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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

Popp Music

Oval, Microstoria, and the man behind their curtains: Markus Popp

By Marc Weidenbaum

Young German technologist Markus Popp is of two minds on the subject of electronic music. Those minds have names. One is called Oval, the other Microstoria. Oval is a solo act (albeit with Sebastian Oschatz providing visuals for videos and installations), Microstoria a partnership, and both have new records out in the U.S.

Oval’s is a highly theoretical enterprise. Titled Diskont (Thrill Jockey), it’s a clipped and arid affair, with tenuous claim to melodic content — a tidy collage wholly assembled from samples of crackles and static. Popp likens the effort to cultural analysis.

“Oval is a very strict and limited approach,” the prolific 26-year-old says, “in order to make some new distinctions clear — and, in a way, to go beyond the music concept, the music metaphors underlying the concepts used in the digital instruments involved.”

Those limits are strict, indeed. The source material for Diskont is entirely CD skips and stutters. Like many of us, Popp has noticed how a faulty disc can transform even the most hardcore metal or tumultuous symphony into a sonic sedative, a loop of industrial background noise. Popp has simply gone on to edit those miscues into small body of rarefied art music.

Popp’s Microstoria endeavor is buoyant by comparison, if only because its palette is considerably warmer, and the composing team, Popp plus Jan St. Werner (moonlighting from the fairly flamboyant techno duo Mouse on Mars), doesn’t always look askance at old composing staples. Such as rhythm and melody, to borrow a formula cited in Big Audio Dynamite’s last hit song. Microstoria is more comfortable than is Oval in referencing the world outside. Echoes of church organ breathiness, sci-fi spookiness and bachelor-lounge whimsy contribute to Microstoria’s latest recording, snd (also on Thrill Jockey).

“Microstoria does focus much more on the playfulness of the overall approach,” says Popp, “the ability to keep the operating system and the parameters involved flexible by having real-time access to the parameters in the sense that there are some improvisation moments involved.”

When it is suggested that he speaks in terms of metaphors but never actually uses metaphors — never uttering something as pedestrian as “Making music on computers is like painting with sound” — Popp says, “No! I have to pin it down as precisely as possible.” Such precision requires intense self-awareness, and in the process of analyzing his own creative process, Popp reports, he has developed software which allows users to duplicate Oval’s techniques on their home computers.

Both new albums were originally released on the Frankfurt-based label Mille Plateaux, whose roster also includes Alec Empire and Christian Vogel. Diskont features two additional cuts, and Vogel contributes to a new 12-inch featuring Oval remixes by such prominent electronic musicians as Jim O’Rourke, Scanner and Werner’s Mouse on Mars. Popp appreciates the attention, but he is not quick to align himself with the burgeoning world of electronic music. He’s far too busy pondering its implications.

“The main culprit in electronic music is the term music itself,” says Popp. “The whole field of electronic music has long since reached a state of pure abstraction and music only survives as a metaphor in software.” He considers this before softening the blow. “Well, musical metaphors in software are just providing some means of orientation for people who deal with music as it was, whereas music as I would see it …” His voice trails off. “I usually don’t use the term music too much. I just say ‘audio.’”

Originally published in Pulse! magazine, December 1996.

 

What follows is the lightly edited transcript of the interview from which the above profile was drawn: Marc Weidenbaum: This interview is for an article I’m working on about the new U.S. releases from your projects Oval and Microstoria, specifically Diskont and snd, and the Oval remix project featuring Scanner, Jim O’Rourke and others. But first up, I was wondering about another remix project of yours. You contributed, under the Oval moniker, to a series of remixes of the Chicago-based band Tortoise. What made that 12″, titled “Bubble Economy”/”Learning Curve,” an Oval project, rather than a Microstoria one.

Markus Popp: [Laughs] You mean, you see the boundaries blurred between Oval and Microstoria a little?

Weidenbaum: I suppose that since it’s a remix, I understand why it might be credited to Oval.

Popp: That’s true, yeah.

