The Limits of Kitsch Criticism

by Bret Schneider

This article is a response to Jensen Suther's Undeleting Garden of Delete: A Critical Intervention on Schneider's May review of Oneohtrix Point Never's Garden of Delete.


 

Modern criticism developed when art became serious and demanded thought. Yet the vast majority of our culture today isn't meant to be seriously thought about. Oddly enough, cultural criticism has blossomed, and a very smart one at that. This has led to a purely contemporary condition whereby critics apply their erudition to works that aren't meant to be thought about, and are better off without thought: kitsch criticism. Only in an era when art has become completely throwaway will there be people who pathologically hear echoes of Beethoven in fleeting vapor trails. This has led to a great deal of bombastic claims regarding the latest trends and most recent dead pop stars, and how they must be expressing Marxist contradictions of society, being the last modernist and so on and so on. It advances a form of cultural tailism, where critical reflection, once the clarifying edge of art, chases the rearguard and becomes the obfuscating edge. But the correct philosophical position does not ensure progress in aesthetics. Such projections usually end up revealing more about detached academicism and unmediated criticism than the artworks in question. When this detached criticism is misrecognized as authoring culture, it reveals its own pretensions about bearing the torch of culture. Yet this new form of kitsch criticism merely reproduces moderate culture by tailing after the least contradictory expressions of society, assuming that erudition will somehow change them. In truth, kitsch criticism and kitsch emerge at the same time, but not necessarily critically. It is plainly delusional to believe one can write critically about kitsch—amongst the great rubbish heap of writings on kitsch there exist no examples of criticism that have actually transformed the way culture is produced. And yet the goal remains the impossible and undesirable task of making kitsch elegant. Why not critique works that demand critique and appeal to the development of aesthetic knowledge?

Kitsch criticism dispenses with this avant-garde aim to keep culture moving via taking up a leadership role in cultural production, instead opting to affirm talent within popular music conventions. This means it willingly does not address art's self-consciousness of its own historical position within contemporary society from the standpoint of cultural production. But there's a crucial difference between a work of art being good or interesting, and a work of art being critical. There's countless good, talented art out there, almost none of which is important. Perhaps I am mistaken, but Suther's criticism of Garden of Delete is exemplary of kitsch criticism's affirmation of the inessential because it liquidates the self-reflexive, immanent qualities of culture from the standpoint of cultural production into an aesthete's program that interprets culture by popular music norms—norms that are now supported by classical music criteria. Yet OPN inevitably creates from the standpoint of the producer of aesthetic knowledge in the culture factory, and not the classical beholder. Kitsch criticism is not only backwards, but recently it has taken the form of a desperation to defend kitsch in severe ways, of which projecting classical criteria is only one example.

The invocation of 'caesura' is only one example from Suther’s response that shows how criticism is unable to grasp the radical components of new music. Due to Suther's normative framework, his defense of G.O.D. on the grounds that it contains a caesura moment renders caesura a positive aesthetic value and something that is an intrinsic quality of all good artworks. Yet Adorno, Suther's reference, was only interested in caesura negatively, the extent to which it displayed early indications of contradictions in bourgeois society by negating compositional form within itself. Suther appears to turn Adorno upside down. This also goes against Suther's claim, (which is right in some respects), that G.O.D. is founded on the montage of samples from throwaway culture that are framed within a totality. As such, any caesuras contained must also exist as degenerated found objects amidst the culture trash that Lopatin selects. In other words, they are not traditionally composed. If caesuras are evident, they are only as oblique dark spots, or worm-eaten holes in the sampled trash that have nothing left to negate because society and its concepts of progress as transmuted into musical form is not assumed in new music, but rather suspended. Happening to find their way into a composition and being intentionally composed into one are two very different things, oblique and acute symptoms respectively. The progressive components of G.O.D. do not reside in an anomaly in musical conventions from two centuries ago. Such components may exist, but not as evidence of their newness.

