Courtesy of Luc Houtkamp


Entropy Stereo


Just back from tour, Luc Houtkamp sat down with the Roadshow. Houtkamp is yet another of the endless stream of creative improviser to come out of Europe. These musicians are taking music based in traditional jazz and giving it the face lift it has been desperately looking for. Houtkamp doesn't even classify under what is conventionally thought of as jazz these days. Playing the saxophone and utilizing electronics, Houtkamp is a new breed. Thank god. I present Houtkamp unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

LUC HOUTKAMP: Although I didn't come from a musical family, I always had an interest in music. As a child, I discovered a collection of classical records from my half-brother. He got married to a woman who hated music, so he gave his record collection to my parents. They were mostly the popular classics: Beethoven piano sonatas 8 and 14, Wagner (The Flying Dutchman), Mozart, Mendelssohn (Italian Symphony), etc. I loved it all and pretended I was a conductor and conducted for whole afternoons standing on a chair in front of the record player. When I was about thirteen, I got already bored with rock. I was looking for better stuff. So I started listening to blues and from blues to jazz and I always had an interest in contemporary composed music. I heard a lot of new music on the radio, taped it, and wrote the details about the music in a booklet.

FJ: Was the saxophone your first instrument?

LUC HOUTKAMP: I started playing the saxophone when I was fourteen. I had only a brief formal training with a private teacher. Those were the wild Sixties. I was listening to all those Impulse! records of Ayler, Shepp, and Coltrane. I tried to imitate those players and played along with their records. My parents were not musical, but they had an artistic background. I went to an art college instead of the conservatory to learn painting. I was a very bad painter, but I met some musicians there too and got involved and played my first gigs. When I got my saxophone (my father gave an old alto for my birthday), things went fast. The first ICP records came out and I ordered them. I went to concerts, saw Willem Breuker and Brotzmann. I saw Clifford Jordan and Dexter Gordon playing with Han Bennink and met friends to play music with. At the art college, there was a small electronic studio. Michel Waisvisz organized that studio. As he was playing with ICP, he got all kinds of guest teachers in like Han Bennink and Gilius van Bergeijk. That was how I met Sven-Ake Johansson, who decided to stay in Den Haag for a year. With him, I started playing my first concerts. One of the first concerts was in London at the ICES Festival in 1972. That festival was the end of an era and the beginning of a new. Everybody played there. The old fluxus people: Nam June Paik, Carlotte Moorman, the improvisers: AMM, Lol Coxhill, the composers: Cage, Gavin Bryars, the youngsters: Steve Beresford (that was my first meeting with him). So that whole festival was a big learning school for me. I knew that things would be different from now on. I started a duo with Sven and I got some work too: a festival in Gent, Belgium, concerts in Holland, a week in a nightclub in St. Pauli in Hamburg for an audience of dining people. When I stopped playing with Sven (he moved back to Germany, so it was hard to play much together), I played mostly with Dutch musicians in ad hoc groups and usually went over to London twice a year to play all those door money gigs with people like Steve Beresford, John Russell and Peter Cusack. An important development was starting a trio named Klimaat in the early Eighties with violin player Maartje ten Hoorn and bass player Jan den Boer. In that group, I developed the basic elements of my personal style. We played a lot as a trio, but also worked with our English friends, especially John Russell.

FJ: Influences?

LUC HOUTKAMP: Mengelberg, Raaymakers, Shepp, Monk, Rollins, Stockhausen, Messiaen, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker. I liked all kinds of music and listened to it and it is still the same. I like to go to the essence in music and then it doesn't matter much which style it is or if it is serious or popular music. But at the same time, I am a jazz lover by nature. I went backwards in history with my interests very soon. I started with those Impulse! records, but then listened to Charlie Parker, to Ellington and later discovered Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Fats Waller, etc. I used to go to Amsterdam to play with a piano player named Kees Hazevoet, together with Han Bennink. He was always the big expert on jazz. He knew all the obscure players: Herbie Nichols, Elmo Hope, Pete Brown, and Walter "Foots" Thomas. First, we played a bit, smoked a lot of dope and then we went to his house and listened to records.

FJ: As a largely self-taught musician, are you of the opinion that it is necessary for a musician to study his instrument formally in order to be respected amongst their peers?

LUC HOUTKAMP: Although I am not unhappy with the way I became a musician, I would advice nobody to the same way. I think it is just the only way I can do things myself. There is something inside of me that I can only do things when I find them out myself. At school, I was not too good at music and math, and yet I became a musician and a composer of computer music. I think it is very important to learn your skills. My
friends mostly went to the conservatory and later became professors there. I followed a totally other road, but they are still my friends. I think it just depends on your character.

FJ: Any advice for the Gen X improvisers?

LUC HOUTKAMP: What should younger players do? That's really up to the younger players, I would say. But if I'm allowed to say a little bit more, I would say, find something personal and maybe opposed to ideas of the older generation of improvisers. I see a lot of clichés in improvised music now. There is the danger that it develops in the same way as jazz. I hear lots of young Derek Baileys and Evan Parkers all the time. I don't see why people are criticizing Wynton Marsalis, when the same thing seems to happen in improvised music too. There are also other people now, like younger musicians who are coming from the dance scene and who are doing interesting things with electronics. But at the same time, they are also using the old forms and structures, so it's merely a difference in sound. I think it is much more interesting when there are other ideas about forms, rather than other sounds. To me, it is important how music works and only in the second place, how it sounds.

FJ: Do you have a particular approach to your instrument?

