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Chosen One: Koen Holtkamp

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Interview with Koen Holtkamp.

“With things being so much more accessible these days it’s so easy to jump around from one thing to the next without thinking about or really listening to what you’re hearing and that can feel a little underwhelming…”

—Koen Holtkamp

Words & Illustration: Craig Carry


The Brooklyn-based sound artist and composer Koen Holtkamp (also one half of the renowned ambient duo Mountains) releases his latest solo album, ‘Motion’, this month via Chicago/London-based independent label Thrill Jockey. Having previously been devoted to the field of film and video — during his time studying at The Art Institute of Chicago (during the period he also co-founded the Apestaartje collective/label) — Holtkamp entered music relatively late. Over the course of the last decade or so, Holtkamp has released a number of solo and collaborative works — spanning numerous labels such as Type, Barge Recordings and Thrill Jockey — featuring an array of abstract, textured and highly nuanced sonic works recalling such composers as Brian Eno or Laurie Spiegel to modern-day composers such as The Dead Texan, Stars Of The Lid or Sweden’s Tape. Meanwhile, Holtkamp (alongside Brendon Anderegg) has also been busy amassing a truly spellbinding body of work via their Mountains guise over the last decade. Last year saw the release of both the latest Mountains long player ‘Centralia’ and the re-issue of ‘Mountains Mountains Mountains’, Holtkamp and Anderegg’s debut Mountains work, having originally seen a limited release by Rob Carmichael’s experimental Catsup Plate label in 2008.

Fresh from last year’s sublime Mountains full length ‘Centralia’ — arguably Mountains’ most fully realized album yet — and subsequent extensive tours of both America and Europe, Holtkamp decided to take six months off-time to write and record various projects including a new duo record with Philadelphia based guitarist Chris Forsyth (their previous record, ‘Early Astral’, was a gorgeous two-track length opus released by Blackest Rainbow in 2012) as well as a brand new solo work. To coincide with the release of ‘Motion’, Thrill Jockey will issue ‘Connected Works’ (as a special bonus disc to ‘Motion’) which features a compilation of Holtkamp’s entire vinyl-only releases to date including ‘Liquid Light Forms’ (Barge, 2013), ‘Gravity/Bees’ (Thrill Jockey 2010), and ‘Make Haste’ (A Room Forever, 2008).

‘Motion’ comprises ‘Between Visible Things’, ‘Vert’ and ‘Crotales’ (all three pieces were written by Holtkamp entirely in the studio) while the album’s b-side comprises the epic ‘Endlessness’, a piece Holtkamp had been performing live prior to the making of ‘Motion’. ‘Between Visible Things’ forms the perfect opening to ‘Motion’, its analog synthesizers weaving beautifully organic and soft-focus spaces which provide the backdrop for the subsequent sharp-focus synth line which navigates into the track two-and-a-half minutes into proceedings. ‘Vert’ is again testament to Holtkamp’s self-professed admiration for “gradual music”; the first minute builds slowly until the use of an electric guitar is introduced to stirring effect, its harsh and aggressive notes forming the perfect counterpoint to the swirling organic synthesizer patterns in its midst. ‘Crotales’ is a gorgeous five-minute modern-day exploration of Seventies Soul Jazz (Alice Coltrane or Pharaoh Sanders come to mind) through the lens of Holtkamp’s distinctly contemporary approach to music-making. Both double-bass and crotales add both otherworldly rhythms and percussion to proceedings while the piece meanders to its soft close, almost in quiet anticipation of what is to follow: the majestic ‘Endlessness’; a sprawling and timeless side-length exploration of everything we’ve come to love about Holtkamp’s musical output to date.

Both Holtkamp and Anderegg — as Mountains — have similarly shown their mastery in the long-form medium of epic ten-minute-plus sound pieces (‘Propeller’, taken from ‘Centralia’, ‘Choral’s 2008 title-track or debut LP opener ‘The Whale Years’, for instance). It’s where the art of Holtkamp (and Mountains) can be set apart from the competition. ‘Endlessness’ recalls the likes of Berlin-based composer Nils Frahm’s ‘Says’ from last year’s ‘Spaces’ to Krautrock artists such as Cluster, Faust or Can. In short, it is the kind of music that has to be experienced to be believed. While the recording of the album’s opening three tracks entirely in the studio was a departure for Holtkamp’s usual practice — resisting the temptation to add pre-recorded rehearsal sessions or field sample recordings from his extensive library — crucially, the particular sensual and engaging quality inherent in all of Holtkamp’s recorded output to date remains firmly intact. The music, while often composed of entirely synthetic means, always remains vividly (and beautifully) wild at heart.


