on koen holtkamp’s voice model


Koen Holtkamp – Voice Model (2016)

Twenty years ago, in the fall of 1996, I entered my freshman year at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago. It was a happy and exciting period of my life. I had escaped the shackles of New Hampshire – a place I had loathed since early childhood, and was embarking on a life dedicated to the arts. Early in that year, one afternoon I returned home to find an unfamiliar man towering in the middle of the room. He was a high school friend of my roommate Brendon’s –  staying with us for a few days while he checked out the school. His name was Koen Holtkamp. I have hazy memories of the visit. I was immersed in my work, but remember liking him. The following year, Koen transferred from Pratt to study sound. I was a painter. Our departments were located in different buildings, so our paths rarely crossed. When they did, we always stopped and said hello.

The years went by. Late in the spring of 2000, we spoke one last time at the opening of our thesis show. I moved on to Philadelphia to pursue my MFA. Koen went to New York. After finishing, I moved to London for a while, ultimately landing in Brooklyn during early 2003. I found a job working at a coffee shop on Bedford Avenue, and began settling into my new life. A couple of months later I was startled when a familiar voice came over the counter. It was my old roommate Brendon. He had moved around the corner a few weeks before. It’s funny to think, when considering the incredible effect of that chance meeting, how ambivalent I was to it at the time. When we had lived together in Chicago, we couldn’t have been more different – ships in the night. By the end we barely spoke. The years had served us well. We had come to similar places in our lives, and quickly became inseparable friends (and remain so to this day).

In those days, Bedford Avenue felt like the center of the world. It was a cluster of energy and actively. Brendon lived at Driggs and N. 6th. His apartment rapidly became an axis point for many in the music scene. A revolving door – it was rare to drop by and not find any number of people passing time, working on projects, or playing music. It was here that Koen and my paths crossed again. It turned out that he and Brendon had remained friends. Together they had shifted focus from sound art toward music – becoming early practitioners and advocates of laptop based computer synthesis. They had also started a small label called Apestaartje to support efforts in this world (and slightly beyond). During our early years in NY, the label was in full swing, issuing releases by a host of international artists (Nicolas Collins, Janek Schaefer, Minamo, Keiichi Sugimoto, Sébastien Roux, Town and Country, and many more). It gathered a great deal of respect in the process. It also released Brendon and Koen’s own efforts – under the monikers Anderegg and Aero respectively. Though they worked as solo artists during that period, it was rare for them to play live without the support of the other. At an Areo show Brendon would be at Koen’s side, and vice versa. This led to their formal collaboration as Mountains, their signing to Thrill Jockey, and subsequent rise to fame. Even to this day I find it startling to hear how many artists owe them a debt. Mountains is one of those bands who seem to have influenced an entire generation, many of whom stake the territory, have gained a great deal attention, but fail to credit the origin of their sound.

Over the years Koen become one of my closest friends – a love of music at the center of our bond. Uncountable hours have been lost in conversation, pulling albums from our collections for the other to hear. It’s a ritual we share. He’s also one of the few people who makes it a point to raise my bar. In his presence there are no laurels on which to rest. His questions and challenges serve as a continuous reminder that I can always do better than I am, and there is always more to learn.

Doing better sums it up. Koen is restless – always laboring under the weight of his own criticality. He works tirelessly, but I’ve never known him to feel like he’s done enough, or as well as he could. The past is a harbinger, pushing him forward. In 2008 Type issued the first album recorded under his own name – Field Rituals. It was a departure from his efforts within Mountains, posing questions that have helped demarcate nearly a decade of solo pursuits. It was also the beginning of a push and pull between his own voice, and dualism found in his collaborations with Brendon – each endlessly feeding the other. At first listen, Koen’s solo releases don’t seem to stray far from Mountains, but under closer examination their contents and approach are radically different.

Voice Model is Koen’s sixth solo release. It’s a stunning piece of work, and slow to reveal itself. What’s under-recognized in Koen’s work, and becoming more apparent in this album, is its contentiousness. His is a complex dichotomy. One which could be seen as a confrontation with our expectations of experimental music. Make no mistake. This is Koen’s world. I would challenge anyone to try and match his commitment to, and knowledge of the avant-garde, or his willingness to push into the realms of the unknown. It is astounding, and sometimes annoying for those of us who try and weigh in – yet I often wonder if his many fans know the depths that his practice plumbs. His music is both a fuck you and a foil, treading a dangerous line – risking being seen as something it’s not.

Avant-garde and experimental music nearly always presume the intellectual high ground. These are musics which intend to provoke and challenge – to make audiences work for their reward, which raise the bar, but often fall into into well trod tropes. They have their sounds, but to sound like something, is not always to be that thing. This is precisely the question that Koen seems to present. His work intervenes with what we expect of the avant-garde’s structures, tones, and methods of approach. He challenges you to listen harder by denying the signifiers  we have come to expect. He is asking at what point does it lose itself in the beautiful and sublime. At what point is it no longer observable for the thing that it is? If avant-garde music is an intervention with how we understand and anticipate relationships of sound, Koen’s is an intervention with the avant-garde.

Voice Model is made up of two compositions for piano, electronics, cymbals, bowls, and guitar, with additional contributions on flute by Nina Mehta, and trumpet by Josh Millrod on its second side. Each stakes out territory in a strange vacuum between New Age and electroacoustic experimental music. This proximity won’t feel entirely unfamiliar to fans of Ariel Kalma, JD Emmanuel, and Laraaji, but important distinctions must be made. If these figures (among others) took the extended techniques and ideas of the avant-garde, using them to push toward the sublime, Voice Model takes the sublime to push back at the avant-garde – asking questions that few are willing to approach. It’s a slow and curious piece of work – where beauty is both a point of principle and a vessel for complex ideas. Rippling through its ambiences and harmonics are relationships which appear to have formed themselves – an organic landscape of inorganic things. It’s an album you have to own, not for any need of possession, but for the time it takes to unfold. It’s out tomorrow (Sept 16th) via the fantastic Mexico City based label Umor Rex
(I recommend exploring the rest of their catalog). If you’re in the states you can order it from Thrill Jockey. It’s available via Anost in Europe, or from any number of fine records shops wherever you are. Check out the video below for the album’s first side (Scene I) crafted by Koen himself, and pick it up as soon as you can.

-Bradford Bailey


Koen Holtkamp — Yellow Blue Red (Scene I) (2016)


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