Oval O

[Thrill Jockey; 2010]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: glitch, clicks ’n’ cuts, electronica, ambient, gamelan, electroacoustic
Others: Aphex Twin, Autechre, Björk, Kid 606, So, Microstoria, Mouse On Mars, Monolake

The buzz, already receding back into subaudible hiss, that surrounds the not-so-recent release of O — hot on the heels of the Oh! EP, but preceded by almost a decade of dead air — is that Markus Popp’s silence masks a busy period of reinvention. The story goes that Popp (a.k.a. Oval) has been humming away in his studio in order to satisfy a desire for the “new material to be a radical departure from his old concepts and methods on all levels,” to effect a second “debut,” a desire to be reborn as the “musician that was hiding behind the technician.” Back in the 90s, the discourse says, in defining the genre of electronic music known as clicks & cuts or glitch, Popp as musician was secondary to “the process.” With O, “the musician in Oval” is the “primary creative element.” Now, his “evolution as a musician can be clearly followed.” But, really, whose evolution? Popp’s evolution or the evolution of the homonculus musician ‘inside’ Popp that has, ostensibly, been liberated by some turn to ‘musical’ origins on Popp’s behalf? As is so often the case, and I lament the fact that this scenario has to be rehearsed yet again, it is misleading to think of concepts such as musician/music/musicianship/process or, lest we forget, music/noise as simple dualisms. Surely all the critico-theoretical fuss that, like so much misplaced rave haze, surrounds (some would say solely defines) Popp’s input-output over the last couple decades has at least helped blow further open those rusty ideas?

Edgard Varèse once said that music is organized sound. Popp speaks to this when he says, concision and lucidity breaking into his usually torturous interviews, “The main culprit in electronic music is the term music itself,” that the concept ‘music’ in the context of electronic (re)production survives only “as a metaphor in software.” Music as metaphor, metaphor as the use of a word in some new sense to remedy a gap in the vocabulary. To wit, from the horse’s mouth, “I usually don’t use the term music too much. I just say ‘audio.’” Okay, perhaps this remains torturous, but my point is that it is tiresome to return to a fully-fleshed sense of the concept ‘music,’ especially in light of the questions that Oval’s output has repeatedly raised over the grave of ‘music,’ especially in order to fly the triumphal flag of a recuperated ‘music’ over this new release, especially because this new release is a rehearsal, in new clothes, of Oval’s relentless quest to think the limit of ‘music.’ Can I drop the quotes now? Probably not.

Whether music has or deserves to be interred and ash-scattered is irrelevent. To push the envelope of what we mean by and practice in the name of music is not, it should be stressed, to discount the importance of the limits of music. After Eno, Popp has described his (or should I say Oval’s) music as generative, a sound-system whereby a set of initial conditions evolve as a dynamic, autopoetic process. This leaves the question of where the ‘hand of God,’ the author of these initial conditions, leaves off meddling and lets the musical creation stand as an independent entity. This processual approach, though, is more or less present in any system of ‘human’ creation; consider musicians (and their instruments) as complex and interacting systems and you can see the common framework, the useful limit of the dualisms listed above, and how an Oval process of sound production speaks frequently gorgeous volumes to this problem.

Because of course the limit has practical application. Popp’s most processual, ‘hands-off’ work has been undertaken under the Oval moniker, an approach he describes as “very strict and limited.” This is in comparison to his collaborative output as Microstoria, for example, where access to the evolving sonic system was permissible. Always in a sense a plunderer and remixer, an exemplar of the natural currents of appropriation, manipulation, and reproduction that inform all creative work, Popp compares a hypothetical remix of a Tortoise track by Microstoria to an actual one by Oval. Microstoria’s would be instilled with a sense of playfulness, he says, while an Oval remix is to be considered “accurate commentary.”

As ‘accurate commentary’ on the conceptual problematic of ‘music,’ it is the supplementarity of Oval’s work that lends itself to theory, and thus perhaps to a certain aridity, which desert is the space left when a notional music evacuated the building. Working at the limit, incorporating the breaking-point limit of technology, Oval’s music, like much experimental work, has always been remora-like on the comfortable body of music, and perhaps it is his present turn toward a more tangible and familiar set of limits that has resulted in a scrabble to, mistakenly, identify his ‘new direction’ with, simultaneously, a new direction and a return to origins — to music, that is: that full and pregnant signifier.

