According to Oval's Markus Popp, traditional definitions and categories are inadequate when it comes to evaluating electronic music. Instead, his highly conceptual projects aim to make us understand music in terms of the software processes used to produce it.
"I was never interested in synthesizers and electronic music," insists Markus Popp. "I never know what people are talking about when they ask me about Kraftwerk or whatever. The keyboard era of sound production was over maybe 10 years ago. Since then we can talk about music productivity being completely located in software — it's the Powerbook era. It would be possible to go back to another era and work with '80s MIDI equipment, but I'm not interested in that. It's too time-consuming and the interface technology is too bad."
Performed and released under the name Oval, Popp's music has been at the forefront of experimental electronica since the early '90s. Originally a three-piece comprising Popp, Sebastian Oschatz and Frank Metzger, the group became known as pioneers of the so-called 'glitch' movement; disdaining conventional electronic instruments, their early albums were composed through the creative abuse of compact disc players. Deliberately mutilated discs were used to create a remarkable range of fragmentary sounds, which would then be painstakingly processed, compiled and assembled into musical pieces with a strange beauty of their own.
Today, however, Oval is Markus Popp alone, and he's left the glitch movement behind — but he's still not interested in synthesizers. His most recent albums Ovalcommers and Ovalprocess have been created entirely on an Apple Powerbook computer. Ovalprocess was also accompanied by a specially commissioned piece of software, which has been used to create a series of interactive 'installation objects' designed to be placed in public spaces such as art galleries. The press release accompanying the project describes it as "an attempt to suggest a model for one possible alternative approach to audio productivity in contemporary electronic music, along the lines of music-as-software."
"Ovalprocess is a model of how I work, and is designed according to completely different ideas to making a professional audio productivity software application," says Markus. "Instead, it's a very modest attempt at providing the user with one possible way to reconsider his or her expectations about working in sound or in software. In general, Ovalprocess is much less meant to be a statement in the software domain than it is towards being a statement in the music domain. Oval is trying to provide some additional criteria for evaluating electronic music, because in the Powerbook era, it seems to me to be a field where there are no criteria for evaluating what's going on — as long as it is in a streaming media format, it is electronic music, so to speak. It's as though the last possible criterion for defining electronic music is just to say that it's not an image file, or it's not a Word document.
"The aim of Ovalprocess is to shift the focus of attention to other questions, because it seems meaningless to debate electronic music in the Powerbook era in terms of the capital 'M' Music that existed before. In my opinion, it was no longer interesting to just continue as a recording artist pretending I was composing this electronic music as if I was composing piano pieces. Even if the musical result is performed on a stage, or even if it's only distributed and sold and received as an audio CD, it's still not possible to isolate it from the productivity software that is used to create this music, because the electronic music that's existing today is to such a high degree depending on the possibilities that are implemented in the productivity software. Instead it has to be made clear that the musical result is, to a very high degree, dependent on the utilised software applications, and therefore to shift the focus of attention. To get the dialogue or discourse going, I am providing Ovalprocess as a software tool which is interactive, with a visual interface and a direct response."
Ovalprocess is not intended as a new, radical tool for the production of electronic music. Rather, as its name suggests, it's designed to lay bare the process through which Popp creates his own music, and in particular, the ways in which the design of conventional music software determines this process.
"The process software is just an interface, it's more like a study for people to use. It's not the software I use to work myself. The process software simply aims to be a model of how I work, although of course it's also meant to be an offering to the user. The concept of the process software is completely user-centric. It's not to have a kind of 'secret weapon' custom software I could use to record my own audio CDs. I could do that, but it's not interesting at all. Oval as a recording artist has always relied on completely standard software. In fact, that was even part of the Oval statement, to record the tracks in completely standard sequencing software.
"My music still tries to achieve a sound that could be achieved using some old tape recorder, for example. So I try to keep things simple — Ovalprocess is a very simple application, which is more like a kind of Tetris for sound than anything else. The aim was never to compete with any existing professional audio application, because it's run on a completely different set of resources and so on. Ovalprocess is just a document of what I think could be interesting for people to see and use, as opposed to listening to my music on CDs."
Commissioning Ovalprocess from San Fransisco-based computer programmer Richard Ross was not, as Popp is at pains to explain, brought on by any sense of frustration or limitation with conventional music software. "Oval is more concerned to give mention to the inherent logic of these applications than to complain about their restrictions. To feel limited by software would be a contradiction for me, because it would mean I would have an idea what kind of music I would create outside of software simulation. That's not fair, because as a person, biographically speaking I only entered music productivity at a point where music was already simulated within the categories of software implementation. The software is the only reason why these things are possible at all.
"My musical platform, so to speak, programmatically speaking, doesn't come from outside software. Of course I personally don't think music stops in software, but Oval as a project is completely occupied with the field of software simulation, and I think there is not enough attention given to many aspects of that field because people are still debating electronic music in terms of the capital 'M' Music from centuries ago, in terms of the creator or the composer behind the music. Oval is aiming to say 'OK, we're facing a situation where music is obviously a category that has to be seen within the possibilities of software simulation.'"
So what is the creative process which Ovalprocess seeks to model? Well, although Popp is no longer making 'glitch' music, strong elements of that philosophy are retained in his more recent work. Part of the point of the 'glitch' approach was to deliberately adopt self-imposed restrictions on what sorts of sound source could be used, and this is also true of Popp's current working method. On the hard drive of his Powerbook, Popp has created an archive consisting of tens of thousands of tiny sound files. This archive serves both as the ultimate source for all the sounds used in his music, and as a resource for generating further archive material.
