Jan Bang: Head, Shoulders, Hips, Knees and Toes
When it comes to organically integrating modern technology into music, few countries are innovating to the degree of Norway, and at the epicenter of that country's forward-thinking approach to melding improvisation with jazz and Norwegian traditionalismnot to mention contemporary classicism, pop, ambient and more; truly any and all musical markersis producer/remixer/sampler Jan Bang, who has just released his first album as a leader, ....and poppies from Kandahar (SamadhiSound, 2010).
Bang, from his home base in Kristiansand at the southern tip of the country, has been part of a remarkable musical movement since around the mid-1990s, in collaboration with a number of other like-minded artists including trumpeters Arve Henriksen and Nils Petter Molvær, pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, guitarist Eivind Aarset, singer Sidsel Endresen and sound sculptist/producer Erik Honoré. Together with Honoré, Bang co-directs Punkt, a festival like no other, and one that has expanded from its annual event in Kristiansand at the end of each summer (2010 will be Punkt's sixth year) to include festivals abroad, including England and Germany, with plans in the works for Estonia in 2011, as well as dates in the United States and possibly Canada.
Punkt's founding philosophyand what has created a tremendous groundswell of international attention for a festival that, at its Kristiansand base, can accommodate no more than 500 people at any given performanceis Live Remix. For three days, festival goers alternate between the main hall in Kristiansand's Agder Theatre, where they hear performances ranging from classical composer Gavin Bryars to Fourth World progenitor (and, in many ways, Punkt forefather), trumpeter Jon Hassell. Immediately following each performance, a quick trip downstairs to the dimly lit musical laboratory of Alpha Roomin contrast to the stunning stage designs of the main hall showsis where the real action happens, as a live remix of the performance takes place, with other musicians (often playing together for the first time) interact with the remix. It's a thrilling experience, one that can truly change perceptions of what music is, and what it can be.
But before there was Punkta festival so important that, were it his only contribution to modern music, it would be enoughBang created a concept even more groundbreaking. Coming, as he does, from a background steeped in the soundscaping of artists like Brian Eno, David Sylvian and, indeed, Jon Hassell, Bang was deep in the remix culture of the late 1980s/early 1990s. But just as keyboardist/prouducer/Jazzland Records head Wesseltoft provided inspiration for Eivind Aarset's distinctly un-guitaristic approach, so, too, did he push Bang into an innovation so profound, that it's completely altered the concept of how technology can be used with contemporary music. With Live Sampling, Bang becomes another improvising musician onstage, except his instrument is something less conventionaland, for some, very controversiala black box of electronics, an AKAI Remix 16 sampler.
- Live Sampling?
- But First, Some Keyboards
- Innovation Personified / Punkt Emerges
- An Improvising Instrument
- Live Performances, Programmed Beats
- ....and poppies from Kandahar
"We'd just met for the first time, in the mid-'90s," as Bang describes his first encounter with Wesseltoft, "and he said to me, 'I'm putting together a band, and I'm interested in getting someone to do the electronics, what can you do?' I was thinking that I just had this new sampler, the AKAI sampler that was given to us in the studio, by the company, to try out, and I said to Bugge, 'Well, what if, instead of sampling off records, I sample your musicians onstage?' And he said, 'Wow, that sounds cool,' and so we tried it, and it worked really, really well. Then I realized that this is something totally new, something that had never happened before. This was something that pushed the music onwards and forward. So we just continued; I worked with Bugge for a few years after that."
It sounds both simple and complex on paper: sample every musician on stage, by getting a sound feed from their instrument into the sampler, and in real time, listen, grab, process and feed sounds being made by individual musicians back to the group, pushing them in new directions, the same way that any improvising musician drives the ultimate shape of the music. A fundamental characteristic of improvising musicians is listening to what is going on around them, and intuitively responding with contributions that spontaneously redirect the music, sometimes subtly, other times more significantly. But what if your instrument was all the instruments? That's what live sampling can mean: at one moment you're a trumpeter; another, a bassist; yet another, a drummer. But in all cases you're also your own instrumentalist, your sampler being the controller that allows you to reshape whatever sounds you are hearing into something new, whether it's a loop, a sound wash or a sound pitch shifted down two octaves to become something much bigger than its origin.
"It's about grabbing what you're after, or what think you're after," explains Bang. "It's very physical, but it's all about the subconscious, what you find interesting in the moment. So it doesn't have to be something that is familiarwhere you sample a whole phrase and find something within. It's more like I do the sample, and that is what I have. I don't work that much with skipping parts and finding an actual note or phrase; that takes too much attention and too much time, and would draw me away from the momentum; from the moment. And I need to be in the momentthat's where I amand to be in the moment but to still think of what happened in the past, where are we now and where can I put this thing into the future. It always interests me. Even now, after all these years, working with the same stupid machine; and yeah, it's the same box, I just bought my fifth one, on eBay."
Achieving innovation for Bang meant years spent working in a variety of scenes, honing an expansive palette of musical styles and textures, but it all started much more simply. "I was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1968, to Norwegian parents. I still have dual citizenship," Bang explains. "My father died there in 1969, a car accident, and so the family went back to Norway and Kristiansand, where my mother was from. My mother used to play a Phonola [player] piano with a paper rollso it was kind of the first sequencer. She played Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven, Grieg...all the classical 'drawing room favorites,' as I call them. But, while I was growing up, I was listening more to disco, R&B; that was what I was interested in.
"And then a change happened, by accident really," Bang continues. "I was working in a record store, one that imported 12" vinyl, and mostly from London, so we had the fresh material from dance music, from both the UK and the States, and there was this 12" by David Sylvian, called "Red Guitar," from Brilliant Trees (Virgin, 1984), and that changed the way I listened to music. I was listening to more American music at the time, and this was totally the oppositea more European aesthetic, more inwards than outwards-looking. With that, I became more curious and found more music that led me to Jon Hassell (who was involved with Brilliant Trees), and Scott Walker, the American singer that was based in Europe."