Weidenbaum: And since it says Oval, when I listen to it I find myself focussing on particular elements in the remix, like surface texture and skips, things that are central to Oval’s music. But I came to wonder, then, what it would sound like if it had been a “Microstoria” remix of Tortoise? Was it your decision to call it an Oval project?

Popp: I was asked to do this as Oval, so I think I had better stick to the appointment and do this, because they obviously wanted to have the name in there, and that was about it. Of course, apart from the important fact that Microstoria is a collaboration project I do with another person.

Weidenbaum: Now, isn’t Oval a three-way collaboration?

Popp: Um, not really anymore. [Laughs] There is another person, called Sebastian Oschatz, who is credited on the records, but the third person, Frank Metzger, has dropped long before he was even listed on this record.

Weidenbaum: Yet you continue to use his name. Metzger is listed on Diskont.

Popp: Yes, we used that on the European release, which is almost two years ago, now. Let’s make that one and a half. He is listed on that even though he did not contribute to that one. We just stuck to keeping it in the original design, which included his name. Oval is just me, and Sebastian Oschatz taking care of the visual side of things. I do the music part. And Sebastian does the visuals and part of the videos.

Weidenbaum: So, how would the Tortoise single have sounded if it had been a Microstoria remix rather than an Oval remix?

Popp: The methods, the generative methods underlying the music are very different. Because Microstoria does focus much more on the playfullness of the overall approach, the ability to keep the operating system and the parameters involved flexible by having real-time access to the parameters in the sense that there are some improvisation moments involved. Whereas, Oval is a very strict and limited approach in order to make some new distinctions clear, and in a way to go beyond the music concept, the music metaphors underlying … the concepts used in the digital instruments involved. So, I’d say Microstoria would have probably been a more playful but a much less exact, a much less accurate commentary on the Tortoise material.

Weidenbaum: Was your source material the CD, or the LP, or a studio multitrack tape?

Popp: Instead of focusing on a particular track … because I do not approach my material as tracks, even as music, I just approach it as sound data basically — that is why I told them to send me as much sound data as possible. And so I got two albums’ worth of source material, of the separate tracks as they were used in the studio. So I had two DAT tapes which I put into CD-ROM, and then proceeded with that.

Weidenbaum: I read in The New York Times that you are putting out Oval software.

Popp: This is true.

Weidenbaum: Were you joking?

Popp: No, this is absolutely serious work. We have been working on this for over a year now. Weidenbaum: I don’t deny the seriousness of it, but it seems, for example, that there is a lot of layering on Diskont and Systemisch — is that the sort of thing that you’ll be able to reproduce.

Popp: Yeah, of course. Layering doesn’t involve any digital signal processing in real time at all, which is very processor-friendly, of course: just to be able to play back eight to 10 samples right out of RAM. But to make the situation clear from the start: We didn’t use and probably never will use that software for doing our own records. It is the other way around; it is to enable people to do records, in our style, of their own.

Weidenbaum: When do you see the software being released?

Popp: Hmm. I hope it will be avaialble — it depends on the overall publishing situation for those kinds of multimedia types of product, which leave the audio-only domain. And at least over here in Europe it’s pretty hard still to convince people of any musical or family-value to a product that doesn’t create music in the generic sense.

Weidenbaum: You could include Mac and IBM versions on a CD.

Popp: That wouldn’t be the problem, to create some kind of mixed media, CD-extra format, to have some additional data tracks containing the program as well as presets. But basically the whole statement goes in a different direction — to lay open the conditions under which the whole thing is happening, instead of just creating artififacts by using the involved parameters or by using the involved instruments. Instead of doing that we declare the overall approach, which of course does deal a lot with the models and the metaphors and the musical instruments involved, to declare those, to declare the actual editing — the actual process — the product. To have this as a full-scale release, instead of having just an add-on, which would come across as some “next step” type of product which is quite predictable and obvious.

Weidenbaum: Do you have any claims on the music produced by this software. If someone was to record something using this software, would they be free to release it as a record themselves, or is it just for home use?

