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

John Kelman By

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Innovation Personified / Punkt Emerges

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 understand—for example, I stopped touring with Bugge because I was tired of doing the same thing—is that I'm not interested in repeating myself. I want to push the limits and find new music that touches parts of me—my 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 apply—that'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 Wallumrod. 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] free—free admission—so 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 FAR—Bells 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 us—Sidsel, Erik and I—there 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 performance—and the sounds that we sample out of that performance—into 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 transparent—that 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."

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. 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 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, 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).



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