Oh and O

—Oval

Markus Popp - photo by Constantin Falk

To some extent, the history of popular music since the 1950s is the story of the way musicians and composers have broadened their musical palettes by exploiting the shortcomings of the technology used to amplify and reproduce music.  The amplification of the guitar resulted in the squall of distortion and feedback that are the hallmarks of rock, and the manipulation of vinyl records on a pair of turntables gave us the post-modern, beat-driven world of hip-hop.

Oval was one of the early pioneers of a similarly deliberate mishandling of technology: using computer software and the physical marking of compact disks (famously with felt tip pens) to create a style of music later dubbed “glitch.”  The cadences of the stuttering electronics were both alien and familiar, and are now so much a part of the sonic landscape (think Postal Service, Radiohead or Flying Lotus) as to seem obvious in retrospect.

But Berlin-based Markus Popp, a founding and now sole member of the group, seems almost allergic to labels or expectations.  After a string of impressive releases, Oval has been dormant throughout most of the new millenium.  Now, Popp has a new sound, using live takes and some traditional instrumentation to build upon the angular atmospherics of Oval’s earlier work.  And he’s making up for lost time, with some 85 tracks spread across an EP (“Oh,” out earlier this summer) and a double-album (“O,” out on September 13) – both on Thrill Jockey.

At Length recently corresponded with Popp about the new recordings, his new sonic outlook and his manifesto about his dislike of manifestos.

Oval – Ah! (Right click on the link to download a track from the new double-album.)

At Length: I believe the last record you worked on was 2003′s So, a collaboration with Eriko Toyoda, and your last record as Oval was Ovalcommers in 2001. Also, this summer you’ve released an EP and will shortly release a double LP of all new material.  Why did you take a break from recording, and what brought you back?  And why return with so much new material all at once?  Have you been working on this for a long time, or did it come as a torrent quite recently?

Markus Popp: The “Oh” EP and “O” album are the next chapter in an ongoing dialog with music. And while my early tracks from the mid-90s were engaged with music on a pretty basic and unsophisticated (yet effective) level, these new releases can confidently challenge music on its’ own turf – something I wanted to do for many years, but just did not quite feel ready for. Over the years, I increasingly felt I needed to be part of this conversation – ultimately, because music always has been a part of my life and I wanted to finally come up with a better payback scheme than just dissection or denial.

I always knew I would return with something – albeit not at all cost. Simply returning with just some new iteration of “electronic music” just wasn’t good enough. Basically, there was always a lot more “music” in Oval than might have been apparent all along, it was only a question of which form it would take in 2010. But then again, if you compare my 2010 material with my early albums, you realize that I just might have posted this “love letter to music” already a long time ago – and that it is only now, that its contents becomes more clear. To me, “O” is like a debut album, it is full of passion and enthusiasm.

How to start this dialogue with music? Easier said than done. Step 1: radical departure – do everything differently on all levels: technically, musically, organizationally. I wanted to PLAY stuff, take control – for example, by establishing riffs as the new main building block, replacing loops. This added much more immediacy and control (but also a lot of new decision-making and new responsibilities), while being loop-based had been by definition static and inflexible.

By recording my own improvisations, I was now the composer, not just the “music coordinator.” Once I had the tech aspect down, things went pretty quickly from there. The tracks are pretty much recorded live (of course in multi-track). Still, this says nothing about which direction to take from there – that took even longer. Having direct, real-time access to things does not mean that I was working any faster. All phrases have been triggered as you hear them, they are not montages. In the end, I decided to capture these riffs really quickly, like shooting Polaroids – if the recording went the wrong way, I had to do everything all over again.

AL: In the past, you’ve been careful to note that while you arrange the sounds on any particular piece of music you release as Oval, you don’t actually make the sounds that are heard.  Yet it seems that on your new work, there is something akin to more traditional musicianship or music-making going on, with “live” instruments recorded in the studio.  Are those samples?  Are you playing any instruments on this record?

MP: Hmm, careful with that “traditional musicianship” part. I have seen it fail before!

Sure, I had set my priorities differently. Instead of highlighting the “authorship” question, I went straight into the opposite direction: I wanted to be in charge of bringing out the “music” in “electronic music.” In practice, the production of O(h) was often all about ending up with the best possible take. You know, that one recording that is worth practicing an entire day for, the one that can convey a certain sophistication beyond all that technology involved. Joining the music game was also a pragmatic decision: to establish myself as a producer, widen the frame of reference and to ask for a fair chance to show what my music can do in the real world.