That ....and poppies from Kandahar has been released on Sylvian's SamadhiSound label is no coincidence, but is the kind of opportunity that happens rarely for most artiststo work with others who have been so seminal in their own evolution. Then again, Bang is also currently a member of Hassell's recording and touring group. It's also but one example of Bang's "just go for it" attitude. "So, full circle," Bang says. "I'd been working with David on different projects, sending filesI had never met him in a studiowhich started with Nils Petter [Molvaer]. David was doing a compilation of instrumentals [Camphor (Virgin, 2002)], and had asked Nils to do a remix. I said to Nils, 'If you are doing a remix of David Sylvian, I need to be on it.' Just like that [laughs]. Nils and I had been working closely for so many years, and it sort of felt natural. That led to other different things, and I had just finished producing Arve Henriksen's Chiaroscuro (Rune Grammofon, 2004) with Erik [Honoré], and so I said to David, 'here's an album that you're gonna like,' and he listened to it, and said 'This is, by far, the album of the year,' and so that connected him with Arve. It all comes down to people, and things that you hear about; you hear about something interesting, and suddenly it makes a difference."
Bang's instrument of choice may be a sampler, but he did play more conventional instruments at one time. "I actually started playing violin, and then I turned to keyboards," says Bang. "Making songs, like kids do. I eventually started working with Erik in '86, when I was about 17; we both lived in Kristiansand, which was a different scene than in Oslo. Oslo was sort of a rock scene, but we were more into different things. I remember Brian Eno told me that his albums sold disproportionately in Norwaymore sales per capita than anywhere elseand more sold either in the north, in Tromsø, or in the south, in Kristiansand. There was always this search for something different."
But while Bang is now more closely affiliated with improvisationand, consequently, the jazz worldhis exposure to the music was minimal until relatively recently. "I think that the only connection I had to jazz was through my uncle, who was a jazz pianist and had his own quartet in the '40s," Bang explains. "But I didn't really listen to jazz; I think I had Domino Theory (Columbia, 1984) by Weather Report. But I didn't listen to [Miles Davis'] Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) until Bugge introduced me to it, probably in the mid-'90s. But, of course, I came to know later that both Jon [Hassell] and Brian [Eno] were hugely influenced by Bitches Brew, and also by [Davis'] In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969), especially when it comes to Brian's ambient pieces. The good thing about continuing to do what you're doing is to see the connections between people and your own aesthetic, and where it derives from."
Rather than honing conventional chops, Bang and Honoré became increasingly interested in sound; in color, in texture, in timbre. "We were interested in sounds; making sound worlds, working with synths," Bang describes. "We spent hours just making the right sounds and making tapes. During some local performances, I was a singer and played synth, while Erik did the programming, the drum machine.
"And so, we started producing records together," Bang continues, "though eventually separately. Erik started working with Velvet Belly and Anne Marie Almedal, while I moved to Oslo and started working in the studio with guys from Tromsø, the electronic scene. They were more techno-based, and that was my introduction to that music, and house music. I was tired of writing traditional songs; I wanted a change, so I stopped singing and stopped making traditional songs, and became more interested in structure, in building constructions. Then I started producing local artists and remixing, which eventually led to a connection with the jazz scene through Bugge and Nils Petter, who were both interested in getting in touch with the electronic scene."
Molvaer and Wesseltoft became part of a burgeoning Norwegian jazz scene that looked to marry traditionalismboth culturally and with the American jazz traditionwith continuing advances in technology. Both were also part of a seminal year in Norwegian musical history. In retrospect, 1996-97 was a year that shook the musical world with the release of noise improv group Supersilent's Rune Grammofon debut (1997's 1-3), Wesseltoft's New Conception of Jazz (Universal Norway, 1996) and, in particular, Molvær's Khmer, which received additional international visibility through its 1997 release on the German ECM label. "I think it was a big thing for both ECM and Nils Petter," Bang suggests. "It would never have happened [Molvær's success], had it not been for ECM, and ECM would not have achieved such huge crossover success had it not been for Nils Petter; it was good for both."
Bang wouldn't record with Molvær until er (Sula, 2005), but by that time had been performing on the road with the trumpeter, alongside Eivind Aarset, turntablist Pål "Strangefruit" Nyhus and drummer Rune Arnesen. But he began working with Molvær's material as early as Khmer, doing a remix of that album's "Song of Sand" under the moniker "Mother Nature's Cloud & Shower Show," for Ligotage (ECM, 1998)ECM's first (and last) CD-EP. "It was also on a very rare 12,"" Bang says. "I think it was [also] the first and last that ECM ever did. I think that [ECM label head] Manfred [Eicher] understood, while doing it, that this was not his market and he had to get out of it."
If innovation doesn't come without risk and a cavalier intrepidness towards change, then Bang is innovation personified. "It's about following your own voice; what you're interested in at the moment. Instead of thinking about security'Would this be a good career move'I just think about what interests me. What I have come to understandfor example, I stopped touring with Bugge because I was tired of doing the same thingis that I'm not interested in repeating myself. I want to push the limits and find new music that touches parts of memy emotions, my intellect; hopefully, both. Then I came to understand that this is my business. That if I followed my own voice, I could have a life that was different, that was meaningful. It affects everything I do in life, including private things. The reason I moved back to Kristiansand, from Oslo, was because of Nina, my wife, and just to take the position of following your emotions. I just dropped everything I was doing in Oslo, and I never went back. That was the starting point of making decisions that weren't necessarily made out of convenience or necessity, but for a different reason. When the normal concerns of life don't applythat's when you get to new places."
