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

John Kelman By

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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 traditionalism—not to mention contemporary classicism, pop, ambient and more; truly any and all musical markers—is 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 Molvaer, 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 philosophy—and 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 performance—is 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 Room—in contrast to the stunning stage designs of the main hall shows—is 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 Punkt—a festival so important that, were it his only contribution to modern music, it would be enough—Bang 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 conventional—and, for some, very controversial—a black box of electronics, an AKAI Remix 16 sampler.

Chapter Index
  1. Live Sampling?
  2. But First, Some Keyboards
  3. Innovation Personified / Punkt Emerges
  4. An Improvising Instrument
  5. Cartography
  6. Live Performances, Programmed Beats
  7. ....and poppies from Kandahar
  8. Trust

Live Sampling?

"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 familiar—where 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 moment—that's where I am—and 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 roll—so 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 opposite—a 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 artists—to 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 files—I had never met him in a studio—which 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."
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