It is of course very desirable to take culture seriously, and G.O.D. is potentially a worthy object, having some seriousness in it the extent to which it produces and advances musical knowledge for other artists. After all, it was to Editions Mego, the uber serious label of implacable electronic music that Lopatin first appealed and built his aesthetic program upon. Lopatin’s decision in G.O.D. to apparently pursue a style of 'montage' that sounds like it was constructed to the utmost details in tracker programs aims to critique the passive way a lot of so-called experimental music is created today. It protests the urge towards the formless, cosmic, and chillwave aesthetic in the same way OPN earlier protested the hyper-edited constructs of 'clicks 'n cuts' music that ultimately became an affectation. There is nothing of the jokey vaporwave Eccojams in this album. It takes itself seriously. And this is the main argument in my original review, namely that when artists enter the public realm and are tasked with putting forth a conclusive aesthetic statement, these statements often end up pathologically revisiting modernist movements that are otherwise considered dead or irrelevant (in this case Surrealism). It evinces a self-contradictory practice because on the one hand it claims heir to avant-gardism by trying to teach (lead) other artists, but on the other it relinquishes this project by trying to produce for non-artists and consequently emphasizing non-artistic things. The critique of the listener has nothing to do with the ‘market’, as Suther suggests, but points to the problems of cultural leadership as expressed in the actual music.

As such, self-reflexion in G.O.D. is expressed indirectly. This indirectness is echoed by Suther’s critique, insofar as the appeal to musical knowledge plays only a minor role in his discussion of arpeggios and pitch-shifting (admittedly, I didn't discuss these at all in my original review, for the sake of doing a more socially focused analysis). Yet the best music of our era leaves no stone unturned when it comes to investigating the technical means by which an aesthetic is expressed. For instance, Keith Fullerton Whitman's Generator was a thorough investigation of arpeggios that would raise sound artists' ensuing understanding of that particular sound organization to a more acute level. The means--which are like G.O.D., of a historical variety--play a leading role instead of a passive one, and it appeals not only to itself, but to an abstract musical subject that conditions the work. In G.O.D. many of these technical means appear to be included passively as subordinate features of a broader critique of society, and kitsch criticism reifies this. It is a road that ultimately leads back into traditional forms of music, for instance the pathology of montage since Surrealism, or the dead-end games of virtuosic songwriting. It is also why Suther's critique ends up being a literary critique of music and not a musical critique of music. The discussion of puberty is very interesting, but has very little if anything to do with the avant-garde project of raising musicians to a superior historical consciousness of the still enigmatic means by which sound is organized. If a statement about prebuscent humanity was all that it expressed, it would be better formulated as an essay, and listeners would be better served by reading Kant. On the other hand, avant-garde music wagers that the examination of musical means of production will lead to unpredictable changes in culture because there are still techniques and ensuing sonic visions to be discovered, and that lay dormant.

OPN isn’t unique here, it is a hallmark of our era that musical knowledge and its expansion is enshrouded in non-musical expressions of reality. Even so, the wager of the vaporwave that Suther invokes is, generally speaking, to undertake a thorough investigation of not one modest musical technique, but rather the whole of music listening experience itself. It is an all-in wager, and one that, historically speaking, continually fails, at least in contrast to the successful expansion of musical knowledge in more modest, technical avant-gardism. Vaporwave (and similar currents in music) undertakes a serious inquiry into passive listening from the standpoint of production. The technical means by which passive listening is produced is now in the hands of listeners, who in turn become producers. But they can be either critical producers or uncritical reproducers. The social situation of listening is not extrinsic to the work in this genre, but a fundamental aesthetic principle that determines its content. The music itself is a self-avowed and explicit political critique of the culture industry from within. In turn it not only warrants a political critique, but demands it so that it's aesthetic can be raised to a level of politics. But kitsch criticism perceives successfully composed, and self-evident bourgeois music from the standpoint of the thing-in-itself, instead of acutely critical music in flux. Kitsch criticism is very specifically not immanent critique from within the development of cultural production, but instead in this instance what appears to be an expression of Heideggerian phenomenology. Discussing the artwork as a contained unity that does not point beyond itself is akin to trying to understand a political leader with no consideration of the base that constitutes their activity.