Bang's return to Kristiansand meant working more closely again with Honoré, and it was their collaboration that set the stage for Punkt six year later, in 2005, though there was still work to be done to get there. "The germination was something we called the Panavision Series," says Bang. "When I moved back to Kristiansand in 1999, Erik and I formed a concert series [that began] in 2000, where we invited different artists to come down to Kristiansand and do live sessions where I would sample things and Erik would do treatments. That was the beginning of the idea that would eventually become Punkt. We did it for maybe a year."
Bang describes Honoré's treatments as distinct and separate from his own live sampling. "What Erik did was to use different effects to create something that was sort of unnatural; to make perspectives out of a voice, or to take my samples and turn them into something else. A reprocessing way of working." Bang and Honoré released a couple of albums from the Panavision Series, including Going Nine Ways From Wednesday (Pan M, 2002), with singer Anne Marie Almedal singing words by local poet Nils Chr. Moe-Repstad.
"For that record," Bang says, "the only sound was her. It was like [Danish film director] Lars von Triers' way of thinking; you have a set of rules and you stick to those rules. In our case, the rule was to have the voice as the only sound source. But what started it all was Birthwish (Pan M, 2000), with Arve [Henriksen], and [pianist] Christian [Wallumrød]. That was the start of it all, because I had done a label deal with BMG. They probably expected more commercial albums, and my first concern was, as always, about the music and what interested me [laughs]. Instead of thinking in commercial terms, I've always thought of just following my own intuition, which has led me to working with a lot of fantastic artists I'd never have come across, had I just stuck with being a pop producer working for the major labels, which was my role before."
Panavision lasted about a year, with concerts that included Nils Petter Molvær, keyboardist Jon Balke, Swedish bassist Anders Jormin, Eivind Aarset, Bugge Wesseltoft and saxophonist/singer Bendik Hofseth. "That became the core of what would become Punkt," Bang says, "except for Jon, Anders and Bendik. One day, Erik and I were sitting at a café, thinking of how we could take this further, and the idea came: what if we had a point in this town [punkt is Norwegian for point], that was like a spider's web where the center point was this major spider? The idea was to have Brian Eno in the center, and music coming from different places like the church, the theater and other venues. We discussed all the technical aspects and decided that maybe it would be safer to do it, the first year, in a theater, using two different venues and, so, two different scenes. So we tried it out, and I remember, from the first, that the concept of Live Remix was the most important thing for Erik and myself. And so we kept that [the Live Remixes] freefree admissionso that people could easily go and check it out. Now, six years later, it's still free. It's the core of Punkt, the way that we improvise with electronics, and do these Live Remix sessions; based on what is programmed upstairs, our goal is to try to create new music downstairs."
The challenges of launching any festival are many. Strong arts funding in Norway at the federal level might not have been enough to get a festival like Punkt underway, but fortunately the city of Kristiansand had its own commitment to culture: Cultiva, an initiative that has allowed what, by North American terms, is a small town (population: less than 80,000) to have the kind of cultural breadth usually seen only in much larger cities. "Cultiva was the idea of one guy, who was a special advisor to the municipality, sort of a strategic advisor," Bang explains. "He came up with the idea of selling a percentage of shares in an electricity company, investing the money and allowing the interest on that money to go into an account that could be used for culture in Kristiansand. In 2006 that amounted to about 40 million Kroners a year (6.3 million USD). They've used this money on different projects [including providing start-up funding to Punkt for its first three years], and on the new theater that will open in 2012 [more than double the capacity of the current Agder Theatre], so we'll have a big Punkt there in 2012. We're also working with Brian Eno to do a project there."
It only took a couple of years for Punkt to gain international attention, thanks to bringing journalists from around the world to become a part of the festival. And they are a part of it, as Bang, Honoré and the entire Punkt staff view the festival as a growing family of musicians, journalists, friends and other professional colleagues. It's a festival that, in its sheer transparency, is like no other. And it's now a moveable feast, with other festivals inviting Punkt, as Germany's Enjoy Jazz festival did in 2009, when it brought Punkt to Mannheim for a one-day festival-within-a-festival that featured performances by Jon Hassell Maarifa Street, Sweet Billy Pilgrim and Ensemble Modern, with remixes by artists including Bang, Honoré, Aarset, Endersen and J. Peter Schwalm. But it wasn't in the original plans, it just took off that way, as the festival took on a life of its own. "The idea was to do something that interested us as musicians and artists," says Bang, "something that we hadn't done before; to create new music. [We thought] it would be fantastic...like the world's best studio session."
Punkt has expanded over the years, incorporating other artistic disciplines, including collaborations like Punkt Kunst (with the town's Sørlandet Art Museum, where Brian Eno did his 77 Million Paintings for Punkt in 2008, Jon Hassell did his NEAR FARBells in Kristiansand installation at the town church the same year, and pianist/manager Andreas Stensland Løwe began Punkt Elope, a pre-festival evening that shines a spotlight on some of the areas up-and-coming artists, in 2007. But as each new year approaches, how do Bang and Honoré decide how to program the festival?
The primary criteria for booking an artist as a main concert performer is, as Bang explains, "made from a decision as to whether or not there is enough material by the artist to allow it to work in a remix session; that's our first concern." And there are ideas that look good on paper but don't necessarily work well in practice. "We did one project, where there was no air, no stops; just full-on ambient concert," Bang continues. "For usSidsel, Erik and Ithere was nothing to work with. Maybe, because when things are too similar to what we do ourselves, there is not enough material for us to change and use as our own sound, because we turn every performanceand the sounds that we sample out of that performanceinto our own sounds...not necessarily on a legal level [laughs], but creatively.
"The reason why we wanted Ensemble Modern in Germany was because we knew them for their work with Frank Zappa, but also because I'm very much interested in the contemporary classical scene," explains Bang, "what's happened in the last century. I sample a lot of material from that period, from new composers, and I know that these sounds are very transparentthat you can take a remix into a new direction. Heiner Goebbels, [Toru] Takemitsu, [Iannis] Xenakis; in all of these things there's enough space for us to grab something and make a pattern, an atmosphere...different layers."
