Beast – Beast Vol. 1 & Beast Vol. 2 (2017)
My friendship with Koen Holtkamp is among the oldest – dating back over twenty years to our first meeting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and most important of my life. It’s been a slow burn, beginning with little more than a cordial nod when passing between classes, to acquaintance via intertwined social circles, ultimately unfolding into an intimacy and respect which, despite our changing lives and geographic distance, makes it rare for a day to pass without us being in touch. I have watched him evolve from his early computer based experiments under the moniker of Aero. I was in the room when Mountains, his project with Brendon Anderegg which pushed them both into the public eye, was conceived, and I have seen his humble gestures as a solo artist grow and blossom with artistic grace. Over the last 15 years, there hasn’t been an album – Mountains or his own, which I haven’t had the privilege of hearing as it was conceived.
Anyone who knows Koen, knows he’s a tough critic. He’s also the first to fall on his own sword. I’ve yet to see him display self-satisfaction beyond a casual shoulder shrug. As a body of work falls into equilibrium, he’s already pushing into more treacherous, unknown realms.
A little over a year ago, he began to mention that strange things – well outside his palette and comfort zone, were in the works. Knowing how Koen pushes himself, it didn’t come as a surprise, but these first hints at Beast, his new moniker and project, didn’t prepare me for how far he’d gone.
Since beginning The Hum, despite risking a critical conflict of interest, I’ve made a point of reviewing every one of Koen’s emerging releases. I’ve been transparent about our long friendship, but my dedication to his work remains a consequence of respect and belief in its worth. Many of my friends have released records within the same period. I’ve only reviewed a few. In all the years since our first meeting, nothing Koen has made has moved me as much as Beast. The radicalism and intervention it placed within his practice, with its structures and sounds, have filled me with ecstatic joy and excitement since it first reached my ears.
Beast, as the project unveils itself across two LPs – Beast Vol. 1, and Beast Vol. 2, issued in tandem by Pre-Echo Press, stands as a rare example of art (and the ear) leading a practice, rather than being bent to external ideas or desires. Historically, accepting the diversity displayed within it, Koen’s output has largely fallen toward a focus on sonic ambience – the conjoining of melody and texture as a cohesive field. In many ways, it has been a dismantling of the expected hierarchies, orderings, separations, and operations of music – a mirror, constructed through careful organization, for how sound exists within nature. Beast is an almost complete inversion of this. It is machine music, with humanity and touch pushed to the fore. Rather than ambience, it is built of rhythm, punctuation, difference, and change.
As much as we talk about technology, particularly its evolution and influence over our lives, very few people stop to consider its complex interface with music over the last twenty years. During the mid 1990’s, Koen was among the first in his field to approach the laptop as viable instrument. Likewise, he was among the first to begin to drift away from it, shifting toward traditional instrumentation, electronics, and subsequently modular synthesis. His approach to technology – its generative interface with his work, has run just ahead of, or parallel to, broader movements within creative culture – the shift from new technologies toward older ones, or the establishing of hybridity between them. The conversation around progressive relationships to digital / computer process, against analog technologies – this shift, generally centers around physicality – the direct tactile relationship a musician has with his or her instrument, and the quality of the sound it creates. What is more rarely discussed, is how an instrument, particularly the one you learn on, effects a practice, process, and final result. Most contemporary artists working within the field of synthesis, approach their practices and instrument very differently than those who worked in the field during the previous half century. This is not entirely down to a specific generational concern or a natural progression within creative culture. It has a great deal to do with the fact that most began making music on computers, and the specific attributes of that process and interface have formed the way they approach other technologies.
Beast – Chase Scene, from Beast Vol. 2. (2017)
This is an important consideration when approaching Beast Vol. 1 and Beast Vol. 2 Both are conceptual and technological hybrids, which, despite the inevitability of citing their musical touchstones, could not have been in another era. They are a byproduct of the creative and technological evolutions of the last 20 years. They are re-imagining of history – of the heights of the avant-garde, bound with popular music, in a form that is entirely of our moment.
There is a trigger, built on signifiers, which is impossible to avoid. Both volumes of the Beast project are bound, both conceptually and aesthetically, to Minimalism – built largely from clusters and cycles of rhythmic, arpeggiating notes. Crucially, what appears within these two LPs is not aestheticism or pastiche, it is the endgame of a long line of thinking which began with Riley, Glass, Reich, Conrad, and Young.
