|Playing favourites: Mountains
After releasing their most explicitly electronic album yet, RA's Ian Mathers caught up with the experimental duo to talk about some of their influences.
Making a sound you've never heard before. That's always been the goal of experimental duo Koen Holtkamp and Brandon Anderegg, AKA Mountains. Over the course of five albums, they've abstracted the sound of the guitar into all manner of things. Overall, though, it's been largely classed as ambient. "Three people have told us that they've given birth to our music," Anderegg recently told The Village Voice in an interview. "So . . . that's something we're trying to get away from." As you can tell from their picks for this edition of our Playing Favourites series, their taste rarely touches on soothing sounds—even if that's the way it's sometimes perceived. Instead, it's a challenging and heady mix of artists who similarly aim to create something new.
Four Manifestations on Six Elements
Charlemagne Palestine has a really long-running, interesting discography. I was wondering if there was a specific reason you picked this particular release to talk about.
Koen Holtkamp: I tend to prefer his piano works overall, but I really like the first piece here. So I chose this because it showed a bit more in terms of having the electronic work together with piano stuff, a broader spectrum than just the piano pieces.
Is there something besides the obvious sonic similarity that appeals to you about Palestine?
Brendon Anderegg: For us the way that we layer acoustic guitars a lot of the time, we've talked about that in terms of the way that he brings these rich textures together through just using a few notes or using even only one note in multiple octaves and just layering and layering. It's such a rich sound. We're always talking about that in relation to the way we layer guitars and we layer sounds.
Koen Holtkamp: I think his piano playing probably has a lot more influence on the way we use fingerpicking guitar than a lot of more obvious folk music references.
It can be easy for people who aren't familiar with your music and the field or genre of music you work in to think "oh, it's just another ambient record, it sounds like the rest of them." You and Charlemagne Palestine are clearly doing different sorts of things with your music, but there is a surface similarity. Do you ever feel any pressure or desire to differentiate yourselves in some obvious way, or even just to avoid using any sort of elements that tend to be common in this kind of music?
Brendon Anderegg: My response to that would be, with every kind of music there's a lot out there, and there's a lot of people out there doing similar things in different ways. I listened to music that had no instruments in it exclusively for a year. At that point all I was thinking was "This has bass, guitar and drums. Why does everything have bass, guitar and drums in it?" The way we started when we were first making music comes more from the side of sound art; we both did experimental music in college. We've just been introducing stuff naturally along the way and working on our own sound. It's hard for us to think too much about what everyone else is doing in a contemporary sense. I feel like if you're trying to make music to suit other people, you're not doing what comes naturally to you.
The process or progression that Mountains is on, is there any sort of longer term plan or goal?
Koen Holtkamp: We have ideas. We've talked about doing a record with more arrangements and orchestration and getting some other people involved. I think we're busy enough that we're usually fairly caught up in what we're doing [at the moment though].
Presque Rien is just field recordings, with no extra elements added into it, right?
Koen Holtkamp: Yes, that's correct. It's very subtle, as opposed to some of the other early musique concrete stuff. The hand is not very evident, it's mostly just a document of a sense of space or place, versus very obvious edits or gestures. It's not abstracted in any way, it's more, not narrative on every level, but almost telling a story or something. That's what I find interesting on a personal level: hearing things in the world you find interesting and documenting and recording them.
Brendon Anderegg: For me, there's a level of detail you get through field recordings that you don't necessarily get using other sounds. It's a spacialness and a level of detail that you hear in the natural world. To use that in conjunction with the sounds that you're making that are not field recordings and kind of blurring the line between them is something I've always been interested in as well.
Do you tend to start with field recordings and bring music in? Or do you have non-field recording elements and think, "this would be a good place to bring in a field recording"?
