For a number of years I have been pondering what I consider to be the great double edged sword of our era. With the rise of the internet, we have entered a time where access to information, both in immediacy and quantity, exceeds all prior. With this comes a degree of overwhelming saturation. When everything is available, how do you qualify value? Does value exist? Where do you focus your attention and let it rest? I’m not one to judge how people access information and explore territories. I certainly advocate more access than less. I would never tell anyone how to listen. I do think the nature of exchange and encounter has an effect on how something is engaged with. That particularly with regard to music, our double-click / scroll-through culture does not do justice to what we discover. Downloading something off a blog and moving onto the next “discovery” affects the degree of investment. This music once “obtained” often sits gathering virtual dust in our memories or on our hard drives and rarely receives the attention it deserves. Whether or not money exchanges hands, this is a symptom of a hyper-capitalist methodology. Consumption as a signifier for possession. Where knowledge or a personal relationship is not necessarily obtained, only the impetus to consume more.
The seeds of this condition predate the internet. I first noticed it in my early teens when my appetite for music began to reach obsessive levels. Albums I dubbed onto blank tapes held less “value”. The music was the same, but something was lost within these second generation tapes. They seemed less likely to enticed me. To have less weight than albums I had saved for. This was particularly the case if they presented challenges to my comfort zone. I hadn’t fought for the object and translated its value into my own terms. Why would I be compelled to fight for the music? This condition was offset by a single factor – the enthusiasm of others. The more a friend valued a piece of music, the more I wanted to engage with it. The more challenges it presented, the more I wanted to understand what my friend heard. These instances were where I found my greatest rewards. Something that remains true to this day. In an era of rapid mass consumption, the slow and occasional recommendation of a friend holds more value than all the potential of the internet combined.
This is a tribute and a thanks to one such friend and his generosity with his knowledge of music over the years. He has brought more startling surprises and beauty to my ears than any other person. A gift that that defies the clutches of capital. One of immeasurable value.
Koen Holtkamp has long been a familiar name in the world of experimental music. Along with Brendon Anderegg he is one half of the duo Mountains (Thrill Jockey) He has released a steady stream of albums under his own name (Thrill Jockey, Barge, Type) and, also with Brendon, founded the seminal Apestaartje imprint. I met Koen in 1996. At the time I was in my first year at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He came to visit Brendon who was my roommate and slept on our floor for a few days. I don’t remember much about that weekend, but I remember liking him. He transferred to SAIC the next Autumn. Our paths crossed occasionally in the following years, but both of our respective studies consumed us and we ran in different circles. As a result I didn’t get to know him well during that time. Brendon, Koen, and I all moved to New York in the early 2000’s. First Koen, then myself after finishing graduate school in Philadelphia, then Brendan who had been living in Portland after leaving Chicago. The three of us quickly gelled into a tight circle of friendship which remains to this day. In those years, these two had an unfair advantage over me. Brendon worked at Kim’s and Koen at Other Music. Both were able to explore music and bring home stacks of records while they made their living. This stood in stark contrast to my life working in commercial art galleries where everything was beyond reach. I relied on them heavily to turn me on to albums both new and old. Brendon’s appetite was much closer to my own. Voracious, scattered, incredibly curious and punctuated by deep binges. Koen on the other hand has always been a cautious and careful listener. His record collection was built with extreme care. He plumbed the depths far deeper and never relied on a quick fix to satisfy him. As a result he now possess on of the most beautifully curated collections I know. One of the few whose contents regularly inspires jealousy and yields a steady flow beyond the depths of my knowledge.
Like myself, Koen places as much importance on sharing what he has discovered as he does discovery itself. His knowledge of recorded music is so deep that I feel startled and lucky every time I am able to turn him onto something and return his many favors. Every few weeks I find myself on the carpet in his living room watching him pull unknown mysteries from the shelves and drop them onto the turntable. I am a more careful listener than I was in my early 20’s. I proceed with caution and scrutiny. Koen never fails to inspire. Every record he pulls seems to send me on a frantic hunt. His only sin is not warning me how rare these records often are. This is a small stack of those that have found their way into my collection. Without Koen’s generosity I doubt I would have discovered them.