As much as we want our heroes to be part of history, and to be recognized, there are dangers within the process of historicization itself. As Minimalism has become canonized – wrapped within the high tradition of Western Classical music, the social and political conceits from which it grew, not to mention its celebrations, have been pushed to the side. When we return to the movement’s origins, paradox presents. Minimalism began as an attack on the very tradition within which it is now cocooned. Beyond its reductions, repetitions, relationships, structures, and sounds, there are two crucial elements at its foundation. Musical Minimalism was an attempt to break the vacuum which surrounded Western Classical music. Its radicalism drew on the introduction of ideas from beyond its borders – in many cases from non-Westerns musics, and in others from fine-art. It set out to create an elevated, elemental, and complex music, which might be accessible to all. It was conceived as an effort in sonic democracy – a new form, where popular music met high art – a sociocultural bridge, the likes of which had only previously been seen in jazz.
Beast departs from the original concerns of musical Minimalism – those lofty and noble ideas which entered the world with Riley, Glass, Reich, Conrad, and Young, but rather than returning the past to our ears, it imagines an alternate history – what music might have sounded like if they had achieved their goals. Both volumes are elemental, rhythmic wonders, which, rather than being made to make you dance – like so many musics from across the globe, follow another path, tap the soul, and make your feet move all the same. In effect, Beast Vol. 1, and Beast Vol. 2 are two generative, progressive works, within the same line of conceptual thought. They are freestanding, but, like painting emerging from an artist’s studio, they are in inevitable conversation, one departing from the accomplishments of the next.
Beast – Beast Vol. 1 (2017)
Beast Vol. 1 is a work, shifting across three movements – Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, built from tuned percussion and synthesizer – cycling arpeggiated notes, against a rippling, extended palette of tone. What begins as a potential nod to Sumire Yoshihara’s two Marimba realization of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, with a dash of Francis Bebey’s work on Sanza thrown in, quickly delves toward the unknown – the hypothetical links between Minimalism, avant-garde electronic music, New Age, and IDM. On it’s own, it stunningly surprising, taking the ear on a creative journey through countless musical traditions, but within Koen’s two decades of work, it is shocking – like nothing else we’ve heard from him before. A radical leap manages to sound like countless other things, while being like nothing else.
Beast – Beast Vol. 2 (2017)
Beast Vol. 2 expands the structures and palette explored in the first LP. It’s instrumentation shifts into more ambitious realms, with works centered around piano and woodwinds, spliced with a thick tapestry of synthesis. As an album it displays greater structural and tonal complexity, which, by default, is more challenging. Electronic elements gain a stronger hold, while sources become harder to track, dancing between totemic, isolated singularity and shimmering clusters, conjoined as pregnant ambience.
Particularly given the nature of their release, it’s hard not to view both albums together, joined as volumes of the same narrative. Sequentially, they present a remarkable logic – a journey through conceptual sound and hypothetical history – starting and ending with dynamic bangs. Where Vol. 1 begins with a nod to Steve Reich, the piano of Vol. 2 ’s final work, Taipei Hideaway enters with a dystopian jolt – a jarring, organic mechanism, which flirts with the territories explored by the Lithuanian composer Rytis Mažulis – a frenetic, strange realm when computers undermine our expectations of instruments we know well.
While Beast Vol. 1 and Beast Vol. 2. are steeped in the traditions of avant-garde music, not to mention Koen’s long history within the field, what makes them remarkable is how accessible they are. They’re the kind of Trojan horse of which the Minimalists dreamed, but never fulfilled – as likely to bring fans of popular and electronic dance music into the arms of the avant-garde, as they are to do the same in reverse. Not only are they conversations through and with music, but emblems of why so many of us joined this world – to meet, speak, and learn. A remarkable achievement on every count, and reminder of what great art is all about. Hats off to my dear old friend. Beast Vol. 1 and Beast Vol. 2 are out now via Pre-Echo Press. You can check out sample below. You can grab the digital downloads on Koen’s Bandcamp page, or pick up the LPs from Forced Exposure in the US, and SoundOhm in Europe.
Beast – Yesterday, from Beast Vol. 1 (2017)
Beast – Look Out, from Beast Vol. 1 (2017)