The Disquiet.com “MP3 Discussion Group” returns with its first full-length-recording consideration since last December, when the subject was the Monolake record Silence (see: disquiet.com). The latest object of our collective, occasionally obsessive, close listening is the forthcoming EP Oh by Oval, aka Markus Popp, who is making a return to commercial recording for the first time in almost a decade (not counting one record as part of the duo So). Popp/Oval is synonymous with so-called “glitch” music, in which the errors inherent in digital technology become part of the composition process. Oh marks a new direction for Oval, with its inclusion of recognizable instrumentation. The EP will be released later this month, on June 15, by the label Thrill Jockey.
Participating with me in this week’s MP3 Discussion Group are:
Colin Buttimer: “I publish Hard Format, a website dedicated to the sublime in music design. My writing archive and photography is at eleventhvolume.com.”
Julian Lewis: “I write much of Lend Me Your Ears, a UK/Spain-based MP3 blog that appreciates less obvious music.”
Alan Lockett: “I write music reviews and commentary on ambient/drone, the more adventurous end of techno/house, post-dub, and IDM. Based in Bristol, epicentre of the Dub-zone in the Wild West of England, I can mainly be read on igloomag.com and furthernoise.org.”
Joshua Maremont: “I record as Thermal and pursue my musical and other obsessions in San Francisco.”
The conversation will play out in this post’s comments section, below.
A little note on the MP3 Discussion Group format: This is by no means a closed conversation, so do feel free to join in. The initial posts by participants were all written before they had an opportunity to see each other’s take on the EP in question, but after that it’s intended to play out in real time.
More on Oval’s EP Oh at the website of its releasing label, thrilljockey.com.
22 thoughts on “MP3 Discussion Group: Oval’s ‘Oh’”
I hadn’t listened to Oval in years so this discussion is a great excuse to revisit the work. Oval’s music was ready-made for discourse about the onset of the digital world and the potential for its symbolic disruption by the glitch. There could be no more appropriate label than Mille Plateaux to host Oval’s initial releases. There was something really exciting about Systemisch and 94diskont. You could hear them as thrillingly pure sound or wonderfully (im)pure distortion, but it was much more than that. Clearly heavily layered and manipulated, it wasn’t only the sound of machines, but of Markus Popp, Sebastian Oschatz and Frank Metzger as sonic auteurs conjuring long stretches of ultra-contemporary beatitude (the elegy of Ovalprocess 9 for example). Popp himself always looked delightfully insouciant – even his eyebrows seemed to question whether you the viewer could ever deliver anything as impressive as 94diskont’s 24 minute Do While. There was undoubtedly humour there too with track titles like Oval Office, Catchy DAAD and Gabba Nation.
The last Oval album was a decade ago (there was also Microstoria’s Invisible Architecture #3 in 2002 and So, Popp’s collaboration with vocalist Eriko Toyoda in 2003). In hindsight, it’s unsurprising that he would fall silent. Oval’s music was so bound up in the deliberate, manipulated disfunction of the CD. Now we’re in a time where personal, physical media are dying, subsumed by the virtual – though hard drives persist and fail, even in the cloud. (Appropriately, the first track of the new Oval suddenly disappeared from my hard drive after a couple of listens, leaving just a little exclamation mark beside the track title in iTunes). Still, Oval’s music seemed absolutely (im)perfect from the outset, where else could it really go?
Now we have the (partial) answer. Here are 15 tracks from a promised 70. The overall sound is much more synthetic than Oval v.1. It’s lighter and thinner – as though it might float away at any moment. At times it’s very spare and seems much more performed – yes the drums are the most obvious anchor here. Any creative is looking for a method, a process that will enable her to get meaningful work done. Whatever happened in the last 10 years, Popp appears to have developed a new method, taken a new step. I don’t feel able to judge at this point how convincing that step is from this 25 minute multi-form section, but I’m certainly intrigued.