Koen Holtkamp: It's actually kind of neither of those. We actually haven't been doing as much field recording recently, but generally in everyday life and travels we document things and have a bank of recordings. And we'll start working on music and think "oh, this would go well with that." It's not so much that we make a recording and think of a kind of music it would fit, we just kind of make the recording as an aside, and when we think "we could use this sort of thing here," we've got recordings from the last ten years or something to draw on. It's never quite as literal as "we need rain for this thing, let's go record rain."
The Key to the Kingdom
These days the issue of fidelity is a relatively contentious one. A lot of people are working in lower fidelity deliberately, and this recording (made in the late '20s) by necessity is lower fidelity. Do either of you have strong feelings about working with fidelity of your recordings? How much of the appeal of an older piece of music like Phillips' work is in the fidelity or production?
Brendon Anderegg: It's hard to say, because there is a certain nostalgia to an old recording. I don't know. I'd be curious to hear what this music would sound like if it had been recorded really well. We try to make our stuff sound as good as possible, and as detailed as possible; that's really important to us. In terms of fidelity, for me, there's a point when things are really lo-fi where you really can't hear any detail and even if they're playing really well. At that point, it's kind of difficult for me to really latch onto. If something has to be that quality, then I'll listen to it for what it is.
Koen Holtkamp: I think there's a big difference between a very old recording like the Washington Phillips stuff and what's going on now. Personally, we really spend a lot of time on every sound and really try to get as much detail and make it sound as good as possible.
Phillips has a less obvious sonic connection to Mountains that some of the other music on this list. Does this music resonate with what you guys are doing?
Brendon Anderegg: The instrumentation and the melodic elements of it... it's something you can almost imagine being played on a guitar. When I first bought that record we were using mallets a lot in our music and I listened to that record over and over again, just thinking about how I could get that kind of sound out of the guitar. I don't get that sound out of the guitar, but just thinking about it in that way has been an influence on me.
Brendon Anderegg: When we started working together, we were both listening to this kind of music a lot. People that were using guitars and processing them. But Oren was doing it without computers as well. Hearing stuff that sounds like a foreign sound that you can't identify—and knowing that it comes from a guitar—was something that really influenced me early on and gave me ideas about what I could do to abstract the guitar.
Koen Holtkamp: Kind of broadening an instrument that's very familiar.
Brendon Anderegg: When I started making music I was drawn to the fact that you could make sounds that you never quite heard before. Obviously, people who make music can identify what processes are involved in forming a sound into something abstract in a lot of ways, but when you're just a casual listener, you don't know what people are doing, and all you know is that the sound is something you haven't quite heard before. For me that was always really important and got me into working in sound a lot rather than other forms of art.
The first time I saw Mountains live, I was surprised by how much of what I was hearing seemed to have the acoustic guitars you play as source material. Is that still a deliberate thing you are trying to do?
Brendon Anderegg: I've always played acoustic guitar and we've always used it a lot in our music. Using that as source material, it just sounds different than using a different kind of instrument. It's something we've worked really hard to refine.
Koen Holtkamp: I feel like it's also really enjoyable to have a resonating object with strings in your hands. I like turning knobs and playing with electronics, but using guitar as source material allows you to be expressive in a different way. The sound is definitely a big factor as well, but sitting there with a keyboard is very different, you don't feel it in the same way as having an acoustic instrument. It's a resonating body. You can physically feel the way that notes pop out. That's something we had very early on that we're very attached to.
The Disintegration Loops
Basinski's work here is pretty process oriented; that seems foundational for him. Are you very process oriented?
Koen Holtkamp: In terms in abstracting sounds there's a commonality there, but conceptually speaking we've never set up a specific process and had that work itself out in the way that The Disintegration Loops does. That's a different approach; I don't think we make process music. But that's what's wonderful about it. Just kind of listening to this thing unravel.
Brendon Anderegg: I think it does go back to the aspect of changing sound to the point that it sounds like something else. Hearing the music on there and how different it sounds from the original source material, it's just really beautiful and creates something different out of instruments that other people use all the time.
Koen Holtkamp: Also, seeing something change over time is definitely something that we have a kinship with, just in terms of starting something that might have a more straightforward sounding guitar or cello and then slowly abstracting it into something else.