So, am I actually playing instruments on this new record? Yes and no. The more important question is: how to force music-making to catch up with the new challenges of this age of hyperrealism which is already seamlessly integrated into the aesthetic canon of other fields of media productivity, e.g. film.

A rain shower, an explosion, a flock of birds in the distance, human actors – *any* asset as part of a contemporary movie scene are perceived – provided the lighting and photography are flawless – as simply “being there”, whether these assets were ever part of the original shot or just added digitally in post. Who knows, to a certain degree, this new Oval sound might be nothing but a trompe l’oeil, an acoustic illusion – albeit a very convincing one – to a point, where you don’t insist on the seemingly specific qualities of the “original” any longer. So why still give way to the old impulse of investigating the perpetual “how did he do it? I thought people had already been over that with Systemisch in 1994.

Today, my goal is to create a “just listen” type of music that effortlessly just “is” (of course not in an esoteric sense of “beyond criticism”) and convincingly renders distinctions like “programmed vs. played” and “acoustic vs. electronic” obsolete.

AL: Similarly, you seem to be using more recognizable melodic structures here than in your previous work.  While many musicians and artists change their entire approach to their work over the course of their career, I find it striking that you did this while still using the Oval moniker, as that seemed to be so tied to a certain manifesto about the deficiencies in electronic music, or an almost philosophical problem with music itself.  Does Oval now stand for something other than what you once imagined?

MP: Oval stands for…Markus Popp and his perspective on music. And that perspective can of course evolve. I wanted to finally be able to tell the full story – from both, outside (“classic” Oval) and inside (new material) of the music container. And yet, I could still rely on certain continuities (in atmosphere, for example) which ultimately also made it onto the new records. The “manifesto” aspect is mainly provoked by interviews like this one and has to be evaluated separately from the actual musical result, which always could hold its own *as music*. Today, after having completed this latest work phase, I’d say that regardless of technique and the tools at my disposal, my music does retain this signature “Oval” atmosphere.

And yes, there was this (still unresolved) philosophical problem of the electronic musician: being perpetually torn between subjective creative expression and the mere execution of pre-implemented features. In the early days, I did not feel I belonged into any of these two camps and therefore took that “semi-authorship” route with Systemisch and all subsequent releases, putting the generative method center stage. But then again, even the vintage oval releases are remembered as music, not as the soundtrack to a manifesto.

Today, I seem to have gone straight down the authorship route, but let’s not forget, that this is an Oval record after all. A concept like “simply sitting down and playing some tunes” is not a route you can just opt to take – this is 2010. Even though it might be ultra-musical, O is not only an homage. And despite its’ accessible songwriter trappings, this record is a contemporary and pretty technical album – I just chose to give everything a very “playful” atmosphere. This is not only a revisionist “love letter to music”, this is a 2010 hi tech product.

AL: You seemed to have something of an educational aim when you began Oval, to point out the ways in which electronic music is constrained or enabled by the changing nature of the technology.   With so many artists using some of the glitchy sounds and textures or techniques that were your hallmark, how do you feel about the success of the Oval project in that regard?

MP: Well, “educational” might be a bit of a stretch here. But still, in the early days, it was all about not using the tricks of the trade, but to reveal the circumstances of those tricks. Of course the music could only convey this to a certain degree, but I felt obliged to give mention to what I at the time saw as the most relevant problems that were concealed by continuing to talk about music as if nothing had happened. But of course something had happened – software happened. At the time, giving mention to these “extra”-musical aspects seemed absolutely necessary to me. It simply had been no option for me to proceed with “(music) business as usual” while music productivity itself was facing these historical changes.

AL: In the time since you started Oval, popular music has increasingly highlighted the software and machines used in it’s creation.  I’m thinking specifically of the way Radiohead and many other bands incorporate glitches and software artifacts in their sound, and even the way pop and hip-hop artists like Kanye West have used Auto-Tune in ways that obviously distort the human voice instead of unobtrusively correct it.  Do you feel like these trends are in some way the result of what you did in the 90s, or at least inspired by the same things?

MP: It seems that the crucial aspect to “glitch” is not how to precisely date or define it, but from which angle you make it work for you. From my perspective, Oval in the 90s was not primarily about introducing disruptive elements into an otherwise unquestioned, fully intact musical narrative, but in fact it was about the exact opposite. Oval was all about creating intactness from the most disparate and unlikely building blocks – I guess I had subscribed to the somewhat naïve hope to prevent that at the advent of this “software era” everyone and everything would just proceed with (music) business as usual. By the way, I did not (and still don’t) believe in changing the agenda via “anti- music” – like noise, etc. – but always try to go for a more elegant solution that challenges people in an inviting way. With Systemisch, I was pretty busy proving that my tracks could be music after all, even capable of flirting with “pop” – while for others, Oval was probably on the forefront of “experimental electronic music” (ugh).

