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

By Published: July 5, 2010
An Improvising Instrument

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 ago—at a central Oslo club, where people met from different genres—was 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
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
. 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 us—as musicians, as humans in general—I 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
Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
have signature phrases that crop up time and again—it'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 why—working with a group like Ensemble Modern or the Chamber Orchestra of Europe from a few years back, or the London Sinfonietta—working 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 Punkt—oftentimes, musicians who have never met each other before, much less played together. The results vary—most often there's real magic, but occasionally the result is less, perhaps, than the artists were hoping for. But that's the nature of improvisation—risk—and 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
Cecil Taylor
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 up—and 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
Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
sax, tenor
," 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 down—just filtering the top out of it—so 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 Dictaphone—a primitive recording device [using tape], originally used to record dictation for later transcription—is 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."

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