Burundi – Musiques Traditionnelles (1968)
This is easily my favorite record of African Music. It also would likely find its way onto any list of my favorite albums of all time. It is a mind-melting marvel. Absolutely stunning and unlike any musical tradition I have heard before or since. No words could ever do it justice. Those familiar with recordings of the World’s musical traditions, know that in the decades following Second World War, the French produced the best releases. Of those the Ocora label is arguably the greatest, and this might be their finest hour. Most startling is the Male “Whispering Music” where it almost seems the singer is channeling Tom Waits over wooden percussion, and the Akazéhé for two girls where rhythmic vocal patterns ripple and intertwine and make you wonder if it isn’t a lost Steve Reich work hiding in the heart of Africa.
Luciano Cilio – Dialoghi Del Presente (1977)
This album defies category. It’s minimal but is not systemic in process and thus is not Minimalism in the classic sense. It is a profound statement of aching beauty. Sadly Cilio took his own life shortly after its completion at the age of 33 and thus it remains his one recorded document. It leaves the heart and ear yearning for more. Despite singularity, it sits comfortable within the tradition of the remarkable Italian minimal avant-garde of the 1970’s (Battiato, Pio, Cacciapaglia, Marchetti, Stratos etc.) It is subtle, sparse and incredibly rich. At times this feels like classical music for a small ensemble. At others like pure avant-garde experiment. As it eases toward any one tradition, it immediately confronts and defies it. Piano, stringed instruments, woodwinds, percussion and vocal drones interlaced. Melody and harmony picked at and unwound. If I was to recommend a starting point to an amazing period in Italy’s musical history this would be it.
Kathy & Carol – Kathy & Carol (1965)
This is exactly the album you would expect from the 1960’s folk revival that spawned it, yet I know nothing quite like it. It isn’t one of those albums that makes an about face from a tradition and breaks paradigm. Quite the opposite. It feels solidly of its moment, which is partially why it is impossible to ignore how incredible it is. Because it is what you expect it to be, and has so many piers which bear equivalent, you hear how easily it levels the field. In many ways, discovering this album made me consider what it might have been like to be exposed to Dylan’s many imitators before hearing the real deal. How mislead and duped you might feel. This album does something similar. It proves the distinguishable value of great talent. It is easy to be satisfied until confronted with great artists, after which there is no turning back. It’s a pretty rare record, which implies that it didn’t sell well. Another one of life’s mysteries! Unquestionably one of the most beautiful harmonizing duo records of all time, one that leaves me a little disappointed with my parents’ generation for siding with Ian and Sylvia, Simon and Garfunkel and Crosby Stills & Nash. Worth the effort of the years it might take you to track it down.
Dorothy Carter – Troubadour (1976)
I have a real thing for Hammered Dulcimer records. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must, but there’s something about the instrument that really gets under my skin. This is probably my favorite of those I own. It’s a pretty wild ride, far from the traditional or Folk revival records that usually feature the instrument. I place Dorothy Carter as the Robbie Basho of dulcimer players. There is an emotion in her attack of the instrument that I’ve heard no where else. She creates aggressive sheets of melody and tone which are doubled by their pure percussiveness. She sounds fierce. Her instrument is often backed by a droning Tanpura while other moments find her singing in a howling voice over the top. It’s incredible and I know of no equivalents. Born in 1935, Carter was a generation ahead of most of the hippies that might have made anything similar at the time. I expect her age and experience added a weight and dynamic to the album and begs unanswerable questions of how the hell she ended up here.
Raul Lovisoni / Francesco Messina – Prati Bagnati Del Monte Analogo (1979)
This is an album that I had to work for. When Koen first introduced it to me, I have to admit that I rolled my eyes. It was only due to his insistence and overwhelming enthusiasm for it that I gave it a third>forth>fifth> and sixth listen that it required to bring me to a place where I felt comfortable buying it. I’m always happy to admit when I’m wrong and I was.. but there was a reason for this. One of the things that most often draws me into music is its tension. This album isn’t cold or analytical but it does not present tension easily. In time I began to pick out what had eluded me in Lovisoni and Messina’s compositions. My first listen had misread it as an artifact of New Age. It has a similar ambiance. This is not a blissed-out fancy of the late Hippie era. It’s rigorously composed. Part of its difficulty is in how time is contained on its two sides. It unfolds so slowly that notes often play against space and resonance rather than each other. I’m a huge fan of minimal and endurant music, but this possesses something that I don’t have words for. It requires a great deal of memory and patience to start to unwind. If achieved, it is an incredibly beautiful and rewarding listen.