If programming the main concerts is about finding music that presents strong potential for remixing, then programming the remixes themselves becomes an even riskier proposition, but that's exactly as it should be. "It's a lot about chance," Bang says, "that you don't necessarily know it's going to work, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's like, 'This was OK and I understand the intention of it, but it didn't work.' I think it's better to take the chance than not. Better to have a failed experiment than a safe performance."
Taking chances has defined Bang's career from those days in Oslo in the mid-1990s. Looking back, it's clear that Bang had a clear vision, right from the very start. "What I understood, when I did that first concert with Bugge 15 years agoat a central Oslo club, where people met from different genreswas that this [sampler] was a true improvising instrument," Bang explains, "because I got a new instrument every day, and there was no history. It's not like a keyboard, where I might find myself doing the same movements, predictable patterns. This is all about improvising, and doing it in the moment, so if I compare myself to a saxophonist, for example, I can't pick any licks from the history of saxophone; I can't play, say, a bebop phrase from Charlie Parker. So, because there wasn't a tradition for my instrument, but I could improvise with it, I could grab something [from a musician] and push that musician into doing something else. It's another way of working, like a producer in a live situation, kind of dragging the performance somewhere that appeals to me. And I think that for all of usas musicians, as humans in generalI think it's good to be dragged into an environment that we're not familiar with, that we let go of certain aspects of our ego."
The challenge of avoiding predictable patterns when playing is one that every musician faces; even renowned players like guitarist Pat Metheny have signature phrases that crop up time and againit's all too easy to fall back on the familiar, even in pursuit of the different. The idea of inventing an improvising instrument with no history is an exciting one, though with Bang 15 years into live sampling, he's now created his own history, and feels the need to find ways to shake things up. "I always have to try to find new ways of creating, to avoid repetition," he says. "That's also whyworking with a group like Ensemble Modern or the Chamber Orchestra of Europe from a few years back, or the London Sinfoniettaworking with a cello and to work with brass, or clarinet, pushes things forward."
And so, Bang and Honoré invite musicians to the various remixes at Punktoftentimes, musicians who have never met each other before, much less played together. The results varymost often there's real magic, but occasionally the result is less, perhaps, than the artists were hoping for. But that's the nature of improvisationriskand if the destination isn't always a great one, the trip there almost invariably is.
Whether touring with Henriksen, Molvær or Jon Hassell, Bang's approach to Live Sampling continues to be unique, largely because he has spent so much time in the studio over the past quarter century, gaining an intimate understanding of the nature of sound, color and texture. "The most challenging thing for me is to work with the human voice," says Bang, "because if you change the pitch, for example, it very easily becomes like Mickey Mouse [laughs]. So you have to treat it in a different way, or find samples that are more closed, where you have a voice with a lot of air. Like this vocal piece by [classical composer György] Ligeti, where everything is like [sings]. This is a sound that's more closed and so it's possible to work with it in different pitches and it still sounds good. Or use, say, a Chinese voice; Asian voices that are more nasal, those can also work in octaves.
"For me, piano is maybe the easiest thing to work with because it works in any pitch," Bang continues. "You can pitch it two octaves down or up and it will still sound brilliant. It's percussive, it's chords and it's melody, so it's all these different things that you can work with. I understand [pianist] Cecil Taylor, when he speaks of the piano as a percussive instrument first and foremost. Guitars and strings are also very good for me to work with; that's why I really enjoy working with Eivind [Aarset]. We talk a lot about ideas, about new ways of working. I always have these interesting conversations with Eivind, trying to find new ways of working together."
No surprise, given that Aarset, while working with a more conventional instrument, has become one of the world's foremost improvising guitarists, creating sounds that are beyond the pale of guitar orthodoxy. A combination of extended techniques, rich harmonic sensibility, and a similarly seamless technological integration as Bang's make him an ideal musical partner, whether touring together with Molvær or Hassell, or with Henriksen, performing music from and inspired by the trumpeter's remarkable 2008 release, Cartography (ECM).
While Cartography is considered, by many, as a follow-up to Henriksen's Chiaroscuro, Bang begs to differ. "It was a different approach," he says, "because Chiaroscuro was based on live recordings with Arve, myself and Audun Kleive as a trio, then we took those tapes back into the studio. Most of the recordings were very good, but on tracks like 'Opening Image,' the only thing we had was a minidisc recording, recorded at a very low level so there was a lot of noise on it. I remember when Erik and I were working on that piece in post-production, rather than trying to take the noise out, we added to it. If there is a problem, just use it; 'OK, there's a hiss; let's make that hiss dynamic and add things to it.'"
Unlike Chiaroscuro, which worked with existing performances, Cartography was built from the ground upand represented an entirely new way of composing, as well as the idea that it was not necessary to bring everyone together in the same room to make the recording. "We started working on Cartography three years before it came out," explains Bang. "What I do is I make tracks; I compose pieces and then I send them to different people. If I think, 'OK, this would sound good for Nils Petter,' then I send [the file] to him, he plays trumpet on it, sends it back, and [then] I mix it."
Some of the pieces for Cartography were originally intended for other artists. "'Before and After Life,' for example; that was originally intended for [saxophonist] Jan Garbarek," Bang continues, "because I did a show with him at the opening of the National Library in Oslo [in 2005] and it was kind of a big thing; it was also broadcast on a big screen outside the library. But Jan wanted to do a piece from Dis (ECM, 1977), or one of his other older albums, and so we did that instead. And so I thought, 'This might be something good for Arve.'"
