An Interview with Markus Popp: “Music conveys the unexplainable”
The musician Markus Popp: “Something always has to be funny” (Photo: Trevor Good)
17 August 2012
What sounds like Oval is not necessarily what Oval listens to. But, how does Oval sound? “The Latest at Goethe” met with the man behind Oval, while he was packing his bags for his South American tour. This is a look into his electronic sound building kit and the imminent future.
What kind of music do you listen to when you’re not producing music yourself?
I listen to all kinds of stuff, like Metalcore, for example. So, completely different than what I produce. I hardly listen to any electronic music. That’s because it offers me the least surprises.
You have been active as a musician and producer since the 1990s. What led you to music back then?
First, I wanted to create music that surprises me, that gives me leeway to do things or just let things happen – without them being random. For example, back then I took music from arbitrary CDs, sampled out fragments and then used them as building blocks for my own tracks. So, basically I just re-organized the music. An interview statement by me from the year 1995 could have been, “The best thing about music is that it’s already there – you just have to re-organize it.”
Do you see things differently today?
Yes. On my double album O, I reverted entirely to music I composed myself: far more control, far more composition and imaginativeness. Today, I want to blur the boundaries between electronic and acoustic, programmed and performed, laptop and instrument. Is this music being played or is it coming from the software? Is that me? Are you hearing guest musicians I hired, or is it a program? All of that should remain a little vague. The technical aspect takes a step behind the music, but is still at work, or it wouldn’t be an Oval album. Something about it always has to be a little funny.
What is a day in the life of Markus Popp like?
The basic constant is that I actually have 24 hours a day free – time I can structure freely. I spend a lot of time with organization and correspondence. Making music is almost a side job, practically on call. It has gained the character of an artiste who has to be able to demonstrate his skills spontaneously on command.
In August you will be going on a South American tour commissioned by the Goethe-Institut...
Yes, I would like to enhance my pieces with South American voices. We called for bids on Facebook and through the Goethe-Instituts in these countries. Interested singers were able to upload their demo material or provide them on platforms like Soundcloud. I also put together a demo on that. More than 70 artists applied for a recording session with me. In the end, one person each was chosen from five countries: from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay and Venezuela. My journey will begin with studio sessions in Brazil and a CD will be produced. Then, there will be a tour through six cities in different countries with Oval concerts and workshops.
What criteria do you use to select the singers?
It’s purely emotional. I have a completely unorthodox approach because I’m no expert on singing. It’s possible that some great voices escape me this way, but I’m trying to stick with my spontaneous method.
In 2008 you carried out the project “So” with the Japanese artist Eriko Toyoda. You worked very intensively with vocals in that as well. Will this new project be related to that?
The project with Eriko had the exact opposite approach: the songs were by her. I then rebuilt and refined them. For So, I was the sound designer and primarily producer. For this upcoming project the music is all by me and the vocals supplement it.
You frequently work with other artists. Is that more fun that sitting alone in the studio?
The best thing about it is that you never know what will come out of collaboration. Everyone works differently. Although I have been doing Oval on my own for many years, I like cooperating with others. Ultimately, it’s a matter of making decisions faster together. The optimal case is when everyone inputs what they do best. But, sometimes it’s also the intersection that leads to a surprising result, which was not foreseeable at all in solo mode.
Speaking of decisions: How do you decide when a new album or track is finished?
Oval has always somehow gone by its own rules. For example, in 2010 for my album O, I set myself a limit for each track. Each track had to be made up of the same, comprehensible number of elements: a main theme, an ambient sound, an accent, a melodic sound, drums and bass. The story had to be told as briefly as possible, but with as many repeats as needed. These are limits you have to set yourself or you’ll never be finished. The ten to twelve songs hammered out on O are a maximum of five minutes long, but most of the more than 60 pieces are one and a half minutes long. I decide when the piece is really finished according to how I feel.
Your last compilation “OvalDNA” was accompanied by a DVD containing more than 2,000 free Oval sounds. Why?
On this DVD, I provide the users with the files that all of my albums are composed of. So, eight to ten albums. The DVD also contains a code that can be used to download the OvalDNA player. You can process the sound files with it. For me, this is a kind of dialogue, comparable to a message of Facebook or conversations after a concert. My aim is simply to avoid it being one-sided. I don’t just want to be a producer, I want to get others involved and my album distributed further. That’s the reason for the name, too: OvalDNA. I don’t insist on keeping the copyrights; the sounds are neither tagged nor given a watermark. The users receive the music in individual parts and can do what they want with them: movie soundtrack, sound installations, ring tones.
What is the interesting thing about music for you?
For me, one of the great advantages of music is that it conveys the unexplainable, it always rejects conceptualization. I would call it a sort of indescribability that you always strive for. The point where music gets interesting is right when you can feel it, but not really describe it.
Patrizia Barba held the interview.
For years, Markus Popp AKA Oval, 44, has been an internationally esteemed and influential producer of contemporary electronic music. Popp still inspires and provokes entire generations of musicians today. He often works with other musicians. His soundscapes are also used in advertising and in films. He was awarded the Prix Ars Electronica for his interactive sound installation Ovalprocess. From mid-August until mid-September, Markus Popp will travel through South America for the Goethe-Institut and enhance his compositions with South American voices.