The other day, thanks to a friend, I took a trip down memory lane listening to some early music that would later come to define a movement now often referred to as “glitch” music. A pioneer of this once obscure and now quite influential music genre, Oval, real name Markus Popp, had just released much of his back catalog as free album streams via bandcamp.com (link).
Characterized by rhythms and melodies that appear on an almost subliminal level, Oval’s music stands as something beyond gimmick. It’s the aural equivalent of art that looks better from the corner of the eye. Forced attention makes the music seem jarring. A casual listen, with the mind preoccupied on something else, like writing, enhances the experience. It is then when the music expands and swells and breaths, shimmering with a life inequitable to traditional music. These are the unseen atoms of life that barely hold matter together made manifest as sound— almost a portal to another dimension sprung to aural life. In turn, put it on some headphones and look out at the world, and you might feel a strange disconnect, as if everything has turned noisily silent. A fellow blogger paying tribute to the music Oval admitted he finally “got” Oval after having his wisdom teeth pulled out and taking painkillers (read the blog post here).
The notion of glitch music comes from its source: samples of damaged sound sources like CDs and records. It’s the skips in the disc or the hiss of surface noise that interest these artists. They then process them into subtle rhythmic and melodic patterns on a computer. The first I ever heard of anything like this was on Tortoise’s 1995 post-rock masterpiece album Millions Now Living Will Never Die (you can read a thorough review of that album here: Albums that have stood the test of time: Tortoise – ‘Millions Now Living Will Never Die’ ).
Popp was the sole figure behind Oval when I first met him on tour with fellow Thrill Jockey Records label mates Tortoise sometime in the late 1990s. I had a chance to watch him work his magic on a MacBook on stage during soundcheck at Club Firestone in Orlando, Florida, and I introduced myself. This may have been one of the first times I had ever seen a musician work solely on a laptop, and I was skeptical but also curious how he employed musicianship via this tool.
Standing over his shoulder he showed me how he moved tiny midi files into an array of folders, in effect turning the craft of mixing into a performance. I recently got back in touch with him via Facebook, and he reminded me, “That was SoundMaker, an OS9-only shareware app made by a dude from Italy. Parts of the workflow still unrivaled today.”
I’m not sure if I reviewed his first album for Thrill Jockey, Dok, before or after this meeting. Regardless, I had been impressed by it. I wrote the review for the record collector’s magazine “Goldmine.” I had been the go-to guy at to write reviews for some of the more difficult to classify music, and Oval’s 1997 album Dok was one of those albums that required my attention.
I have dug up my old draft of that review. Save for a couple of spelling errors this is what I handed in to my editor:
Presented in layers of hushed, yet dense sounds, Oval’s latest release, Dok, feels like the soundtrack to a dream. The surreal music sounds as if it were coming through walls or from down the street. Like clouds drifting high overhead, it’s music appreciated from afar.
“Lens-flared Capital” opens Dok with thick layers of harmonic hiss and fizz, creating a sound one might hear in the deep, suffocating stillness of the ocean, while the hum of a raging tsunami echoes in the distance. The album is filled with lush soundscapes that rumble along quietly with the threatening potential of explosive character. On most of Dok’s tracks, melodies, driven by bells, ring under rumbles of dissonance, while unintelligible voices loop and fade in and out among layers of whispering static.
On earlier recordings, the Berlin-based Oval scratched records and marked CDs with paint to create a pallet of sounds to work from. To create Dok, Oval’s third album, Tokyo-based “installation artist/sound designer” Cristophe Charles, who has two doctorate degrees in music, provided sounds from his travels to foreign towns— particularly the sounds of bells among everyday noise. Markus Popp, Oval’s sole member, took Charles’ clatter and processed it with loops and tones to create musical collages of sound. The sounds are so thoroughly processed that the only true noises one can distinguish are the chattering voices that appear from time to time. The resulting tracks are soft, yet luxuriant, ambient pieces that aren’t as difficult to listen to as the concept seems to suggest.
Ultimately, it’s the sound of this album that makes it worthwhile. Its modest 45-minute length transports you to another dimension of sound, where environmental noise becomes music, but you don’t have to be John Cage to appreciate this record. Rather than wading in self-indulgent noise and sound freak-out, Oval does what so many ambient artists overlook: add a depth to found sounds through conceptual pieces that are pleasant to listen to. Eat your heart out, Brian Eno.
“Eat your heart out, Brian Eno.” Lol. Some nerve, but at that time, Eno’s music was not treading such pioneering ground as Oval. It was an utterly refreshing re-invention of ambient music that I can still appreciate. Popp’s a true music pioneer with a firm sense of the independent ethos. He has agreed to answer some questions regarding his thoughts on his peculiar brand of music. Come back to “Independent Ethos” for that exclusive interview in the next week or so.