Markus Popp’s first Oval offering after nearly a decade is from the outset clearly marked as a departure from the deconstruction derbies he made his name with. Popp plays the musician card, appearing to ditch his signature style, but in fact stops some way short of throwing the digital baby out with the microsampling bathwater. ‘Oh’ is meticulously crafted to sound wild and free – a sort of constructed live band sound with an Ersatz improv aspect. What sounds like Real Guitar and Real Drums kick up a deal of rattle and strum rather than click and hum.
Seems MP was inclined to shift the process paradigm and go against method type, using generic software and plug-ins rather than his own bespoke apps, plus a cheap PC (look, Ma, no Macs!) and playing all the (virtual) instruments manually, getting hands dirty with scales, and harmonics, and melody and other such rudiments. Here’s Popp: “after years of dissection and denial I wanted to try making ‘real’ music for a change.”
In a sense, though, the ‘trompe l’oreille’ nature of this new Oval is apparent; the Real is not that much of a deal, and the fuss some have made about the means of production is just that. It seems to me that binaries like programmed-played, virtual instrument-real instrument, etc. have become increasingly otiose. Just as in the case of a digitally generated photo that faithfully reproduces the look of a 60s polaroid, the average punter will not fixate on how it came into being, but how it looks. So, it’s ultimately the ‘how-it-soundsness’ that should be the focus, since Popp has thrown away his cultural theory and gone (virtual) native.
Oh, yeah. How does it sound? Mmm, yes… more on that another time …don’t want to fire off all my ammo in the opening salvo, do I?
I have to admit to a certain degree of unease at the prospect of having to discuss a new Oval album. I was an enthusiastic fan of this project as a trio, finding Systemisch and especially 94discont to be beautifully distressed digital outgrowths of the electronic music of Germany in the 1970s, with the contributions of Pyrolator and Der Plan to the earlier Wohnton placing the group even more clearly on a timeline with krautrock and NDW in the rearview mirror (I can almost see those four faces on the cover of Autobahn in the glass). These three albums, while flecked with the detritus of digital error, were nevertheless quite musical and listenable, even touching upon pop, yet Popp alone seemed increasingly concerned with software in the dreary later 1990s, at a time when his followers discovered they could mask a lack of inspiration with Ovalized effects and quotations from French philosophers. The fact that of the post-trio albums only Dok, the collaboration with Christophe Charles, worked for me in any lasting way was telling: Popp had a wonderful way with technology and sound, but he seemed to need other musicians to process; when Ovalprocess was all, I was lost, happier to collect the various unreleased long-form trio pieces posted by Metzger and Oschatz. A deep breath then before listening. String instruments? Drums? Melodies? My first reaction is one of surprise at hearing elements seemingly banished since the days of Wohnton now back at center stage, but then too I notice that the late-1990s feeling of enduring a cleverly executed software demonstration is gone. Now that electronic music has thoroughly absorbed the sorts of glitchery he introduced on Systemisch, Popp seems less troubled with putting his sounds through their patented Ovalized paces and instead appears to be enjoying the lighthearted process of making music. If I had first heard Oh unannounced in the background, Oval would have never occurred to me as having been its author; I would have figured it for something perhaps on a Japanese label like Plop or Spekk or Flau, its delicate, even pretty, quality distancing it from the more formal exercises of the later Oval records. I find it interesting that this record was done on a cheap computer and commercially available software; now that anyone can assemble the tools required to make this sort of music, it is only task of making the music that remains. After a few listens, Oh seems just a glimpse of what Popp the music-maker might be cooking up as a dreamer of dreams. I do hope he dreams up a few more Heys.
So much to love in Oh (& O too, what little of its allegedly 70-track grandiloquence — “Ah!” — has come my way) that its lovability is as good a jumping-off point as any. I don’t expect this year to bring a more exuberantly joyous album, one more obviously giddy with the thrill of wielding its almost flamboyantly pruned palette of thwacks, crashes, trills, tones & squirts.
Those thwacks & crashes are Oh’s bullseye, its inner circle. It is remorselessly percussive. Even beatless vamps like the early kastell — sediment — featurette sequence are squealingly, pingily physical (enhanced by such ravishing, Monolake-class sound it wouldn’t be surprising to find Rashid Becker was involved…).