Popp: No, they would be free to do this, of course. I think the whole copyright thing comes from the way how music has been looked upon up until now, but as soon as you enter software production or software design, things get slightly difficult, and of course copyright does become a problem. Any eventual artifacts created with that program aren’t copyrighted themselves. That wouldn’t be the question.

Weidenbaum: To draw an analogy to traditional desktop software: There are false assumptions that PhotoShop and Adobe Illustrator allow a generic environment, a tabula rasa, for graphic artists. This isn’t the case, of course. Both restrict and mediate creativity with their own idiosyncratic parameters. So, Oval software appears aware of this illusion. It wouldn’t be about making music. It’s much more in the mode of a self-generative release, which bears the Oval name and an Oval sound but not a predetermined Oval sequence of notes.

Popp: By princiapl, it is not a fully functional type of multimedia application. It is, more or less, and was from the start, a model of what we do coded into a program, instead of just having audio products, which in our point of view miss the point. Just by creating artifacts and just by being — electronic music production has gone through very substantial transitions and in the age of affordable desktop ditigal audio, many things have changed even more. We are totally surrounded by artifacts, by CDs and audio CD products which simply create the results, the predictable outcome of the synthesis or instrument architectures involved. It is just so predictable in most cases.

Weidenbaum: Are you going to sell the software, or make it available for free.

Popp: That depends on the publishing siituation, which isn’t at all resolved.

Weidenbaum: One of the things I’m fondest of in today’s computer culture is the idea of shareware. Shareware is made available free over the Internet, and one can use it for a limited amount of time, say 30 days, after which you pay the software engineer for a password. Once you have paid, you’re also given free updates to the software for a predetermined period of time — a year, for example. There is no packaging, and virtually zero marketing.

Popp: We wouldn’t even have the resources to provide customer support in that dimesnion. We see this as a continuing process, which is, of course, very different from the usual generic creative process, which is more or less a myth as I see it. I can’t make any authoritative statement about how the thing is going to be distributed as long as I don’t have any idea who is distributing it. It’s going to happen. [Laughs] I was surprised that it came across as the typical vaporware, or the typical hype type of item — because people were just picking up on the aspect of the program being created to make us as people obsolete. So, that isn’t going to be the case, of course. Someone made that up, and everyone picked up on that fact, and even though I have provided everyone with detailed information about how this thing is going to be — there are screen shots and everything — but the people just hold to the rumor.

Weidenbaum: There is a long history of pranks in popular music.

Popp: You’re right in being suspicious. But I can assure you that the whole thing is going to happen. It’s in the making, and its been in the making for a long time now, but we’re still tweaking the interface and there are still some problems with the different models of computers it’s supposed to be running on– actually that takes most of the time, testing on what models it runs and which fail and so on.

Weidenbaum: Will the Macintosh program differ from the IBM — do the different interfaces, or platforms, suggest different programs. Or do you want to be consistent over all the platforms?

Popp: It isn’t so much the question of the user interface provided with the program because those are all pretty much the same now, since Windows 95 has started to become so popular. But I think it is more the deliberate limitations the program has in itself, in its own principles, that suggest not even more than the limited way of doing music, but just one approach to music: like the approach we took when making our own music, by sampling fragments and passages out of these CDs and sampling from the CD and then structuring the music by just handling those sampled fragments from the CD.

Weidenbaum: You don’t list any instrumentation on either record, as Oval or as Microstoria. Once one gets interested in the electronic-music culture and reads around, one learns that Oval is constructed from CD parts and Micrtostoria is a more familiar computer-based home studio music system. Why don’t you list instruments? Are you leaving it up to imagination?

Popp: I think the main motivation to leave this out is to not comply to any musical framework underlying our conception, because after all it’s perceivable as music and works quite well, even in a tonal paradigm, as music. But then again it wouldn’t be of any help to list instruments because that would just add up to some creative myth or some composer-status thing going on behind the music, allegedly being the decisive point about the overall effort. Which it isn’t, of course. It is just using generic instruments or versatile instruments that in themselves go beyond the limitations of a certain model of an instrument, which is sampling, of course. But, yeah, that was the reason why we didn’t list any equipment, because we probably would have provided some means that would have distracted from the actual content, because we see up to a certain point, at least, and to a certain degree, we see the instrument as not very important, and the concept of the instrument, or a composer, or a creative individual even less important. So, we just wanted to be as unbiased as possible.

