De Harmonia Mundi and the End of the WorldOneohtrix Point Never at the Barbican Centre

De Harmonia Mundi and the End of the World

Photo by Wunmi Onibudo

In the late Renaissance, the once ethereal spacing of chords became suddenly earthen and aurally muddied with the invention of the harpsichord. Choirs were automated by a single playing hand, and onlookers lucky enough to see this instrument up close discovered that harmony was in fact clearer than ever, visually mapped out by the movements of fingers carving shapes upon keys. For those who tried to theorise the ways in which music might be a prayer for the future, the harpsichord was an ascetic hymn to connect being with heaven. Gaping mouths were replaced by delicate fingers parsing wooden notes and the eyes not the ears were newly tasked with trying to understand what sacredness sounded like.

Perhaps inspired by the image of a hand striking out all melodic voices at once, Francesco Giorgi authored De Harmonia Mundi in which he described music as a substance akin to the tiniest building blocks of life, and the forms which make such music as an ideal geometry to attune one’s mind to the mind of God. Sonic architecture became an allegory for the creation of the universe and all its inhabitants. Almost five centuries later, Warwick University’s Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) indulged in the occult status of Giorgi’s writing, transferring its metaphor from God to an all-powerful artificial intelligence. Nefarious philosopher Nick Land labelled this AI presence Gnon, and spearheaded the theorising of what might be considered ideal forms of technology as allegories for the destruction of the human-centric universe. Numerology, shape, and the four-four of machine music became the sound to attune one’s body to the end of the world. Philosophy as salvation was reframed as philosophy from the perspective of the end of the Human, and the harpsichord functioned as a sonic precursor for those who wished to accelerate the automation of the body to increasingly delicate and intricate invention.

On a balmy sold-out night at The Barbican Centre, I see composer Daniel Lopatin perform as Oneohtrix Point Never with his all-star live band. This performance, a faithful execution of Lopatin’s latest album, Age Of, draws formal destruction and creation full circle. Harpsichords and hammered keys of all kinds in functional beautifully ornate harmony, sound out in tandem with distorted mouth sounds, and voices speaking lines of text from 90’s occult theory. I introduce both Francesco Giorgi and Nick Land, not only because their spectres hang over this performance, but because I think their polar opposite takes on the importance of telling stories through sound, provide an important backdrop for Lopatin’s incredible and wildly original music. Lopatin’s work has a tension to it — it sounds life-giving and inspiring, there to provide critique, but the narratives Lopatin frequently give his music, allegories and metaphors he shoves upon sound and his audience, are politically muddy at best, and disingenuous at their worst.

I. Creation

“…As shows like Black Mirror function less as a warning, and more as a Silicon Valley R&D department, critical art needs to be explorative rather than exaggerative…”

From the performance’s opening we are treated to an act of profound creation. What is heard is easily Lopatin’s most original sound to date. Age Of is startlingly unique. The key to this originality comes from the refined way Lopatin combines a selection of common and recognisable instrumental sounds. Forget the legacy of referential music he’s become known for, ‘The Station’, (a pop ballad originally written for Usher) combines clean electric bass with harp, and plectrumed acoustic guitar, auto-tuned voice, dulcimer, regal horns and out-of-kilt mournful synth to an effect which in my opinion is as close as we are gonna get to an orchestration for the sick gods of 2018. Tracks like ‘Toys 2’ are composed with complete confidence, Lopatin is at the peak of his practice. Those many layers of reference found in earlier Oneohtrix releases are still there, but they may as well be ignored. In Age Of, I feel like the sound is just him, these timbres are wholly his domain now.

I fell in love with the sound of Age Of when I first heard it alone in my bedroom, however seeing how it sounded live at the Barbican was another level of experience. Like those who first glimpsed the fingers of a harpsichordist expressing the uniform shape of chords on keys, I felt like seeing that General Midi Sound Lopatin is famed for, played live in front of me by four incredible musicians, brought Lopatin’s compositions into clarity. The density of the music became crystal. Percussionist Eli Kreszler wriggled around his extended kit of rim shots and bongos, hollow skinned instruments which awed us as they slipped from bubbly and plastic to metallic and gravelly.

