Dirty hands, Clean aesthetics

An introduction by Alwynne Pritchard

Luc Houtkamp is a man who hates to get his hands dirty.  Setting out in life with plans to become a visual artist, he soon abandoned paint and ink in preference for the cleaner art of music.  And it seems he has a taste for order, too, his apartment containing nothing less functional than his much-loved cat Mingus.  That said, it does contain a fair amount of stuff, another indication, perhaps, of the inspiration Houtkamp draws from a diverse range of sources, both at home and in his work.  And certainly, the dexterity with which he manages to synthesize the most unlikely musical elements in his work seems to be a testament to a highly organized and deftly analytical mind, qualities he employs to create music that is generous, funny and surprising.


Drawing by Gabriël Kousbroek

An exemplary demonstration of Houtkamp’s aesthetic can be found in his extended BoX of BriX project of 2010; an assemblage of components compiled according to its own uncanny principles of construction, its own surreal rules of play.  Despite the distinct character of the constituent modules that make up BoX of BriX, however, Houtkamp’s intention here is in fact to explore the possibilities of musical continua between these blocks, with specific lines of continuity, specific modes of transition, forming the constructive backbone of the piece.  Houtkamp describes his approach to form here as an extension of Stockhausen’s concept of compositional structure, where the overall form is perceived as a  kind of ‘timbre’, driven by the relationships between, and coloured by the constituent components of, melody, harmony, meter, rhythm and amplitude.  For Houtkamp, however, investigating lines of continuum between improvisation and composition, and the possibilities for morphing or splicing between musical styles (boldly declared only to be yet more boldly dissolved), is also an essential part of the composition process, along with an integrated use of electronic and acoustic instruments and live-processed acoustic sound.

What then of the relationship today between Houtkamp’s work as performer, improviser and composer?  In the light of his African experience it will come as no surprise to hear that Houtkamp prefers to have personal relationships with the musicians who perform his work, or to be directly involved in the performance process itself.  But as he points out, historically, this has been always common practice: until, that is, the late-Romantic preference for having star conductors mediate the genius of a composer’s mind through the vast medium of the orchestra.  Duke Ellington, however, wrote music for the members of his band, working as composer, performer and improviser, much as Bach had done centuries before him.  And in the 21st century, with electronics bringing improvisation back into the processes of both composing and performing, Houtkamp can make full use of what he describes as a more healthy creative situation.  That said, Houtkamp has also begun to establish a catalogue of composed works, for the most part developed in close collaboration with musicians, but not by any limited to performance by them alone.  Uiterste Staat  (Utmost State, 2008/09 for electric guitar and two computers) for example, is a three-movement work defined by extremes, with meticulously notated virtuosity, guided improvisation, modulation-free tonality and crackling electronic sounds proceeding through rapid exchange and in quick succession.  Like BoX of BriX, Uiterste Staat  employs familiar objects, structures, timbres or styles as the frame through which we can experience something new and for this reason it is equally demonstrative of Houtkamp’s core composition concerns.

It is, however, only since around 2002 that Houtkamp has begun to describe himself as a composer at all, his main musical activities having previously been specific to improvisation and the writing of interactive computer programs.  And despite his early studies in the plastic arts, it is the relationship between music and dance, and specifically in Jazz and Africa forms, that is most evident in much of Houtkamp’s music.  The fact that many African countries use only one word to describe both music and dance, clearly demonstrates how interrelated the two practices are on that continent, and for Houtkamp this is also true of Jazz music and dance of the 1930s, and something he aspires to in his own work.  This goes some way to explaining the unusual and highly versatile combination of performers Houtkamp brought together when he formed the POW ensemble back in 2001, in which computers, acoustic and electronic instruments, live electronic processing and turn tables can often be heard performing with an unusual addition to their rhythm section: tap dancer, no less.

In many of his projects, Houtkamp’s main goal has been to create music that is essentially improvised but nonetheless gives an almost symphonic feel of being through-composed, with themes, counter-subjects, variations and other traditional formal constructs.  And although he professes admiration for many Jazz musicians, the traditional structure of Jazz performances, with improvised variations sandwiched between opening and closing statements of the theme, is something Houtkamp has always strongly disliked.  So, rather than putting improvised and composed structures side by side, it is the act of smelting them together that excites Houtkamp, who is more than happy to get his fingers metaphorically very dirty in the musical melding and formal moulding of  his materials.  This combination of rigour and flexibility has proven central to the formation of Houtkamp’s creative personality and distinctive compositional voice.  For Houtkamp, cultural and personal identity is fluid, finding power in change.  But what is exciting about the music he makes is that this change does not take place without resistance; without jagged juxtapositions, musical anomalies and moments of surreal humour acting as counterweights to the unifying musical forces Houtkamp is constantly searching out.

Alwynne Pritchard, fall 2011

British composer and Festival Director of the Borealis Contemporary Music Festival, Bergen, Norway