So it’s a total departure from glitchy ur-Oval? Hardly –- although less revolutionary in his new guise, Popp remains as impeccably post-modern as ever. But where his earlier version insisted on lifting the veil, the happy accident turned working method of his glitches highlighting all of the partiality & chance of the music’s construction, to these ears Oval’s return is all about jouissance.
Oh is deeply playful. Not just in that little yelp half-hidden in locria or, more obviously, in the concluding happyend 2 (or, to cast the net wider, in the all but perfect poptronica of Ah!’s faux-naif melodies). But fundamentally as well.
It is a ‘true’ play of surfaces – glistening, showy (hey’s drums! grrr’s ratcheting!), shameless.
This too is a deep connection with Oval’s past. That’s the point, I suppose. Throughout his long trip from pioneer to connoisseur Popp has been more than anything a master manipulator of texture. He still is.
Oval’s Oh follows a unique absence in music. Markus Popp (who records as Oval) has made so much music out of the broken elements of digital sound, it was not as if he had disappeared from record stores for this past decade, so much as if his process had gotten stuck on silence and then just lingered there, tantalizingly, an extended pause.
The EP Oh comes out of nowhere, not just because it breaks that silence, but because of how it does so. The record is made of something previously not part of the Oval sound spectrum, which is to say, it sounds like what a much bnroader range of listeners would actually comfortably call “music” — Oh has drums and guitar, and melodies, and a sense of something approximating song structure. It sounds, in brief, like a band. It sounds like a band practicing complicated music.
This all might be called “post-rock,” if we were going to linger on terminology instead of on the EP, and if so much time hadn’t passed since the term’s introduction that so much rock at this point weren’t already, in one way or another, post-rock.
You can listen to Oh for the glitch, listen to it for a sense of the fractured beauty of Oval’s earlier music. It’s a demanding exercise, since there is so much else going on here. You can convince yourself that Popp has simply moved from micro to macro, that he is merely breaking up music into much larger chunks than he was previously. Perhaps that is “all” that he is doing, but I suspect not.
I’m very much looking forward to this conversation. Thanks to everyone who has agreed to join in.
Colin’s right, of course – performance is the essence of the new Oval. I suppose that’s what I was getting at with the idea of its playfulness, its jouissance.
Not that the glitchy version wasn’t a form of performance too. But the striking difference between them – which we’re all marvelling/puzzling/fretting over – is one of choice.
Glitch is a celebration of relinquishing choice. Not just making room for chance & randomness, but foregrounding it & making something beautiful or at least compelling out of it.
Now Popp has taken back much of the decision-making in his music. Or, alternatively, has started wanting to put on display a kind of rhetoric of composition.
Before what was displayed was if not anti-composition then certainly a space in which the accidental is the deliberate’s equal. No longer: Oh feels very proudly ‘composed’ (though no doubt all sorts of happy accidents feed into it, that clangy, pinging palette in particular…).
There’s a connection here to Marc’s question of whether Popp is merely moving “from micro to macro…breaking up music into much larger chunks than he was previously”. As I read it, the suspicion that something more is going on is well founded.
That something more is Popp’s romantic/heroic turn – or rather a gesture in that direction. It’s not so much a matter of macro versus micro or real against artifice as it is composer/manipulator/performer versus system.
Oh’s not the apparently disembodied product of a system in the way that 94diskont or, er, Systemisch are. I’m reluctant to say it’s fully composed & performed (this is looping, computed electronica, after all). But its tropes all lie in that direction.
Why? Joshua has put an acute finger on it, surely: “electronic music has thoroughly absorbed the sorts of glitchery he introduced…”
So the logical next move is deglitching – albeit that compositional & even improvisational tics (Oh’s pruned-back palette has several – like that snappy quasi-percussive ping that many of the EP’s later tracks are built around) are a kind of glitch too…
Apologies for carelessness – reference in my first comment should have been to Rashad Becker (http://clunk.de/, http://www.dubplates-mastering.com/ & http://www.monolake.de/interviews/mastering.html).
