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Going Public

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Going Public

Markus Popp, the Berliner who makes ambient electronica under the name Oval, claims that his elliptically beautiful music is merely a by-product of his commentary on the production of music. To prove it, back in 1996, he promised to release software into the public domain that would let anyone do what he does: manipulate sounds created by defects on compact discs, building purposeful soundscapes out of digital accidents.

Popp didn't invent the approach--New York sound artist Nicolas Collins was experimenting with skipping CDs in the late 80s--but he certainly popularized it. The distinctive sound of early Oval albums like Systemisch and 94 Diskont (issued in the U.S. by Thrill Jockey) has begotten an entire subgenre, known as "glitchwerks," whose better-known representatives include Pole, Pita, Vadislav Delay, Noto, Stilluppsteypa, and Farmers Manual. Meanwhile shareware programs similar to the one Popp originally considered--including Super Collider, Audio Mulch, and Sound Hack--have been widely disseminated over the Internet. He never did make his own program, called Ovalprocess, available, and he no longer has plans to. "It's not interesting anymore," explains Popp, who arrives in Chicago this weekend to kick off a North American tour. "At that time all of these music makers and programs didn't exist."

Instead Popp has created a vehicle for his ideas that's quite a bit grander--though whether it's more conceptually interesting is open to debate. The visually attractive interactive sound installation Skotodesk, which opens at the Chicago Cultural Center on Friday, is a clear three-by-five Plexiglas box that houses a Macintosh G4, speakers, and a sort of sculptural interpretation of Ovalprocess. The computer runs the Ovalprocess software, but for simplicity's sake it's loaded with just 64 samples from Popp's own library of some 60,000 sounds, which he says still provides for "a huge number of possibilities." The viewer uses a track ball to operate the program, and a monitor facing the top of the box guides him through it.

The point, Popp says, is not for the user to do his or her own "remix" of Oval's music: "Thinking of it as a remix is already defining the musical outcome as a retail product, which I'm not at all interested in." Though he makes a living as a recording artist, he says he finds the notion of finite authorship irrelevant in this technologically advanced age. Skotodesk is intended to generate discussion of the modern music-making process by erasing the role of the artist--a middleman of sorts in Popp's view--and allowing the user to participate directly. "I'm not interested in teaching people anything, but [in making] a modest suggestion for one possible alternative way of seeing things in the field of electronic music," he says. "Of course, there's the danger of being seen as the mastermind behind Ovalprocess, as someone trying to virtualize themselves in the software, but that's a risk I happily take because that means that people are taking it seriously enough to discuss on this level."

He's onto something there: the most obvious questions the project raises have to do with contradictions in Popp's approach. Is the process really in the hands of the public if he's imposing limitations on it? And making it available without limitations could render his own work obsolete--a possibility that can't be lost on Popp. Skotodesk arrives in conjunction with a lovely new Oval release (also called Ovalprocess, and also on Thrill Jockey), and though the installation is traveling only to Chicago, LA, San Francisco, and New York, Popp himself will be performing in at least 20 cities. In other words, he's having his cake and eating it too. But unlike some experimental music, Ovalprocess's gorgeous tumble of skittering clicks, feedback blasts, decaying modem sounds, and serene drones is affecting without any theoretical decoration at all--and while Skotodesk may well prompt some interesting conversations, I doubt that anything will speak louder than the music.

Popp will give a lecture and a Skotodesk demonstration at 5:30 on Friday at the Cultural Center. He performs as Oval on Saturday at the Empty Bottle.

Postscripts

Move over, Foxy Brown. In the September 3 issue of the Chicago Tribune Magazine, when asked what she considered her most irrational act, local jazz sensation Patricia Barber replied: "Coming off the stage and attacking a woman because she was making fun of my band. I grabbed her. We were fired, but it felt good and I'd like to do it more often."

Next week's Reader will include complete critical coverage of the second annual Chicago World Music Festival, which begins Thursday, September 21. This week you can find information about opening-day concerts in the International section of the music listings.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Graziella Antonini.

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