As my original claim was that OPN is middlebrow and appeals to both regressive and progressive tendencies, (not merely regressive, as Suther believes), I think Lopatin's goals with G.O.D. still may fall within an avant-garde framework, and not a popular-classical one. Suther clings to the traditionalist conception of through-composed music, something that all experimental music has dispensed with in favor of various non-compositional strategies—strategies that are ultimately thought to be in the greater service of developing new forms of sound organization. Even though it's present, G.O.D. is not particularly exemplary as a through-composed album, nor is it meant to be; large chunks of sound awkwardly sit side-by-side, and it intentionally falls far below the threshold of the intricately arranged IDM that OPN comes out of, for example. OPN is no Beethoven, let alone Stockhausen or even Aphex Twin. Rather, the sound objects have a common sensibility to the way painters like Frank Stella have desired to not 'paint' or 'express' an artistic vision but rather to use paint as a readymade, albeit one that has to be actively extracted. It is actually a non-compositional technique that makes up G.O.D., and it is one that assumes a subjective position that prioritizes a more amateurish bedroom producer position over traditional composition. Lopatin and collaborator Jon Rafman’s images that reference trashy bedroom studios and troll lairs are evidence of this total absorption into production. It's an absorption that may offer no reward other than its own activity, and which deserves to be raised to an objective position. It posits this condition as a rewarding immersion into individual creative experience, but also one that is potentially nihilistic when not framed within a broader context for aesthetic development. It is a self-reflexive activity that constantly seems to slide back into the vacuum of isolated pseudo-activity and unconscious cultural production. By airing its aporia with this condition, it aims to move beyond it.

OPN truly does come out of the modest Boards of Canada IDM tradition, which has always been tough to clarify because it is designed to operate on the subconscious. G.O.D., like Geogaddi for example, appeals to something like a musical unconscious, reminiscent of Surrealism. It doesn't quite use subliminal advertising techniques like Geogaddi, but it comes close in smuggling in reality and exploiting passive listening as a means of critiquing it. It feels out the ideas of music that have had passive influence on listening, and questions it by working within those forms, hoping to ultimately appeal to self-reflexion. This is perhaps what Suther is referring to when he thinks G.O.D. tries to make kitsch elegant, and this is what I meant when I said that OPN is the quintessential pastiche artist. G.O.D. is not really montage, not in the way musique-concrète set out to be—and it alone perfected the art—because Lopatin usually makes his own sound objects from scratch instead of sampling and transforming them. Even if it were montage, those techniques are not actively questioned in form but assumed. And these sound objects are constructed in the manner of a certain style of MIDI composition that is hard to consciously identify, yet known in some way, like the enchantment of muzak. It is MIDI composition that was almost exclusively utilized as background music in videogames, one wasn't supposed to notice it, and this is precisely its appeal. It's practice in mining the historically overlooked, the 'minor', partakes in the culture of research that has been prevalent since electronic music’s arts and research turn in the early '00s, exemplified by Editions Mego’s Recollection GRM series, and the Creel Pone project. This is expressed more acutely in Lopatin’s dredging of Ben Zimmerman’s '80s tracker compositions. Nor is this specific to music: contemporary art is currently entrenched in digging up the fossilized remains of minor artists, in an attempt to rewrite history. It seems to say, "What if we had gone in this direction?", as a symptom of the ugly appearances and newness inherent in the present cultural crisis of ambivalence. 

But on G.O.D., research and composition are utilized by being framed within a traditional artwork. They are tested, so to speak. And like Geogaddi, it embeds the hellscapes of the new in the easy listening of yore so that the listener can absorb the ugliness of reality, the "bad new days" but unknowingly. It is like feeding a dog a pill by wrapping it in bacon. It's not really predigested kitsch, but it uses tricks in how it mediates listening experience. And now that the listener is disenchanted because they are also producers, tricks are easy to see through! This has been a style of electronic music since the early ‘90s—the tensed coexistence of enchanting fairytale melodies with samples from the contemporary musical hell on earth. The music makes no conclusions about the outcome, but presents the listener with both possibilities of culture, not society at large—is this a fairytale ending in which we finally create a music that is fulfilling, or a Boscshian hell of cultural production? It makes one feel like this is a critical juncture.