OK, live music should hopefully always connect a listener with an extra element of how it was composed, but Lopatin’s music has intentionally never felt real for me. It’s been sounding out of headphones up in an unreal place, a parallel history. At the Barbican, after a standing ovation, the band come out for an encore and pianist Kelly Moran, in perfect precision, strikes the arpeggiating burst of piano midi from R Plus 7’s incredible ‘Chrome Country’. Seeing her fingers bring computer music into reality, made me reconsider the images Lopatin surrounds his music with. Moment to moment, the quality of the sound itself played IRL, was always there to answer any fears I had for the album’s broader politics.

To describe this sound and talk of its political connotations, some have called Age Of ‘medieval cyberpunk’, instead, I’d prefer to describe it as (if you’ll indulge me) the sound of Haute Baroque Capitalism. When Lopatin posted on YouTube in 2009 under the name Sunset Corp his vaporwave functioned as a critical soundtrack for the consumerist ghosts of the past. Today, his music haunts the future. Rather than playing the jester with kitsch time-stretched samples, his recent work is expressed with a certain playful seriousness. The opening track of the performance, also titled Age Of, is a virtuosic montage, an elaborate ode to the end of human history. As the track comes to its end Nate Boyce’s accompanying visuals depict the earth itself becoming particulate. While the music is extravagant in form, thematically it has even stronger ties to the 17th century. The reformation in Loptain’s work is a shift from his once veiled romanticism, to a new honesty without excessive layers of irony. The sentiment here is distraught, yet lovingly so — always drama-filled.

Toby Shorin has an excellent essay entitled Haute Baroque Capitalism. Within, he compares the architecture of excess seen in family photos of the Trumps, to the curly aesthetic of Baroque lettering on deconstructed club music releases and faux-progressive parties. The decoration within Trump Tower, in bad taste, is one of intricate self-decadence. Shorin likens the architecture of too-much-money to theorist Gean Moreno’s descriptions of a capitalism which leaves in its wake an, “Alien monstrosity, an insatiable Thing that appropriates the energy of everything it touches and, in the process, propels the world toward the inorganic.” While cogent, I simultaneously see the reverse: money, ungodly money becoming an organic living organism, becoming ornamentation alive and grotesque on the sides of bulging skyscrapers. At the show, the two sculptures hanging on either side of the Barbican’s stage, also made by Nate Boyce, remind me of such gold-leafed uncontrollable growths. In Lopatin’s musical language, of contrast, of running clavichord scales and sublime pretty melodies interspersed with chaos, I find no better soundtrack to the disgusting aliveness we have experienced through the political, ecological, and technological disasters of the new millennium. Lopatin has always excelled at making a music which is perfect for listeners to a-latch their glib but necessary material metaphors of our information age. The references are all here at the Barbican — the consumer culture run amok, the forbidden VHS, the haunted past, the retrofuture, the screams of the demonetised child content creator — but a question sticks in my throat: are these references politically necessary anymore?

II. Destruction

“…Revelling in the End of the World is seen to be far more fun than being scared of it…”

The old debates around successful critique in art have see-sawed between two camps: art which critiques by reflecting and warning us of disasters to come; and art which critiques by hammering and showing us an alternative to a better world. For all my love of Oneohtrix releases, the thing that has disturbed me the most has been their surprising lack of speculative imagination. Lopatin has made his name creating music which mirrors the debased state of the world. Prior releases have indulged in hyper-commercial sci-fi tropes of the future: pink flesh piles, laser guns, Nickelodeon slime and the time-warp of human history absorbed by the omniscient computer with the neon light. Lopatin’s complacent visions of the future are frequently paired with a belief that through an exaggeration of these visions, image and sound become transgressive, and therefore radical. His collaborative track with Jon Rafman, Beta Male (which premiered on 4chan) is an excellent example of this thinking: a worst hits of the Internet played out in flashing strobe images of furry pornography and grime-filled keyboards. If the intention was to hold up a mirror to male online culture, then instead of looking away in horror, the boys looked on in perverse fascination, indulging in their own self-debasement. I’ve written in other places of the protective mechanisms of irony (and transgression) within cultures like 4chan, but it’s worth repeating here: critique via performative exaggeration never works as intended. Playing into the extremes of a violent culture, inspires new violence.

