Name: Jan Bang
Occupation: Musician, composer, producer
Current release: For the new project punkt | stillefelt, Jan Bang teams up with his long-time creative partner Erik Honoré as well as British trio Stillefelt and students from the University of Agder. A first single, "pastoral", is out via Jazzland Recordings, with full-length Modest Utopias to follow later in the year. More about this unique release as well as Jan Bang's new solo album can be found in the following interview.
Recommendations: Joseph Campell: The Power of Myth; Music: Ravel: Ma Mère L´oye
Over the course of his career, Jan Bang has collaborated with a wide range of artists, including Eivind Aarset, Trilok Gurtu, Bugge Wesseltoft, Nils Petter Molvaer, Roberto Di Gioia, MELT Trio, Dai Fujikura, Ståle Storløkken, and Samuel Rohrer.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I've always been playing for as long as I remember. First the violin, then the piano and onwards from there as a singer and composer.
I grew up in a family where music always had a great part in our daily lives and was surrounded by records, mostly classical recordings. My brother introduced me to what was around of 70s popular music. I was especially keen on black American music with beautiful harmonies and rhythms.
Memories from singing harmonies to what was mostly Black music in the back seat of our red Renault 12 is still a strong image of my early musical memory. We were three siblings growing up with our mother, a single parent.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
I'm not quite sure. I guess this changes and has changed a great deal from childhood through adolescence to becoming an adult.
As I'm writing to you I am listening to Midori Takada playing mallets. Since that being a physical instrument, I can relate to the human behind the mallets performing. When making my own music - even in my teens – music always started as a feeling. I still work this way: trusting my intuition in the moment. This is in a way my own contradiction as a performer.
When working on stage I am trying to just be precise, to be as accurate as possible and not forcing my own emotions over to members of the audience. I am working with different components like texture, harmonics, melodies, rhythm, pulses. Parallel activities, all the time at once trying to be as accurate and in the moment as possible. To be able to react naturally to an impulse.
A great deal of my work has been devoted to live activities improvising with electronics as well as using pre-composed material.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
The world of music has always been an interesting place for me. Very early on I developed my own way of composing at the piano. I had a piano teacher that I persuaded to only write down my own small pieces instead of learning other people’s music which never caught my attention.
He said: “but Jan, you are not learning anything from me writing down your music”. He was obviously right, but something in there was in retrospect a good decision for myself and my own learning experience. I could dive into my own little bubble and further develop in a natural way. Self-taught in this respect.
Starting out as a duo with Erik Honoré in my teens, my goal was to become a producer. I wanted to learn how to fully express myself in a studio becoming involved in the early electronic music production in Oslo. I was drawn towards jazz musicians. Great players that could improvise together like gods. Some of these musicians already had made a name for themselves. I was interested in connecting the brilliance of these musicians’ performances with studio techniques.
By chance I found a way to bring these ideas onto stage. I started real time sampling of the musicians, improvising with these samples exploring new possibilities with a group of interesting people. Singer Sidsel Endresen was essential to these explorations. Bugge Wesseltoft was also essential and eventually a large number of experimental musicians from the Norwegian scene at that moment including the likes of Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset, Audun Kleive and others.
I decided to move back to Kristiansand to live my life with Nina Birkeland, the graphic designer who is responsible for the Punkt artwork. By 2005 I returned to my old friend Erik Honoré and together we founded PUNKT. This became a new chapter in my life and brought new ways of working for us both.
Punkt is a festival where concerts are immediately being followed by a remix of what just happened. Over the years we have brought PUNKT to 27 cities around the world and still counting. Over the years, so many artists have been involved and been taking part in this adventure. To name them would be an unending list of talented people.
Parallel to Punkt activities, production work for others and my involvement with my students at the University of Agder – I find time to work on my own projects.
When the disease came, I was working on the second Dark Star Safari album, an experimental band where I'm the singer.
I never had any plans of returning to using my voice, but suddenly the material opened up that possibility – or rather the melodies just came in a natural way. I decided to record my voice singing these songs and getting to know my voice again and the different voices it contained in different register, nuances in dynamics etc.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
We are all mixed from various cultural influences, so identity to me is not singular. I can enter different situations and usually I will find interesting ways of approaching the material.
I am interested in the human spirit and in the singular human being. Showing love and respect to the people around me is something I highly value. As a musician I had to develop my own way of playing using the sampler as an improvising and compositional tool.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
I have always had a sense for playfulness and a strong instinct in music making. As a young person I would be absorbing visual art, films, and was obsessed with music. Each day after school I would be running home to the piano to explore new colours, harmonic structures, and melody.
While techniques and instruments have changed, I still have much of the same approach to music making. A strong sense of composing or recording when inspiration comes.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
The past belongs to the future so in that respect I am aware of that I'm standing on other people´s shoulders.
To place oneself in a tradition is not a bad thing. It's essential in understanding the time we live in.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
Over the last few years, I have returned to the piano for composing. It stood quietly in our living room for almost 15 years. Then one day I started playing it again and suddenly all these new compositions came out of that instrument – just like I used to 30 years ago.
In my twenties I found it more interesting working with samplers and synthesizers and drum programming. I'd be using different kind of samplers from Emulator, Emax, Akai S1000,S3000. The MPC 3000 have been my main drum programming device.
