Oval - Oh and O
Words by Carl Ritger
When it comes to the vaguely defined genre that is ‘experimental’ music, Markus Popp, the mastermind behind the acclaimed Oval project, has always been the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Not only is Popp perfectly capable of talking circles around the most prominent music and cultural theorists, he is responsible for developing his own software and invented the glitch genre virtually singlehandedly. His CV is extensive, boasting a healthy run of albums, art installations and collaborative projects; but roughly 9 years ago, shortly after the release of Ovalcommers, he went silent and just sort of dropped off the map. There were a bare handful of live appearances during this time, but other than that, the Oval project was presumed to have run its course. That was until this spring, when Thrill Jockey unexpectedly began promoting the release of two new Oval works: Oh and O.
Billed as a departure from his revered earlier works, these albums were intended to be a sort of ‘fresh start’ for the Oval aesthetic. Popp himself stated that he wanted this material to be received as a sort of second debut, and by all accounts he was successful in that pursuit. Indeed, to the casual observer, Oh and O have little in common with the crackling digital constructs of Popp’s past self; instead, by virtue of its decidedly organic sonic palette – this could almost be considered Oval’s “pop” period. Instead of sine tones and DSP-generated artifacts, we’re presented with guitars, drums, and in lieu of drifting ambience and shapeless noise, we’re confronted with structure, rhythm and honest to goodness melody.
Shunning digital processing and Popp’s homebrewed software applications, this work was realized utilizing an outdated PC, a couple of MIDI controllers, Ableton Live and off the shelf VSTs – a bold transition for an artist whose reputation had been built more on coding than actual musical chops. With that said, Popp has hardly abandoned the fundamental themes of his previous output: the glitch. If anything, these new works find the Oval project heading into unexplored territory within the context of glitch. Rather than ruminating on digital interference and the inherent flaws of manmade technology, Popp has opted to take a wider view, exploring the inherent – though richly patterned – chaos of nature.
But what of the music itself? Comprised of 76 tracks in total, the full digital edition of O tops out at over two hours of material, while Oh is a comparatively brief affair, spreading a mere 15 tracks across two sides of vinyl. To state the obvious, that’s a whole lot of sound to consume, but moaning about Popp’s need for an editor misses the point entirely. Presented as a library of brief vignettes that range in length from a mere 30 seconds to just shy of five minutes, these recordings form a sonic environment intended to be set in motion and lived with for awhile. Appealing to Brian Eno’s original tenets of ambient music aesthetics, O and Oh are as unobtrusive as they are rewarding to close listening, more a collection of aural mobiles shimmering in the wind than refined, self-contained “compositions,” in the conventional sense of the word. All sputtering harmonic patterns and fractured melodic lines interwoven to craft a weirdly beautiful soundscape, this is sound art that somehow manages to come off as both deeply familiar and utterly alien all at once.
Aesthetic analyses and contextual rambling aside, O and Oh represent a rare peak inside the creative evolution of one of the most vital artists of the past 15 years. Instead of cashing in and appealing to his fans with a predictable rehash of his past glories like so many other titans of the scene, Popp went back to the drawing board and recast Oval in order to explore new terrains. In the process, he’s managed to simultaneously appease his needs as an artist and keep things fresh for his audience…and it sounds damn nice, to boot.