White Tears and the OP-1

White Tears kicked my ass and it’s impossible to describe why. I read it in three or four big gulps this week but it’s so good that I’m still in a deep fit of despair about just how good it all was. It’s a novel by Hari Kunzru about music and ghosts and the cost of addiction but about halfway through it becomes this swirling vortex of memories and conversations and then just pure, utter delirium.

One of the songs mentioned in that novel is Tommy Johnson and Ishman Bracey’s Canned Heat Blues, a beautiful song written in 1928. I’ve been listening to it all week. And so—just like the characters in White Tears—I find myself falling down this rabbit hole of music I’ve never listened to before: Charles Brown, Henry Thomas, Blind Boy Fuller, Sylvester Weaver, Skip James.

After a full decade of looking at the OP-1 I finally did it, I bought the damn thing. It arrived, I opened it and up and turned it on, boom; a tiny device with strange nobs and a completely bananas UI now sat on my kitchen table. After twenty minutes of fiddling with it I realized it’s sort of like using an old computer without windows or tabs or any navigation at all. Instead, you have to rely on your memory about what button or key was just pressed, what packet of information you stored where and how.

The OP-1 is magic though because it’s more than just a synthesizer and drum machine, it’s also a sampler. You can record your voice and then split each part of the recording and bind each note to a key. You can record on multiple tracks and filter them, distort them, and in the first evening I bent and welded my own voice into something half resembling a Massive Attack drum beat. Next, my voice became a shrill oomph of despair or a high pitched squeak.

The OP-1 does what any good computer really should; it makes you feel like you can reconstruct the universe in your own image—reinvent everything from scratch.

LALAL.AI is likewise magic. You throw an audio file at it and it’ll pull the vocals apart from the instruments and isolate them. Or you can pluck a bass line and drum beat out from underneath a guitar solo. It doesn’t always work perfectly but when it does LALAL.AI feels like what websites were meant to do. The platonic ideal of a website; remixing.

Last night, I realized I could take Canned Heat Blues and split out Tommy Johnson’s vocals from the song, download it as an mp3, and then sample it back into the OP-1. My goal wasn’t really to create a new song out of it but something else altogether, something more important than just making another EDM song.

Several hours later I found myself sat at my office listening to a loop of Johnson’s ghostly voice from almost a hundred years ago and I realized that within this sample there are a hundred thousand other songs to find inside it. Each recording in that way is a gift of samples and possibilities, with songs hidden inside other songs—just like how Home by Caribou transforms Gloria Barnes’s original slow and wistful Home into an altogether different thing; upbeat, happy, dancing.

I love that so very much; the idea that there are infinite songs within songs. I imagine Tommy Johnson sat in a studio in Memphis, singing his heart out into a microphone in 1928 and now someone else, two centuries from now; sampling, remixing, and playing along with him.