Words by David C. Obenour
Markus Popp has channeled his curiosity and creativity through Oval over the span of four decades. Building and deconstructing, learning and unlearning, his approach to electonic music continues to leave indelible marks on how it can be assembled, balanced, and mixed – and how we listen to it and what we hear each time.
His latest album, Romantiq began as a work for the German Romantic Museum in collaboration with visual artist Robert Seidel. Delving deep into the subject matter, Popp drew from the museum’s collection from the 19th century epoch in art. Conceptually, the entirety of inspiration for Romantiq is remains over most of our heads, but its continued exploration of organic and digital provides a brilliant foil for blending the classical and modern.
Off Shelf: Romantiq evolved out of an audio-visual collaboration you did with Robert Seidel for the German Romantic Museum. Can you talk about what inspired you to at first take on that project?
Markus Popp: He asked me if I was interested in contributing a soundtrack and the project sounded intriguing, especially considering that a few of my previous projects, released as well as unreleased ones, had already brought me in touch with exploring acoustic moods and instruments.
OS: As the project developed – did you encounter any challenges or have your thinking changed when working on these vignettes that were meant to mirror specific emotions?
MP: There was never a clear directive that certain vignettes should mirror certain emotions – neither at the outset nor at later stages of the project. Generally, I approached the entire task following my usual “guidelines”, namely to make the final outcome…
…as complex as possible and as accessible as necessary.
…as fragmented as possible and as intact as necessary,
…and then filter it through everything that I had researched on the European romantic movement, from 1799-1835.
OS: Releasing it to the public, what has been your perception of the reception its received at the German Romantic Museum? Did any of that give you a greater insight for Romantiq?
MP: Unfortunately, I was not present in person at the day of the opening and have only seen drone footage of the event and Robert Seidel’s video installation. Which both looked impressive, though.
OS: Was the cover for Romantiq taking from this collaboration? If so, with a number of vignettes to choose from, why did you choose the image you did?
MP: Yes, we had narrowed our cover candidates down to a few motifs, all still images from a different Robert Seidel video work that had nothing to do with his original installation for the Romantic Museum.
In fact, Robert had suggested this “dark digital landscape” – video as a possible music video for Oval before the “romantic” collaboration even had been on the horizon. But paradoxically, the dark, brooding atmosphere of this procedurally generated digital landscape turned out to be an even better fit for a “romantic”-themed album than his original video installation.
The still image that was ultimately chosen as the album cover was chosen from several great options, the best of which were then used for the other three sides of the gatefold sleeves of the “Romantiq” LP/CD.
OS: Evolving into an album, what considerations did you have for decoupling from the visual while trying to maintain the theme?
MP: Decoupling the music part from the visual component was not even necessary, as the album quickly progressed into its own thing after the opening of the museum. Mind you, the entire project only started as the soundtrack for Robert Seidel’s video installation, but all of my material went through many iterations, new tracks were added etc. So, “Romantiq” is an Oval album in its own right.
OS: Were there any sourced sounds that you feel played particularly well to the feel of the emotion you were conveying?
MP: Ultimately, I wanted to find a good balance between both acoustic and synthetic instruments as well as instruments that are clearly associated with the original Romantic period – like piano or strings – and instruments that are more hybrid and cutting-edge from a 2023 perspective.
Particularly the piano component turned out to be the most tricky, as it is the easiest to integrate into material in progress, especially in terms of rhythm, structure and tuning. At times, I had to actively steer away some pieces away from the piano, to avoid ending up with something that could be seen as a “piano album” or as a reimagination of typical Romantic trope – that’s how I ended up with using hybrid loops or plucked string instruments.
OS: Have you started to envision what a live performance of Romantiq would look like? Would you reintroduce any of the visuals from your work with Seidel?
MP: I have started putting together a live set for “Romantiq” as soon as the album was completed, so it’s pretty far along now. It will feature new sounds, tracks and many options for real-time processing – both in the time and the frequency domain – via three MIDI controllers. In addition, Robert Seidel has made a 45-minute version of his video material optimized for live projection and I am sure he will include several new elements and ideas by the time “Romantiq” will be shown.
OS: Thoroughly researched, the release talks about influences as far reaching as “literature, architecture and artistic traditions.” Are there any specific inspirations you can pull out from that in how they translated into these songs?
MP: At the beginning, the project was all about gathering insight into the European Romantic movement, which in itself was a multidisciplinary undertaking, spanning several art forms, some of them even hybrid and therefore quite visionary. What I found most fascinating was to dig into the parallels of the original motivations of the early Romantics in the light of today’s online worlds / consumer society.
For example, the “enchantment of the world” is a key Romantic idea, describing the ambition to close a rift between humanity and rationality / technology and instead “heal” our existence by giving back a sense of wonder and mystery to our lives. But obviously, today’s online society is a lot smarter than this – not to mention capitalism, a highly creative discipline in its own right.
And yet, the ideas and goals of the early romantics were legitimate. Many of their ideas seem naïve in the face of today’s big data and 24/7 personalized marketing, but that doesn’t make their ambitions worthless, far from that.
And of course there is something to be said about a possible utopia, a faint longing for a liberated existence outside the technological matrix, free from 24/7 consumption…but whether convenience and capitalism would let us off the hook so easily is a whole other conversation. [laughs]
OS: Did any of this project change how you thought about the Romantic Period?
MP: I definitely have learned a lot about the 18th century European Romantic movement and discovered amazing similarities when it comes to artistic strategies, even though the protagonists of the Romantic era – and unsurprisingly so, this was 225 years ago, after all – were putting together their ideas under totally different circumstances, culturally and technologically.
Of course, as a musician in 2023, I can’t overcome rationality, science and technology as the early Romantics had suggested back then – especially since science and technology are the very foundation on which electronic music stands today. But what I can do, as Oval, is to remind people of the infinite, the limitless, and of dreams, albeit in a slightly bittersweet way.