Sharps & Flats

The problem with Oval's latest is that, like most minimal electronica, it's more fun to talk about than to listen to.

By Andy Battaglia
July 31, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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Oval
"Ovalprocess"
(Thrill Jockey)

Electronic music's soft spot for shoptalk has never been its sexiest attribute. While hardcore devotees get all philosophical about the genre's relationship with technology, detractors write the whole thing off as a soulless dalliance between programmers and their machines. No matter your allegiance, it's hard to get too wrapped up in the music's post-human mystique while flipping through dance magazines made fat by ads for the newest decks and effects.

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Still, all forms of electronica owe a good bit of their conceptual subtext to process. In terms of expressed intent, it's what separates dance-floor techno from mindless disco, and ambient experimentation from the New Age.

Oval's Markus Popp has built his whole career out of toying with the notion of process. When his landmark "Systemisch" album hit the racks in 1996, its twisted, ambient mix of skipping CD sounds and slow-rolling static exposed the entire techno template by freeing it from its musical duties. Thin, brittle click tracks worked to mark time and meter, but not in a way that had any real rhythmic presence. Similarly, any recognizable features from the traditional ambient soundscape were notable more for their almost narrative shifts than their suggestions of melody. Popp was undoubtedly working in the realm of "music," but he seemed more concerned with exposing the limitations of the term than acknowledging its accepted role as a medium.

With the new "Ovalprocess," though, he has gone a bit too far. One of the most addictive features of "Systemisch" is the way that it managed to close the tautological loop seemingly built into its post-musical commentary. The biggest knock against minimal electronica -- and for that matter anything that flashes process as a legitimacy badge -- is that it's more interesting to think about it than it is to admire, to be moved by it. At his best, Popp made a mockery of the argument by marrying his otherwise clinical intentions with a shockingly beautiful sense of composition and beguiling sound palette. Past Oval projects have always worked just as well as plain old "music," even if such a distinction stood at odds with Popp's steely Germanic sense of purpose.

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"Ovalprocess," however, is about process -- and process only. The record gets its name from the proprietary software that Popp plans to take on the road in a forthcoming sound-installation tour. After the program is set up, would-be musicians will be able to manipulate sound files and rhythmic designs, essentially composing their own Oval tracks. It's a fascinating idea, and one that Popp has toyed with for years. But his recorded attempt to shine the spotlight solely on his methods comes almost completely at the expense of everything that made Oval so confoundingly listenable in the past.

The new album takes the "Systemisch" blueprint and crumples it into a ball of pointy edges and messy folds. What were once distant otherworldly echoes are now shards of doctored guitar feedback and screechy test tones. And instead of arrangements that testify to sound's ability to make itself musical in the most unlikely conditions, his composition feels like little more than slapdash collage.

"Ovalprocess" certainly works to further Popp's march against authorship and traditional forms of musicality. The problem is, it's more interesting to talk about than to listen to. And music, even (or especially) as it once laid dissected on Popp's examining table, addresses itself in truer terms than wagging tongues ever could.


Andy Battaglia

Andy Battaglia is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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