Weidenbaum: As a result, Microstoria and Oval become logos for a particular sound.

Popp: Hopefully, yes.

Weidenbaum: Oval has a counterpart career as a gallery music, owing to Sebastian Oschatz’s visuals. The music seems the perfect complement to white walls. Do you know if Oval’s music gets played in art galleries?

Popp: Yes, we also do sound installation work. And we have this sound installation called Wohnton, that means home tone. This is a sound installation we have been showing around Europe for a while, but not very often. And on some occasions, we show that in generic gallery environments, but not necessarily playing the music accompanying any other artists’ work, but rather being the only thing in the exhibition. But that was the only experience with that. The only occasion I can remember where the music was played to accompany something else was MTV, surprisingly, where the main track of Diskont was used for a film feature show — like, a movie review program where there were certain movies and commentary on the movies, and in the background there was this track.

Weidenbaum: There is less German and more English in your titles as the years go on. Is that conscious?

Popp: Yes, it is. It is just to, not to any supposedly international listening audience or not with any U.S. releases in mind. It is just to reflect the conditions under which we work, which are increasingly influenced by the World Wide Web and programming, sort of these internationalized contexts which use English as the main language.

Weidenbaum: Computer-speak: “Quit Not Save,” “Network Down.” These are some of Oval’s song titles. Micrstoria has cuts called “Compact Disc” and “edu,” like an Internet URL suffix. They aren’t language but code.

Popp: This goes to reflect exactly those conditions. Microstoria is an attempt, always, to show this accomodation process, to the user interface technology, which is why I would call Microstoria a more deliberately personal type of thing, just to create a document capturing the accomodation process to the music technology, while Oval is much more analytic and strict and, while appealing in musical result as well, the underlying principals are not as playful or not as permeable for personal viewpoint.

Weidenbaum: The Wizard of Oz tells us to pay no attention to the man behind he curtain. Where is your ego involved in this music? Say Oval becomes very popular, whereas Microstoria does not?

Popp: Of course, there has always been a strong ambition to provide the people with what is going on behind … the musical surface, in a way, of course. Oval is grounded in certain distinctions which Oval has introduced as a common ground to build up something perceivable as music but not necessarily being music in the sense as music was, with a capital M. But in a way, of course, everything Oval, and Microstoria as well, do is grounded in some very specific distinctions that can be traced back, mainly to academic sources or theories, but it doesn’t matter at all. So, when you’re listening to it, I’d say, uh, the biggest achievemnt for this music would, rather, be having it played on MTV instead of having it discussed in any academic circles, which takes place a lot over here — which is just as good, because I can get my point across in a much more detailed way, but it is just the same, basically.

Weidenbaum: A few years ago I found myself reading the business pages, because that’s where I realized all writing about computers was taking place. It’s almost become assumed now that even articles about computer culture are placed in the business pages.

Popp: I am more a reader of the dedicated magazines, so I don’t come across any dedictaed business pages too often. Generally, of course, economics in the information age is one of the most fascinating and interesting fields — like this virtualization of the overall economy, and aspects of that, as well as economic theory. Oval is grounded in a few things that all have only a very loose connection to music, because music itself is more or less a beginner’s course in digital media.

Weidenbaum: We say that if you put a hundred monkeys in front of a hundred keyboards they’ll come up with Hamlet soon enough, or at least a sonnet. This suggestion applies to digitized culture, as well. Shakespeare is simply the sum of the alphabet, and a CD is simply the sum of its digital data. What is lost in the digitization?

