Brooklyn-based artist Daniel Lopatin exemplifies the way in which a rhetorical understanding of sound and genre can guide listeners towards understanding specific artistic effects. Lopatin, who produces music under the name Oneohtrix (pronounced “one-oh-tricks”) Point Never, was introduced to music early in life. As Lopatin details in an interview with Mike Powell, both his parents, immigrants from the Soviet Union, have musical backgrounds. He was taught to play the piano by his mother as a child, and his signature instrument, a 1983 Roland Juno–60 synthesizer, was originally owned by his father. With this history as his initial production background, the early work he released as Oneohtrix Point Never revolved around vintage synthesizers played in arpeggios mixed with noise music influence. Since his first musical endeavors, Lopatin’s work has a keen sense for reinvention, exploring the inner workings of genres attached to his preferred instruments: synthesizers. Lopatin’s approach to composition has been described as “a cracked mirror refracting the sounds of the past” while creating new music (Pattison).
This “refraction” present in his previous works can be seen a prototype of the re-appropriation techniques present in Lopatin’s 2013 album, R Plus Seven. This understanding is possible through recent studies in the rhetoric of sound, such as the work of Steph Ceraso. In her 2014 article “(Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences,” Ceraso examines how different situations can affect our impressions of compositions. She argues that listening is a contextual experience that changes from one setting to the next (117), emphasizing the contextual relations between sound and environment. A particularly relevant example illustrated by Ceraso is the difference between listening to music on poor quality computer speakers versus attending a live concert. In the first context, she would listen for content, that is, lyrics and composition. However, after experiencing the same music in a new environment, new sonic aspects revealed themselves, such as bass vibrations from big speakers. These new experiences opened new doors for her to engage with the sound (106). A different intention wrapped in a different situation completely changed the experience and meaning of a composition previously thought as a static. Ceraso argues that sound can work as rhetoric by lending itself to the discovery of new contexts around the act of listening, something listeners can modify by taking their own motives in account.
Cesaro’s argument is one that, in a modified version, lends itself to application in R Plus Seven. While working in a similar way, when we look at the sounds used in R Plus Seven the question is not one of motives. Lopatin employs the quality of sound for effect similarly to how Cesaro describes it, but he does it in a different way, as he plays with generic expectations due to his use of one particular sound quality.
Lopatin’s use of rhetoric in R Plus Seven can established as the way he manipulates sounds for effect without being preoccupied with appropriateness or existing associations. Lopatin is using sounds that already “belong” to specific music sub-genres in new ways. In observing this movement, we’re brought to a question of genre. Lopatin’s previous work has most often been associated with one particular sub-genre of electronic music: “Intelligent Dance Music.” This association is exemplified by his music’s relation to the work of contemporary electronic group Boards of Canada. To illustrate this relationship, consider the 2013 song “Reach For The Dead” by Boards of Canada and compare it to Lopatin’s “Power of Persuasion” from his 2011 album Replica. Notice the faint static sound and the long sustained, heavily-processed notes. This aesthetic works perfectly establishing a nostalgic ambience for Lopatin’s and Boards of Canada’s music. The instruments used are processed in order to artificially age the resulting sound, giving it a “dusty, patina-like” projection (Kalev).
Boards Of Canada – “Reach For The Dead” (2013)
Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin) – “Power of Persuasion” (2011)
In a 2004 electronic music album review, Brian Howe notes that Boards of Canada’s take on electronic music is “so eminent and frequently imitated that it’s become almost a sub-genre in itself.” And that influence continues today. Specifically, Joe Colly writing in 2011 for Pitchfork contends that the “electro-organic approach” to composition of that Lopatin used in his previous work follows Boards of Canada.
The generic associations present in Lopatin’s music can be understood rhetorically through the work of Carolyn Miller. Miller’s 1984 “Genre as Social Action” shows how genres are not just simple classifications, but rather are how we expand our knowledge by recognizing similarities in new experiences (157). For example, if we first listened to “Reach For The Dead” before listening to Replica, we might understand Lopatin as following Boards of Canada’s footsteps. Miller defines genre as “typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations” (159). By initially participating in this long established sub-genre, Lopatin is responding typically to the recurring situation of “electronic music listening,” though a generic criticism approach will show us how he is in fact defying listeners’ generic expectations with R Plus Seven. In doing so, Lopatin is bending Carolyn Miller’s definition of genre to his favor. He is using sounds that are typical of a certain genre in atypical ways.
