Oval and Imbogobom at Cafe Oto, January 2011

Oval by Scott McMillan

“Natural events such as the collision of hail or rain with hard surfaces, or the song of cicadas in a summer field…these sonic events are made out of thousands of isolated sounds; this multitude of sounds, seen as a totality, is a new sonic event. This mass event is articulated and forms a plastic mold of time”. That quote from Xenakis was used by support act Rogers and Jones to illustrate the ambitions of their piece, a musing on the relationship between our perceptions of time and sound; however it seems much more apt in the context of Oval’s recent work. Markus Popp’s O album was a veritable barrage of tiny sounds, all individually clipped and cleaved from context, scattered like rain from seeded clouds. The pristine precision of this new sound, or sounds, showed a huge progression from his equally innovative smudged glitch; this gig was to show that he’d applied some thought to changing how we perceive the Popp live performance.

Alexander Tucker, by Scott McMillan

Popp’s Thrill Jockey label mate Alexander Tucker appeared before him as Imbogodom. A different beast to his usual guitar and cello loop creations, the Imbogodom album was made with Daniel Beban, a New Zealander who worked for the BBC’s World Service. Given their respective backgrounds, the resulting album neatly knitted Tucker’s dark drones into a Radiophonic framework, using tape loops and effects. Tucker attempted to recreate that sound here on stage using samples of the recordings and a battery of pedals. Clever stuff. He opted to do this, as any serious experimental musician in the circumstances would, whilst dressed as a yeti. A yeti with white glowing eyes. More typically for Tucker, however, the set was excellent, his deep moans building an occult atmosphere, while he summoned ghostly apparitions of guitars and synths, this one long continuous piece becoming increasingly immersive. Yet not immersive enough for Tucker: there were a couple of complaints from him during and after the performance about the lack of volume. And while I felt sorry for him in that the set didn’t turn out exactly as he planned, it’s hard not to laugh when you see and hear a yeti whinging about his “levels”.

Oval, by Scott McMillan

I saw Markus Popp emerging from his sonic chrysalis in April 2009 in Amsterdam’s Bimhuis, to gingerly test out the strength of his new wings. And while the beauty of the new material was instantly apparent, he hadn’t quite perfected the performance aspect: one track simply crossfaded into the next, and he displayed all the emotion of the man from the IT department who comes round to have a look at your laptop when you’ve spilled coffee all over it (again). This Oto show was, well, rather different. For one thing, he tied the tracks together neatly with some great sections of textural bass exploration, like Eleh fragments. But the biggest revelation was his physical performance: every individual sound seemed to elicit an accompanying facial expression: lips would pucker for a “boip”, he’d grimace for a “brrrrrip”, and he’d look lovingly at a “gdooooo”. And the drum drops – and there were a lot of drum drops, far more than on O – would have him throwing his hands in the air excitedly. I’m still not sure how much of the set, other than perhaps those growling interstitials, is actually live – it all seems too intricate for him to be spinning these shapes on the fly. But with eyes closed, and without the, er visual element, these wonderful noises just seemed to dance from the Oto sound system. So light and crisp, the extreme separation turning them into tiny specks of smouldering silver foil, floating and swirling into sequences and patterns, forming lengthy new sonic events as much as they formed new events of light and colour.

Oval, O (Thrill Jockey)

OOval

Early last year, I remember someone on Twitter asking “does anyone have contact details for Markus Popp”?” I can’t remember my exact reaction, but it was probably along the lines of “yeah, good luck with THAT one”. It had been almost 10 years since the excellent Ovalprocess (and over 15 since the breakthrough Systemisch), and in the intervening period, Popp had been nigh-on invisible. There was no Oval website, or Myspace, or Facebook, never mind Twitter. I might have suggested that the person in question tried getting gold of Popp via Thrill Jockey, given that was his last known label residence, but I had no confidence that Popp still had any connection with the Chicago label. Anyway, somehow (via psychics, or dowsing or something), Popp was tracked down, and a gig happened in Amsterdam’s Bimhuis. A very good, and most surprising gig. Surprising not just because of the infrequent nature of Popp’s appearances, but because of the content. The trademark electronic glitches were gone, replaced by something more obviously acoustic in terms of their source, and much more fragmented. “You could tell that these pieces hadn’t quite been finished”, I said, “being short and fading out after little more than a minute into silence”. I concluded “Let us hope that Popp knits this material together into an album some time soon”. Well, here it is.

It seems that the material Popp was debuting was in a much more developed state than I had thought it was. For the tracks on O, the new album, are pretty similar to what I heard during that Bimhuis performance, with tiny slices of acoustic instruments finessed into short tracks. It is markedly different in style from those earlier glitchy electronics, although Popp’s fascination with the precise (and more unusual) qualities of sound is still very definitely there. The first disc, which features a mere 20 tracks, is the more expansive of the two, with segments of (mainly) guitar ripped into threads and knotted with some fragmentary drum lines. At their more complex, they sound like they are on the verge of becoming something from Autechre’s Oversteps (“Cottage”) or, appropriately enough given the label, something from Tortoise’s debut (“Ah”), before the tracks simply melt away once more. The second disc (50 tracks! 50 tracks!) feels more like raw source material, snatches of instruments, fleeting textures, at times measuring no more than 30 seconds in length, no more than mere ringtones. No, hang on, there is actually another free-to-download companion EP which is actually called Ringtones.

So, 70 tracks. It sounds ridiculous, it should be far too bitty to work as an album. Yet somehow Popp pulls it off. It is all held together by that fastidious attention to detail: the sounds on this album are absolutely magnificent, as good as anything I’ve heard. It is so pure, so pretty, and and yet so fragmented; it is like a hall of smashed mirrors. As good as the first disc is, I actually prefer the stripped back nature of the second, which really lets the myriad of samples sing. The recurrent texture is of those beyond-the-bridge guitar strings, but there is plenty of variety in their treatment – sometimes clipped and crackling, sometimes with buzz and echo (not for the first time I find myself wondering if Popp is a fan of Derek Bailey). Trying to describe any of them in detail is a futile task. Like spiders, these little pieces appear very quickly, are strangely beautiful from a distance, but as soon as you try to examine them, their spindly little limbs come off in your hands and you are left with nothing.