As such, G.O.D. does not so much try to make kitsch elegant but rather uses kitsch as a carrier for difficult music. However, as such music has become a purely transparent activity because so many people produce it and can see through the tricks, one always wonders, Does such avant-garde music use kitsch for its own purposes, or does kitsch rather use the avant-garde? If the title Garden of Delete has meaning, it is not as an indictment of culture writ large, but rather the way musical knowledge and music experience as music experience is constantly deleted from the program, with the caveat that it might still be recovered from the hard drive. G.O.D. is like a beta run through the new program of deletion: when kitsch passivity absorbs active listening, all that remains is to be an active deleter. It is not traditional composition, as Suther suggests, but an attempt at decomposition. G.O.D. does not need to be “undeleted”; it is a requiem of deletion that openly reflects the social situation of music that constantly wastes the potential of music as social knowledge. G.O.D. is truly a negative album, an example itself of the near meaninglessness of constructing in a wasteland society wherein possibilities are no sooner raised than they are deleted from experience. By representing this phenomenon, it hopes to pass beyond its enchantment.

If I have reservations about G.O.D. it may simply be because I personally prefer the 'technical' avant garde, so to speak. As a sound artist I prefer to listen to something that teaches me about sound in some way. I'd guess that thousands of sound artists elsewhere feel similarly. Sound artists sense that one is being disingenuous when he or she proclaims that they are good humanitarians and that they appreciate all types of music. In a world of growing amateur cultural production, people more and more listen to the things that have direct interest to what they themselves make. Music is less and less a beholding activity, and more and more an actively developing body of knowledge. This alone fosters the conditions by which avant-gardism can flourish. Otherwise, the concept of progress in art is neutralized.

By analogy, OPN and someone like Keith Fullerton Whitman are like Surrealism and Analytic Cubism: different types of inquiry that are both ultimately aimed at teaching musicians about sound. And I think that with the total degeneration of all things surreal into pathological affectation, and more importantly the fact that listeners today lack the listening comprehension that can distinguish between a still life of a fruit and a piece of fruit itself, what is needed above all today is music that aims to raise musical comprehension to a higher and more active level. G.O.D. tries do this by showing a process of how listening is exploited and how listeners are manipulated, as if to say, “See, this is how it happens, snap out of it!” But the history of art that tries to strip the veil by teasing the beholder with it usually ends up in a new type of enchantment with said veil. And in this day in age, anything even remotely resembling Surrealism needs to be seriously questioned instead of assumed. G.O.D. is at its best, and this sets it apart from earlier vaporwave, when the lines between enchantment and disenchantment are clearly demarcated, not unlike a game of peek-a-boo with a baby.

OPN may not be the next Beethoven, but he may be Boards of Canada in distress. If ensuing music in this sensibility takes up the culture trash of passive listening as its content, it shouldn't be expected to venerate the sordid remains of bourgeois music composition, but instead treat its techniques as trash amidst trash, no better or worse than kitsch. This is the ultimate contradiction of kitsch criticism: it believes that after all this cultural decay, bourgeois music composition can get through culture unscathed and can be applied to culture trash to save the day, instead of understanding that bourgeois music, perhaps above all, has been degraded to trash. Lopatin is well aware that he is composing music from within the uncultured trashcan of culture. It is kitsch listening that doesn't understand this by supposing itself cultured. In 2010, writing about vaporwave before it had a name (I proposed “conceptual ambient”), I posited that the aesthetic is one of searching through trash to find something that glistens, which involves holding it up to the dim light and rotating it. OPN's recent work is a slight change in direction because it introduces an activity of decomposition in time. OPN exposes composition as pseudo-activity, and represents it as something readymade and reified, not transformative. Composition is also trash, so new music in this framework will probably take the form of trash more thoroughly organizing trash, and with trash. Only in this way will aesthetic knowledge be built in this particular practice. Such a critical aesthetic of the self-organization of trash is highly preferable to the false veneration of talent, sublimity, or virtuosity that pervades popular musical consciousness and its appendage, kitsch criticism.