Lopatin’s work, to be sure, has an ideological dimension to it. Sounds, like genres and rhetoric function ideologically. Just as Michael Calvin McGee and others have argued that rhetoric functions ideologically, Amy Devitt (cf. Writing Genres 64) developed her own argument to claim that genres have an ideological function. When discussing the ideological function of rhetoric, critics often use ideographs. And so, in this essay, I’ll follow the convention of marking a term as an ideograph by enclosing it in angle brackets, < >. Ideographs, as defined by McGee are “seemingly commonplace terms that reveal and help shape ideological shifts in society” (qtd. in Enoch 423). Critics need to observe an ideograph in use in order to understand this “shifting” effect, as ideographs have flexible meanings that are “elaborated and constrained through use and circumstance” (428). In R Plus Seven, Lopatin uses sounds that can be described by the sonic ideograph <plastic>, a fluid term that describes a type of sound that shifts from being associated with a single genre to one that’s being re-appropriated and put to new use. Lopatin is using this sonic ideograph <plastic> as a rhetorical tool to defy generic expectations.
R Plus Seven can be understood by Carolyn Miller’s definition of genre as an atypical response to the recurring situation of “electronic music listening.” Lopatin’s response to this situation works atypically, as I’ll demonstrate in this article, due to his use of “disguised” <plastic> sonic features in his productions. That is, in R Plus Seven Lopatin uses the rhetorical quality of sound to assemble musical pieces composed of parts that can be read as being typical responses if approached individually. A rhetorical approach to Lopatin’s sound and his work with <plastic> reveals the paths to interpretation that are being disrupted when listeners recognize this shift, allowing his music to be discussed inductively instead of deductively. Expanding on recent work on the rhetoric of sound, I propose that sound can possess rhetorical functions that modify a listener’s experience even when regarded as discrete components. In this essay, I will discuss three specific instances of this modification at work: The re-appropriation of timbre in relation to composition, of tempo in relation to continuity, and of history in relation to artificiality.
The Disguised Sonic Features in Plunderphonics
A rhetorical understanding of how Lopatin uses the sonic ideograph <plastic> to defy generic expectations complements Canadian Composer John Oswald’s decades-old musical theory. In his 1984 paper, “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative,” Oswald posits that the act of making music and the act of listening to music aren’t as discrete as commonly thought (134). People modify music on the fly, as they listen to it, intentionally or unintentionally. Oswald isn’t talking about personal interpretations, but about the physical interference that can come into play during the act of listening to music, such as noise from poor quality stereos or the accidental dubbing of a cassette tape. One specific example he talks about is the revolutions per minute setting in turntables (135). Even if by mistake, choosing the wrong speed either slows down or speeds up the music, resulting in a new piece with a completely different timbre, something Lopatin exploits. Oswald claims that since those performances can be considered separate instances of music, such modifications are might to be considered new compositions (135).
Furthermore, while discussing authorship in the context of sampling, Oswald asks: “Are the preset sounds in today’s sequencers and synthesizers’ free samples or the musical property of the manufacturer?” To pretend that they are bound to the manufacturer is to deny that sampling synthesizers are instruments, Oswald argues, and that what actually distinguishes musical quoting from plagiarism is the contextual information external to the music (136).
Just like a slow saxophone is generically connected to easy listening jazz, synthesizers, Oswald’s main point of concern, are already deeply tied to a specific genre in their most primitive form—the 80s darling synthpop. When they were considered novel, synthesizers were prized for their capability of being able to generate different timbres, but due to the technological limitations of the time, their sound came with certain faults. However, these faults, such as off-pitch notes and unnatural tones, have been considered as part of their <plastic> appeal (Matos). That worked in their favor back in the 80s, as period synthpop was made notable by the then-futuristic premise of having instruments sound unlike any other instruments before.
However, once technology progressed, and synthesizers started sounding more natural, this differentiator was lost. By consequence of the availability of fully developed, genuine-sounding synthesized instruments, the use of early synthesizers has been relegated to a tool used to mimic the specific aesthetic in which they came into prominence. The 2001 album Discovery by Daft Punk is a particularly notable example of 80s synthesizers being used to this effect. Simon Reynolds, writing for The Guardian’s music column, notes that by using qualities that can be described by the sonic ideograph <plastic> to successfully play into the “retro-futuristic” image of the 80s, Daft Punk has “created a sound of transcendent artificiality.” This self-denying relationship between futuristic intent and retrograde results makes this aesthetic the perfect choice for Lopatin to use for in his work, matching the concepts of plunderphonics.
