Markus Popp is an iconic German musician best known for his work as ‘Oval’. With 14 albums, 4 EP’s and 2 compilations under his belt, it was his use of digitally manipulated sample based music that at the time was commonly referred to as ‘glitch’ or ‘clicks and cuts’ that cemented his reputation as a sonic innovator. With releases on Mille Plateaux, Thrill Jockey, Sub Rosa, and Shitkatapult, he was a winner of the Prix Ars Technica award for OvalProcess software and also the 2013 Qwartz award. Recently he self released his new album VOA on bandcamp. Innerversitysound caught up with Markus Popp at a Melbourne cafe whilst he was in town performing as part of Melbourne Music week.
Innerversitysound: Early Markus Popp, before Oval, how did you arrive at this space? Where you an early trained musician?
Markus Popp: No not at all. I was not even a very demanding listener. I was living in the German countryside. A tiny spot in the middle of nowhere. 2000 people, no supermarket, no post office, no gas station kind of village. And I am not even sure there are many people in that place that play a musical instrument. My father and my grandfather were quite accomplished piano players, but apart from that there has never been an inclination in me to get into that. For example my grandfather was this piano player in a tiny movie theatre for silent movies. He was playing the soundtrack to silent movies, on the spot, almost improvised. So I always liked that and I used his piano stool for many, many years as my desk chair but still it didn’ translate, or lead me into a musical career at first. And I certainly wasn’ interested in these piano lessons my parents were offering. So I was only interested into soccer and reading, that’s all.
So fast forward to 1992 and suddenly it had become just possible, this world was within reach to be doing music by other means than normal instruments. I didn’ have to be in a band to do that new type of music. I didn’ have to be this synthesiser guy which also had this not so great connotations with me. As a listener I never liked synthesiser music in particular. To me, a piano solo recording was always the most promising starting point for a rewarding musical experience as a listener. I like acoustic instruments, I like this kind of micro dynamics, I like the nuance and details that, in my opinion, were just obviously lacking from synthesisers at that time. Today synthesiser is a very broad term and there are different approaches to sound synthesis. Even the synthesiser, with a capital “S’, it comes as its own self-contained instrument, virtual or in the form of hardware is not so much the same anymore so there are so many different architectures for a synthesiser. At the time the synthesiser was more like an instrument from this experimental field of music which I, as a listener was never interested in. Which is kind of ironic, especially in the early days, but still until today most people would describe my music as experimental, but I, more or less, saw it as a version of pop. Now days when I go to see music somewhere, it’s kind of like a band on a tiny stage or something.
I am very much into music played by real people and not quantised, pattern based music. At the time, in the mid-nineties, there were just a few directions you could take. Starting with electronic music in those days was not the easiest thing in itself, which direction to take musically seemed even more complicated. On the one hand you had the experimental synthesiser guys and on the other side was this club dance music explosion happening all around me in Berlin. I really didn’ feel attracted to any camp; I was just trying to do my own thing. That was because I was after essentially songs. I didn’ want to contribute to any kind of electronic music discourse or a different kind of dance music. I wanted to do something else, more like songs. It’s just that these songs were composed from very unlikely parts, the building blocks I was using for this music were very irregular.
The point I wanted to prove was that this could be emotional coherent music. You might just have to adjust your definition of music or your understanding of a song to be able to appreciate it. I clearly saw myself more on the side of, not a songwriter, but someone who is making these songs from the most unlikely parts. And these most unlikely parts were these manipulated CD’s, sampled into the hardware sampler and my kit at that time was very modest. In fact out of sheer necessity I had to go for this approach to use these samples because I didn’ own a synthesiser. And didn’ want to. I didn’ have a very capable hardware sampler with a lot of sampling memory. So I had 51 seconds of sampling time at my disposal, mono, so if I wanted to go for stereo sampling it would be 33 seconds. It was only 12bit and the sampling rate was low, 33 point something KHZ, a really odd kind of rate. So out of sheer necessity I had to go for loops and how to do loops without relying on pre-configured stuff and without using a synthesiser. I wanted to go for something that is new and surprising, especially to myself, because I didn’ want to be the generic musician that does the typical stuff and always gets the same answers to the same interview questions. I wanted to be some guy who was just new for the sake of it. I didn’ even plan a career, of any sort, it was like ok we have this music and this and this, so I cannot just do what everyone else has done I have to. There needs to be a reason why I am doing this.
