Oneohtrix Point Never: Garden of Delete

by Bret Schneider

 

Oneohtrix Point Never is the highest expression of the art of middlebrow pastiche. His earlier experiments emerged onto a languishing stage of electronic music, revitalizing it with a signature amalgamation of mid-century avant-garde modernism and hip contemporary retro-futurism that has nothing directly to do with such music. When electronic musicians had withdrawn into a tightly focused academic electronic music research, OPN merged a strain of kosmische that had lineages to Stockhausen with contemporary cultural visions. His reliance on retro synths cemented his reputation as some sort of savior amongst a generation of electronic musicians weened on mannered computer glitches. And yet OPN seemed discontent with this framework. Garden of Delete takes him further away from those kosmische works of e.g. Returnal, and deeper into his recent focus on the modular compositional ideas explored in R+7. By ‘modular’ I don’t mean modular synth music, but rather a type of arranging and juxtaposing blocks of disparate sound. A musicologist remarked to me that Garden of Delete was ‘modern’ in that it incorporated a lot of discordant styles into coherent works, for instance juxtaposing delicate tonal phrases with metal shredding. I retorted that this was the definition of pastiche. Garden of Delete sits ambiguously in this place between slapstick pastiche and serious modernism.

It is as if someone said to Lopatin back in 2010 that his works were unformed and too undefined, criticisms to which he responded with hyper-articulated arrangements. Considering Lopatin’s proximity to contemporary art, which has since the mid-‘00s developed a strain of neo-modernism, this critique is not difficult to imagine. If formlessness seemed ‘unserious’ to the type of academic listening audience that also valued OPN’s earlier work, then he was earnestly interested on changing this sensibility by perfecting a counter-practice of editing and arranging in order to ‘get serious.’ But as so often happens with contemporary art and music, the attempt to be more serious usually ends up undermining itself. This shift is also symptomatic of a condition all-too-familiar amongst experimental music, where primal and playful work is academically tamed and plastered with a shallow veneer of profundity and social substance (Florian Hecker is a good example of this).

The problem with this type of pastiche modernism is that it becomes too calculated. Everything is in its right place, but ultimately feels wrong. The juxtaposing of different types of sound material has its roots in surrealism, which long ago became a mannerism, or even an aesthetic pathology. Today such practices lack the philosophical and psychological substance, which means that the work comes off as opportunist towards culture. It argues that one can have it all. But is that really true? The incorporation of so many different tropes also has the opposite effect of declaring the emptiness of each, and with it the assumption that the various tropes that make up culture are vacuous. This can lead to a critical listening experience for listeners sick of the ever-same who seek in art an indictment of culture. But for the majority who don't share this value, they find in such arrangements mere justification for the ever-same. Garden of Delete is not unlike so many pop music projects that appropriate various tropes in order to appeal to as wide a base as possible, the difference residing in the obscure subcultural type of tropes that OPN uses. And the listener is interested for a moment in the display of his cabinet of aural curiosities. But it remains to be seen whether or not these are merely inessential novelties, or lastingly compelling works that meaningfully synthesize the materials any given artist must necessarily work with. Usually works of this kind are momentarily very exciting, but wane over the long-term because cultural values shift—what was once subcultural becomes hip, etc. The incorporation of external tropes such as the pseudo-sci-fi, retro-futurist, social critique or whatever one might call such material only reinforces the non-musical and non-lasting aspects of OPN, bringing it closer to kitsch because it doesn’t clarify its own procedures and instead obscures them. Avant-garde art has a way of educating its listeners, provoking the feeling that artworks may be simple or primitive, but form the basis for those interested to build off of it, and makes art a social project. The other type of art makes pretense to the autonomy of the individual whose procedures and knowledge are transcendent, opaque, and cannot be understood in ensuing practices. What true avant-garde music since the mid-century has been troubled by are these compositional habits revolving around modernist tropes whose development is arrested. Lesser music has since then been content to simply use such tropes unchanged in order to justify its supposed seriousness. All truly new music since then has tried to break habit in one way or another, and expose such tropes as empty. OPN has been a leading figure in this regard in many ways: his earlier work’s free informal quality drew attention to the well-mannered new music being done elsewhere, pointing to a way out without being able to fulfill it.

Regarding the kitsch listening experience that invites one to lazily project whatever they want onto it, one may scoff at such a ‘traditional’ category that lacks relevance in a contemporary culture that has long since supposedly broken down those barriers. But it’s nevertheless accurate: OPN’s music appeals only to the informed, growing in numbers though they seem to be. No matter how commonplace his music may aim to be, it doesn’t connect with the ‘masses’ as it might be supposed, but can only be regarded by them as ‘art music’ for an initiated avant-garde that hardly exists, and is anxious to leave its history in the dustbin. Or, more concretely, the tropes that are brought in to make the album more accessible—for instance the NES videogame soundtrack quality—actually serves the purpose of further alienating what remains of the supposedly ‘uncultured’ masses who still look to art for something more than commonplace experience. The avant-garde and the masses constantly pass each other like ships in an endless fog. For this reason OPN is the quintessential middlebrow artist. Such music appeals to the ubiquity of the upper-middle class dilettante that is educated enough about the historical avant-garde to justify ‘new’ art, but doesn’t really take it seriously as an indictment of society; it pretends to radically synthesize kitsch and avant-garde aesthetics, but doesn’t really fulfill the aims of either; it appeals to those who want to be ‘in the know’, but don’t want to do the work of thinking required by aesthetics who need to reproduce a culture that promises change without actually changing it. OPN is the go-to musician that museums like MoMa lazily utilize to promote new avant-garde music to the plebes, but nothing about the music is comprehended except that it is ‘cool.' Middlebrow art like this has long since become a commonplace in the high-class trash of the status quo, and try as one might to escape this hellish condition, there’s little that one exceptionally talented artist like OPN can do to break the spell. One won’t compose their way out of lazy listening practices. But OPN does everything a single artist can do to break the habit.

Nevertheless, the middle-brow has long been a damning label that itself abandoned the type of historical consciousness it perceived in avant-garde art. What was left out of the middle-brow sociological analysis was its historical conclusion—that the masses weren’t merely culture herds, but such herding around art indicated a real need for experience without, however, its fulfillment. While a sociological theory of art is limited in its lack of historical consciousness, it has clarified how certain social orders catalyze certain types of art in order to continue their own ends. Art in the era of the status quo requires just enough avant-gardism to reproduce culture, but not enough to break its own spell.

Garden of Delete seems to struggle against these conditions that gave it voice to begin with, as if saying, ‘just enough is not enough.’ More importantly, the audience for this music, in part, truly desires change, but are inevitably stuck with ambiguous music like Garden of Delete. For this reason alone it is potentially exceptional. But it is specifically exceptionality that middle-brow art has made a habit of trading in for acceptability. Garden of Delete can be considered either hyper-aware of this dismal condition of every ‘wild’ change quickly becoming repetition within status quo culture, or merely its perpetuation. In this situation the listening of OPN is like listening to the sounds of hell: the status quo where everything seems to change but nothing really changes. The ultimate irony of being the best example of middlebrow art is that the very category of status quo culture permits no values of the future or of change. It is forever changeless in its reformations and reconfigurations.