Though Oswald’s argument revolves around copyright law and authorship claims, Lopatin’s music asks a much more nuanced question: Are certain sounds the musical property of a genre? In other words, while Oswald showed us why a manufacturer can’t claim de jure ownership over a sound made with its instruments, R Plus Seven asks if the collective consciousness can unintentionally establish a genre’s de facto ownership of its sounds. That is, Lopatin’s music doesn’t just ask a listener whether sounds can do more than just participate in a genre. Rather, it asks if sound can constitute a genre by itself.
This unexpectedness present in Lopatin’s abandonment of his previous style and the following re-appropriation of the sonic ideograph <plastic> is a common thread that can be traced across the critical response to R Plus Seven. Andy Beta in his Spin review, for instance, notes that unlike Lopatin’s previous work of “grimy underground […] basement noise,” R Plus Seven is instead made of “strange MIDI polymers.” Here, Beta describes the <plastic> quality and its lack of sound processing almost accusingly. Similarly, Heather Phares, writing for AllMusic, noted that R Plus Seven’s “bright, crisp glossiness” suggests that it is “made from pop songs that were shattered into shards.” Phares suggests a supposed need for the album to dovetail in to an existing genre, pop. Mark Richardson in his Pitchfork review is more explicit in how he, as a listener, is perceiving Lopatin’s music. Richardson notes that “The aesthetic is identifiably ‘80s’,” and that Lopatin focused on the “hauntingly clean and clear pre-set sounds” of the equipment of the era. These reviews are exposing the critics’ preconceptions about <plastic>. Even though they are knowledgeable about Lopatin’s past re-appropriating experiments, they still expect his use of the <plastic> sound to conform to past synthpop revivals, such as Daft Punk’s Discovery.
Re-Appropriations Of <Plastic>
Mirroring Oswald’s argument, R Plus Seven misleads superficial judgments prompted by genre association. Because R Plus Seven isn’t compatible with the genre associations employed by musical critics, Lopatin’s music counters the usual deductive approach used by critics. Once this clash between the expected genre and the perceived genre appears, critics fall back into breaking down music into its constituent parts, categorizing those. The select critical response quotes serve to illustrate this effect, as in these quotes we can see critics immediately latch onto the 80s sound palette, considering it a genre by itself; and then they attempt to extrapolate the genre from there. This particular process used by the critics is a very common way of making sense of something. For example, it is why we usually describe music as “sounding like” something else when introducing a new band to a friend. It is easier to demonstrate when compared to explaining what instruments are used in what ways to what effects. Lopatin wants to invite new sound descriptions not based on precedent into our thought processes.
This re-appropriation of the sonic ideograph <plastic> to defy a recurring situation can be understood as analogous to painting. Even though painting an ocean scene is a fitting choice when your palette is filled with shades of blue, Picasso didn’t limit himself to such scenes in his blue period (“Pablo Picasso,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History). In a similar way, just because the sounds Lopatin uses are associated with an existing genre, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t tremendous value to be found by not conforming to it. When Lopatin chooses to use the <plastic> palette as his blue, while being conscious of his history of participating in the electronic music genre, he is misguiding the listener. This contradictory effect is key to Lopatin’s invitation to re-evaluation.
“Boring Angel”: <Plastic> Re-Appropriation of Timbre
A very concrete example of Lopatin’s inventive approach can be heard in the first song from R Plus Seven, “Boring Angel.” In the song, listeners can clearly hear the particular type of 80s synthesizers critics have discussed being used in unexpected situations. Consider Lopatin’s “Boring Angel” contrasted with the 1987 song “Shopping,” by the synthpop group Pet Shop Boys. Notice how similar the foreground instrument in the Pet Shop Boys song is to the sound used by Lopatin.
Pet Shop Boys – “Shopping” (1987)
Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin) – “Boring Angel” (2013)
Pet Shop Boys is one of the pioneers of mid 80s synthpop and their use of the Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument), one of the earliest sampling synthesizers, defined the particular sound aesthetic that was used by many 80s synthpop bands (“You Can Now”). But while “Boring Angel” has sounds similar to a synthpop piece, it is structured in a very different way. “Boring Angel” follows a repetitive-addictive structure that can be traced to minimalist period Philip Glass. As a prime example of post-modern classical music, the structure in the 1969 composition by Philip Glass, “Two Pages” foregrounds the internal evolution of the composition, placing the beauty of its structure above its traditionally perceived acoustic beauty.
