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Band in a Box 

Markus Popp's new sound installation makes being an electronica superstar easy

Wednesday, Nov 1 2000
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It's Friday the 13th at Bottom of the Hill, and Markus Popp -- sole member of Berlin-based outfit Oval -- is bobbing his head behind a Frankenstein-ish tabletop rig that includes a Macintosh PowerBook, a virtual analog synthesizer, a mixer, and a few other arcane devices. Unassuming in his plaid shirt, black pants, and sneakers, this 30-year-old mad professor of electronica is busily generating sonic strata -- some euphonious, some cacophonous -- from a never-ending cascade of samples and loops. It's loud, dense, and almost industrially grating in spots, with the occasional shrill electro-squeal emerging from the mix. Constantly lurching between his PowerBook and a variety of knobs and sliders, Popp is a bit more animated than your average laptop musician. Still, the sound is the real show here.

Without so much as a digital denouement, Popp ends his set by abruptly closing the lid of the PowerBook -- cutting off the sound source -- and immediately begins packing up his gear. Before the audience is even done applauding, he's breaking everything down. In minutes, this one-man band has the entire Oval roadshow in a luggable anvil case and a backpack. After a couple of curt interactions with curious audience members, Popp collects his gear and tromps out of the club, toward the next night's club in Santa Cruz.

Two days after the Bottom of the Hill show, Popp puts on a similar (but by no means identical) show at Beta Lounge, an Internet performance studio located in one of San Francisco's few remaining neighborhoods where you can blast experimental noise into the night air and not draw the cops. After another swift teardown, Popp -- who is infamous for being as elliptical as he is cerebral, firing off brain-benders like "post-linear procedural network sound applications" -- sets forth to pontificate on all things Oval. It's an edifying, sometimes baffling, and occasionally humorous experience. Think Mills College seminar crossed with Mike Myers' Saturday Night Live "Sprockets" shtick.

While these days it seems you can't throw a Zip Disk without hitting a laptop musician (to the point where there's a scent of backlash in the air), Popp stands by his band-in-a-box approach to live performance. "Even though people tend to use "PowerBook music' or "laptop music' as terms for defining or classifying music, the laptop itself is not more and not less than the perfect means of bringing a complete work in progress to the stage in a very complex container," he declares. "And it's possible to play a different concert every night. I have more equipment, but it's not so necessary, because the musical result would somewhat suffer from me having too much to do. Of course I can always bring countless little boxes that have only one purpose or are used on only one track, but it would be too heavy to carry them around for six weeks."

The Popp PowerBook is loaded with hundreds of sound files that are the essence of Oval. For reasons of expediency, Popp prepares certain segments of each performance track in advance, which can be freely combined later, on the fly. "Basically, for all concerts I bring pretty much everything I've worked on in the past two or three years, and I can kind of change around everything. For me, it's more a question of what to play at what time. So there's a spontaneous element to it as well. It's almost like a DJ set, with like 200 turntables." While some curmudgeonly purists might argue that a performance using pre-recorded sound files is cheating, Popp claims it is more rewarding for the audience than a show where the musician generates sound in real time on a computer, while the audience watches the back of a laptop. "I could also step back and not do the concert in the first place," he argues. "So since I am playing the show, I'd much rather focus on something that's easy to trigger; then I can more deliberately adjust the content to the situation."

Popp says he started making electronic music around 1993 "because it was affordable and accessible and kind of easy to do." In 1994, Oval -- a three-piece at the time -- released Systemisch and 94diskont, the latter comprised of glitches, snips, and blips raided from defective or intentionally altered CDs. While other artists had been doing similar work in a more rarified academic setting, Oval was credited for bringing such experimentalism into an almost pop realm. With that groundbreaking work, the group immediately started shedding members and appeared to fall off the radar. In reality, the easily bored Popp had moved on to other pursuits, such as remixes and side projects like Microstoria, his collaboration with Jan St. Werner of electronica darlings Mouse on Mars. The next Oval release, Dok, wouldn't appear until 1998, and, instead of skipping CDs, it drew entirely from field recordings of bells and crowds. In the interim, avowed video game freak Popp put together a documentary on Japanese designers for German television and designed a music-based game (which was eventually declined by manufacturers as too complex).

Recently, Popp has turned his attentions to sound installations, placing sound-manipulation pieces in Paris and Berlin, with other museums and galleries worldwide expressing interest. One of Popp's creations -- an enigmatic, interactive box called Skotodesk -- is currently touring the United States. That's the plan, anyway. Due in part to the ham-fisted bumblings of an unnamed air shipment company, Skotodesk arrived at Low Gallery in Los Angeles with some, shall we say, alignment problems. "I wouldn't have sent it over if I wasn't completely convinced that it's transportable, but for some reason those people tend to throw around things," Popp gripes.

Bettina Richards, owner of Oval's U.S. record company Thrill Jockey, says Skotodesk's fragility is due in part to it having little mass. "It's built on an architectural model to withstand all this stress," Richards says, "but I think what [Popp] didn't figure into the calculation was the fact that when you ship something air cargo, they don't care what the hell it is." Since the air freight oopsing scuttled a planned Brown University appearance, a Thrill Jockey employee will drive Skotodesk to S.F. for a weeklong November installation at Amoeba Music. (It may go on view early, due to the Brown cancellation.)

Skotodesk is about three feet wide by four feet high. The stand-alone box integrates everything: a Macintosh G4, an LCD monitor, laser-etched discs, some cryptic looking panels, and internal lighting that gives Skotodesk an eerie glow. On the top of the unit is a trackball, which is used to move rows of colored blocks representing Oval sound samples. All sounds and controls are graphically represented on the screen, and you can edit or modify them by moving blocks around. "It's really cool and super fun to play with," alleges Richards.

"It's like a Tetris for sound," says Popp in a rare blast of pith. "It was meant to be very accessible, easy to relate to, very colorful, completely iconic, very easy to approach." Amoeba booker Kara Lane says Skotodesk will be situated on the in-store performance stage, in part because "there's nowhere else to put it." It will be available for store patrons to play with during regular store hours. And while the thought of parades of Oval-wannabes tormenting shoppers and employees with incessant computer-generated noise is both amusing and terrifying, for the sake of everyone's sanity Skotodesk's output will be confined to headphones.

Skotodesk draws from the Oval sound archive and is a presentation platform for a software program of Popp's design called Ovalprocess (also the title of his most recent CD). Consequently, the installation sounds a lot like Oval -- it's kind of like giving everyone an opportunity to do a customized remix. "[Skotodesk] is like a combined set of productivity software and installation object," Popp says, "and in my opinion creates this tangible means of evaluation of what Ovalprocess is all about, as opposed to just being downloadable on the Internet, or being on read-only audio CDs."

Popp scoffs when asked if he grew up writing code. "Of course not," he laughs. "Nobody needs that. If I had a computer background, I would be programming video games today and not doing music."

According to Richards, Popp isn't joking about the video games; while touring the States, he eschews records, buying up American versions of video games he already owns instead. "He's a huge gamehead," she says with a laugh. "He has prototypes of stuff that didn't come out. When asked what he thought he'd be doing in 10 years, he told National Public Radio, "Hopefully working as at least the coffee maker at Sega.'"

About The Author

Mike Rowell

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