This one almost reminds me of your live show, because I could sort of see it changing in front of me in addition to hearing it. And also because, from the listener's perspective, both seem almost sort of unrepeatable. When you play live is it fairly composed, or do you just see where things go?
Brendon Anderegg: It's definitely fairly composed. When you're making a record, it's different to listen to something that has a certain amount of change or doesn't change, whereas our live shows tend to be more ongoing than our records, because we want to maybe do more in the time it would take to make a live performance. A lot of the time when we do live sets it is a bit more open and really expanding on one idea.
Koen Holtkamp: I think it is unrepeatable, in some ways. We're very much in between. The overall structure is very composed, but how long things last and the way they are manipulated can change quite a bit from night to night. We try to react to the space, the audience, the sound system, all the different factors. It does vary quite a bit, but melodically, for example, it will be generally the same if we're playing the same set. The length of things, the way they're processed, those kind of things will really change. Something might be more intense one night, in a smaller room we might go for more subtlety. It does shift quite a bit. Mountains was originally conceived as a live project. Before we even had the idea to make a record together, we wanted to start something that was really about performance and about creating something in a live situation.
The Expanding Universe
The Expanding Universe is made entirely on computers, and in fact part of it was even generated using a computer program.
Koen Holtkamp: The thing that really appealed to me about this, in terms of earlier computer music, is that it's still very human, the way she uses the machines. It's very natural, it doesn't sound robotic at all.
Do you think that's a thread that still exists in computer music, or has it kind of been lost?
Koen Holtkamp: It definitely does still exist, I think it's different because it's so much more available. There are a lot of people using the same technology, which can create a similar type of sound; in the late '70s when she was doing that there were fewer people doing that which makes it more different or unique on some level. Which isn't to say that you can't make interesting and unique music on computers today, there are plenty of people doing it. We also relate to getting more into modular electronics and building patches and creating these systems, where you can play a few notes on the guitar or keyboard and it will get one thing to react to another thing, it's kind of a balance between performance and almost a kind of a systems music. That's something I've found really interesting recently.
Frisco Mabel Joy
All I knew about this one is that it's a country album, and I did not expect it to sound like this. Especially those first three songs where there's this crazy, almost droney but very bright sound going on in the background.
Koen Holtkamp: It's one of my all time favorite records. Completely heartbreaking, one of the most devastating albums I've ever heard. In terms of production, it's really interesting. When I first heard it I thought the majority of the string sections were a synth, which is not that common in a country record. Apparently it's all pedal steel plugged directly into the board. Also, there are all these rain recordings he put on there because he didn't like the sound of tape hiss.
Brendon Anderegg: It's different from other people's music in that genre. It is also very, very depressing in a lot of ways.
Koen Holtkamp: But it's so heartfelt. The way he sings, is just…
Brendon Anderegg: Both of us also have listened to Townes Van Zandt a lot, we do like our depressing music. [laughs]
Mountains has a certain amount of emotional content, and the tone your work has taken both live and on record is one that seems to be at least relatively positive. Is that a deliberated choice or just the way it comes out?
Brendon Anderegg: It definitely is partially just because that's the way it comes out. We've tried a lot of different stuff, but it seems like a lot of the more positive melodic structures work well, especially if a piece is long. We want it to be consistently engaging, so sometimes that works better. Some stuff we've done in minor keys but a lot of times we do use very positive tonalities. Basically when we come up with a set, the first thing we figure out is the tuning. We'll retune our guitars and find a good open tuning that we are both interested in for the duration. We'll be playing it a lot of times, so we'll try different things, but a lot of times what we decide on does wind up… I would say it's more in between positive and negative. We just ride the line of not being dark but not being completely light either. We do try to keep the music driving a lot of the time, keep the energy up for a longer scale. For us, it's important that it doesn't fall into a lull. I love music that has that aspect to it.
Published / Monday, 06 June 2011
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