Philip Glass – “Two Pages” (1969)
Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin) – “Boring Angel” (2013)
By employing a reference to the post-modernism right on the opening track, Lopatin places the questions R Plus Seven is meant to ask front and center, making them impossible to be overlooked. An attentive listener wouldn’t be able to move beyond the first song in R Plus Seven without reconsidering his expectations by pitting synthpop against post-modernism. “Boring Angel” makes a perfect song to introduce Lopatin’s re-appropriation of sound in his music.
By comparing “Boring Angel” with “Two Pages,” it is easy to identify the present characteristics of post-modern music proposed by music theorist Jonathan Kramer. These characteristics include the presence of irony and contradiction, the repudiation of structural unity, and the presence of references not just to other musical contexts but to other social contexts (Kramer 22). Even though this piece is structured in an observable way, it foreshadows the rest of the album’s use of discontinuities and fragmentations in its composition. Most importantly, it enables Lopatin to declare the conceptual values R Plus Seven possesses in a succinct and effective way. That is, once the connection between post-modernism and the sonic ideograph <plastic> is established, with R Plus Seven as the bridge, Kramer’s characteristics become evident.
With the opening song, Lopatin challenges the listener’s expectations from the very start. This is Lopatin’s first and perhaps most important proposition present in R Plus Seven. Ironically, it is also the easiest to derive once the usage of the sonic ideograph <plastic> is taken into account. By looking at the raw materials through Lopatin’s lens, listeners are prompted to acknowledge the references to the <plastic> sound as mere building blocks, detached from the associations to synthpop they might induce, while at the same time hinting at a possible connection to post-modernism, by assembling a specific composition that could fit in that genre with those <plastic> building blocks.
“Zebra”: <Plastic> Re-Appropriation of Continuity
Once these initial expectations are challenged and corresponding genre associations are broken, Lopatin further plays with more aspects of <plastic>. Throughout the rest of the album, Lopatin shows what can be done once his material is molten and ready to be shaped. Another prime example is the song “Zebra” from R Plus Seven, when held in contrast to the 1987 song “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order. When listening to these, notice that the New Order piece uses synthesized “stabs” heavily. Popular in the 80s, stabs are single detached chords meant to grab the listener’s attention. The R Plus Seven track follows the same initial pattern, except that while the original is consistently timed, the tempo in “Zebra’s” synthesized stabs eventually collapses onto itself. Lopatin reshapes the tempo present in the sound he used by the end of this clip, transforming this cycle’s familiar regularity into a single “block” of sound.
New Order – “Bizarre Love Triangle” (1987)
Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin) – “Zebra” (2013)
This effect is a direct result of Lopatin’s adherence to the technique introduced in “Boring Angel.” That is, by highlighting a piece’s internal evolution over its genre appropriateness, Lopatin exerts greater control over the raw <plastic> material he used. Instead of having the stab chord structure following a pattern that could be replicated in, for example, a piano, he develops a new sonic texture by playing with the tempo. “Zebra” evolves from possessing a “bleepy hook” into an atmospheric “musical chasm” (Fisch). While it is possible to rework recordings into having similar characteristics, the <plastic> quality is inherently present in synthesized, artificial, fabricated sounds. Specifically, this quality is the material’s innate capability of being used in an ever-changing tempo, keeping up with the structural changes that ensue.
By acknowledging the movement that is inherently present in an instrument that can be procedurally tweaked to sound like other instruments, Lopatin demonstrates another aspect of the sonic ideograph <plastic>. For Lopatin, <plastic> evokes fluidity and immediacy that is only made possible through artificiality. When we consider how “Zebra” follows through with the instrument re-appropriation approach set with “Boring Angel,” another dimension is added to Lopatin’s approach to production, resulting in a richer, more meaningful and personalized path to re-appropriation.
