, much to my surprise. OPN listens to and adds his own soundtrack to “the ‘natural world’ / and whatever else it’s called / […] / Mountains and websites”. Lopatin tunes into it all. The lyrics of “World Outside” could not be more explicit about his:
the songbird sings to me
the flowers speak so freely
a wavelength in a sea
it’s just my interpretation
i hear the power lines
they tell me that i’ll be fiiine
existence is clear as mud
but isn’t the view so amazing?
world outside (calls me forth)
It feels reductive to call Oneohtrix Point Never Again a post-pandemic album — a truism — but this ode to touching grass and the buzzing of power lines reminds me of Gary Snyder’s poems, which I took great comfort in during lockdown, feeling so cut off from a world that hadn’t strictly gone anywhere, ruminating on:
The vast wild
the house, alone.
The little house in the wild,
the wild in the house.
Both together, one big empty house.
I think about my Dad again, our disconnected worlds, both forgotten. The “liminality, ambiguity, unexpected tenderness” that defined our relationship as much as it defines Lopatin’s music. But also the worlds shared on long drives together, the distance between us now, those mute journeys that no longer happen, cast adrift by a decade of domestic disasters, and a longing for that now-lost dysfunction that was nonetheless ours. Lopatin’s music has always evoked these barely lit paths, recalling refrains that guide through memory’s haze.
If I empty my mind
Do I scoop out my skull
What gifts would I find
Just a slug that provides
A barely lit path
From your house to mine.
At the same time, both together. One big echoing house, full of noise. The world outside.
“The goal isn’t to thrash against disconnection … but to somehow integrate it.”