Popp: First of all, this is a good point at which to make a statement: I don’t see the digitization with music as a problem at all. It may be that the digitally implemented music or music metahpors in software seem to take away so much from what music was — and all those music people seem to be missing something there. On the other hand, as soon as you enter graphic user interface technology in conjunction with music you enter a totally contingent workflow in itself, which is unparalleled and has never happened before. I say that the musical model as it was is rather the problem, rather than the digital implementation. Of course, MIDI is a poor model for music itself. But on the other hand, as soon as you enter a workplace centered around some work station and software using MIDI instruments in a way that there can be an editing process through various programs, then you have a totally contingent and totally complex work flow going on that has never occured before. And in that sense, the digital implementation isn’t the problem. It doesn’t lack anything. On the contrary, I would say that standards as implemented by operating systems, like Macintosh or Windows and similar graphical user interfaces, those standards are much more influential on the musical outcome than any experimental paradigm. I would say that file formats or protocols or file-exchange standards or interchangeability between standards, all those standards are more interesting than any experimental approach. Because all this experimental approach usually grounds itself on random access to the parameters or on the composer principal, or some notion of creative individual behind the technology, or even worse the creative individual in charge of technology. And instead of makng that work for us, we just left the creative part to the contingency of the implemented parameters involved in that workflow.

Weidenbaum: We’re told that the desktop music paradigm will “democratize” the music-making process, freeing people to create.

Popp: I think there is [laughs] … hmm. Um, I can’t really relate to this type of statement. Yeah. I think that sometimes it is better to have less music around, because music is already everywhere. These are usually the things that get quoted in interviews, so I probably have made a mistake by saying this, but it is quite obvious that instead of any democratization of those processes, I think it’s much more interesting to think about the underlying principals in these musical models, themselves.

Weidenbaum: Do you work in your bedroom?

Popp: No. An office space, like with many computers and, I don’t know, it’s not a studio in how you would call it from a musical sense of the word. But it is rather an office space where the computers are used for different things as well as for music.

Weidenbaum: Are the images on the cover of snd taken at your office-studio.

Popp: No, it’s from a trade show, the biggest computer trade show. But back to the intimacy and the music, I don’t see anything in there for me. Oval as well as Microstoria see themselves as an analysis of the contemporary technical setups that are used for creating musical content.

Weidenbaum: I find Diskont, especially the track “Do While,” very beautiful — the filigrees, what one might term a bass line. But is beauty merely a byproduct?

Popp: That is design, and with all connotations that design brings with it — in all its neutral character, I would call it a design effort to do that. Because that takes away a bit of the creative genius behind something, some artifacts, and it traces the things back to analysis. Because before any design is developed, there is some evaluation process — how it’s going to sound, one tries to evaluate how it is going to come across, how it is going to be received, and I think design is a much better term than something like composition or something generically musical.

Weidenbaum: So is your studio comparable to a modern graphic design studio.

Popp: No, not at all. It is just design in the meaning of product design, of evaluating the market, evaluating the targeted groups of listeners — it’s pretty much calculated. It could have sounded a million other ways, so everything is totally predetermined in a way.

Weidenbaum: Now, “.snd” is a file format, like “.html”. The beauty of that term is it telegraphs “computer” — lacking the o, just consonants, not vowels, it’s a nice image for your music.

Popp: Is it pronounceable in English?

Weidenbaum: I don’t think it takes much imagination.

Popp: Some Americans have pronounced it “send.”

Weidenbaum: Why are pseudonyms so popular?

Popp: Don’t quote me, but I think it helps to place more records at different labels, because at least the labels I have access to have reached their capacity in the sense of not being able to release limitless amounts of records by always the same person, but as long as he goes by a different name, a couple of labels can all release records by this same person.

Weidenbaum: I won’t quote you in the article, but can I include that in the general text of the interview on a website?

Popp: Uh huh.

Weidenbaum: Brian Eno said, after working with Glasgow DJ and producer Howie B on the Passengers project with U2, that electronic musicians think of albums as magazines, whereas rock musicians think of albums as novels. Do you agree?

Popp: Yes, I think so.

Weidenbaum: So what is the equivalent of the novel for the electronic musician.

