Jan Bang: Head, Shoulders, Hips, Knees and Toes
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."