However, it was the Akai remix 16 sampler that was a game changer. With this machine I found a way to bring the studio into a live situation. I did this the first time working with Bugge Wesseltoft. We named it “live sampling” which now has become a common term for real time sampling.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
My life on a daily basis is filled with different things, so I don't really have a regular routine.
Around 2015 I started working as a professor at the University of Agder teaching the students techniques about live sampling, and also mentoring them throughout their studies. I am so proud of my students and how wonderfully talented they all are. Since beginning of 2023 we've become a CoE (Centre of excellence in education) with myself as the centre leader. This is so much fun and demands my focus.
Last year Erik Honoré and I set up Punkt Editions, a label for Punkt related music and a vehicle for putting out our own stuff. The first release was The Bow Maker - a duo album with Japanese contemporary classical composer, Dai Fujikura.
This spring we'll release my new solo album Reading the Air - a vocal based solo album with songs written using the piano and with lyrics by Erik that features different singers including Anneli Drecker of Bel Canto, German singer Simin Tander and the wonderful Benedikte Kløw Askedalen who is just about to finish her master studies at the Uni.
Later in fall, we'll release a duo album with guitarist Eivind Aarset as a follow up to Snow Catches on her Eyelashes. I'm currently in NYC to record an overdub in Bill Laswell´s studio with Nona Hendryx for one of the pieces on that album. In addition to these plans, I am writing a commission for Macedonia and the Skopje International Jazz Festival in November 2023.
[Read our Bill Laswell interview]
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
The first that come to mind is an album by Arve Henriksen entitled Cartography.
I spent three years producing and writing material for that album that was released on ECM. There is a piece called “Recording Angel” that I first wrote as a commission for the Art Museum in Kristiansand and that I invited Arve to play on. The way the whole thing came organically together and the genius of Arve's playing was a feeling of having struck gold.
There are many stories and so much music over the years, but that was the first that came to mind.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
I've had the fortune of collaborating with a great deal of very talented people over the years. Different human beings create different results. This is also true in collaborative music making. I very much enjoy a fresh start. This is not always the case, but a blank canvas is just a wonderful opportunity to be creative.
Some of the most important listening situations have been listening together with others. Recently I lost a friend who was important to my own development as a listener. I was 15 years old and my friend, who was a few years older than me – would play me music that I'd never heard before – and I absorbed all of it and took it in.
Being a musician and producer involves a good amount of sharing of ideas. It's like a small community of people on the same boat navigating on the open sea and into the harbour. You must go where the wind takes you. Sometimes it can be a longer journey and other times short. The size of the vessel doesn’t really matter - it's all about the flow, the wind and the sails.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
As a teacher, one of the important overall tasks is to create responsible citizens. To bring back art into society is maybe more needed than ever. Young people, especially working with technology in relation with music are open minded and interested in exploring new possibilities. I have great faith in younger generations, not only in music but in how they treat each other with a strong sense of generosity and respect. They take responsibility in their own lives and are genuinely concerned about the future. They have been measured throughout their lives from a very early age and can sometime face their own independence with a strong sense of uncertainty.
I think that it´s important to give young people a chance to express themselves. To present them opportunities to play together in rehearsals and in concerts in front of an audience, just like so many musicians before them have been thrown into the professional life becoming artists of their own.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
Oh, it was a saviour for me. I had a challenging and demanding mother that at times was totally unpredictable. Her love of music was passed on to me and my siblings. In my family, music was seen as the highest form of art.
From a very early age I started creating my own music. I still remember the room clearly: The colour pattern of the carpet and the Hellas-piano towards the wall and the window facing the street. We also had a grand piano with piano rolls facing the garden. I would shift playing in these two rooms and write my small piano pieces that eventually became songs. My mother was a pianist and I had my bedroom right beneath it on the ground floor.
An early musical memory is the sounds of the swallows in the summer garden blended with the sound of mother playing Brahms' Intermezzi.
How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
We just received status as CoE – Center of Excellence in Education working with creative use of technology and finding new ways of playing around with new tech and new ways of learning. To me it can come in both ways: the obvious is to start with artistic ideas and then using technology during this process. The other is to start with new technology and ask the question: How can I figure out ways of using this thing?
That new tech should not be taken too seriously. We should play with it and have fun with it. Then out of that process something genuinely interesting may occur and perhaps create something that has an impact. Out of that something beautiful can happen.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
James Joyce writes beautifully about this in Artist as a young man where he divides art into two categories: One being art that is of less importance to you on a personal level. This form of expression is a vehicle for other things like advertising or political art that serves a purpose. The other is the art that arrests you.
To make a good cup of coffee involves selecting the right beans, how it is burned, the graining procedure and the temperature of the water etc. I enjoy a cup of coffee, but to be arrested by art is on an entirely different level. This form of arresting experience is what Joyce calls static – to not be able to move.
I don’t think he thought of that as not including movement, but more like this feeling of being spiritually lifted.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
To me what is interesting is the human play with sound. Certain aesthetics demands new ways of sound shaping. This has to do with how different sounds express certain feelings.
Since we all live our lives that are constantly changing, we need new ways of expressing certain emotions. This is constantly in flux. A fuzz guitar in the 60s expressed certain emotions, but doesn't necessarily have the same impact today.
As a musician working a lot with finding sounds, I find it interesting to always be open to different sounds and how I respond to these sounds myself. A feedback can perhaps express something that is more confronting than any power chord in the world.