Wherever you go in Norway, nature dominates. From its primal, mineral-rich rocks to the deep blue waters of its endless fjords and lush expanses of greenery, the landscape can’t help but impose itself on its inhabitants. It’s why the sleepy streets and picturesque shoreline of Kristiansand make such an unlikely, yet idyllic, setting for the PUNKT remix festival, a live-sampling nirvana where some of the world’s most creative musicians convene each September for a state-of-the-art exploration of improvised music-making. Yet, for one of its founders, Jan Bang, there’s something ancient at the heart of this cutting edge event. “There’s a special kind of musicianship, in certain musicians like Arve [Henriksen, the trumpeter], which comes from the Speleman tradition: the fiddler who can sit around anywhere and can do something. It’s the equivalent to the fiddler tradition in Ireland where you have musicians playing together in local pubs, but is not regarded as a performance per se, it’s merely for the joy of playing music together. That also means, especially when it comes to Arve, and [accordionist] Stian Carstensen, they have this ability to do extraordinary things because they’ve come from this kind of tradition. They are not afraid, they are bolder.”
It’s this fearless spirit that fuels each edition of PUNKT, which Bang founded in 2005 with fellow multi-instrumentalist Erik Honoré, his close friend who he’s worked with since 1987. “He’s my wife!” says Bang with a great laugh. “He’d probably say the opposite.”
Yet, Bang has always been into manipulating sound – even as a boy, when he first dabbled with a primitive form of ‘MIDI’ and used to mime along to his parents’ pianola to impress the local girls in Kristiansand. Now Professor of Electronic Music in the municipality’s University of Agder, a corner of his office is occupied by another one of these archaic music sequencers. It’s here within this academic role that he’s opening the next generation’s eyes and ears to a huge new universe of sonic creativity. “Electronic musicians are almost like painters, they often work in solitude and aren’t used to working with other people. So I get them out of their ‘preset’ minds and get them into the live sampling techniques, and suddenly they see that everything is material,” he says with a reassuring smile over Skype.
With the current explosion of interest in vintage and modular synths, and indeed sampling everything and anything, and with ever increasing numbers of jazz musicians adding electronics to their MOs, Bang’s approach now seems decades ahead of the curve. “I find it strange that it’s taken such a long time to follow that way of working, because when I discovered I could sample the musicians live on stage that was a revelation for me. I thought, oh my god! This is a totally new path. It also seems, for my students when they start working with live sampling, they kind of forget everything else, because it’s usual for a kid when they grow up and they listen to a lot of music, they want to copy that. We used to play synthesizers, but for us it was illegal to only use ‘presets’. You had to turn the knobs, you had to change the sound! That was the aesthetics and also the ethics in that area.”
Instead of just sampling people on stage, and feeding it back to them onstage, we began to realise that we could use the sounds from the different concerts to create new musicJan Bang
Bang and Honoré launched their experiment with extra cultural funds made available by the Norwegian government in 2005, in recognition of a 100 years passing since Norway achieved its independence from Sweden. “The backdrop to that was probably five years just working with jazz musicians and improvisers from the Norwegian scene, so I was moving immediately from the studio onto the stage. So, discovering and developing that live sampling thing, then working with improvisers – as opposed to carefully creating something in the studio – PUNKT was the natural way of extending that palette. Instead of just sampling people on stage, and feeding it back to them onstage, we began to realise that we could use the sounds from the different concerts to create new music. And that was the core of it, just the idea of creating new music in a subsequent performance. We had the tools, the knowledge and the experience to do it.”
Yet why has the Norwegian scene produced so many fine examples of this rarefied electronica? Bang cites several reasons: “It’s a small country, so creative souls bump into each other, that’s one aspect of it. So, if you’re working in one specific area of music, you don’t tend to stay there for very long with your pals, especially if you’re interested in developing new things. The second reason is we had the school of Jan Garbarek, the ECM type of thing. For me and Erik, we came from another place, more of the New Wave, post-punk kind of thing, more than jazz, and pop music too. And a lot of that was British and American popular music, so we probably brought along some of our aesthetics into the more ECM type of sounds. So, if you say that Manfred Eicher – who is a brilliant producer and I just love working with him [Bang has appeared on several ECM albums to date] – has the sensitivity of this soundworld that is more acoustic. If you combine that with say the aesthetics of the [Brian] Eno school, then you have something that could be very powerful.”
PUNKT’s gravitational pull has seen the likes of John Paul Jones, Laurie Anderson, David Sylvian, Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno all perform there. This year’s 15th iteration includes Bugge Wesseltoft’s RYMDEN trio (with EST’s bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Öström), Hammond hero Ståle Storløkken in celestial alignment with the Trondheim Voices and the debut live performance from Bang’s ambient art-rock band Dark Star Safari, with Honoré, Eivind Aarset, Samuel Rohrer and Jan on vocals. Yet, its iconoclastic ex-Sonic Youth avant-punk guitarist Thurston Moore, also appearing with his Ensemble (with My Bloody Valentine’s Deb Googe on baritone bass guitar), who helps connect all these points on the festival’s tapestry of sounds.
Moore and his cohorts were convinced to play there in the most PUNKTian of ways: “My manager said, ‘Thurston just lives up the road from me in London’, so she just asked him [to come and play]. So the festival has that community, that kind of campfire attitude: Oh, who can play the harmonica? My uncle!” says Bang with another hearty laugh.
With the 15th anniversary taking place imminently in Kristiansand, the festival is looking to broaden its horizons, with a third UK edition on 18-20 March 2020 at Birmingham Conservatoire. Performances so far announced include The Height Of The Reeds, the acclaimed work commissioned for Hull’s year as UK City of Culture, while British musicians scheduled for an appearance include adventurous saxophonist Trish Clowes and Manchester-based ambient experimentalists Marconi Union. Yet, this global expansion isn’t fuelled by megalomania, but Bang’s desire to expand his like-minded clan: “After the second or third year of the festival, I realised this is a community work, the core of the thing is not the music actually, it’s to do something in a community. Because the music is very natural, because that’s how we live and that’s how we work, so to bring that is very easy, but to emphasise the community thing, then you have something that is much bigger actually. Doing something in this small community means that when the visitors come, they feel like they’re part of a family situation. That was a revelation for me.”
Time to throw another log on the campfire. Then sample it.
Jan Bang and Matt Calvert perform a live score to Battleship Potemkin on 23 November at Kings Place, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!