Bendik Giske is embracing flow states
Summer in Berlin is something to be cherished. It often arrives later than anticipated, after months of a damp, penetrating darkness that has the potential to shut down the soul. Just when it’s too much to bear, the light always floods back in – nature’s reprise.
When I walk into Bendik Giske’s Neukölln apartment, sunlight is blazing through large windows, warming William Basinski’s iconic The Disintegration Loops as it hums away in the background. “Repetition is my favourite thing,” Giske laughs. I’m offered vegan pastries, vegan gummy bears, coffee, sparkling water and rhubarb schorle, and a familiar piney smell immediately strikes me: copal. “It’s the only incense I can bear,” admits Giske. “I went to Mexico with half a suitcase and came back with years’ worth.”
Giske instinctively knows how to set a scene. His idiosyncratic sound is the fruit of a saxophone technique he’s spent years practising and evolving, itself built on a foundation of strict musical training. And every part of his presentation, from the provocative album covers and photo shoots to the ambiguous track titles, is meticulously intentional. His self-titled third album is his most ambitious to date, and that’s not because it’s overly complex or hyper-conceptual. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s defiantly spartan, distilling his approach to its very essence; an accompanying press release accurately describes it as “musical full-frontal nudity”. This time around, even the saxophone itself was rigorously prepped beforehand. “It’s way more established in piano music, where you’ll prepare a piano,” Giske explains of this creative decision. “On a saxophone, you can actually strap the keys or open them permanently, much like a capo on the guitar, and that enables other sounds. I hadn’t really done that before, consciously.”
On his previous two solo albums, Giske consciously pushed the limits of the recording process, using different reverberating spaces to fill out Surrender, and teaming up with André Bratten to explore the ‘studio-as-an-instrument’ concept on 2021’s woozy Cracks. Bendik Giske is produced by British experimental musician Beatrice Dillon, whom Giske ran into at Oslo’s by:Larm Festival a couple of years ago. “She brought some very clear ideas of what this album was not going to be,” says Giske. “Particularly looking back at the two other albums and saying, ‘Not that.’ Which was refreshing.” Her most radical suggestion was that the new record should be recorded without any reverb. “It’s such a comfort; it’s pleasurable to listen to. But when Beatrice proposed this to me, I really felt that it was time. This repertoire came about in my workspace, which is acoustically treated – it’s not reverberant.”
What Dillon didn’t want to do was impose her own clubwise minimalism on Giske’s unique sound. As a result, there are no additional sounds on the album at all (an almost-truth: the record is mixed with added subharmonics, but all in service of telling a “stripped-down” version). She was instead tasked with advancing the recording technique Giske developed with Surrender producer Amund Ulvestad, where they placed tiny microphones all over the horn and Giske’s body to capture each and every distinctive sound, from idle scratches to stolen gasps. “There’s a personal, intimate experience of playing a wind instrument that’s tactile and involves your breath, and you can feel your face,” Giske explains. When I was younger, I played the flute and saxophone myself and will never forget the pools of saliva that needed to be scrubbed out regularly – it wasn’t pretty. “It depends what you define as pretty,” he giggles. “It came from the desire to communicate that experience of being inside of it, doing it. This album took that as far as we could take it, basically. There’s a lot of microphones going on on this album, mostly because you don’t know which ones you’re gonna be recording. It’s a whole jungle of microphones.”
This was also the first time Giske recorded his music to a metronome to keep the speed stable when recording. “We did use click [track] on a few of the tracks, because I really wanted the tempo to be predictable, to not throw any curveballs at you,” he explains. “There’s something about the techno music that I’ve learned to love here in Berlin, the predictability of it invites a form of engagement. It doesn’t give you nasty surprises, you can lean into it and improvise along with it. Which is what I love about dancing – that the human body, from before you can stand basically, is capable of improvising in three-dimensional space along with music. What a pleasure!”
“It’s not really about the saxophone, it’s about the movement and the intention of where the movement comes from”
Giske’s excitement about movement and rhythm is hardly surprising; he’s long stated his affection for club music, and its hypnotic rhythms undergird his music spiritually, if not exactly aesthetically. He’s resisted the temptation to add discernible beats to his tracks, but that doesn’t make the music less physical. “I always express myself in dance, and I always move when I listen to music. It makes sense for me to incorporate that. And the fact that it manifests itself in a saxophone honk or squeak – that’s just that. It’s not really about the saxophone, it’s about the movement and the intention behind it.”