Cartography was critically well-received around the world. Henriksen and Bang continue to tour the project, sometimes as a duo, sometimes in a trio with Aarset, and, occasionally, in an even larger configuration, such as at Molde Jazz 2009, where the trio was joined by percussionist Helge Norbakken. Amongst its many outstanding tracks, "Recording Angel" is one of the best pieces of music that Bang and Henriksen have created together to date. "I created the whole instrumental from the start," Bang explains, "and then I invited Arve to play trumpet on it. It was built from a recording by an American composer named [Alan] Hovhaness. I used a fragment from one of his recordings [sings] but I used it in different pitches to create a kind of net of different strings. I used it for the bass, a couple of octaves downjust filtering the top out of itso you have the basic song [sings]. I think I worked with the track for a couple of days, and then we did a live session with [classical vocal group] Trio Mediæval at four o'clock in the morning at a place called The End of the World. It's on the east coast of Norway, and during the sound check at 3 o'clock they sang this 'Oi me Lasso,' an old mediaeval song that's also on one of their albums [Words of the Angel (ECM, 2001)].
"So I recorded it on my Dictaphone and just tried to find a place for it within 'Recording Angel,'" Bang continues, "and I think that all these different elements together resulted in something that I never grow tired of; I think it will stick with me as one of my favorites from my own repertoire."
Bang's Dictaphonea primitive recording device [using tape], originally used to record dictation for later transcriptionis just one more unusual instrument in his arsenal. "That's a trick I took from Holger Czukay, who used to work with David Sylvian," says Bang. "I remembered how David used to say that the Dictaphone recordings that Holger brought to the table were more powerful than any power chord in the world, because they had a distinct sound that created other worlds. It creates a lot of tension, despite being a crappy sound and not necessarily at high levels. You don't have to play it loud, but still, it creates all these emotional things."
Bang also brings his Dictaphone to .... and poppies from Kandahar. An album whose list of samples actually exceeds the list of "live" musical performances, it's a logical follow-on to Cartography, another example of the collaborative nature of this group of Norwegian artists, and their egoless approach in getting their music out to the world. "For me," Bang says, "Cartography and poppies are two albums made in the same way. The first has Arve's name on it, and the second one has my name on it. They could easily have been swapped, and that, in itself, is interesting to me. To work with different artists, and sometimes put my name on it, sometimes put their names on it, and still just feel that it's good music. To create something that is, especially for a record, completely different from a live document."
Cartography at Molde 2009, from left: Helge Norbakken
Arve Henriksen, Jan Bang (missing: Eivind Aarset)
While Henriksen has been touring Cartography and Bang will be touring poppies, there's always the matter of how a live show can be differentiated from a studio construction. One subject that many artists discuss is whether or not live performances should even be recorded and released. Some, like ECM recording artist Stephan Micus, have intentionally not released live albums because they believe a performance is something to be experienced in real time once, and once it's over, it's gone, never to be heard again. Even when live recordings are made, they are, by their very nature, different from the actual experience, with three-dimensional soundscapes, created during post-production, inherently different than what someone hears sitting in the concert hall.
Still, in the world of improvised music, there's a strong argument for recording and releasing shows that are particularly compelling, if for no other reason than ensuring a permanent document exists. Even with five years of Punkt and dozens of live remixes, Bang and Honoré have released only one album: Live Remixes, Vol. 1 (Jazzland, 2008), which contains two live remixes, from two separate years of Punkt, featuring Sidsel Endresen and Jon Hassell. "For us it was to have a document of two performances that were very special," Bang says. "I don't go back and listen to that record because I was involved in it, but I still think it could be important, as a document, for Norwegian music."
That said, Bang still believes there's something to be said for the unique nature of each live performance. "I think that in these timeswhere everything is so accessible, where we can feed things everywhere, where you can hear music from every obscure artist from the '70s, where everything is there for us and we can Google everyoneyou still can't be at every place at every time. If you want to see Punkt, you have to go to Punkt; you have to live it, you have to go to those concerts to be able to get that information, that experience. I think that's a good thing about the live concert situation, at least for artists who do creative things, who dare to do these things."
In performance, Bang is a visual performer; even when the music around him seems abstract, ethereal, ambient, he moves to some internal rhythm that only he, perhaps, can hear. "For me it's all about rhythm," says Bang. "That comes from working with machines, and trying to make those machines live as organic instrumentsto make that stupid instrument, that box that contains nothing, live. To make life inside that instrument. It comes from working with that kind of attitude. This is actually something I learned from Per Martinsen, a Norwegian producer and pioneering techno artist who was, at the beginning of the '90s, part of the first wave of European techno. That was very much linked to Carl Craig and Derrick May and Detroit techno; they certainly knew how to make those machines live.
"Before that, people used synthesizers and drum machines to make demos," Bang continues. "And then they asked the bassist to come into the studio and play the bass part, and a drummer to play the drum partbut if they couldn't afford a drummer they'd just stick with what they had. So you had a lot of bad programming going on. But these guys [May, Craig, Martinsen], they worked with machines as the end result, meaning that they were finding life within these instruments, and that was my startthinking rhythmically with my instrument and how to program something that is alive, that is funky, that is human, that is bodily. So even working with ambient sounds, to me it's all about movement, all about finding the rhythm in itself. I suppose that, because I work with fragments and work a lot with loops, there's rhythm within each phrase, and I try to find the beats within each sound. This sounds quite abstract, but for me it's very real."
Of course, technical advancements have removed some of the mechanical feel of programmed beats, and have allowed artists to inject some of the same imperfections that make live percussionists feel natural and organic. Still, to achieve the same result requires a lot of effort, and a lot of experimentation to hone it as a craft. "Technically, I work with different elements, different parameters," Bang explains. "I work with pitch, to find the right pitch for each sound. Going back to when I was a kid, working with my first sampler, and later, when I used to spend an entire day making five banks of sound, and within those banks, let's say there were seven-to-ten different sounds in each bank. I had a rule that I had to make five tracks each day. I started at nine in the morning, and finished at six [laughs]. Then I started working at sampling sounds and finding the perfect pitches for each sound, so then I knew that if I pitched this instrument down, an octave or even a few notes, it would sound hugeit would sound so much better than the original pitch. Or that that sound works well backwards."
