TIM PERKIS: WRITINGS
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Luc Houtkamp is a composer/saxophonist who bridges the gap between the worlds of jazz-derived free improvisation and computer-based composition and performance. He has been long associated with STEIM in Amsterdam, a studio dedicated largely to exploring the use of electronic systems in live performance; over the same period of time he has regularly performed in acoustic improvisational ensembles as a saxophonist. His US tour this year reflects this dual nature: his performances are equally split between presentations of his live computer/instrumentalist works, and solo saxophone performances.
His performances in the San Francisco Bay area both were of works designed for performer and computer. Houtkamp's computer based work bears some resemblance to the work of George Lewis (who was also a guest performer at his CNMAT performance), in which a computer program takes the role of an improvising listener and player. The computer analyzes sound input from the live performer and controls MIDI gear, either synthesizers or sound processing devices modifying the live player's sound.
The first piece on the Mills concert program was Vogeltrek, a reference to the flocking behavior of birds. The image is of a relationship between the accompanying computer line and the saxophone line which mirrors the relationship between a lead bird in a flock and the following ones. This was an apt image for the movement of lines in this piece: unlike the more recent works later on the program, in this piece the computer line was very closely tied to the Houtkamp's saxophone line, acting more as timbral enhancement or translation of the saxophone line than as a truly independent voice.
In Wittgenstein's Hand, also for a piano sound (or true MIDI piano when available), the computer voice has more independence and separate intelligence. (The title refers to Paul Wittgenstein, the philosopher's brother, and one-handed piano virtuoso.) In this piece the program maintains four banks of melodic material recorded from the live player, and applies eight different forms of stylistic analysis to this material in order to determine what to play itself. Sometimes it will match the player's line along some parameter, other times it will try to contradict it. The lines are monophonic, very dry and angular, following no obvious tonal center or harmonic movement. In fact the timbral contrast between the piano/computer line and Houtkamp's is so great that the effect is not really polyphonic, but more like a crystalline framework for the earthy and rich horn sound.
Houtkamp's playing is fascinating: it is very easy to hear that he has been working equally in electronics and on the saxophone for years, and that his development as a player has been accompanied by an interest in electronic textures. The playing is somewhat static, focused most often on timbre, reliant on rich multiphonics which sound like ring modulation, and slap-tongued pops like pulses through a resonant filter.
The two other pieces on the Mills program explored this timbral area, with electronic voicings which blended very closely with the saxophone, really working together to create a unified orchestral sound. InThe Rule of Thumb, a MIDI controlled harmonizer extended Houtkamp's squeaks and growls to a truly eerie and scary chorus of harpies; the processing again was dynamically controlled and modified by the playing, with the performer advancing through a set of rules of analysis with footpedals.
The last work, and the strongest of
the evening, was Odd & Even, a composition for tape and performer by
Houtkamp and the late Tony van Campen. It was composed by a laborious,
intuitive and multilayered process of recording of saxophones and analog
synthesizers to MIDI samplers, playing these samples with sequencers onto
multitrack tape and mixed. The power of this piece is a lesson that there
is no substitute for complex means in achieving real liveliness and richness
of sound. The tape feels exactly like a multiplication of what Houtkamp
does alone on the saxophone, like the music that would issue from an orchestra
of Houtkamps all playing something a bit more than mere earthly saxophones.
It created a broad sonic world, inclusive enough to permit Mills' perennial
springtime frog chorus to join in.