Innerversitysound: Oval started as a bandâ€¦
Markus Popp: No, more like a group of friends who were meeting at my parents’ house and we were just playing around with stuff. More and more the playing together aspect took a back seat and the computer based aspect became more interesting, I am not even saying that it’s more relevant. But we were all very modest about our role within music, we didn’ call ourselves musicians or composers, or anything. It was just a group of friends doing stuff. Make no mistake, we were 18 or 19 at the time, so that even the first record, that came out years after the fact because it was supposed to be something that we just wrapped everything up and put it out there for people. Or maybe even it was meant more of a document to ourselves than to really approach a real record label. It just happened by itself, it just grew into that. But we were not after that at all.
So even in these early days I was after a coherent musical structure. Which is kind of the misunderstanding with the glitch stuff, like this idea that I am going to do sounds like everybody else and use irregularities to make it sound more interesting or more contemporary. It was just the other way around; I had these irregular parts which listened to by themselves didn’ make any musical sense, it seemed. But then I just arranged them in a way that they were becoming songs and could be this convincing emotional engaging song. And this is the point I was trying to prove at the time. As opposed to being experimental, to being just another interesting new composer, or contribute to a certain kind of experimental music discourse. So at that point music was to me what I saw as the relevant questions, in this completely new field of work, like ways to work and those relevant questions to me were not musical questions. They were about technology, about work flow, about what to do with these tools, because suddenly everybody had access to musical equipment that just two years earlier were prohibitively expensive.
And now it’s just within reach financially, even on a student budget. So I was more of the opinion that it was nice to have that but let’s do something with it that is genuinely new that reflects these new possibilities that these new musical forms of software offered. As opposed to what I saw happening all around me what people did was people used the convention of music, or of playing music live in front of an audience or the figure of an author or composer. They were just using this almost as a pretext to continue the same business as usual and they were just doing this by different means, with electronic tools and applications. I was after an aesthetic that, to my judgement, my insight into music as a whole was not very deep. I was not a very demanding listener, I was maybe an attentive listener and I tried to observe everything very closely around me. But I was not an expert on anything, not technology and not music. So at the time I wanted to come up with something that to my judgement was generally new and reflecting the possibility of that era.
Innerversitysound: In some of the material you talk about “meta’ or the boundaries of concepts of sound and questioning what is music itself. Which is a common strategy towards form of music. But now you are talking about how you are conveying in terms of emotion. Which is an older language, one might say, about how you make contact with the audience and convey something of value and meaning on a humanistic level. Which is more the pop notion or emotive music notion. Is that more of what you are trying to say?
Markus Popp: It is obviously both. I think the “meta’ aspect just plainly comes from when you are working in software environments. You are working with, according to and against a simulation of music. Music is just this metaphor, like a guideline, that all these applications that are more or less, to varying degrees, modelled after. So it becomes automatically abstract and a second order kind of approach. It is not exactly one to one, I sit down as this subjective individual, my own personal approach opinion and emotions towards the musical instrument and then I sit down with my personality and then play a song and that can express what I thought when I was composing it. That’s kind of the old school approach, it’s not like that when you start working with software, when you start working with software everything becomes indirect. You have direct access to the interface, but the music itself and all the means which lead to the music are simulated and abstract. So immediately this “meta’ level is always in the back of your head. And the emotional part comes in because I would not feel that I had accomplished something if I would just submit, or contribute something that is just interesting on a conceptual level but did not move people or cannot move people. I would not feel that this would be an achievement of any kind. Because after all, I am not a music student and I am not attending a seminar or a class that asks me to find an elegant solution to a problem. But I am here to release or submit music to people to evaluate what I am doing. Of course you can always evaluate what I am doing on a technical level but first and foremost it should happen on an emotional level on how people can relate to that music.
The achievement on a technical level was about processing all this software I did, the sound files that were in that software were still designed after a musical criteria, not so much a formal criteria but more an emotional criteria. At the same time by rendering a piece of software, your statement, or even your musical statement, then suddenly you are shifting the focus of attention to a completely different set of questions. And that is what I did after the phase we just talked about, now we are talking about the second phase, like early 2000, Ovalprocess. That was a completely different thing; two albums that I released that contained these tracks that were musically designed along the same lines that I had just talked about, but at the same time I was using different processing. You could almost go as far to say that it was my high tech phase. I was using a lot of processing effects, plugins and so on. But more importantly almost OvalProcess, the software application and sound installation that was kind of my way of showing people that music is these days is so closely connected with the software that I could not just go on making music in terms of the next album and then the next album. I was trying to come up with something that was trying to find an answer on a technical level. Because doing your own software is a very technical thing and it is not related to music at all. So it is kind of a paradoxical thing that you are working on this piece of software that is kind of this browsing sequencing, navigating player environment for people to do their own version of my music. Which obviously involves all technical and design considerations and years long design iterations. But at the same time it is music which is the content of this application. There were at some point technical considerations that were very important in my work. Until a certain point, quite simple today it is not important, to me, to come up with a piece of software because I feel that the statement in the field of music is kind of challenging enough. To come up with a piece of software is just not relevant to my approach anymore. In the future a few years down the line there may be new ideas. I may feel obligated to do that kind of thing again, but at the moment I am concentrating on being this almost musician. And that is like the third phase; since 2010 it is much more about music.