 

 

Undeleting Garden of Delete: A Critical Intervention

By Jensen Suther

 

Bret Schneider’s recent critical review of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Garden of Delete raises important questions about putatively “new” or avant-garde elements in otherwise popular music. By focusing on OPN’s “art music” pretensions, the author seeks to unmask what he takes to be the key failing of the record: it employs the technique of pastiche in order to achieve a “demotic,” accessible sound, but the fragmentary, experimental character of that sound militates against consumption by the very masses for which it is supposedly intended. As he writes, “The tropes that are brought in to make the album more accessible—for instance the NES videogame soundtrack quality—actually serve the purpose of further alienating what remains of the supposedly ‘uncultured’ masses who still look to art for something more than commonplace experience.” 

The admirable standpoint that informs every line of this review is betrayed here by scare quotes that tacitly express an allegiance with the masses. But good political intentions in no way guarantee the correctness of one’s analysis. Indeed, this sentence also reveals the review’s fatal flaw: it reduces OPN’s music to its social origin and function, mirroring the “middle-brow sociological analysis” it decries. Accordingly, it passes over in silence the particulars of its object, and the review pays for this inattention with its own incoherence. Because the author judges OPN’s music from on high, almost exclusively on the basis of its reception, the internal contradiction of Garden of Delete—that it thinks possible the impossible task of making kitsch elegant, as I will argue below—is misrecognized as the incongruence of eclectic and even opposed elements. This misrecognition finds expression in the review’s rigid separation of content from form. According to Schneider, the music incorporates “subcultural,” kitsch elements for the sake of the masses, while its form and technique are “neo-modernist” gimmicks intended to satisfy the need for “serious art” specific to the “upper middle class dilettante.”

Marxian epithets and a class-based taxonomy of culture, then, take the place of “immanent” musical critique. Because the album is judged in advance and too hastily grasped in terms of its social determination, its true social significance is obfuscated. Cultural objects yield their “truth content,” to borrow Theodor Adorno’s term, only through the interrogation of their sensible-affective specificity, or the formal and material features that make them the peculiar artifacts that they are. Aesthetic success and failure tend to reflect the politically true and false: social truth is the sole canon of artistic beauty, even with respect to so-called “lowbrow” and “middlebrow” artists, whose works can only actually be judged on a case-by-case basis, never by way of schematic class categories applied from above. Measured according to its own political criterion, Schneider’s review proves false precisely because it aims to “appeal to those who want to be ‘in the know,’ but [doesn’t] want to do the work of thinking required by aesthetics.”

Yet Schneider’s miscomprehension is not simply the result of error, and should be traced back to the music itself. The vaporwave genre pioneered in the early 2010s by Daniel Lopatin, the musician behind OPN, is defined by an ironic retro sound comprised of elements drawn from '80s-era commercial and popular music. In succumbing to the kitsch character of cultural detritus in order to go beyond it, or to unlock the potential of its illusory promise of fulfillment and escape, the music of vaporwave often risks a kind of postmodern triumphalism. It can appear, in other words, to nihilistically affirm or celebrate the emptiness of the kitsch it appropriates, instead of subjecting it to critique from the remove—at a hair’s breadth—of aesthetic form. The success of a work of art hinges entirely upon whether or not it can attain, internally, this minimal distance from its representational content. Schneider’s claim, then, that the retro “tropes” on Garden of Delete are incorporated in order to broaden the album’s appeal seems to me to miss the point rather profoundly, but in a way that is at least explicable: what the review’s author misrecognizes as an attempt to satisfy the demands of the market is in actuality an immanent engagement with past popular and commercial forms that exploits their obsoleteness in order, in the best instances, to underscore the historicity of the standpoint from which they are being beheld and thus to tell us something about who we are today and, ultimately, who we ought to be. 

Unlike OPN’s previous albums, and the famous “eccojams” released under the Chuck Person pseudonym, Garden of Delete is an album of songs, with verse-chorus structures and lyrics that are sung, even if by a voice processed beyond recognition. Lopatin embraces bad taste in new ways, broadening the range of vaporwave sounds (outdated synth patches, sickeningly bright digital pianos, staccato arpeggiators, etc.) to include the kitsch of yesteryear, such as nu-metal guitars from the late 90s and the “drops” of contemporary dubstep. The thematic core of the record is its humanoid protagonist Ezra’s experience of puberty, or the “mutant standard,” as one of the tracks is titled, which serves as the starting point for the record’s manifold reflections on various aspects of the abjectness of embodied existence (“the theme is pus,” as Lopatin remarked in a recent interview).