In a 2018 where William Gibson dystopias become blueprints for reality, and where cyberpunk classics become playgrounds for the right-wing to revel in libertarian futures, I had high hopes for Daniel Lopatin to buck the trend. As shows like Black Mirror function less as a warning, and more as a Silicon Valley R&D department, critical art needs to be explorative rather than exaggerative. On first listen, Age Of struck me as a more imaginative, less macho, more honest and more playful direction for Lopatin. The track Warning marks out its critical position clearly, and his new music is alive with a certain future optimism. Instead of just mirroring present conditions, for me this music was finally on the edge of providing some sort of alternative, an exit. Unfortunately, days after the release, the album’s tonal content was tainted by Lopatin’s words. In an interview with DAZED he name dropped the trendy CCRU, and outlined his narrative for the album: artificial intelligence gods chill-out by the ruins of our destroyed world, looking back on the follies of humanity and longing to be dumb and idiotic like us. This narrative is disappointing. Besides being way too easy, the teenage coolness and distance Lopatin hangs onto only muddies the politics of such a future vision. To be an idiot here is to be innocent. Lopatin evokes a future where the machines we construct find the immorality of human nature seductive — though farce, his criticality becomes farcical. Revelling in the End of the World is seen to be far more fun than being scared of it.

x Photo by Anna Louise Yorke

First reviews of Myriad and Age Of endlessly praise the dystopian vision of Lopatin. Apparently, by showing us his intricate and dark vision of the future, it will help prevent such a future coming to be. Instead, as history shows us, we should be fearful that the reverse might occur, that revelling in dystopia might bring about dystopia. Unsurprisingly, this is a tenant of Nick Land and the CCRU. A text like Meltdown from Land’s collection of essays, Fanged Noumena, is seductive in nearly the exact same ways as Lopatin’s work. Land writes:

〔〔 〕〕 The infrastructure of power is human neurosoft compatible ROM. Authority instantiates itself as linear instruction pathways, genetic baboonery, scriptures, traditions, rituals, and gerontocratic hierarchies, resonant with the dominator ur-myth that the nature of reality has already been decided. If you want to find ICE, try thinking about what is blocking you out of the past. It certainly isn’t a law of nature. Temporalization decompresses intensity, installing constraint. 〔〔 〕〕

This performative language is ornate, cyber-baroque if you will, intentionally so as to hide meaning behind its surface aesthetic. Land’s writing replaces rococo godliness with curlicued abject and pessimistic fascination. Future speculation is treated with market logic. Pop- neologisms are committed to the page as causal objects to sell to the disenfranchised student. Here the selling point is one of the most seductive of all advertisers: a tapping into the darkness of teen-hood angst, and the offering of an antidote to this alienation — an ironic belief in destruction. In many ways I feel like Age Of’s seductive qualities are cut from the same cloth, only, the mediation occurs in the opposite direction. This music’s aesthetic, the aliveness I witness on stage, wears its meaning outwardly, and sadly, Lopatin smothers its potential beneath canned narratives. A smiling skeleton appears on screen as the band begin to play ‘We’ll Take It’. Crunching out a slow tempo industrial beat, each is a hit to the stomach beneath a frantic voice which cries: “But we don’t even know what the price is!”. Lopatin chooses to end the song halfway. On the album, the second half of We’ll Take It is defined by a sweet hymn-like lead synth which opens the track out for a different more nuanced interpretation. In performance, instead, Lopatin decides to keep us in the dark, choosing to rely on Nate Boyce’s twisted childhood images of TV gore and mutilated bodies.

The abject fascination of snot on a used tissue, of pubescent teen body fluid, does not translate well to a 2018 album about AI’s wanting to be boys on an Internet forum. The transgressive act — using a Nick Land quote, or a CCRU one — is not just bad because Lopatin is quoting a ‘politically incorrect’ neo-fascist philosopher, it’s bad because the type of future a reader distils from Lopatin’s words drowns out all the legitimately revolutionary thought behind the subjects CCRU once dealt with. The potential for inhuman intelligence to be an outsidedness to human destruction, the potential for automation to liberate us from the slavery of work, and the potential for a utopian future, become buried beneath DAZED one-liners. Movements inspired by CCRU, like left-wing Accelerationism, all but die out when they become caught up in the lightning-fast life and death cycles of art and music trends. I fear that in the future, the remains of these ideas will be aesthetic husks of the movement: fragmentation and speed, gooey CGI, and a dusty search-bar full of forgotten optimism.