Some initial thoughts. 1. I think Colin’s really on to something. Oval’s initial work was so much about the CD, that its/his long silence can be seen/heard to coincide not so much with the CD’s decline, but the rise of digital music. 2. Alan’s “trompe-l’Å“il” comment makes me wonder if we are supposed to hear a band, or to appreciate that these are band sounds — interesting to me that the music never sounds “impossible”; that Popp never tries to do exaggerated things that a band couldn’t play, never seems to pull a Conlon Nancarrow on the listener (not to suggest that Nancarrow was ever pulling anything over on anyone). 3. Joshua is fully correct (as Julian pointed out) that so much of the end result of Oval’s glitch work is now commonplace — not the effort he/they put into it, not the thought that it represented, but the end-result sound. I was fascinated to hear what he’d do next, as so many groups and musicians from the mid- to late 1990s no longer excite me the way they did then. (I’m thinking of Photek, and Cold Cut, and increasingly Autechre.) 4. I like this idea of “deglitching” that Julian mentioned; I need to gnaw on that a little more.
But Alan, how does it sound? I wonder if your closing lacuna was itself an answer, for in my own case I find myself at a loss. Yes, it bears little resemblance to the Popp-only Oval records directly preceding it and only slightly more to what I am tempted to call the classic sound of Oval as a trio; yes, there are instruments plucked and others struck. But I wonder if this is the sort of trick of the eye whereby one sees something until one stares too closely. I wonder, if what Julian calls deglitching is actually a reverse-engineering of the Oval method of making music; whereas 94diskont made an beautiful ambient record – and I still feel one very much connected to the German analog electronic music of two decades earlier – out of noises, which became inescapable upon a closer, more analytical listen, Oh seems at close range to be a mosaic of musical elements yet at a distance dissolves into the air. It is gone instantly after listening, whereas a decade and a half after I ended a party by putting the first Microstoria album on repeat play in my living room I still remember how the thing felt, how it took over the space, how the underlying Deleuzian claims of its label were rendered irrelevant by its visceral musicality – an album as place, as world. Yet here I keep reaching out for a word and finding insubstantial in my hand. By which I do not mean that Oh is fluffy or empty, but rather that its light plays over a delightful and impressively detailed membrane so delicate as to vanish when viewed in cross-section, so fragile as to dissolve when touched. And while Hey emerges fully formed, a kicking and snaring statement of intent strung through with a relentless dynamic narrative, the remaining tracks together seem a technique in search of that thread, little noises peeking out and then vanishing like shy rodents before making their way out for any kind of serious run on the exercise wheel. For Hey has the drama and drive of an epic, while the miniatures following it seem to paw playfully at ideas before batting them back beneath the sofa. Oh is after all an EP, and perhaps it is the sort of EP with a single A-side track and a few more experimental B-sides, yet the promise of a 70-track double album suggests that these slivers are the template for the long-form work to come. But Popp as a singer of epics – this is new, and of this I want more than simply Hey.
Guess what I mean by ‘deglitching’ is Popp dropping the random elements (scratches, bumps, blips) that were so foregrounded in his earlier music – or at least no longer making them such an explicit part of it.
[I seem to remember stories of him &/or other original Ovaloids brutalising CDs to generate new glitches back in the day…]
But when the absorption of Oval’s insight that any sound is a potential pulse/organising point is so profound – to take up Joshua’s point again – that commercial genres like R&B/pop are sourcing beats from improbable clanks (though hip hop always did, of course, so lineage in this is quite complex) it seems natural enough for Popp to turn the other way.
From the austere, randomised play of tones & glitch (written listening to ‘Oval remixes Oval’ & ‘SDII Audio Template’ from the ‘Double Articulation’ & ‘Folds & Rhizomes for Gilles Deleuze’ compilations) to the exuberant, composed play of ‘Oh’ (& ‘O’)’s thwacks & crashes…
Not that new Oval sounds much like a band to these ears! Despite the exuberance (especially the openers & ‘Ah!’) I hear it as pure, solitary laptoptronica.