LUC HOUTKAMP: Here is a bit on my approach: I like it when it is very hard to tell how much of my music is improvised and how much is composed. I develop things at home and during concerts. I try to play the things that I like again and I try to practice those things at home and work them out more properly. So I don't have the feeling I am a pure improviser. I am not a pure composer as well. I perform my own music, so I don't need to write my music down. I can always decide to play my pieces different. I always compare it to the way people in the Ellington band worked. Hodges played the same solos every night, but he never composed them. He also didn't improvise them. They were frozen improvisations. That is how I look at it too. I am not against completely improvised music, but I don't really know what that is. One can't just improvise completely blank. There are always the things a player has developed over the years. So there is always some compositional elements in the music. I only know of one exception: Misha Mengelberg. He is the only one who can really sit behind the piano and invent, or at least re-invent music on the spot. I have a lot of admiration for that, but it's not my personal way of working. I like to work in certain directions and see every concert as a phase in working on one piece, a piece that never will be finished, but still a piece.

FJ: For those in the know, Mengelberg's foundation is rooted in the traditions of jazz, but he has managed to develop those conceptions and battered them unrecognizable.

LUC HOUTKAMP: The two most influential people on my music were Misha Mengelberg and Dick Raaymakers. Misha is perhaps much better known than Raaymakers, who is an electronic composer, and is, like Misha, an excellent music philosopher. They know each other very well and their ideas are almost complementary to one other. From both, I learned to be radical and to present my music in a barren form, without any adornment, that could lead away from the subject.

FJ: You were one of the first improvisers I heard utilize electronic music, what intrigued you about electronic music?

LUC HOUTKAMP: The reason why I want to use electronics, especially computers: one of the ideals in my music is to combine composition with improvisation is such a way that you can't say what is improvised and what is composed. Computer can help you with that. I write interactive programs that can respond to improvisers. In those programs, I write the rules for a composition, the possible combinations, etc., but not the composition. The computer starts composing on stage as a response to what happens there. To me, that gives a very interesting integration of compositional and improvisational elements. With electronic music, but also with music in general, I am more interested in processes than in the sound itself or in the medium or the technology. I will never use electronics just for the fun of it. But I am very interested in the possibilities that using electronics give. I am recently writing software musical instruments, moving more into the sound world of electronic music again (for the interactive pieces I always used a Disklavier for the sounds). This year, my first CD will come out that only has electronics on it. At first sight, I am moving more into the direction of pure electronic music, but at the same time the music was never more influenced by jazz as on this one. There is a modal free jazz piece with an early Sixties Coltrane drive. There is a Monkish thirty-two bar piece and there is even a version of Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye."

FJ: Let's touch on your integral collaborations with John Russell.

LUC HOUTKAMP: John is really an old friend, both personal and musical. Since we started playing in the mid-Seventies, it has been like that and a few years ago, I realized that we actually never recorded together. So I took a flight to London in 1998 and recorded a track that I released on my duo album: The duo recordings (X-OR FR 7). I would love to record a whole album with him at some point, if I would only find a record label that is interested in such a thing.

FJ: And your work with the King Ubu Orchestra?

LUC HOUTKAMP: I think I played in King Ubu for about five years. It was interesting since I played solo or with duos or trios for most of my life. But after a while, I started to get difficulties with the idea of just being part of one collective sound. In group playing and even in solo playing, I am very interested in clearness in sound and in orchestrations, more interested in the relations between the different voices than in building one sound with players. The most essential criticism I received from Fuchs at some point was that he could hear me! From that moment on, I felt that I was not really the right player for that group.

FJ: What is the current scene in the Netherlands?

LUC HOUTKAMP: I'm not only from the Netherlands, but from the city of Den Haag and taking the risk to be seen as a provincial artist, I like to say that this is something special. An interesting thing of the improvised music scene in Den Haag is that it's so different from the Amsterdam scene. Here in Den Haag, there is a much stronger connection to the electronic and composed music scene. There is another excellent saxophone player in Den Haag, Peter van Bergen and his group LOOS is very interesting. He tries to combine composed and improvised music in a very personal way. It's very different from my way of working, but the basic ideas are very familiar. We are both interested in how to combine composed and improvised music in a different way than simply having a score with blank places where one is free to do whatever.

FJ: You have primarily promoted your own music without the aid of a major label or without exposure in magazines in the US. How difficult has it been to balance artistry with business?

LUC HOUTKAMP: It's not easy and it does take away some time that could be better
used for other things. But on the other hand, it's to do it all yourself. You yourself are the responsible person and you learn a lot too. I think anybody who has a business has to handle his own company. Artist are not at all an exception, although some see it as something which they are too good for. I always feel that is an arrogance. An artist is not more important than the owner of a grocery store, so besides that he needs to sell good and fresh vegetables, he should make sure that others can see how good they are! The reason for starting X-OR records is the usual reason. I was promised a CD on an existing label, I recorded it, but then the deal was cancelled. So I had to release it myself. That was my solo CD, The Songlines. It sold quite well, so I looked for a partner in business and found Gert-Jan Prins, who is an excellent percussionist and electronic composer. We started to release different CDs of our own music and we are now slowly start releasing work of other people too. We are basically interested in music within the triangle: improvised music, electronic music, and rock. So we have released material of composers like Gilius van Bergeijk, Huib Emmer and Paul Termos, but also from Gert-Jan's rock trio, Analecta. We have twenty CDs out now and this year we will release another three.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and working to end shitty improvisation. Email Him.