Rather, it seems to me that Oval has never abandoned his ‘origins,’ even as he has, from the beginning, thrown teleology against the wall, and even as his origins find their place in a continuity that has ceaselessly coaxed ‘music’ and ‘musicianship’ away from familiar moorings. For O, Popp uses an off-the-shelf laptop equipped with common audio software rather than the custom software Popp himself wrote for past Oval processes. This in itself seems like an inversion of his old practice, where Popp was the author of a piece’s initial condition: its software. Here, Popp is using a text written by someone else. As far as I could tell at his recent gig at Cafe Oto, London, he was using Ableton Live, a program that, incidentally, was co-created by fellow laptop and electronic music luminary Robert Henke of Monolake.

Using a standard computer and standard software with a standard suite of plugins is not, as some have characterized it, a demonstration of low-tech atavism by a former ‘frontiersman’ in the field of electronic music. Rather, such an ostensible limit demonstrates the ubiquity of the incredibly hi-tech. What seems to have gone largely unrecognized is that adopting this limitation continues Popp’s concern with the limits of digital media, continues his excavation of the lines of resistance in systems until they metamorphose. The limitations of ready-to-hand technology were always at stake in Popp’s practice. The specific (and exaggerated) limit attributed to the use of a standard PC/software/plugin suite has been attributed uncritically. To say that Popp spent years working to “push the instrument,” that is the hard-/software at his disposal, “beyond its normal sonic boundaries” is at once to ascribe a set of normative constraints on sound as articulated by technology and, moreover, to avoid the fact that Popp’s practice of wringing sound out of self-programmed software, a set of rules constrained by technological possibility, has simply been transposed to a practice of wringing sound out of Ableton Live, another set of rules written by another which Popp has redeployed, rewritten even, within the horizon of the ready-to-hand technological possibility that presents itself to him. It is true that Popp played some of the instruments himself, but this is to say that whereas the old Oval leaned heavily on ‘found sound’ and a certain surrender to the impetus of musique concrète, Popp has here found the source material for his intricate compositions flowing from his fingertips rather than thrown up by the stuttering, liminal legibility of an ink-scrawled compact disc. Once again, the limits of music and musicianship are foregrounded in Popp’s relentless pursuit of the horizon afforded by a particular disposition of limits: the limits of imagination, of technology, of process, the organic and the inorganic.

Typically, and I would love to claim rhetorically, I’ve managed to attach a whopping remora of piecemeal theory on to the silent, absent body of the elephant in the room. “What’s that?” you say. Oh, right, the ‘music.’ Someone relevant once said, “I’ve got nothing to say, and I’m saying it” — and to be honest, the theoretical knee-jerk is what inevitably rises up in my throat, in a grotesque feat of anatomical mixed-metaphor, after an extended listen to Oval’s O, or any Oval album for that matter.

Some footnotes to the critical footnote, then. An extended listen it certainly is, with 70 tracks arranged over two CDs, cleverly structured to alternate drum-laden tracks (Drums! What presence!) with non-drum-laden tracks on the first disc, followed by a second disc of sub-one-and-a-half-minute tracks that Popp has referred to as an extended set of ringtones. One ear is thus tuned to the popular tropes of mass media communications and their evil, possibly fictional, twin, the foreshortened attention span. Whether characterized as pitiful dwarves or romantically transient vapors, they are beautiful. My favorite is disc two’s “Koral,” a chorale of stepped tones and suspended symmetry. If I had a better mobile it would be my ring and txt and alarm sound of choice. The choice of a generation, probably no. Therein lies yet another critical direction.

Lest I digress. In situ and as per usual, the opacity of a laptop performance results in the transparency of the musician that has been touted as recently emergent in the long dormant maestro of the inorganic. It enacts the criticism of an easy identification of musician with music and so forth, but even as Popp gurns, sweats, and chews his way through some variations on O in the key of board, all I can think about is his bad shirt and the timeless stretch I’ve spent trying to parse his performative gestures against the sounds — really quite beautiful, sometimes abrasive, always engaging sounds that I’m hearing. I’m having trouble not listening to the gawping crowd ruminate (even snigger) out loud amidst the glitch and interstices of the performance (save it for the blogs, people), and I’m thinking that I’d be much, much happier listening to this really quite beguiling album between two high-performance headphones at home with a copy of Wire and a box of Kleenex ready at hand.

The beauty of Oval is not in performance, I conclude. Performance seems sidelined, and so the newborn musician is thrown out of the window with the subprofound critical bathwater. The beauty of Oval lies in the abandonment of easy gestures in the name of music, in whatever domain. For instance, I’m sure that neither Popp, his own critic, nor other critics (myself included), hovering at the margins of Oval, can talk us out of the beauty described by the forms sound can assume. Whom do I thank for this pleasure?

Links: Oval - Thrill Jockey

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