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Artist: So

Album: So

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Sep. 11, 2003

By the time you unfold one of his curiously-designed digipaks and contemplate removing the cd, Markus Popp already has you where he wants you; that is, sucked in. His art is an interdisciplinary experience, both in texture and logic, but not lucidly so. Questions are begged (What is this music/picture made of? What am I supposed to feel?), but solutions are withheld. And if you have the patience, you'll wait for as long as it takes to become comfortable with the plurality of directions that a given song takes. At some point, you'll become cognizant that you've been stood up by music's customary emotional cuecards, and begin to feel whatever it is that you feel, based on the sound alone.

As such, Markus Popp's may be some of the least manipulative music ever produced, because sound in a vacuum cannot deliberate. His new album, produced in collaboration with Eriko Toyoda and under the name So, is an illustration of this, following the repeated examples of Oval throughout the past ten years.

So breaks with the tendency of abstract music to openly posit emotional states as they persist, modulate, and relate to one another. For example, an Ekkehard Ehlers song that refers to the early blues musician Robert Johnson is formally and stylistically abstracted from its subject, but maintains a clear kind of referential tone. So simply has no subjects. It does not refer. Brian Eno's Music for Airports is an abstraction from intellectual engagement, a soundtrack for Zen-like thoughtlessness, sonorous and peaceful. So is not relaxing, and has no relationship to beauty of any model. Sunn0))) produce frequencies antagonistic to human comfort, physically violent and unconcerned with sound as the ear would hear it. So is neither angry nor penetrating as such. What differentiates So from all of these abstract examples is that So makes no declarations of sentiment, and demands none from the listener.

But So can incite: feelings and thoughts. How? Without defining what they are supposed to be. Abstract music usually gives clues. This is angry, that is sweet; this represents, that deconstructs. Always there are reference points. So, as an emptier landscape, allows added freedom for individual reflection. A listener can turn this self-titled album on with no expectation that it will make her happy, motivated, depressed, or satisfied. Though it may well do each of those, it is not designed to do any of them. The very organic sound qualities – voices, strings, drones, whistles – are conjoined in a product only slightly more judgmental than silence. Music is environmental, and this music is a place to think, unmolested.

As art, this album possesses a universal logic. Anyone can listen and think without feeling excluded by the message or authorial intent. To an unusual degree, appreciating So requires only the knowledge that you can do whatever you like with the sound, make it mean whatever you want it to mean. All the same, if So is indefinable and unconnected to ideas, isn't it just an escapist fantasy, far less important than the free time one would have to carve out for a listen? Why listen at all?

Listen because So is, in fact, very stimulating. Popp knows the tricks of making processed noises sound natural, or at least as though they fit together. So, made with intimidating machines, is distantly removed from its mechanical origins.

Popp and Toyoda's collaboration, however, will be summarily categorized and heaped on top of the pile of post-rock records from the last twenty years, where the Oval catalogue also happens to sit. It is a pile where a shocking number of bands with trendy influences have been left to decompose when their appeal expired, and it has the potential to subsume the undeserving. So, however, are not about influences of the moment, or influences at all. This ought not to be dismissed as a fluff record, a mediocre improv session, or an homage to something "in". In fact, it may be more of a garden than a CD, and a good one to get lost in at that.

By Ben Tausig

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