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Oval: a healthy diskontent

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  • The electronic music agitator who unwittingly kicked off the 90s glitch movement is back
  • published
    14 Jul 2010
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Download: Oval – Ah [taken from o]

For anyone who took a serious interest in electronic music in the ’90s, the name Oval evokes memories of playful, groundbreaking, at times beautiful music underpinned by a theoretical discourse and a determination to expose the means of production unseen since the salad days of Scritti Politti.

After nine years away from the scene, it is heartening to know that Oval (otherwise known as Markus Popp) maintains his capacity to challenge and surprise, both in his recordings (is that a guitar and drums I hear?) and in his interaction with the mass media. In this illuminating interview, he discusses the genesis of both his new EP oh and the forthcoming double CD o (which he collectively refers to as o(h)).

Why the nine-year hiatus between oh and your last release?

“I see the  oh EP and the subsequent double album simply as the beginning of the next chapter in my ongoing critical dialogue with music. And while Oval tracks from the Systemisch days were engaging with music on a pretty basic and unsophisticated (yet effective) level, the o(h) releases can now confidently challenge music on its own turf – a much better position to be in.

“Of course engaging with music in such a constructive yet critical manner is easy to claim – being able to actually pull it off was what took me all this time. But after I had all the tech aspect down, things went pretty quickly from there. From here on out, a lot of exciting stuff is possible. And yet my work is all about introducing new distinctions into music – just as it always was. Only this time, everything happens inside the music container.”

“The o(h) releases are not my love letter to music.”

The press release for the EP goes into considerable detail about the new recording set-up and working methods you’ve employed for these latest tracks. What led you to this new approach and when did you start work on the recordings?

“My goal was to bring out or bring back the ‘music’ in ‘electronic music’. Therefore the production of o(h) was often all about ending up with the best possible take. You know, that one recording that is worth practicing an entire day for, the one that can convey a certain elegance and sophistication beyond all that tech involved. But of course I had to keep it contemporary – no musical revisionism or falling back behind what Oval had already accomplished – so don’t expect an album with cover versions any time soon.

“Mind you, the o(h) releases are not my love letter to music. To me, joining  the music game is more a pragmatic decision: it means to establish myself as a producer, widen the frame of reference and to ask for a fair chance to show what my music can really do in the real world.

“Now, I would not want to go as far as saying that the Oval from the Systemisch era ended up the way it did -  that refusal to engage with music and instead discussing workflow and productivity – all out of sheer respect for music…but then again, I am definitely not an ‘anti-musician’, and never have been.”

The press release also says that “scales, harmonics and melody are the foundation of this music instead of theory and meta-discourse”. Can one assume then that you are no longer interested in – to quote the title of an old Oval track – ‘the politics of digital audio’?

“Well, engaging in a critical dialogue with music simply means to start dealing with scales, harmonics and melody – no more, no less. The real challenge is to end up with music that can build an alternative semantic on top of those formal aspects and deliver a striking, “just listen!” type of music that can really move people.

“I guess o(h) would not be an Oval record without some sort of twist, be it in the form of something you can never can quite put your finger on or in the form of some performative self-contradiction. Here’s an example: today, it’s widely agreed that the Systemisch-era Oval delivered involving, touching music despite all that extra meta-discourse and my constant claims that all this ‘was not about music’.  This was one of the elements that kept people guessing: on the one hand, early Oval was a deliberately limited, direct artifact of the generative methods used and yet it was full of finely crafted, organic textures and haunting tunes.

“I am definitely not an ‘anti-musician’, and never have been.”

“Fast forward to 2010. This time around, that inexplicable self-contradicting part of the ‘new’ Oval sound might be its’ ‘trompe l’oeil’-aspect, who knows? Just give your guitar- (or piano-) playing friend some drum-free MP3s off the oh EP’s B-side (or better, the interludes off o‘s CD1) and ask him or her to play a cover version…I think the o(h) releases are capable of surprising anyone on almost any level. These two new releases may not have ‘WATERSHED MOMENT’ written all over them, but this new material has the power to lock you in an intense staring contest for a long time.

The ‘politics of digital audio’ were a typical Oval stance from the mid-90s, when the handling of digital musical productivity tools was more like a vast collective beta test, an adaptation process to those then genuinely new workflows. To hint at the mere eventuality that – what most producers at the time mainly celebrated as sheer ‘creative possibilities’ – could have in fact have any political implications whatsoever, was one of the foundations (and, if may I say so, achievements) of the early Oval programmatic.

“And even though the entire game has of course substantially changed since 1992, I still consider myself first observer, then artist/musician. But then again, you can always read ‘political’ implications into pretty much anything…”

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