‘Motion’ is available now on Thrill Jockey.


Interview with Koen Holtkamp.

Congratulations, Koen, on the magnificent achievement of your solo album ‘Motion’. I’ve been really transfixed by it since first listening to it, and it continues to reveal so much upon every subsequent visit. What I’d like to ask, first off, is what was the time frame in which these songs originated from?

KH: Thanks! The album was mostly written and recorded late spring into summer 2013 but I’d been playing a version of the last piece ‘Endlessness’ live for about a year or so that was already most of the way there.


I was really interested to read that the first three tracks — prior to closing epic masterclass ‘Endlessness’ — were written entirely in the studio. They have a gorgeously refined and more “electronic” feel than your previous material. I know the last time we spoke you explained how Mountains material would often be a combination of recorded practice sessions, various improvisations or found sound recordings, and subsequently the pieces would be later realized from this source material. How did the realization of these first three pieces from ‘Motion’ happen?

KH: I tend to gravitate towards creating long and gradually evolving pieces somewhat because they’re usually based around things that I’ve performed live. So when I started conceiving this record I thought I’d try something different by making some shorter compositions that weren’t created with performance in mind so didn’t have certain restrictions inherent in that process. In terms of them being more purely “electronic” I think that’s happened naturally as I’ve gotten more deeply involved with modular synthesis. Also, I wanted to somewhat separate the solo work from Mountains to some extent.


Previously, you have described your music (and that of Mountains) as gradual music. There is such a magical quality found in the more epic pieces (whether tracks like ‘Propeller’ from Mountains’ ‘Centralia’ or ‘Endlessness’ from ‘Motion’). It’s really so special in the sense that the listening experience is so genuinely enriching and compelling throughout every moment of these pieces. Do you consciously approach these longer pieces differently from other material? Or, indeed, would you – in the writing process – break them up into smaller pieces while you are in the process of building the track?

KH: The lengthy pieces generally come out of the live experience so are more intuitive and composed to develop over a longer period of time. It’s my natural tendency to work this way and let things unfold slowly so I’m actually more conscious when I’m trying to make something shorter. It’s much more difficult for me to make a 5 minute piece than something that’s 20 minutes.


‘Between Visible Things’ is such a tremendous opener for an album, it brings you into the world of ‘Motion’ so beautifully and effortlessly. I love that synth-y passage which flows throughout the piece. I would love to gain an insight into how this piece was constructed and what principle techniques were used?

KH: ‘Between Visible Things’ was the most immediate of all the tracks on the record in that it was all recorded in one night by myself in upstate, NY. Basically it started from a basic sample and hold patch that creates the shifting sequential pattern that comes in about a 3rd of the way in. Then I layered a sporadic sputtery rhythm from a low pass gate sequence, some ebow guitar throw a stereo panning delay and a few very fast filtered sequences that became the more textural “synth-y” introduction to piece. There was also some Tequila involved.


‘Crotales’ is equally sublime. That double-bass sound calls to mind the likes of Alice Coltrane or Pharaoh Sanders and then the analog synths combine to form a really spellbinding effect. Like all Mountains’ output, the material is always so highly evocative — even in its more abstract spaces — and the overall impact is always so visceral and tangible. How did ‘Croatales’ come about?

KH: ‘Crotales’ was a last-minute replacement track. I was having issues with the sound quality of another piece that I’d been working on for a while. It just really wasn’t working in the context of the record so I decided to take a wholly different approach. I’ve avoided virtual instruments for the most part in the past but I wanted to give the album a wider dynamic range and since these pieces were not conceived for performance I figured why limit myself. I got sort of fascinated with the combination of synthetic and real instrumentation in the process which I’m continuing to explore with the new live set. While some of the ‘instruments’ such as the double-bass and crotales, for example, were created synthetically I did play all the parts on a keyboard in real-time to try and create the feeling of a performance rather than working with some sort of locked grid. And, yes, I was definitely thinking about those 70’s Alice Coltrane and Sanders jams with the bass sound.