Oops. Busted. That was just a rhetorical device for non-commitment, which you clearly saw through, Joshua. I was trying to find something more elaborate and critically articulated to say other than ‘I don’t like it’, and bought meself some time to compose thoughts. Thoughts have since been unamenable to composure… a bit like the feeling of ‘Oh’ that you (Joshua) identifed. ‘This is Popp’ (geddit) That dissipative, errant sense is one I experienced, and, rather than a playful come-on, an affair of seductive jouissance such as Julian has seen in it, I guess I find it simply a tease. Popp has Eaten Himself (boom boom).
Anyway, as far as how-it-sounds of it goes, I’m not actually very enamoured of its textures and timbres. I’m more of a low-end man… more drawn to the long languorous lull than the short sharp staccato shock. Have been mainlining mainly drone and bass gear last few months and this feels featherlight, insubstantial. Too bright and hyperactive, like some sort of postmodern puppydog playroom p… p… er… pussyfooting.
OK, I’m not saying that it’s ‘bad’, in any absolute sense. Its’ all relative (as the Mormon might say when asked about his Lovelife). To adapt a phrase used by a lover when seeking to explain an inexplicable reason for disaffection setting in: It’s not ‘Oh’, it’s Me!
Alan, even if you’re not open-mouthedly oh-oh-oh-ing over ‘Oh’, I like to think that your punfest (culminating in the fabulous “It’s not ‘Oh’, it’s Me!”) is in some way channelling its jouissance!
Predictably enthusiastic, but still interesting contribution from Boomkat at http://boomkat.com/vinyl/309843-oval-oh
“Oval still sounds like Oval, it’s just that on Oh it all seems to be happening in real-time, and on conventional instruments…perhaps the clue is in the CÃ©leste Boursier-Mougenot sleeve art: for much of the time (particularly during the shorter tracks on the B-side) it does actually sound like you might be listening to a number of small birds pecking at a Les Paul. “
I like Marc’s description in (5) of Oh sounding “… like a band practicing complicated music.” I hadn’t thought of this music in those terms, but it suddenly opens up thought of other musical practices such as Supersilent – those drums remind me at times of the deliciously asymmetrical work of Supersilent’s (sadly now departed) drummer Jarle Vespestad. At other times on, say, Kastell, I’m very much reminded of Autechre.
Regarding the sound of Oh, (Joshua 9.) and given its performative nature, it’s striking how synthetic it sounds to me. I like that aspect very much, it’s playful and confounds expectations. It makes me think of Miles Davis’ use of wah and the way at times in his ’70s music, it wasn’t clear who was playing what. Articulating and exploring a middle ground between live performance and the digital is an interesting area. I don’t know whether they set out to do so, but for some reason I’m think of Radian. There’s also Jaki Liebezeit’s oft-quoted desire to play like a drum machine. Who else is doing that?
Alan’s reference (11.) to low end usefully highlights the upper-register nature of Oh’s sound. Exploration of this airier region (also hinted at by Joshua) is relatively rare in my experience. One group that has consistently done so though is snd. I find such insubstantiality liberating and literally en-light-ening.
I’m interested by Julian’s assertion (6.) that “Oh feels very proudly ‘composed’”. I hear it as part composition, part improvisation/chance and part assemblage, but that may be because of the short nature of the tracks. Like Joshua (9.) I’m struggling a bit with the sequencing which doesn’t seem to quite cohere. If the 70 tracks of the upcoming album are all this short I wonder what that will be like – tiresome/too much or ultimately immersive/meditative? Will Hey include Oh or stand separately?
Julian also writes “So the logical next move is deglitching.”, but I’m not sure I go along with such a binary approach to method. However, I’m fascinated by the idea of oeuvre and artistic signature, especially as that develops over an artist’s lifetime. Having explored digital malfunction, must Popp’s subsequent work always work/be judged in relation to that?
