The Sonar multimedia festival -- returning to the United States this weekend with a three-day encampment in Chicago -- bills itself as a showcase of "advanced music," a label validated by the concert lineup in Millennium Park and at the Chicago Cultural Center, featuring cutting-edge electronic music pioneers like the Slew (with Kid Koala), Ben Frost and Chicagoan Benn Jordan's the Flashbulb.
Tonight, it's the long-delayed return of audio composer Oval, aka Markus Popp. Based in Berlin, Oval has been releasing albums of click-and-cut creations on Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records for nearly two decades -- though he's been unusually silent for the last nine years. He re-emerged this summer with the album "O," a double disc featuring one set of long tracks (go ahead, call them songs) and another disc of 50 short bursts of noise and sound.
The album was made with all stock plug-ins -- over-the-counter computer instrument sounds and samples -- as opposed to the highly technical apparatus Oval has created before, often writing his own software to assemble his found sounds and industrial noises. The result: Oval has stopped referring to his work as mere "audio." This, once again, is "music."
• 7 p.m. Friday
• Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington
• Free, sonarchicago.com
Q: It's been many years since your last recordings as Oval. Why the delay?
Oval: It's been a long journey. My intention or mission was a radical departure, to do everything as differently as possible from how I did things before. I had certain goals. I didn't want to come back with just some kind of electronic music. I wanted to enter a conversation with music itself and learn a whole new framework for composing, and that took time. ... There was a lot of prototyping and testing of new equipment and plug-ins.
Q: The results are certainly a bit more ... human.
Oval: It is unique. There is nothing quite like it. The overall intention was not driven by the technology this time. It's about emotion and packing in as much emotional impact as I could.
Q: A decade ago, you said the era of keyboards was over, that we were in the Powerbook era. What era produces an album like "O"?
Oval: Now we're in the hyper-real era. It doesn't make a difference anymore if certain sounds are sampled or a real instrument or programmed or a virtual instrument being triggered. That was the big experiment for "O." I'm asking, is there an uncanny valley in music making?
Q: You're referring to the research into people's reaction to lifelike robots -- that the more lifelike a robot gets, mimicking human motion and appearance, eventually there's a point where humans react negatively to it, find it creepy.
Oval: Yes, and I find that this reaction doesn't exist in music. The closer the machine or software gets to sounding like the real thing, people assume you've done something extra special. The machines are almost more real than the real thing -- that's what I mean by hyper-real -- and the plug-ins give your parameters beyond what the real instrument can actually do. ... The closer you get the machine to sounding like a real guitar, you think the stranger it would appear to people. But the opposite is true.
Q: So, the closer you got to real instrument sounds, the more musical your compositions became?
Oval: My main goal with this project was: just listen. It takes you to a different place. It was interesting to find out that harmonies and melody -- they are interesting, they are not overdone, they still have a lot to offer and are definitely worth revisiting. There was always a lot more music in my music than might have been apparent, with all the technical things going on. But this is a love letter to music.
Q: Was this a reaction to your success in the "glitch" subgenre? Had you felt you'd gone as far as you could?
Oval: The glitch thing -- I'm regarded as a pioneer of this. I never claimed I invented that. Glitch today comes together with the assumption that the musical narrative is unquestioned and that the producer uses these glitches to cut up and make the sound more post-modern. For me, my recordings were always the other way around. I tried to create something continuous, to create sound from the most unlikely building blocks. The assumption that you use that to simply cut up something else is ... less creative. It happens for all the wrong reasons.
Q: How will you present this new music live?
Oval: Well, that's the key. The music in shape currently is sometimes more than what's logistically possible. I can't always bring everything to the stage I want, especially after being a carry-on luggage musician forever. It's hard to convince people now that I want this band, these drum kits, all these controllers. And these U.S. dates were very spontaneous, so I can't do much beyond a laptop and some controllers. In the end, it will look like a laptop concert but will sound different, and it will be different from the record.
Q: Nine years to make "O" -- so what'll you tackle next?
Oval: I don't know. I'm looking for collaborations. If I get away with this, a lot of exciting stuff is possible.