“Chrome Country”: <Plastic> Re-Appropriation of Histories
Now that Lopatin has used both the timbre and tempo present in his source material, redirecting the associations they carry to his benefit, for the last track he tackles the main issue perceived in <plastic>: artificiality itself. This final movement is illustrated by comparing the 1981 song “The Beginning and The End” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark to the closing track in R Plus Seven, “Chrome Country.” The tracks in this particular comparison don’t sound as close as those in the previous one, but the intentions are strikingly similar. Both the Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and the Oneohtrix Point Never songs are used as the closing tracks in their respective albums, and both attempt to project a “spiritual” image present in the songs and the albums they close, an idea made stronger by the presence of the church organ sample to the very end of the Oneohtrix Point Never song. However, there are two big differences here that highlight Lopatin’s approach to re-appropriation. Unlike the decidedly artificial sound reminiscent of the popular Mellotron proto-synthesizer keyboard present in many 80s pop songs, such as the one in “The Beginning and The End,” Lopatin’s choir sounds quite natural at first listen. Initially, “Chrome Country’s” choir could even be confused with a real boys’ choir recording, even if the way Lopatin uses this instrument is unnatural. Their voices are distorted and its vocal range is artificially expanded, but even so, it’s still recognizable as a clichéd 80s choir.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – “The Beginning and The End” (1981)
Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin) – “Chrome Country” (2013)
Lopatin has used a modern version of an instrument in contradictory ways while still maintaining a connection and making references to the instrument’s history. What we see here is Lopatin’s re-appropriation of not only a single moment in the history of synthesizers but of their entire history, acknowledging technological evolution. The <plastic> artificiality of synthesizers’ attempts to mimic the human voice, and this attempt is perfectly encapsulated by Lopatin’s choice of instrument; then it is re-appropriated in relation to a potential alternative history. Lopatin essentially projects what would’ve happened had technology advanced enough to provide 80s artists with a more natural sounding voice. Then, Lopatin re-appropriates this projection.
The secondary aspect of Lopatin’s use of the choir voice instrument is a continuation of the tempo-based compression seen in “Zebra” to redirect expectations. Once the connection to the ethereal, holy image that the choir instrument painted in the 80s is established, Lopatin can then bend this connection to his own benefit. Specifically, he can reconstitute the image painted by this choir, “flipping [it] from angelic to anguished with a wink” (Saxelby). The <plastic> quality is crucial to demonstrating this unsure effect; a listener’s expectations in terms of message tone are invalidated. Despite initially possessing this “angelic” quality, the choir’s significance can’t be easily gleaned anymore, leaving a listener unsure of the song’s optimism or pessimism.
Rhetorical inquiry helps us single out the way Lopatin uses the sonic ideograph <plastic> in three instances. Using the rhetorical quality of sound, Lopatin’s music responds to the recurring electronic music listening situation by executing three moves: Re-appropriation of timbre in relation to composition, tempo in relation to continuity, and history in relation to artificiality. These three moves defy generic expectations to great effect. By accepting these moves, listeners are invited to hear the instruments for what they are without being subject to any inherited contexts that might cloud their judgment. In other words, these <plastic> synthesizer sounds are no longer reminders of a pop genre gone by. For Lopatin, they’re just another tool. Instead of being negatively associated with contrived artificiality and a “default” material, Lopatin redirects <plastic> to carry its original connotation: a triumph of technology, a malleable new material that can be used to make most anything in modern society. Lopatin acknowledges the existing aesthetic references the sonic ideograph <plastic> possesses while drawing a parallel between the all-purposefulness of the material and the malleability of <plastic> as a sound. Throughout R Plus Seven, Lopatin not only re-constructs the culture both surrounding the sounds themselves but even the culture surrounding the descriptors of those sounds.
Without being manipulated by undesirable histories and stereotypes present in his sound, Lopatin can manipulate his sound with maximum freedom, freeing it from any generic associations that have developed or are yet to be developed. This malleability is key to his music, since breaking down the relationship between sound and genre allows him to constantly “bend” his instruments in new ways. Instead of being preoccupied with genres, appropriateness, and tradition, Lopatin can use the sounds of his choice in objective, material-oriented ways. Lopatin also establishes the almost recursive relationship in generic associations—that is, music can be considered an instrument used to make more music. The acknowledgment of the movement present in sound opens up the possibility for this music to be put through the cycle once more. The cycle never allows music or its effects on listeners to settle in a single place. Lopatin then situates his compositions in this cycle. His music reconstructs sound, sound effects, and culture, and in doing so, is proof of Lopatin’s musical genius.
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Fernando Santos is a senior majoring in Rhetoric and Writing Studies at Western Michigan University, where he is set to graduate this spring. He originally wrote this essay for Dr. Brian Gogan’s parody-focused Rhetoric, Writing and Culture class. Fernando is particularly interested in music, and how instrumental music can function as a form of “wordless rhetoric.”