Innerversitysound: How did this phase with the Goethe Institute and the Brazilian connection come about?
Markus Popp: They just asked. They just approached me and asked me if I was interested in working with South American singers/musicians and I said yes. Before I could have second thoughts on it, because I was never an expert on South American music and music in general, they already said “yes it has started, the project is underway, great people are already applying’. There were already about 110-120 and I could choose 1 artist per country and there were seven countries applying. So I ended up with 7 singers from all over South America that went really well. That was very successful, it was kind of a blind date situation and it worked out very well to me. It was amazing to me.
Innerversitysound: It seems that you are moving into older musical forms that have wider resonance with people. That acoustic music has a greater reach and the sound that you are achieving are more polished and longer and have a greater ability to reach a wider audience. Some of the questions in music are quite old but in different shapes. You distil the questions and the questions open up to older questions which have been there for a very, very long time. So the boundary of the new informs really takes you back into older contexts.
Markus Popp: Yes definitely, I could almost call it an accommodation process. I am getting used to things, especially on a musical level. Because obviously we are just at the beginning of this era which I would call a hyper-real era of music production. Where the emulated instruments, the instruments emulated in software are just about to surpass the real traditional musical instruments they were modelled after. That opens up a whole set of questions, or maybe doesn’, that to some people it is kind of a case closed sort of thing. They would just say: “ok we have everything on the computer now we don’ need drummers anymore, great’. And that’s their entire take away from that. Whereas for me it is only beginning. There is so much to do now and my response to the hyper-real era of music production won’ be an album of cover versions. Because that could be a way to do it and my answer would not be just variations of existing musical things. But what I am trying to do is come up with a new style that is kind of reminiscent of something. For example now Jazz, it takes the form of Jazz, in broad terms you would call it a Jazz approach in a way. At the same time it is completely simulated. Taking the form of that at the moment and if I get away with what I have done on these two records then suddenly a whole new world of possibilities opens up. It was really just to test the waters.
If you asked me today if I would prefer to give my music to a Brazilian folk singer or to a programmer I would definitely give it to the Brazilian folk singer. But that’s just because at the moment I am interested in finding answers to all these kind of musical questions because like me suddenly finding music so important doesn’ make me automatically a songwriter. I could be a really bad songwriter. That is not completely determined yet. So it is not completely clear whether I am a good or not so good songwriter yet. But of course I am joking, it is really not so important a question to me. I now have like a completely new set of tools and strategies to summon. At the moment it takes the form of a Jazz sort of thing and that is the kind of thing I am enjoying at the moment.
Innerversitysound: So pre and post meeting with acoustic musicians; is there a lot of preparation before or a lot of post-production afterwards? How do you go about that?
Markus Popp: Preparation, only in bringing as much material to the table as I could. Then the sessions, the actual co-operation, was a lot of listening to music, trying out some stuff, talking to the singers and working with them towards certain goals. But at the same time they were also very autonomous, they had a very natural, unacademic and instinct driven approach to this. Especially if you approach with just one example, there were 18 tracks on OVA at least 12 have vocals, and each track is different and each singer comes from different backgrounds. But to name one example there are two tracks that are by Dandara Modesto, the Brazilian singer, the one who is used for the video. She recorded something on day one and she wasn’ very happy with it. And then over the couse of the next 10 days she was always working on something and sitting there with her headphones, listening all the time and constantly trying out new tracks. But it was only until the last day when she said: “ok now I am ready’. She stepped into the studio and recorded 4 songs just like that. It was so natural that she could adjust to this material which is musically speaking not the easiest template to work with.
So therefore that was already very impressive to me you know. So you were asking about pre, during and post production. Afterwards, no post production, no work necessary almost apart from me recording 6 new tracks, completely new material under the impression of what had happened at that time. I wanted to take that to the next level in a way, not to surpass it qualitatively, but I was trying to do the guitar parts differently. Less strict, show a different side to my process which was the kind of base to those songs. So I think altogether it came out as a very diverse and interesting package. I hope.