"I was sampling off previously existing CDs, but now I have this really vast archive of sounds, and since I'm using several software applications, it's very easy to create new edits of every single sound file in no time, so by now, most of the sound sources I have used on my latest CDs come from within the archive, out of the process. Of course there's always some grouping and regrouping of sounds: that's just according to my personal taste, or it's up to the idea or design guideline I choose for the track I'm working on."
The bulk of Popp's work in creating an Oval track comes in assembling these tiny sound files to create longer, evolving sound fragments, which can in turn form part of a complete musical track. "Since I'm using all these very fragmented sounds, effectively the technique I use for creating sound over time can be compared to making an animated film," he explains. "You have these tiny frames of sound and you have to make an effort to make them move over time by glueing these tiny pieces one after another. The sounds in the archive are basically just tiny sound files, which would not make any sense at all if they're played on their own. Sometimes I loop them, but even if a loop's repeated over the length of the entire track for maybe three minutes running in the background, being one of the many tracks, the loop itself is composed out of these really small sound fragments.
"I'm still relying on time-based applications, using a sequencer to structure the sound. I don't do any recording, it's basically just extracting these small fragments of sound from sound files that are either already existing in my archive, or created on the spot. So it's pretty much live but not in real time. The most important feature responsible for how my tracks end up musically is probably just the Mac OS itself, because it allows me to group files visually and to label files with colour-coded labels. That's much more responsible for how the tracks end up musically than any kind of new plug-in or DSP application or anything like that.
"Before it reaches the point where it can be arranged in the sequencer, each sonic fragment already consists of many small sounds. The sequencer is just the structuring tool. I still don't know how a compressor really works, you see, so I probably use the sequencer to about five percent of its potential, but I use the sequencer just to structure the sound over time. The actual work is before I arrange anything in the sequencer, because I put together these small files, and then the sequence can be any combination of the existing files over time.
"It's not so technical, it's just a lot of work — it requires a lot of time and progresses very slowly. Just imagine someone doing his own animated film, perhaps equipped with some high-end rendering tools, but for some reason insisting on using the old cut-and-splice method for doing the actual animation. And of course everybody's shaking their heads in disbelief that when he's using the high-end workstation to render the characters, how can he insist on using the old way to make the images move? But this is just how it is. On the few occasions when I've got to talk to other producers of electronic music, they've always been really shocked that I actually do the music like this. Everybody was assuming I had my own custom software or custom Max patch or generative sound network that was sampling the sound and structuring it, and that all I had to do was sign my name to it. They were surprised by how manual the work actually is, and this is why it's essentially so time-consuming."
At present, anyone wishing to experience the Oval creative process through Markus Popp's Ovalprocess software will have to track down one of his installation objects, although the application itself will run on any Apple Mac computer.
"The idea is to have it on the next CD as a part of the record, but the CD is progressing so slowly — it will happen at some point, but not at any time soon," says Popp. "More important in the recent past was rendering Ovalprocess as an engine for these installations to be installed in public spaces across all sorts of contexts. That was, to me personally, much more of an achievement than making Ovalprocess part of a CD, because then it just ends up on people's hard drives and they look at it for two minutes and never touch it again. When it's installed in a public space it creates a communicative situation between real people in real time, and that for me is much more of an achievement, to have Ovalprocess claim a space in the real world as opposed to having it just as an add-on on a CD-R."
Popp's manual cutting and splicing is the functional process behind all Oval tracks. In every case, though, it's complemented by some additional, more abstract criteria or design guidelines chosen by Popp on a sometimes arbitrary basis. The function of these guidelines is partly aesthetic and partly heuristic: "I can only set these criteria for myself, because it's my own personal learning process. Basically, it's just all my personal adaptation process to certain pieces of technology, hardware, software, and certain possibilities in interface technology and so on — but I'm still pursuing an idea that you could call 'musical' in the sense that it is refusing to be just the mere sonic outcome of the available tools. So in that way I'm investing some extra time, or work, or criteria that might be unnecessary. I would set these guidelines for myself — for example, with the Ovalprocess CD I decided that it had to use elements that would sound like guitar, organ and feedback, even though I cannot play, record or sample any of these instruments in the real world. For Ovalcommers I chose a design guideline of achieving sounds as if they could be coming from a trombone or other brass instruments, even though obviously I don't play or record or sample any of these instruments, and I don't know how a physical model of a brass instrument looks or sounds. But it is important to invite other criteria into this approach, because usually Oval music is always about the limitations, about the restriction to certain methods of generating the sound. I was just giving myself a guideline to get things done at all, or guarantee that the track is going somewhere, to give me a direction. It's more like a deadline to guarantee that things get finished than pursuing an interest in a certain kind of character or a certain kind of sound.
"Obviously, I hope that my music also introduces other distinctions than just being a mere technical outcome of the available tools. Hopefully it is more than just the predictable result of the implemented features. Of course, I am always keen to invite everybody to define my music in terms of an irrational concept like atmosphere. It's possible to discuss my music in those terms. But it's just a matter of honesty to say 'I'm not a composer. I'm just beta-testing software like everybody else is.'"