Duane Pitre – Feel Free (2012)
A couple of years ago Koen’s introduced me to his friend Duane’s new album. Contextually this instance stands in stark contrast to my reaction to Lovisoni and Messina’s Prati Bagnati Del Monte Analogo mentioned above. I was immediately overwhelmed. If anyone asked me for a list of favorite list of young composers Duane would be at the top. Prior to Koen’s introduction, I was peripherally aware of him as former pro-skater gaining a fair amount of respect in the experimental music world. To that point I hadn’t gotten around to giving him a chance. Feel Free was a kick in my gut of regret for not having gotten to him sooner. This album is fantastic. It is sparse, incredibly tense, rigorous and absolutely beautiful. It’s closest equivalents are the members of the Italian minimal avant-garde of the 1970’s mentioned above. There is more pregnant space in this album than almost any other I can think of. Each note a rippling punctuation against the next. Nothing about this feels experimental. Pitre seems to know exactly where he is. As a composer he is meticulous. I would call this as close to achieving the perfect album as anyone has ever gotten.
Gunn-Truscinski Duo – Sand City (2010)
I’ve been lucky enough to spend close to half of my adult life abroad. Travel has been particularly good to my obsessive hunt for records. Every new city yields things I thought I’d never see. Sometimes you find what’s best closest to home. In 2012 I found myself in America for the first time in 7 years. I’d been in NY for 10 days when Hurricane Sandy struck and stranded me for another two weeks. I spent the bulk of it staying with Brendon but at the end of three weeks it was time to shift over to Koen’s couch. On my last night in town he played me this record. I’ve been following Steve Gunn since picking up his first solo release in 2007. I’ve always been a fan but was never fully hooked. This album was different. I was completely blown away. Truly love at first listen. I woke up the next morning in a panic. Afraid I wouldn’t be able to find it when I returned home to London. What I didn’t account for was the massive snow storm that had begun to dump itself on New York that morning. With an hour to spare before leaving for my flight I ventured into the storm. What choice did I have? I skidded through slush from Greenpoint to N. 6th, got soaked but quickly found a copy at Academy. I made my flight just in time to sit on the runway in the storm for 5 hours wondering if I was ever going to get out of this city. Make it or not, I knew I had something special in my hands. In many ways this album is an obvious extension of groundwork laid by two of my favorite guitarists from the 60’s Sandy Bull and Peter Walker. There’s was the tradition of the Guitar Raga. Gunn and Truscinski make up a duo of drums and guitar and is proof that when something is done well, how little is required. It’s sides contain rolling repetitive jams that are completely intoxicating. Despite Gunn’s incredibly prolific last year and growing deserved fame, this remains my favorite off all his output.
Peter Walker – Long Lost Tapes 1970 (2009)
I love this record, but Koen didn’t actually introduce it to me. As mentioned in the Gunn- Truscinski write up, I’m a huge fan of Walker. I got to this one easily enough on my own. I’m writing about it to try and deliver some credit where it’s due. This collection of Walker recordings was assembled by Koen through a great deal of hard work for it’s original release in digital form for Anthology Recordings. I’m not sure if he ever got proper credit for his labors, but there is certainly no mention of him on Tompkins Square’s vinyl issue. It’s a wonderful document of Walker after he had drifted from sight and Koen deserves some acknowledgement for unearthing it. One of the things I love about this album is it’s honesty and how open it is. In many ways it feels more like a lo-fi experimental album from that 90’s (Tower Recordings, No Neck Blues Band, Hall of Fame…etc) against the carefully crafted albums of it’s own era. It feature Walker in rolling Raga improvisations over a wild array of percussion and bells. It’s sloppy and incredibly rich. Truly one of the best things to have been unearthed in an era obsessed with unearthing the past.