Words by David C. Obenour
For over three decades, Markus Popp as Oval has been exploring the boundaries of electronic music. With each new release comes a different set of self-imposed parameters, serving as the guideposts of new explorations into the world of meticulously created sound.
On his latest releases for Thrill Jockey, Scis and the accompanying EP, Eksploio, Popp choose samples sourced from analog instruments such as pianos, woodwinds and strings – giving a warm juxtaposition to the planned sculpture of his compositions. What results is a series of songs that blend control and outburst, the spirit of improvisation within the guidance of composition, and melody through noise.
Off Shelf: Can you tell us the meaning behind the name of the two new release, Eksploio and Scis?
Markus Popp: I mean, what’s the meaning behind a title for any piece of content in this day and age, really? That said, yes, there were definitely criteria that went into the naming of both formats and the tracks. But those are more following my own take on “branding” than anything else. Now, regarding old-style meaning, “Eksploio” should be self-explanatory, whereas “Scis” is phonetically a play on “sister album”, as the album picks up where 2016’s “Popp” had left off… and then takes things to a pretty different place.
OS: The press release mentions that at the start of each project you like to set parameters. Can you talk about the parameters you set this time and what inspired them?
MP: Similar to working on “Popp”, this EP and album was also about beats and tons of sequenced melodies, albeit this time, with completely different tools and a more acoustic atmosphere and an overall flavor of “real instruments being played.” I like creating an atmosphere that oscillates between programmed, performed and played – music that could be by me or by others, music that’s emotional just as much as it is data, music that’s conceptual just as much as it sounds almost accidental.
OS: Utilizing a number of analog instruments, in general did you sample them with the song in mind or was it finding interesting sounds that you later wove together into the song? Or is it something altogether different? Even with these limitations, it seems like a wide creative outlet to explore.
MP: Yes, everything is woven together into the song… no, just kidding. It’s pretty disparate material that goes all sorts of places – musically, rhythmically, harmonically – and it comes together at a stage where, more often than not, I am closer to a notion of “all is lost” than “there it is!” But then, I somehow “turn the material around”, tour-de-force-style.
OS: I would imagine that working with these instrumental samples would make for instances of imperfections or lack of total control over the sound created. How do you think these real space realities shaped the music this time?
MP: In fact, there were no “real space realities” I had to work with – everything happened in the digital domain, on a screen. So, yes, electronic music has long entered a “hyperreal” phase where distinctions like electronic vs. acoustic or programmed vs. played are no longer meaningful. In the process, I retained pretty much total control over the sound sources that I utilized at all times. Not that this would be important to me personally, it just happens to be the nature of my setup being entirely software-based, modules processing tons of parameters, control data and feeding into each other.
That said, there is definitely a pretty wide margin for improvisation, ranging from controlled deviation, organic evolutions and a tiny bit of the occasional random element. Plus, the procedural factor is really just “process,” a way to get me closer to the sound. To make everything sound musically plausible, partly familiar and partly innovative without being purely experimental. That was the actual challenge here.
OS: As soon as you set the parameters, do you start to have a vision of how the music will come together? Was there any way in which the project deviated that particularly surprised you?
MP: To let the music come together at all I already see as an achievement. Because, by definition and on a technical level, I am putting together this generative system in the first place. Of course, I have to arrange for certain conceptual guidelines as well as for a certain leeway in all sorts of directions – plus a margin for forced error and a surprise element. But ultimately, I am most happy with an outcome that makes me realize that the music which is coming out of this setup, just is, just speaks for itself.
OS: The press release also says that you “approached pieces more as an art director or composer than a producer” – can you talk a little more about that?
MP: Working in a software-based setup is pure decision-making – every few minutes, every step of the way, as your music could take the wildest turns in terms of sound, tone, harmony, texture, rhythm, character etc. So ultimately, there is a lot of decision-making that lets you interact with the material.
OS: I imagine even with intentional boundaries each time that you carry over elements from projects to inform who you are as a musician. What do you think you learned and will take from Scis and Eksploio?
MP: My gut reaction would be: “lots of tech stuff,” as I have learned. But then again, the list of things to explore on a technical level fills up very rapidly, even when I would not work on music and would be away from the computer. So ultimately, the lessons for me happen on a deeper level and have to do with the meta of creating, my process etc.
MP: Do you get excited for and follow along with the new advances for the composition and performance of electronic music?
MP: I wouldn’t call it excitement, it’s more of a flavor of awareness. Electronic music is in part a technological matrix, tools, concepts, standards and compatibility defining what is possible at all. And yet, it is of course possible to establish a musical throughline that is interwoven with tech, but never completely depending on it. Ultimately, I am after pretty specific things – texture, sound, tricks or just that “fuck, yeah!” kind of moment. I look for tools and techniques that could prove useful for getting me there. Otherwise, I would be just a beta tester.
OS: Are there any advances being made, or anything you’ve discovered from past methods, that you find particularly exciting?
MP: Well, I find that “the latest advancements” is something of a double-edged sword. I’d rather replace that with something like “true advancements.” Advancements that I find usable for my process, which is all about making my music a thing of the “here & now.” Neo-retro gear or modular synthesizers have no place in my setup / approach.
I look at new developments in music technology as “work,” first and foremost. To me, they are “exciting” in the same capacity as say, the latest, patented synthetic aroma chemicals appear exciting to an ambitious perfumer. In order to create something that can convincingly be “of its time,” the creator has to know precisely how to handle contemporary influences and components.
True artistic achievement, however, ultimately happens on a different level. In my opinion, a result that not only reflects but also transcends the components, technologies, and processes relevant for its making, that’s an achievement. Like a timeless fragrance… which can be composed using the latest synthetic aroma chemicals, but ultimately, there needs to be a more holistic vision at work that is chasing something more substantial than a mere “sum of its parts.”