Queer theorist and educator Jack Halberstam’s 2011 book The Queer Art of Failure provided Giske with the final piece of the puzzle, laying out a critique of heteronormativity and capitalism that questions the established logic of high and low culture. “You played the saxophone, right? So you know this unintended squeak, you’re familiar? That’s where I wanted to live permanently, on the very edges of what a note is. It’s taken me a few places – at least one of the tracks I play is exclusively made of those squeaks. [Flutter’s] melody line is only made from harmonics.” Giske is almost breathless as he describes the athleticism of his process. “I’ve played it probably hundreds of times, and I’ve got it well now, but I still lose my note, I miss my aim. It can’t be too much, it can’t be too little. It has to be exactly there. And it’s a visceral experience: I wanted to be on the edge of failure to perform the instrument.”
Halberstam’s text provided Giske with the language and context he needed to reconcile his process. “It spoke volumes to me. Not only failure to produce a note, or failure to play the piece as it was intended, but also intentionally trying to fail to comply with what music is supposed to be, where complexities are supposed to occur in order for it to be interesting… going to battle with the things that I thought were quality benchmarks.”
It’s a fight Giske has been engaged in since the beginning. In his youth, he felt as if his music wasn’t considered ‘jazz’ enough for his colleagues and tutors at school. He was making art that reflected his unusual background; growing up, his time was split between Oslo and Ubud in Bali, where he watched live Indonesian music under the glow of oil lamps almost every night. I wonder if he was too far outside the box. “Jazz often pushes boundaries I don’t, in the tonal and harmonic landscape,” he laughs. “So maybe from some perspectives, it seems too far inside the box.”
“Many people have shaken their heads at me and said, ‘Gay men always have to sexualise everything.’ I’m just asserting the same level of sexualised performance and existence in the world as I see anyone doing”
Since then, Giske has worked ceaselessly to define himself outside of the academic, traditionalist gaze. “This project in particular was only mine; nobody cared about it for the longest time. I put it out on SoundCloud and there was nothing: crickets.” The lack of interest was surprisingly liberating. “At its core, it doesn’t care what other people think,” he says mischievously. But he raises an eyebrow when I say I find his work humourous.
It’s hard not to smirk at Cracks, Stall, or Rush, titles that have different meanings to different people. Cracks could be describing Giske’s splintering saxophone sounds, or naked bodies pressed together; a stall can be a pause, or it could be a reference to a huddle in the club bathroom; Rush might be about tempo, but is it also a nod to amyl nitrate? “I don’t know how many people have shaken their heads at me and said, ‘Gay men always have to sexualise everything.’ Yeah, that might be true, but also, I’m just asserting the same level of sexualised performance and existence in the world as I see anyone doing. Somehow that’s neutral?” Using language – “I love verbs,” he exclaims happily – Giske has been able to subtly challenge perceptions of his work with a cheeky wink to those in the know.
“In gay culture, there’s so much code. I guess it stems from survival, it’s deadly serious. But just the phrase: ‘Are you a friend of Dorothy’s?’ It’s really funny that someone came up with that and it became a thing. I laugh a lot, and I have loads of fun with what I do, but I’ve tried to express that to some people who say, ‘Where’s the humour, though? It seems so serious.’” Giske’s music isn’t high kitsch by any stretch, but it’s kitsch-aware. He’s “allergic to irony” – his favourite comedy is Jean Cocteau’s absurdly progressive 1930 film The Blood of a Poet – and smiles when he mentions cult filmmaker John Waters, who famously said: “You have to learn the rules of good taste to have fun with bad taste.”
Giske’s lighthearted seriousness makes his music remarkably unique. His process is unmistakably demanding, physically and mentally, but with careful preparation and no fear of failure in the traditional sense, he’s been able to offer himself the space to stretch out and present himself nakedly, both metaphorically and literally. It’s a breath of fresh air. “Can we do experimental saxophone but also have fun with it?” he wonders. “That would be great.”
Bendik Giske is out now via Smalltown Supersound