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.