Genre Bending

Bendik Giske, Self-Titled

Even more than Bendik Giske’s previous recordings, the Norwegian saxophonist’s eponymous new album brings out the instrument’s remarkable potential as a rhythm section.

Berlin at its most liberating: Berghain.

Although Giske blows notes in the avant-garde mode of players like Peter Brötzmann, the overall impression of his music is closer to a one-man-band.

British electronic musician Beatrice Dillon’s production work accentuates this quality.

By attaching numerous microphones to his saxophone, Giske is able to weave deliberate tapping along its body together with the incidental noises that inevitably happen during a performance – the action of the keys, the sound of his breathing –  into a fascinating rhythmic accompaniment.

The sounds that normally get suppressed when a recording is made are elevated to equal status with the ones we expect a saxophonist to make. In the process, the ideological mindset of traditional music connoisseurship is turned on its head.

Instead of transcending the body, the music doubles back through it, reminding us always that it was made by a particular human being at a particular place and time.

Giske reinforces this message by recording every track in one take, thereby drawing our attention to the ways in which we inevitably fall short of the metronomic ideal of traditional approaches to performance.

Music is inherently dynamic, shifting over time. But it also has structure. Without repetition, it would merely be noise.

Too much repetition is a problem, though. That’s why early synthesizer-based pop disturbed many people. The precision achieved by sequencers revealed how much human beings deviated from the standard. Yet that mismatch is comforting to us. In failing, we succeed.

That’s the sense we get from listening to Bendik Giske’s music, anyway. He sacrifices his virtuosity in order to save us from ourselves.

Bendik Giske takes that logic to another level.

Although all the music Giske has released since his 2019 debut album Surrender has communicated this impression, the new record is even more ascetic.

Listening to tracks like “Rush” and “Slipping”, there are times when it’s difficult to remember that we are listening to a saxophone at all.

Although a native of Oslo, Giske spent a lot of time in Bali growing up. It comes through in his music, which has the percussive intensity demonstrated by a lot of that Indonesian island’s traditional music.

At the same time, it calls to mind the minimalism of the European dance floor. Despite its repudiation of a pop sensibility, Bendik Giske calls for the bodily investment of its creator to be mirrored by his listeners.

Giske has explained that his awakening as a musician happened at Berlin’s famous Berghain club, whose demands he initially resisted. When he surrendered to them, in the end, it felt like he was being freed from the prison of expertise.

This metamorphosis transformed him from a saxophonist who happened to prefer the sexual company of men into a self-consciously queer artist. Although there are no words in his music, it nevertheless speaks volumes about what it feels like to dissolve the boundary between body and mind.

The liner notes for Bendik Giske, like its predecessors, make a point of underscoring the relationship between the music and cultural theory about the LGBTQ+ experience.

While it’s not necessary to understand this connection in order to enjoy the record, perceiving it leads to a different kind of listening, in which Giske’s work enters into a conversation with the arguments of queer scholars.

This is how the irregularity in the album’s rhythms, its foregrounding of repetition with a difference, takes on an allegorical dimension.

Identity is precarious. It must be repeatedly reinforced in order to ward off disintegration. But it also needs to make room for variation.

Bendik Giske reminds us to make room for the future, our ears focused on the horizon, where being perpetually metamorphoses into becoming.

Photograph courtesy of James Dennes. Published under a Creative Commons license.