Bang is an especially motivated artist, who puts in a full work day, each and every day. "It's got nothing to do with getting inspired," Bang asserts, "it's about getting work done. I just moved my studio from where it was for the last 10 years to a new space in Odderøya [a small island off the Norwegian coast, near Kristiansand], with a view of the ocean and the woods. It's just beautiful and it changes every day. So I go to the studio and work until 4 o'clock in the afternoon, then I pick up my kids, go home and make them dinner. To me, that's the basic; there's nothing more mystical than that."
Still, while Bang is the first to ascribe much of his work to honing his craft, he's always thinking of new ideas, new collaborations. He works hard, and when he's got some downtime, it's not long before he starts itching to get back to work. It was during one of those breaks, in fact, that the idea for finally doing his own album happened. "It wasn't my idea," says Bang, laughing. "It was actually my wife Nina, because when it's Christmas time I'm usually so tired; I've been working so hard, traveling with all these artists. As a musician, when I spend 14 days home doing nothing, spending time with my familywhich is very nice, but once a gypsy, always a gypsyI start wanting to do a lot of things, to get back into the studio, to start working. So, I started working on the third of January in 2009, on the first two pieces on the album ('The Drug Mule' and 'Self Injury'), and when I played them to Nina, she said, 'Why don't you make your own album this time, instead of distributing your music to the different people that you work with?'
Jon Hassell and Maarifa Street at Enjoy Jazz 2009 Punkt Festival
From left: Kheir-Eddine M'Kachiche, Jon Hassell, Jan Bang, Eivind Aarset
"So I thought 'OK, let's do it,'" Bang continues. "I worked on it until mid-April, and when it was all completed, the first thing I did was to send it directly to David [Sylvian]. I just wanted a second opinion, because he'd sent me Manafon (SamadhiSound, 2009) to get a second opinionand I responded to it and he was really happy about it. He replied to me straight away, asking if I'd be interested in them releasing it on SamadhiSound, which to me was just perfect. So I did the mastering, with Helge Sten [aka Deathprod, co-founder of Supersilent], which to me was just perfecthe doesn't do that much, but what he does is to make it sound more beautiful, as he did with Cartography. A lot of people make the mistake of working with bador just ordinarymastering engineers; I've worked with a lot of them but have come to the conclusion that, at least for me, working with Helge is what I really need. He works in a very musical way, with levels, compression and frequencies; very subtle. Because a lot of what I doesn't contain high endthere's usually very little in the treble range; I like to take away frequencies so that I have room for other things."
Bang's approach is about leaving plenty of space in the music, rather than filling it up, kitchen-sink stylenot just for other musicians, but for the listener as well. "On 'Migration,' from Cartography, for example, I tried to create something like [drummer] Manu Katché [sings], but taking away the snare here and there so that it would sound more open," Bang explains. "I'm used to playing along with drummers, so when I program, I always leave something for the musicians to work with; I don't cover every hole. I try to leave it open, in general, so that there's also something for the audience as well, as an active listening experience. It's a different way of listening to that kind of music, but if you're interested, there's a lot of room for yourself in the music, as a listener."
Indeed, ....and poppies from Kandahar is the kind of album best heard in a dark, quiet room with no outside stimuli, so there's room to really hear it; to allow the mind to go where it will, creating whatever images Bang's deeply cinematic music inspires, on a very individual basis. Even the disc's stunning design, by longtime Sylvian collaborator Chris Bigg, inspires the imagination, as do the song titlescontributed, in fact, by Sylvian. Many musicians are challenged when it comes to naming their compositions, and so Sylvian's involvement was most welcome. "That's why you have a lot of ridiculous titles in jazz music," Bang says, laughing. "'Go Ahead John,'" because John is the guitarist who started the improv. Of course, I am totally aware of David's lyrical ability, and I've never worked with wordswhen I was working with Erik, writing songs, he was always the lyricist. When we did Cartography, David contributed spoken wordreading his poems on two tracks ['Before and Afterlife' and 'Thermal']and so it felt natural to ask him to write song titles. So we asked him and he wrote them for Cartography, and so it was also natural for me to ask him to write song titles for poppies."
Sylvian's evocativeand, sometimes, provocativetitles provide their own context for the music. "It gives the music perspective," Bang says, "and gave me a new way of listening to the album. It's been natural for composers to work with lyricists for centuries, and I think it's also important, as a composer, to let go of certain aspects of your ego, to get a result that is often much better than if you were to do everything yourself. When you have the best designer [as David does with Chris Bigg], and to have David not only choosing the title [of the album], but the artwork for ithe chose the artist and I responded straight away because it was so beautiful to have all these different elementsto have all these different elements, if you use them in a good way, it will create a much bigger impact. You see the images and you read the titles and you listen to the music and it makes for a better listening experience. It makes a difference."
The music on ....and poppies from Kandahar is as rich and varied as the human condition, and while the album features contributions by most of the usual suspects, including Hassell, Henriksen, Aarset, Molvær, Endresen and Honoré, it also includes performances by Swedish bassist Lars Danielsson, with whom Bang has worked many times in the past decade (including the bassist's superb Mélange Bleu (ACT, 2007)), and American bassist Peter Freeman who was, until recently, a longtime Hassell collaborator. But the list of samples that Bang used to shape his own music is even longer, with sources ranging as far as Vytas Sondeckis conducting the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra, and as near as a live remix that Hassell did at Punkt in 2007. That Bang can hear a connection between separate performances that sometimes took place years apart is part of the magic that makes poppies so special.