Since the last time we spoke, you also re-issued Mountains’ debut LP ‘Mountains Mountains Mountains’. I love how it really gives Mountains fans a wonderful insight into your unique sound and what would inform subsequent work. I particularly find ‘Hive’ so interesting, there’s that combination of an acoustic passage (reminds me of Benoît Pioulard’s ‘Precis’ LP) and the later distorted passage involving what sounds like distorted feedback or a fuzzy transmission.

KH: It’s basically a slow transition from a clean acoustic guitar into heavy distortion which is still the same acoustic guitar played live but with the processing added over time. We were using more classic distortion and getting away from computers while previously we worked more with granular synthesis in max/msp to get that grainy type of texture.


It must have been a special feeling for both Brendan and yourself to have the opportunity to re-issue your first LP? What are your recollections of the time in which this material was written?

KH: The record was released after (and some of it was recorded during) our first ever and longest US tour. We did something like 26 dates in 30 days and we booked everything ourselves. We had no idea what we were really getting into and while that didn’t always make it easy it was really exciting for us to get the chance to bring our music to a wide range of people. It was an extremely varied experience in terms of the situations we ended up in and the people we performed with and met. From playing with a bunch of hardcore bands at a house party to academic types in art galleries and universities and rock bands in bars we learned a ton from having to adapt to these different types of situations. We’d played some shows on the East Coast and in Europe prior to this and quite a lot of shows since then but to me this represents the beginning of us being a touring band.


I also love the typographic cover for the sleeve, how did this come about?

KH: After working with photographs for our previous CD releases, we decided to do something bold and graphic for our first LP. We wanted to get friends who had been supportive over the years involved in the process of making the cover art and came up with the idea of having multiple people write the word “Mountains”. We asked a bunch of folks to just write the word with very little instruction other than it was all done with the same pen for some continuity and made some sign up sheets at our shows and a couple of record stores in New York which yielded a good variety of approaches. While it’s the same word over and over it’s the variance in style and handwriting that makes each one personal and interesting. Rob from Catsup Plate who originally put out the album scanned all the versions and did a really beautiful job on the layout. Check out his designs at Seen.


What will really appeal to fans of your work is ‘Connected Works’, a second bonus CD which will be issued by Thrill Jockey with their release of ‘Motion’, including the many hard-to-find works of yours from the last 5 years or so. What material is included here?

KH: ‘Connected Works’ includes the new album, the ‘Liquid Light Forms’ LP that came out on Barge Recordings in 2013, the ‘Gravity/Bees’ LP released by Thrill Jockey in 2010, and the ‘Make Haste / Free Birds’ box LP that was part of the ‘A Room Forever’ series on 2008. It covers quite a few years and includes over 2 hours of music.


I know you’re such huge collector of many different periods and genres of music, I’d love to know what albums you have been listening to lately?

KH: I’ve really been enjoying going back to some old favorites and completely immersing myself in one artists or a particular labels work. Listening to a bunch of records in a row by the same artist really gives you a different kind of understanding of their work, progression etc. It takes a little dedication but I’m trying to make a conscious effort to do it more often. Some recent composers and songwriters that I’ve been spending some time with include Alvin Lucier, Bernard Parmegiani, Steve Reich, Bert Jansch, Tim Buckley, The Necks, Franco Battiato, John Fahey etc. With things being so much more accessible these days it’s so easy to jump around from one thing to the next without thinking about or really listening to what you’re hearing and that can feel a little underwhelming so I’ve been trying to set aside some time to appreciate and somewhat re-evaluate a lot of work that was important to me in the past.


I remember you talked really admiringly about Laurie Spiegel’s ‘The Expanding Universe’ last year. It’s obviously a very special album for you. How would you describe it’s enduring appeal for you as a musician and composer?

KH: It’s difficult to describe but there’s something about a piece of music that is clearly being generated by a machine but feels so natural almost as if it could go on forever. Like listening to something physically evolve and adapt as it grows. I don’t mean this in a passive background music sense as I find Spiegel’s work and this record in particular extremely engaging. It’s the kind of work I can become completely immersed with and lose myself in.


What plans have you for the year ahead, Koen?

KH: I took about a half a year off from performance to focus on recording and developing a new modular set up so I’m very much looking forward to playing a bunch of shows coming up. I’m also doing a couple of video screenings of my work in the near future as well as getting into some new collaborations and we’re starting to make some plans to work on a new Mountains record in the next couple months so it should be a busy year.


‘Motion’ is available now on Thrill Jockey.


Written by admin

March 25, 2014 at 12:17 pm

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