III. Same

“…Being pessimistic is still an imaginative act, and it can be put to good use…”

Undo us
Undo, undo us below
As above
Undo, undo us below
As above
Fool to dream machine to dust

One of the highlights of the performance at the Barbican, and a track which gave me goosebumps when I first heard it, is a collaboration entitled ‘Same’, made with singer and composer Anohni. The repeated melody, sung like a mantra, has Anohni chant in a duet with a pitched-up version of her own voice. The accompaniment of breaking glass and mechanical crashes and screams, makes way for beautiful organ chords and then the contrastingly gentle sounds of a choir of voices. In interview, Lopatin describes this collaboration and track as the soundtrack for a future where we can no longer distinguish artificial intelligence from ourselves. Being one and the Same with a machine, tinged with optimism, is of course a poetic and moving position. However, the ramifications of such a thought are actually pretty boring, and disingenuous to what Lopatin revealingly goes on to further say:

“She [Anhoni] challenged me and urged me to think about what I had said, and to maybe think about what’s happening [dystopia] in a different way. And I did. So I think that a lot of the compulsive imagery and sketching of the Anthropocene that happens on the record has to do with that conversation, and it has to do with me being honest with myself about now, and that endpoint, and bridging them together in a poetic way.”

The signs are here in Lopatin’s new music that he has indeed thought about the end of the world in a different, and honest way. I label him disingenuous however, because I think the package he surrounds this new sound with is a stale vision of tomorrow. Nate Boyce’s visuals betray the new direction of Lopatin’s sound. The pressure to hang onto fan-favourite tropes from his previous album Garden of Delete, should have been ignored. The Barbican’s asymmetrical screens displaying the warped bodies of some- could be 80’s children’s TV show, make me want for an end to retrofuturism. As Benjamin Noys writes: “What we don’t manufacture any more is the future. Instead we dwell in a generalised nostalgia…” In Boyce’s case, he dwells in something worse — a transgressive nostalgia.

The track ‘Same’ also infers a world where we can no longer distinguish between creation and destruction. In many ways, the described sameness of humans and AIs is a position of passivity. Nick Land is famous for his ardent belief in ‘anti-praxis’. He writes theory which in effect strives to sit back, to display a passiveness towards politics, and instead await the doom within the belief that destruction is the inevitable end point for human civilisation. I’m not sure whether Lopatin still identifies as a Nihilist, but this pessimism he displays towards the future doesn’t necessarily have to be a distancing feeling. Instead of responding to ugly feelings with coldness, irony, and a kind of SoCal chillness, a legitimate fear for the future can and should be responded to with heat. ‘Anti-praxis’, and passiveness, is inherently a faulty position because it tries to ignore, rather than negate the very heart of active political theory. Frankfurt-school praxis is in essence, an awakening of class consciousness through the process of simply imagining a future. Being pessimistic is still an imaginative act, and it can be put to good use.

While watching Lopatin’s performance, I found the greatest pleasure in speculating how he himself imagined writing this music. I pictured him in the act of pressing the key on a synth, in the act of changing a parameter on Ableton, and he himself in the act of imagining how this change of timbre or sound might affect his music’s potential. The care, the refinement, the decision to include his own singing voice in his music and to sing for us on stage with three other excellent musicians, is the real honesty and praxis of this performance. Lopatin has talked of his compositional practice as a kind of ‘compressionism’, that is, a process of trying to compress all the disparate and wild online and offline signals of 2018. The narratives he gives his music rest on the notion that to describe tomorrow, we should compress today. Compression is a flattening, a broadening out, and that which it mirrors is therefore also muddied and squashed within the work of art. The real challenge is to instead do the opposite, to encourage social consciousness by uncompressing the driving forces of capitalism, making them understandable, and giving audible and visible space to figure out why some of us already live in dystopian conditions.

Within the architecture of The Barbican Centre, a utopian project of the past, it was a special moment to see music I once thought was inseparable from the Internet, newly expressed romantically and convincingly on stage. The effect was powerful and the players were assiduous. The harmony of telling a story through sound, what to say outside of it and what not to, is a project for further consideration. Still, the seeds are there: the longing to find a sonic architecture for a world in need.

Emile Frankel’s forthcoming book, ‘Hearing the Cloud’, will be out with Zero Books later this year.

  • Published
  • Jul 15, 2018
Prev in articles: That Time When // Manni Dee