I’m finding Oh to be really delightful: kastell 4, locria, the reflectiveness of nonfiction. There’s real feeling at times here. The range of track titles imply a diversity of subjects and a playfulness – hey, hmmmm, grrr, oh! The brevity of these tracks may have wrongfooted me, they’re beautiful miniatures. Do they add up to a greater whole?
Marc – could you resend me the first track? I don’t know why computer took exception to it, but I’d like to hear it again, thanks.
Julian, your mention of the sleeve art, which I must admit was so small on my player software that it took me a few different viewings of several versions to realize exactly what had been depicted, brings up another issue for me, in that while I am not at all convinced that the guitars on Oh were played with beaks or talons I do miss something behind the plectrum. I keep thinking of Fenton’s Pup album on Plop, on which Dan Abrams broke from the abstractions of Shuttle358 with the unmistakable sound of guitars, but also in mind is the remixed version of what I think it safe to call the now classic Endless Summer by Fennesz, which I just reprocured for myself over the weekend. These albums may use the guitar as fodder for the computer, but in both instances there is an audible deliberateness to the playing, whereas on Oh I hear happy accidents transmuted into riffs through skilled sampling, editing, and arranging. Of course, this is my bias as a guitarist working with computers, but then again perhaps the happy accident, the transformation of noise and error into music, is the point of Oval old and new.
@Joshua: I’m not so sure I’d describe this as “disolving.” I hear songs, fragments, riffts; the drum patterns stick with me, and I find myself looking forward to them as they come ’round again. I do realize you don’t mean it as a criticism, and I do think it has a kind of formlessness, though less so than, say, a standard act of European free improvisation.
@Colin: I’m re-sending that first track now (apologies for the delay). It’s one of my favorites. You note the semi-improvisatory sense, and I do wonder about that — of course, there are various types of composed, and there’s always the chance with Popp that he developed a system, or a process, that produced these sounds.
@Joshua: I’m guessing you were being playful, but in case not, the cover art is a still from a work by the French artist CÃ©leste Boursier-Mougenot. I confirmed with the label that none of Boursier-Mougenot’s bird-playing-guitar music actually appears on Oh. I kind of like the idea that Popp is commenting on his relative ability with the guitar. It may also speak, as you suggest, to “happy accidents” (aka chance operations amid systems).
@Alan: Sorry you’re not digging it too much.
Julian, so you’re suggesting a pomo tweak on John McLaughlin’s once-notorious ‘God plays through me’ claims. Popp may well be being channelled unconciously, but for me his pluckings are for the birds, who by the way, may make these strings sing but somehow their aleatory ain’t got that swing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFV-7gYw8JQ As George Michael might have had it in a dream collaboration with John Cage, “Hey, that’s too indeterminate for me, baby”. (And they got nothin’ on this cat’s purposive potency: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZ860P4iTaM)
Anyway, Marc, thanks for involving me in the interchange, and sorry for bringing so little to the table. I may not have Ooh-ed and Aah-ed, but I’ve enjoyed everyone’s Oh-pinings.
I don’t know but it seems to me that whenever anyone gets bored of electronics, or stops being inquisitive, they hoof it back to the tried and true avenues of conventional instrumentation used to play compositions that stretch the definitions of free jazz like fat pants after a birthday party at Country Buffet.
Oh (Oh?) starts out good, so much differently than what I expected from Popp. But soon it groans to a halt under the weight of pretentious jangling of guitars run through electronics and MAX/MSP. Minute and a half noodlings of bad guitar playing run through DSP banks does not great art nor jouissance make.
Is it a wonder than F.X. Randomiz hasn’t released anything in ages? The trend for fellow Teutonic electronicists to head sell their 303’s for guitars may be something he’s afraid might be spreading.
Perhaps ‘Oh’ stands for ‘0’?
Thanks for your opinions. Oh isn’t released on CD yet, am I right?
Has no-one here mentioned Fred Frith? This work (the snippets at least) remind me very much of the daring work of this great avant guitarist and composer. Particularly his “Guitar Solos” album.
Ah! video :)