Popp: It is out of the question, because it is just an approximaization by using formats out of the textual world, which I see as inappropriate, in a way, because much of the benefit of musical technology is not to be obliged to have or even show any connection to the textual world. I can’t really relate to that format, like novel is just a different medium, a different format, just totally different. That is the main problem underlying the overall music metaphor in electronc music — the main culprit in electronic music is the term music itself, because most of the people seem to comment on the music as it was, whereas the actual conditions and scenery and the whole field of electronic music has long since reached a state of pure abstraction and music does only reside and survive as metaphor in software, which actually limits the possible outcoms. Well, musical metaphors in software are just providing some means of orientation for people who deal with music as it was, wheras music as I would see it — I usually don’t use the term music too much. I just use “audio.”

Weidenbaum: It’s interesting talking to you, because you use the term metaphor but you don’t speak in metaphors.

Popp: No! I have to pin it down as precisely as possible.

Weidenbaum: You never say something is like something else.

Popp: That’s because I am interested in — the projects I do are analysic of the current surroundings or the current contemporary musical set ups. But on the other hand, we have done the same with video as well, so we have the visual outlet of Oval, and have done our own videos.

Weidenbaum: What’s up next? There’s a genie over the Atlantic who keeps things from us. What follows Diskont and snd?

Popp: The next Oval record is going to be something like a double CD. There is very much material that hasn’t been released, that’s for sure, and I have been working on it for quite a while. And now I am convinced that it will add something very specific in a dimension that hasn’t been done before, at least by what I have been doing so far. And it adds a whole new dimension to the discourse underlying the Oval principal, which was, most of the time, about the pure structuring work, and declaring the sample fragment of the CD the actual music itself, by using already predetermined and prefabricated parts. But now the new records are much more about sound, a version of that approach applied to sound editing.

Weidenbaum: The sounds of Systemish were more familiar than those on Diskont, the sounds of CDs skipping and the like.

Popp: Diskont, anyway, was a thread that wan’t followed any further, because it was just a more to give it a try, to try to go at things from a more musical angle, but basically the new record is much more strict than Systemish even was, even though it is musically much more appealing in a sense, so I hope at least people will relate with it.I could choose from 100s of minutes of music, so I hope I have made the right choice. That’s all taking place in 97, and it’s going to be a simultaneous release; there won’t be any delay for the U.S.

Weidenbaum: And with Microstoria?

Popp: There is going to be a full-length remix album, by quote an interesting lineup, a band from New York called Ui, Stereolab, and Nicholas Collins, and Jim O’Rourke.

Weidenbaum: Will these be singles first?

Popp: No, it’s a complete remix album with nine or ten tracks. And hopefully my collaboration with Gastr del Sol is going to be released in 97 as well. I have been remixing their material, like all of their material, and I have been working out tracks, and sent them back — and now it’s their turn. They should be finished soon, so I hope this is going to be released in 97 as well. Hopefully, yes, because I really am an admirer of what they do.

Weidenbaum: Mouse and Mars is flamboyant to an extent that Oval is rarified. I can’t help but think of Microstoria as a midpoint between the two.

Popp: Can you imagine that there is a point in between? Is it a likely combination? Or is it totally unlikely? Mouse on Mars itself is divided into two people, which are really different again, and — it’s, I don’t know, they’re both really talented and they, it’s — it’s really hard to pin them down on anything. Because they are on the one hand true professionals, and on the other — it may not be a promising effort to try and pin down the musial project by the people doing it because Mouse on Mars itself involves many aspects that — it’s never too good to approach people as if they were just one. We’re working very much together on this. There is no two poles or no two opinions, or no comprimising effort. It’s just what we do.

Weidenbaum: Do you see yourself recording a record under your own name, just as Markus Popp.

Popp: No, I have been working, as I said, about two years on that Oval, and I have been working on that all on my own. And lately I have been inclined to more collaborative work — for example, I forgot to mention that there’s going to be a counter-remix project with a composer from Tokyo, called Kostov Shelle [sp?], a split album with him remixing Oval and me remixing him on side B. But this is also not coming out under the name of my — under my name.

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