"Usually, before Punkt, I spend some time preparing some things," Bang explains, "and I did a sample of Kammerflimmer Kollektief, and created some programming that would become the basic structure for poppies' 'Passport Control.' There was a remix at Punkt, in 2007, where Jon [Hassell] asked Arve [Henriksen] to participate, and I ended up using their performance. But it actually came from a suggestion by [turntablist Pål] 'Strangefruit' [Nyhus], who said, 'Instead of having someone play solo over it, why don't you just sample it and play a solo yourself, on your sampler, use it is your instrument?' So that's what I did; I grabbed the performances from both Jon and Arve, and played them the way I play themin my own wayand that really worked well within the track."
In some ways referencing the Fourth World music of Hassell, the sensuous yet cerebral, "Passport Control" is poppies' longest track, and certainly one of its best. A gentle groove supports a trumpet, buried in the weeds, repeating a two-note pattern reminiscent of 1970s-era Miles Davis, but resolving into an Afro-centric coda, where an mbira-like melody (that reprises on the disc's penultimate track, "Ululations") comes from, of all places, Eivind Aarset's guitar. "We had a session together for Nils Petter's Hamada (Sula, 2009); it was with Eivind Nils Petter, myself and Johnny [Skalleberg, Molvær's soundman]," Jan recounts. "We were at Nils Petter's summer cottage; we did a lot of things there, and some things ended up on Hamada, but because Eivind did some of his 'string' things, where he plays behind the nut on his guitar, and because he has a contact mike built into the neck of his guitar, you can hear all these [sings] 'pling!' things, like a percussive instrument. So I grabbed a few samples and put it into the MPC 3000. Then I programmed a sequence of it, using what we call a 'stumble beat;' where it goes forward, but not necessarily with a metrical pulse. So you have something that is both metrical and not metrical."
Another track, "The Midwife's Dilemma," features Sidsel Endresen, whose innovative work in recent years has been to create a collection of small vocal cellstiny articulations, sounds or vocal approachesto build what has truly become a new vocal language that is remarkable in it being entirely acoustic, despite often sounding as if it is not. "I did a clapping overdubthree tracks of clapping, that I pitched down so it sounds more like Bootsy Collins," Bangs explains, laughing. "Then I was thinking that this would work very well with Sidsel, and so I booked a session at a studio belonging to a guy I used to work with, and what I did was to send the track to Sidsel in advance. But when we came into the studio, she said, 'I have no idea what to do,' and so I said, 'Why don't you just do something like this? [sings]?' Some of those sounds that she does so well. So I tried to just encourage her to do what she does, and she did; it was a first take, and what I like about it, is that it sounds like everyday life, and yet it sounds so completely different."
Bang first met Endersen in the late 1980s, in a context a far cry from her more recent experimental leanings, and even the starkly beautiful acoustic albums she would later record for ECM1990's And So I Write and 1994's Exile. "She was a Norwegian pop star," Bang recounts, "working with [guitarist] Jon Eberson Group, they had a huge hit called 'Jive Talking.' I did my first solo album in 1988 on CBS, a soundtrack to an Icelandic film called Foxtrot. That was the year Bobby McFerrin had that hit, 'Don't Worry, Be Happy,' and so I sang on it, and went into the studio because the [film] producer wanted to make a record. It wasn't a very good record, but there was one song on it that Erik and I wrote, called 'Merciful Waters,' and I specifically asked for Sidsel. So, together with Sidsel and Morten Harket [of A-Ha], it was sort of a trio thing. Asking Sidsel to work on poppies was kind of like paying her back, because I know she wasn't paid for the Foxtrot session, since she was on CBS as well.
"The next time I met Sidsel was when she was working with Bugge on an album called Duplex Ride (ACT, 1998)," Bang continues, "and Bugge asked me to do some sampling of her voice for one track. I went into the studio and did a very rough thing, but when they put it all together it sounded really good. I think of Sidsel now, comparing her to the last period of Picasso. He had this 'blue' period, that was very easy, very accessible, and then at the end of his life he did all these childlike paintings that were somehow very clean, and felt so real, so universal. Sidsel has invented her own language, and while she's a fantastic poet, I love this quasi-linguistic thing so much more, because it's full-bodied, it touches me so much more. I like to call it 'head, shoulders, hips, knees and toes,' because it has all these different human elements. I just love working with her; she is, by far, the best singer I know, certainly, at least, in this part of the world."
Contrasting with the sensual groove of "Passport Control" and quirkiness of "The Midwife's Dilemma" is "Heidigger's Silence," structured around Bang's sample of classical composer Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" (1865), Aarset's guitar and Strangefruit's turntables. "This was from a tour with Nils Petter, and during a sound check there was something that Pål did, a kind of scratching thing back and forth, and together with Eivind doing this chordal thing, I just took it and reversed it, working in motifs from 'Tristan' and working with samples from the late Arne Nordheim, the Norwegian composer who just passed away recently [June 5, 2010]. So there is a sample from Arne Nordheim in there, and a few other things, but it's quite dark. It's one of the darkest pieces on the album, in fact, but I'm not afraid of going there; I think it's something that's just as natural as working with any other 'head, shoulder, hips, knees and toes'we are diverse as human beings, and I think it's important to allow these things to come to the surface, just as I allow they rhythmical thing to come to the surface, or humor or romance. I'm not afraid of using all of these things, musically."
With ...and poppies from Kandahar now available internationally, Bang is putting together plans for touring it. "I was thinking of doing an intimate thing in Kristiansand," Bang says, "inviting people for a listening session, just to talk to people, to make it a beautiful evening for people. Eivind and I will also do some duo gigs with it; we're playing in Australia in October, and plan to do a tour in January, maybe February. But Punkt 2010 will be the first place I play poppies, though that'll actually be without Eivind [who will not be at Punkt for the first time since its inception, as he'll be in Japan with his Sonic Codex Orchestra]; it'll be with Arve, Lars Danielsson and Erik."
