Luc Houtkamp: an interview by Jon Morgan

This interview appeared in print in the July/Aug 1999 issue of Signal to Noise and appears with permission. For more information, contact

To all but the most zealous and insatiable fans, conversation about the Dutch jazz scene will generally conjure up images and anecdotes of the zany tomfoolery of Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink, or perhaps the Clusone Trio or Willem Breuker. Few, if any, will point out that in addition to Amsterdam; equally vital music is being created in an altogether different atmosphere in Den Haag. Den Haag born and based saxophonist Luc Houtkamp (saxophonist Peter van Bergen is another) is a musician who has spent three decades refining his craft, and nonchalantly going about his business outside the spotlight.

"An interesting thing about 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."

Houtkamp, a solidly built, gruff toned, but soft spoken, tenor and alto saxophonist in his mid-forties is anything but stationary. The past few years alone have found him serving a four month stint as a guest lecturer in electronic music and composition at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa; touring Canada with his trio of pianist Fred Van Hove and percussionist Gert-Jan Prins; or globetrotting through Europe and North America as a soloist or in ad hoc combinations with International improvisers. His label with Prins, X-OR, has documented the trio Live In Canada 1997 (X-OR FR 6) and most recently released a disc of the saxophonist's encounters The Duo Recordings (X-OR FR 7).

After receiving his first saxophone as a present from his father in his early teens, Houtkamp had a brief period of formal training, but just as much musical education arrived via his attempts to play along with the Impulse records of Coltrane, Ayler, and Shepp. Ironically, Houtkamp's enrollment in art school indirectly led to his pursuit of being a professional musician.

"I went to 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. At the Art College there was a small electronic studio that Michel Waisvisz organized. As he was playing with the ICP (Instant Composers Pool), he got all kinds of guest teachers in like Han Bennink and Gilius van Bergeijk. That was how I met (drummer) Sven-Åke Johansson, who decided to stay in Den Haag for a year."

Playing in a duo with Johansson, Houtkamp was able to get work in Belgium, Holland, Germany and, most importantly, at the ICES festival in London in 1972. "That festival was the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. Everybody played there, old fluxus people like Nam June Paik and Carlotte Moorman, improvisers like AMM and Lol Coxhill, and composers like John Cage and Gavin Bryars. So that whole festival was a big learning school for me. I knew that things would be different from then on."

After Johansson moved back to Germany, Houtkamp began to play in more ad hoc combinations and occasionally trekked from Den Haag to London to perform with peers like guitarist John Russell and pianist Steve Beresford. Eventually, Houtkamp put together a trio named Klimaat with violinist Maartje ten Hoorn and bassist Jan den Boer in the late seventies. This group proved pivotal in providing Houtkamp with a means to develop his own style in addition to making a more concise break from the jazz tradition. "I still had the feeling at that time that I couldn't combine the two things that interested me most in music; the constructional ideas with the energy-like things that came from my jazz background. In the last years, I have worked more and more to get these two together. To me jazz is mainly a form of dead music, like Baroque music is dead. I mean it can still be played, but it can't really be developed anymore. You have to step out of it to make interesting music."

While Houtkamp frequently participates in festivals and performances where he is placed in unfamiliar combinations with other improvisers, he feels most comfortable working with his trio with Van Hove and Prins, working solo, or composing. "I need to stay at home more and simply work as a composer. It is sometimes hard to combine composing with performing. For composing you have to sit at home and live a regular life. The thing is that I like touring a lot, but then it's very hard to find the peace to make things."

Houtkamp has been performing solo for nearly 20 years, during which time three recordings of his unaccompanied saxophone music have been released. A stickler for clarity in his expression, Houtkamp has sought out ways of organizing these solo concerts. "In the beginning I was very interested in using compositional devices in my improvisations; improvising a first theme, then a contra-subject, third, making variations on the first theme, interpolating ideas of the second theme, etc... in fact, a very classical approach. Later, I became more interested again in the Coltrane-like energy thing. It is hard to tell how much 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 either. I perform my own music so I don't need to write my music down. I can always decide to play my pieces differently." Houtkamp continues, "When I improvise there are certain directions I like to go, but the exact route can be very different. So I know where I want to be going, but there are always little sidetracks or new variations. 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 see every concert as a phase in working on one piece, a piece that will never be finished, but still a piece."

For Houtkamp, the use of interactive computers enables him to blur the line between composition and improvisation further, as well as delving deeper into the possibilities of electronics within the new music. "I never liked the idea of just improvising with a tape, because the tape always sounds the same. I wanted to have the electronics as flexible as my improvisation, but still grounded in compositional rules." Houtkamp explains how he has devised a program in which the computer and the improviser can interact. "I write the rules for a composition, the possible combinations, etc, but not the composition. The computer starts composing on stage in response to what happens there. 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 think that with interactive computer music we are still in the Stone Age of development. There are only a few people working in that area such as George Lewis and Le Quan Ninh. The technology is still very primitive so the results can be still quite elementary, but I think it's very important to do this work. I have things in my mind which are still impossible, it is for instance, very difficult to get the computer to respond to sound color, so there is a lot of work to do."

As long as the technology continues to evolve and venues continue to book Houtkamp's trio and solo performances, the saxophonist will strive to put Den Haag on the map as another Dutch musical hotbed. "I don't want to change the world, making music is just the thing that I am best at, so I do it and try to make a living out of it. It's possible, but not easy. You have to think constantly about how to organize things, work very hard, look for possibilities, be active, and have patience."