Every now and then someone comes along and smacks you in the head with something you already knew. Sometimes this hurts, like when a teacher calls you out on a skill you know is weak, or when congress validates your fears about the state of the union by confirming a sexual predator to the supreme court (again). Thankfully, however, this isn’t always a negative experience. Once in a blue moon an artist finds a way to show you your own world in a new light. Oneohotrix Point Never’s MYRIAD, performed at Disney Hall on Monday, did just that.
I’ve enjoyed Oneohotrix Point Never’s work since first hearing the artist on their (his?) album Replica back in 2011, but the concert experience they’ve crafted with MYRIAD is a tongue-in-cheek, hyper self-aware hour of complete joy if you get it—and still genuinely interesting music if you don’t—that relies on its ability to illuminate our usually unconscious schizophonic experience of music. Let me unpack that a bit for you.
Schizophonia refers to the separation of sound from source that became possible with early recording technology. The mere concept of “recording-to-play-back-later” is a very basic example. When you record a cellist playing Bach, and then listen to the recording the next day, the cellist (the source) is no longer there, only the electronically reproduced sound. This is, of course, so basic to the way we listen to music in our daily lives as to be invisible and hardly worth commenting on. We walk around all day listening to music in headphones or through our car stereos. We only really notice it when something goes wrong, for instance in an amplified live concert setup where the left and right sides get switched and a performer on the right side of the stage has their instrumental sound coming from the left. It does rely on visual information as well; you can see this at home by plugging in your TV speakers backwards and trying to watch a sitcom while sitting directly centered in front of your screen. It kind of breaks your brain.
When an artist uses schizophonia as a tool rather than a given, however, and goes in with the assumption that most of their audience has quite a bit of musical knowledge (much like a painter assumes that most viewers aren’t colorblind…and let’s be honest, Oneohotrix Point Never isn’t really for Top 40 listeners), the results can be profound. MYRIAD began, as many electronics-heavy shows do, with the lights out, complex drones, and psychedelic video projections that reminded me of the wormhole sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. That transitioned pretty smoothly to the four piece band onstage, two members surrounded by synths, with the other two at a grand piano and a drum set. Music descended from 80s pop and modern day autotuned R&B (Frank Ocean, anyone?) gradually took over, though the effect was one of disorientation with oddly misaligned phrase lengths from the pop sounds blending in and out of the ongoing drones.
At this point I was under the impression that we’d be getting a through-composed set without any breaks. Then the band stopped and said thanks to the audience like so many arena bands do (both my date and I were caught off guard by this) before launching into what could have been a twisted Toto cover with DX7 brass sounds and a synth flute from a keyboard that sounded like it would fit in mid-90s Celine Dion track, accompanied by a drum beat of sliced up extended technique string samples accompanied by Han Bennink-esque stick rolls on shells in the drums and a pre-recorded upright bass line.
As the lights moved around the stage (musicians were generally lit in a way that reminded me of Depeche Mode or Kraftwerk), however, I was struck by both the lack of an upright bass onstage and the fact that the drummer didn’t seem to be playing any of those stick rolls, instead keeping to trigger pads for basic synth drums. Why bring a grand piano and a drum set and then pre-record bass and drums in a production that obviously cost a lot of money? This is where the schizophonic confusion really started, though I was holding out hope that it wouldn’t be laziness or lack-of-understanding underlying it, though, and was thankfully proven right a few songs later when the same stick rolls returned, this time being played live by the drummer.
This is the moment when it started to hit me that Oneohotrix Point Never was, rather than playing music, playing with the entire concept of live performance. WHOA, I thought. They just moved from recorded to live in a way that SOUNDS identical. Fascinating. It’s almost like they’re commenting on how live performance in our current era of technology is really just for show. Wonder if that will continue. And oh boy, did it continue, and morphing into a near-satire of big budget pop concerts. A troupe of dancers appeared in the aisles during one track (song? piece?) dressed a bit like USC cheerleaders if USC cheerleaders wore cowboy hats decorated in caution tape and surgical masks, but proceeded to repeat a few pretty simple dance steps as they marched around the hall for what couldn’t have been more than three minutes, never to return. For the last two pieces of the evening a cellist joined the band onstage, but played first only a few extended techniques that were indistinguishable from the previously mentioned extended technique string track now backing her again, and then a pretty well worthless string of whole notes for the final number.
Let me clarify that: the notes and the performance of said notes was perfectly good, but in the context of a sample-filled electronic concert, having her appear live was more like the band saying “see? this doesn’t really add anything, but it’s pretty to look at,” in a takedown of the low-hanging fruit “live with orchestra” tokenism that so many bands use to build cultural capital for themselves. Is this the other side of the coin for classical pieces that add a four-on-the-floor drum beat to try to prove their own relevance? I believe so. Had it been in a standalone piece, the appearance of the cellist may have been merely pointless and confusing (as it often is in electroacoustic concerts). In the context of a concert using sonic and visual confusion as a narrative, her mere appearance onstage hammered home the band’s point about live performance. It almost would have been more effective to have her sit there and do nothing.
This may all be speculation on my part, of course, and the problems of the intentional fallacy in this reading of the show’s content are myriad (ha). During that cellist’s appearance at the end, however, came a projected rotating skull eating a VHS tape. Like Nathan Fielder’s glance at the camera in the season finale of Nathan For You when a mark pointed out that “this is all for a TV show,” that skull eating a VHS tape screamed “the old way of doing concerts is dead. You just watched us kill it. And wasn’t it fun?”
This summer I heard composer Martin Bresnick give a talk on the idea that modern composers will really, really have to reckon with the loudspeaker in their work. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about a lot, and I’m pleased to hear bands like Oneohotrix Point Never who are reckoning with it in their own creative ways. After seeing MYRIAD I dare say this band is on the forefront of a musical future we should all be excited about. If they are touring anywhere near you, get tickets immediately.