Always thinking ahead, Bang's near future is as is busy as it's ever been. "Erik and I are working on a duo album now," says Bang, "that is also related to Cartography and poppies, so it might turn into a trilogy. I'm hoping it'll be ready by this summer. I'm also working with Eivind on his new record [a solo guitar record, which Aarset describes in a recent AAJ interview], and am doing a piece for Sidsel's new album. I'm probably going to do some duo things with Jon Hassell, and slowly start working on Arve's follow-up to Cartography. It's a lot of projects, a lot of things to do; it's an exciting time."
One of the most interesting aspects of Bang's sampling work is that he doesn't constantly upgrade to the latest and greatest; he's been using the same AKAI Remix 16 sampler for 15 years, and as long as he can purchase more copies of this long unavailable sampler at places like eBay, he'll continue to use it. There's no doubt that, compared to more recent models, Bang's instrument of choiceand it clearly is an instrument, like a specific guitar that may not be as good as another, but just feels righthas some inherent limitations. But for some, limitations are restrictions; for others, they become opportunities. "Because of the limitation of my instrumentit only has a floppy discI usually have to throw away samples, meaning that, for me, music is something that passes by. The MPC has an internal memory, but if you want to save a sample you have to save it to floppy disc, which means you can't save too much information, and so the sample has to be really good. I usually just turn off my samplers, and for several reasons: one is that there's not enough room to save a lot of information; the other is because I'm afraid of repeating myself. So before, when I did a lot of remixes, I'd spend 24 hours working on them, and then when I was finished and had everything on DAT tape, I just turned everything off and sent it to the record company that asked for the remix.
"I used to have a hard drive in the MPC, so I could save more samples, but at one point I began to feel as if I were repeating myself. Then, the drive somehow got broken, and I actually felt it was a liberating event, because then I could go back to turning off the sampler and the sounds would be gone forever. Perhaps that creates more tension when you are programming, because you know that this is the moment and then it will be gone, so use the moment and try to be as good and creative as you can be, try to do something that will surprise you, because if it's not good you can't go back and fix it."
Making it all the more remarkable, then, that Bang can recall so much, and work so quickly in real timethe reasons why he has become so unique in the world of sampling and remixing. Since Bang innovated the concept of Live Sampling 15 years ago, others have begun doing it, but his reputation remains unique, his work much in-demand. "Everything is sort of connected," says Bang. "Because I don't save a lot, I probably have a good memory [laughs]. I work very intuitively, I work very fast; for me to go and pick out the different things that I feel are somehow related, it happens very quickly, and usually I find that they are connected."
Bang's relationship with Aarset is a curious one, since the guitarist is almost a diametric opposite; a slower, more methodical alternative to Bang's rapid pace. "It's a different approach, but together we work very well," Bang says. "It comes down to what kind of a person you are, but maybe that's why I work so well together with Eivind; he's been one of my main musical partners for at least 15 years."
Another factor in Bang's longstanding relationships with artists like Aarset, Henriksen, Molvær, Honoré, Endresen and others is trust. But not only does Bang have to trust others, in order to make the kinds of split second decisions that affect his work as a live sampler and live remixer, most important of all, Bang has to trust himself. "It's all about contradictions, isn't it," Bang poses. "How to move forward and how to stop; where to leave space and when to give space to others; when to take space and how long to keep those sounds there. It's all about these contradictions, and being aware of them. It has to do with trust. We normally say, 'It's better to wait for the music to happen then to force it to happen.'
"But I also think it's also about trusting your instincts," Bang continues, "meaning that if you stop at the right moment, then this will be the best piece you've ever done [laughs], but if you work on it more you will lose that special thingand you don't know what it is, so what it is becomes lost. I often go back to earlier mixes, just to listen to what I did if I feel that I am somehow becoming lost. If I feel something that I can't define has been lost, then I go back and look at different versions. If I don't feel that I'm lost, however, then I just continue working."
If this all sounds remarkably like the kinds of decisions facing any modern improvising musician, there's good reason: Bang's instrument may be a black box with buttons and dials on the surface, and filled with chips, circuits and wires, but it's a musical instrument just the same. The beauty is that Bang can, one moment, be a trumpet; the next, a guitar; the next, a full symphony orchestra. But regardless of the texture, irrespective of context, Bang is, indeed, a true improvising musician; one who may have begun in the world of beats and pop music, but who has evolved, in the past 15 years, into a sophisticated player searching for serendipity everywhere. An artist always on the lookout for those magical moments worthy of preservingif only for a momentto be altered in distinct and personal ways, and fed back to the music from whence it came. Bang's voice may be harder to define, compared to those working within conventional instrumental orthodoxy, but his voracious musical interests, clear compositional voice and intuitive musicality are finding an ever-expanding place in the world of music without borders, as more and more artists look to Kristiansanda small but increasingly vital point in the worldfor ways to reshape, recontextualize and redefine what music is, what it can be, and what it will be.
Jan Bang, ....and poppies from Kandahar (samadhisound, 2010)
Jon Hassell, Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street (ECM, 2009)
Nils Petter Molvær, Hamada (Sula, 2009)
Arve Henriksen, Cartography (ECM, 2008)
Punkt/Jon Hassell/Sidsel Endresen, Live Remixes Vol. 1 (Jazzland, 2008)
Nils Petter Molvær, Re-Vision (Sula, 2008)
Punkt, Crime Scenes (Punkt, 2007)
Nils Petter Molvær, An American Compilation (Thirsty Ear, 2006)
Nils Petter Molvær, er (Sula, 2005)
Arve Henriksen, Chiaroscuro (Rune Grammofon, 2004)
Bang/Honoré/Almedal/Moe-Repsta, Going Nine Ways From Wednesday (Pan M, 2002)
Bang/Honoré/Wallumrød/Henriksen, Birthwish (Pan M, 2000)