Sure, the entire early Oval mission did have a lot to do with disrupting certain traditional conceptions about the intactness of music. However, on a practical level, these early tracks were in fact totally linear, pleasant and very song-like. But granted, after the release of Systemisch, the “glitch” meme was undoubtedly out there, a steady part of the electronic music canon – and apparently, it spread into other many areas. But I guess such a dynamic has long been standard practice in arts, no? Plus, this dawn of self-awareness for digitality itself did happen in a lot of other fields of media as well.

What do I think of this? I remain pretty neutral here. First and foremost, I have always seen my role in introducing new distinctions into music to be suggesting the occasional shift in perspective and, if at all possible, trigger some discussions. And I guess I have ultimately succeeded at that – the glitch distinction/mechanic is out there, part of the electronic music arsenal / vocabulary – albeit for all the wrong reasons, at least from my perspective.

Disclaimer: I have never claimed to have been the first to have “invented glitch”. Looking back from today, I’ d say that Oval represented a certain alignment of musical instinct, pop sensibilities, some innovative details and lots of outspoken, nonconformist attitude – all apparently executed convincingly enough to render Oval this somewhat intangible phenomenon that kept people guessing…and to be “influential”.

AL: In the past, you’ve used high-end Mac Pros to create your music, and helped to create custom software consoles to illustrate some aspects of your work.  Have you continued to engage in high-tech experimentation, and keep up with the latest advances in computing? Have you revisited your software project to attempt to create something more sophisticated that takes advantage of greater computer power or advances in software?

MP: I feel this $500 PC could be the next felt pen applied to the CD surface. It is a piece of info from a release bio that already seems to be on the way to developing a life of its’ own. Even though O was in fact made with this old stock PC, it only serves as a placeholder to signify: “no secret-weapon-type tech was used in the making of this record”.

In fact, Oval always was a low key/low budget affair. If you would go ahead and date Oval tracks based on the hardware utilized in their making, you’d always have to add several years to the assumed creation date, because I never, even to this day, had (or cared about) the “latest technology.” For example, Systemisch ultimately ended up as this glorious mono recording because I simply could not afford a fancy stereo sampler at the time. Also, one of my ideas for these early records was that the music should always retain an atmosphere as if everything could have been created / performed on (multiple) old tape recorders. I guess it remains important to my music to this day that I always had to get creative with modest resources.

AL: Aside from the different methods and means you employ to make the music on the new records, how would you characterize the difference in the music itself?  How has your thinking about your music changed in the time since your last recorded output? What motivated this change of approach?

MP: The main guideline was to create pure music with an irresistible quality to it, something you could not really put your finger on, but that could move people. And despite the fact that pretty much everything else around me has undergone such crazy transitions since then, my perspective stayed the same through all these years. Ultimately, I wanted to end up with emotional, touching music – regardless of the building blocks or construction principles utilized in its’ making. I guess I am pretty good at identifying what I am *not* interested in, always ending up with this essentialist concept. Plus, I do know that I have a compulsive tendency to always go for the most unlikely building blocks. Systemisch was a linear album full of moody songscapes, everything was put together in a very straightforward manner, simply composed out of a few, albeit unlikely, building blocks.

In practical terms, this meant giving each track its’ most convincing musical form and to pack in as much emotion and atmosphere into the smallest possible space. That’s why a considerable portion of tracks on O ended up as these high-density miniatures (album CD2), while others were turned full-featured “songs” (tracks 2,4,6,8, etc on CD1). My primary concern was to give each track a chance to truly shine and achieve as much “associative power” and irresistible emotionality as possible. For example, the sheer “visual” potential of the “interludes” (O CD1, tracks 1,3,5,7,9,11, etc) could lock you into an intense staring contest for a pretty long time. In a sense, this music plays you.

Tracks based on these sorts of high-density phrases would in fact have lost a lot of their momentum by adding more variations – or adding any other type of sound for that matter. All tracks on side B of the Oh EP (same goes for CD2 of the O album) are pure, concise miniatures in order to get across the maximum emotion. Being liberated from having to think constantly about “what could be missing here,” I could instead concentrate on their distinct “faux future evergreen” atmosphere. Other design goals for these miniatures were “ringtone,” “evergreen,” and “music that you could swear you already know”.

All in all, O is all about turning Oval from a lean-forward to a lean-back experience without sacrificing any of the achievements (musical and programmatic) of the former Oval albums – and instead convincingly challenge music on its own turf without being just plain bad at writing songs.