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

John Kelman By

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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," 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."

Live Performances, Programmed Beats

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."

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 times—where 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 everyone—you 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 instruments—to 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 part—but 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 start—thinking 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 huge—it 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."

....and poppies from Kandahar

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 family—which is very nice, but once a gypsy, always a gypsy—I 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?'

Enjoy Jazz / Punkt / Jon Hassell Maarifa Street

"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 opinion—and 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 perfect—he 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 bad—or just ordinary—mastering 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 end—there'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 style—not just for other musicians, but for the listener as well. "On 'Migration,' from Cartography, for example, I tried to create something like [drummer] Manu Katche [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 titles—contributed, 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 words—when I was working with Erik, writing songs, he was always the lyricist. When we did Cartography, David contributed spoken word—reading 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 evocative—and, sometimes, provocative—titles 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 it—he chose the artist and I responded straight away because it was so beautiful to have all these different elements—to 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 them—in my own way—and 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 cells—tiny articulations, sounds or vocal approaches—to 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 overdub—three 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 ECM—1990'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."



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