On the short interlude track “ECCOJAMC1,” a sample from folk singer John Martyn’s “Solid Air” is time-stretched so that the line “don’t know what’s going ‘round inside” becomes an expression of anxious pubescence: “I don’t know what’s going on inside.” A nauseating looped synth line, its notes bent from the vibrato effect of a modulation wheel, amplifies the ugliness of the artifact-ridden, pitch-shifted voice that mirrors in its grotesque deepness the breaking voice of a male adolescent. We are introduced to Ezra on the eponymously titled second track, replete with berserk arpeggiators, jack-in-the-box falsetto voices, and wonderfully incongruous finger-picked guitar, but it is the seemingly throwaway “ECCOJAMC1” that reveals the stakes of Garden of Delete, whose vaporwave nihilism aims to shatter the illusion of spiritual maturation, of the transition from childhood into adulthood, by emphasizing the constancy of human animality and the enduring repulsiveness of embodied existence.  

“ECCOJAMC1” is a prelude of sorts to one of the album’s most ambitious tracks, “Sticky Drama,” whose irresistible melodic lines and dub dynamics evoke Skrillex and complement lyrics that perversely distill the “sticky” quintessence of the festival utopia his music signifies for every teenager. Schneider is indeed right to point to the popular elements in the album, as this track demonstrates perhaps more than any other. But the song frustrates expectations by replacing what should be an explosive “drop” midway through with the militant double bass of a drum machine and disjointed, atonal synth solos. This erases the specificity of the popular reference, which is transformed in accord with the demands of the song. Likewise, lines like “sticky drama is the girl for me / she’s so sticky from the memories” reveal the popular depiction of erotic love for what it is, bare libidinal investment. Memory just serves to intensify animal longing. Yet the ejaculate innuendoes repeated throughout the song are strikingly contrasted with barely decipherable number series—phone numbers for locations in Boston, Lopatin’s hometown. The only personal elements in the song, the only “human” moments, are conveyed impersonally, and in such a manner that they remain inscrutable. The enigmatic phone numbers underscore what is missing from the empty sexualized memory the track does explicitly engage: these seemingly unrelated elements thus jointly transform a stark depiction of dehumanization into a negative imprint of actual erotic fulfillment, the form of remembrance in which true intimacy would consist. 

Garden of Delete succeeds, then, when its kitsch elements are through-composed according to a principle of montage, not pastiche. These elements are not simply incorporated but are also transformed, in some way unlocked through their juxtaposition and placement within the compositional whole. Yet the center of these songs cannot hold; the collapse of the musical context that ennobles the detritus it absorbs gives rise to a veritable “garden” of artifacts blooming in a sickly light. On the record’s lengthiest and most important track, “Mutant Standard,” the only audible human voice asks: “Are you sure about that?” This doubting question is the “caesura” of the song and points to something essential about the album itself. It could be a slogan for the record’s thoroughgoing skepticism, which dictates that all claims to authenticity and all promises of fulfillment be disbelieved. This is strikingly reflected in the album’s title: Garden of Delete is the “determinate negation” of the Garden of Eden, whose claim to innocence it debunks. But it also does not debunk it, or rather, in “losing” the notion of a “loss of innocence” entailed by the idea of Eden, the Garden of Delete not only deletes Eden, but points to its actual possibility. The aesthetic depiction of the reduction of human beings to “pus” is the “self-negation” of a dehumanized humanity. The frenzied voice at the five-minute mark on “Mutant Standard” says nothing, but screams shrilly, as if trying to break through the incessant uptempo arpeggios that serve as the track’s backbone. It is the speechless voice of a pubescent humanity, which has still not come into its own. 

______

Acknowledgments: I am indebted to Ksenia Sidorenko for in-depth discussion of key points in this essay.

 

Mariotto Albertinelli,  The Temptation of Adam and Eve , 1509-13, 43.815cm x 34.29cm. Yale University Art Gallery.

Mariotto Albertinelli, The Temptation of Adam and Eve, 1509-13, 43.815cm x 34.29cm. Yale University Art Gallery.

 

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.