Koen Holtkamp – Gong Solo (2017)
It’s always nice to write about your friends, and though the experimental music community is small, making it more likely to occur than in other forums, in this case I am writing about one of my oldest and dearest. As I have mentioned, when writing about his work in the past, my friendship with Koen Holtkamp dates to our first meeting – over twenty years ago at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is among my most treasured peers, has supported me in countless ways over the years, been an aggregator in my quest for knowledge, and ever the angel on my shoulder – always reminding me that whatever I am doing, it can be done better, and that there is always more to learn. Despite the distances which often lay between us, it is rare for more than a few days to pass without us speaking. I knew him before he released his first record, and am usually among the first to hear them before they emerge – in most cases while they are still in process. I have watched him evolve, grow and push himself like few others.
Koen is restless, and as anyone who has been part of his life knows, an obsessive worker. I can’t remember a day, in all the years we have known each other, when he wasn’t delving into the unknown. Stasis and repetition seem to be his greatest fears. Gong Solo, which is the seventh solo release under his own name, lays this strikingly bare. It is the greatest single divergence from expectation in his entire catalog, and arguably the closest to date to the personality of the man I know.
While I was a graduate student, the artist Janine Antoni once described to me her struggle to establish the conceptual continuity of her practice, against pressures within the art world toward aesthetic consistency. Though rarely discussed, the question about how an artist develops and translates meaning in their work, and how that interfaces with aesthetics – how it establishes relationships and signifiers through what something looks or sounds like, is of central importance within the creative arts. Most often, we address the arts in hindsight – when we can observe the ebbs, flows, and progress that inevitably occur over an artist’s career. We understand, accept, and expect that artists push themselves, and that their thinking, with what their work looks or sounds like, changes over time. What we rarely consider, is the resistance (both internal and external) to this process that most experience while it is occurring. In written or spoken language, we easily understand that something can be articulated in any number of ways, and that the choice of one over the other has an embedded meaning of its own – it is aesthetic, a way of adding dimension to, or controlling, what is said. The other arts – painting, sculpture, photography, film, sound, music, etc, are no different, but because we associate visual and sonic aesthetics so strongly with an individual (or group) – as a signifier of self, and often struggle longer to find their explicit meaning, change, when encountered at the moment of inception, is regularly associated with the degradation of conviction, or as forcing an audience to address their own lack of understanding – experiences which are rarely welcomed. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones were all met with strong contemporary critical resistance to changes in their sound, yet in hindsight this is the very thing that perpetuates their continued relevance and influence. Though the content of their outputs inevitably evolved, these changes are best understood as choices to say something differently, rather than changes to who they were, or what was being said. If a challenge was being issued, it was to hear the known in a new way, rather than to begin again.
Aesthetics are central to discussing Gong Solo. It sounds like nothing else in Koen Holtkamp’s output, yet is entirely connected and locked within his long arc of sonic exploration – so much so, that it offers a unique key to many of his previous efforts. The instrument has changed, but the directive is largely the same.
Within Koen’s practice, ideas are equal to, and dictate, the generation and interactions of sound. When charting his career, interesting threads emerge – an evolving relationship between source and creator. Unlike his partner in Mountains, Brendon Anderegg (equally one of my oldest and dearest friends, and responsible for Koen and my meeting), who developed a remarkable facility for playing instruments at a young age, Koen’s relationship to sound began as a listener. He has an intimidating knowledge of the history of recorded music, and began as a sound artist and field recordist. He was an early adopter of laptop based synthesis and processing, and though he has played many instruments over the course of his career, the dominant arc of his work displays a resistance to revealing where his imprint begins and ends. In many ways, he is more of a sonic sculptor, guided by an idea or concept, than a musician. Sound is a material which he inherits, captures, and manipulates, more than something which he creates, even when he is responsible for its generation.
Koen’s beginnings as a sound artist, with his continued practice as a listener and field recordist, offer crucial access to his work. From his early output under the moniker Aero, to his work within Mountains, and ever increasingly under his own name, he has labored in the construction of sonic environments – synthesized realms of space and dimension, operating as strange mirrors for encounters in nature and the real world. His ambiences are to be entered, rather than simply heard – their pulses, shifts, harmonies, and dissonances intended to relate to the body of the listener, rather than reference or indicate that of the creator – falling somewhere between the intellectual rigor and constraint of Minimalism, and the more personal (vs spiritual) concerns of the New Age movement.
As the title suggests, within Gong Solo, Koen has set aside his primary tool for creation – the modular synthesizer, and created two works for solo gong. There are different ways to approach the cassette – as a free standing effort, or as one within his larger body of practice. Each is equally interesting. Like the synthesizer, the gong has a well established history within both avant-garde and New Age music. It is an adept tool for sculpting and structuring sonic ambience – of becoming its own world, one where rhythm and pulse relinquish their primacy towards a dualism with pure tone. From an aesthetic position, Gong Solo gives the impression of being more assertively avant-garde than Koen’s other work – the first side flirting with territories established by Christopher Tree’s remarkable output as Spontaneous Sound, or Rhys Chatham’s work Two Gongs, with a bit of Harry Bertoia thrown in for good measure, while the second swells toward the grinding image of a junk yard – La Monte Young’s nightmare rendering of pure drone – a Post-Modern, dystopian realization of high Minimalism. Whether caught in the rise and fall of beating resonance or the second side’s endurant metallic buzz, neither is particularly easy on the listener. Both are incredibly rewarding. What is crucial to discern, is that these works are not experiments or isolated incidents. Though you feel the hand of the artist more than you might through a modular synth, imbuing the works with a raw immediacy, both embark with similar ambitions – artistic anonymity in the service of an enveloping sonic environment. They are spaces to enter and get lost. Like all of Koen’s work, Gong Solo is a challenge in focused listening. Through the manipulation of alternate materials, he builds a world which doubles back on itself – a structured metaphor for experience in the real world. It is a challenge to the listener – a lesson in the use of surrogacy as a means to hear the known in a new way.
Of course I may be accused of nepotism, or of being blinded by love, but if you knew how tightly we wind the screws to each other, how rigorous the challenges we render, this would be quickly dispelled. As ever, I can’t find enough praise for the efforts of my dear friend. I can only hope that I’ve done him justice, and left you with enough to approach them on your own. Gong Solo is available via Important Records‘ cassette imprint Cassauna. They’ve posted audio samples, so check it out and get it while you can!