Bendik Giske: Breath, Body and Metal: Fearless Beauty 
Reverberation is a persistent ellipse in Bendik Giske’s glinting constellation; it’s at the centre of a high-developed sense of space and sonic empathy. It is accurate then to affirm that Giske’s immersive saxogymnastics provide a unique level of hovered intimacy, one that has been especially untangled for vibrant corporeal receptacles. His statement is clear: fearless exploration is necessary to create beauty.
Surrender, his debut album, which was released earlier this year, marked an important phase for the Oslo-born queer saxophonist, producer and performance artist, not only because he went through a long route to redefine the impact of his creative input, but also the entire way in which he used to conceive his immediate cultural environment changed when a crucial encounter with Berlin’s underground music scene exposed him to dance and electronica’s experimental tradition.
Alongside production abilities provided by fellow Norwegian-born, Berlin-based musician Amund Ulvestad, Giske nested a new directed sound adapted for saxophone-logics, a full transformation to unwrap the core of acoustic absorption in his own terms, liberating his palette from the saturation of heavily processed audio mixing and simultaneously introducing him to a renewed and magnified lungs extroversion.
This project unlocked a plethora of unexpected potentialities, meanings and collaborations for Giske — his latest developments include an impeccable onstage energy enriched with reciprocity, vulnerable performance experiences, a constant sculpting technique on sonic matter and the urgency to question masculinity through queer discourses.
I met Bendik prior to his last live show of the year. We had a conversation that evolved into a thoughtful session to explore archival memories. For this interview, he maintains a sharp approach on the origins of his practice, the purpose of the recording sessions for Surrender, emotional attachment in live performances, the empathic power of circular breathing, the non-materialized Surrender twin album, exploring mutual intuition with Shiaz Legz, and the use of voice as a future treatment for his next projects.
In order to have a complete vision of Surrender I contacted Amund Ulvestad (who produced and engineered your debut album), in this excerpt he describes and explains the process and the origins of collaborating with you for this project:
“… What you hear on Surrender is the result of this conceptually anchored exploration and recording process […] Here we went to great lengths to really explore the breadth and width of the recorded material and present a sort of hyperreal acoustic scenario with the listener constantly transported back and forth between very intimate, in your face perspectives (literally inside of Bendik’s throat!) to the completely airy, ambient washes of the big reverberant spaces.”
- Amund Ulvestad
By placing microphones unconventionally into your body the idea of a corporeal-recording device was achieved.
What attracted you to develop this marrow-level of intimacy?
Bendik Giske: It is an interesting question; it is a big question, because you are talking about the driving force for the whole project. I reached out Amund after I saw his installation Parhelia, basically you get to listen the same sound source from different perspectives. As a kid I had this dream of following my inspiration and making that into a living, rather than having a job, I just wanted to create, the path for that became through music and taking music education, but soon I found myself at a crossroad at some point where I didn’t really like where I was going with it, I felt that I wasn’t contributing as much as I could.
I started to find my voice within the abandonment of the soloist role when I joined ensembles earlier in my development, and that is a very illogical thing to do on the saxophone, there weren’t a lot of precedents for that in the music literature that I knew at the time. That’s when I created an ambient I could sing over, breath and use all of this little sounds in the instrument.
I found that as I ripped away the layers of harmony, rhythm and melody, I could take it to the most basics, I was looking for a way of conveying that soundscape, that subjective experience that I had when I play because I thought there was so much richness in the sound, but when I recorded it, it didn’t come through. I knew that Amund and I were capable of getting really inspired together, I’ve had some moments with him where I felt we were almost the only two people in the planet, where you just focus on what you are doing. That was the driving force of creating that sound, to create that experience for others.
At the same time Surrender is not angry or brutal. I wanted to explore beauty.
What is behind the decision of working with Amund in places like the Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum/Museum in Oslo?
BG: I realized that in order to find clarity and truth in my project I had to strip down all the possibilities, I was making some electronic music and I was looking up to people making electronic music. I got really into buying plugins, there’s always a sound that you need, there’s always something else. Part of my mission was to really just go like “you know what? I don’t need any of this” I thought I was going to stop playing saxophone, but I didn’t, I thought, “before I stop at least I’m going to really explore what the capabilities are”, and I found that the main inspiring ingredient when I was performing was how I could create resonance in buildings, it was a very obvious choice to think that if I was not adding anything, not doing any layers, and not adding any sounds, it was just going to be me, the room and the space. If you strip away everything, what are you left with?
It became clear that I had to do it on location because once you start adding reverbs in the studio as an after production process, then you are opening this box of possibilities again.
What’s keeping up adding another layer? Where do you stop?
I’ve read in previous interviews that the interiors’ fertile heritage and its powerful reverberations played an immense role to figure out the direction the project.
BG: It was kind of dogmatic, I really wanted to explore clarity, it needed to be a reverberant space, I thought, “there is a space in Oslo that has this immersive quality that is just magical!, and it is that place”, it is one the best reverbs on Earth probably, there’s a bunch a pretty good reverbs in the world, but this was so accessible to me, it is a 15 minute walk from where I grew up, I knew that was something that it needed to be explored in this project, it had to do with my identity also.
But it is not only that space, we also went technical, at the time when Amund was finishing up his masters degree in sound technology he had access to this physics lab and we had to sneak in at night and all sorts of things, he made that happen, nobody was excited that we were recording an album in there, at least that was my impression.
I’ve always been curious about this synchronicity during recording sessions: the evolution and sculpting of sonic aesthetics and the musician’s state of mind.
It seems that the endless energy of the queer underground in Berlin, the local digital nourishment of sexual identities, and the rituals hidden in the gregarious nature of electronic music were pivotal to redefine yourself through an unprecedented transformation.
Can we get a glimpse of the atmospheres you envisioned before and after the recording sessions?
BG: I do remember being very insecure about whether or not my repertoire was going to hold up or if it was too thin. I guess part of that is coming from my background, in school we would go into rich harmonic theory, when you investigate possibilities you have to take a look at everything, and it becomes a lot of information. I felt for a while that in order to make rich music there had to be a high level of detail in all aspects, but in this project I thought “I don’t think it does!” some of the music experiences that I really enjoy are ambient music for instance, where you can argue that nothing happens, or techno music where you can say its very repetitive. I had some insecurities if my record was going to hold up, I definitely didn’t think it was going to have a big audience, I thought it was going to be something that was going to be exciting for a very narrow acoustic music scene, and what I really wanted to get into, which is why it was so important to work with Amund was, “If we take away everything else but performance, then what is possible?” What I really offer in that album is my performance, the tracks are very stripped and each track investigates very clear ideas. I wanted to get into what I am capable to do on any given circumstance, and Amund provided those circumstances for me. I think the mindset was to redefine what is possible, and how music can be created. I was very clear at the time that I didn’t do anything new, I felt that the only new thing I was offering up was my performance, that hasn’t been put on record before.
This is a full moon cycle album, there are crystalline moments like the pleasant brightness of Up or the untamed notes in High, and dark and alarming peaks like Ass Drone, the density of Stall and the exhilarating ear-milking moments in Exit, every song is crafted as an intricate/vulnerable piece, but not devoid of an incredible inner strength.
What is the most challenging song to revisit/perform in terms of emotional attachment?
BG: In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I liked Ass Drone, or if I wanted to keep it, it was actually Amund’s choice to open the album with that song, he told me “you have to make a statement, that’s the opening track!”, I thought about titles for the longest time, it was actually Boychild who told me “Ass Drone is a great name for that song!”, because I named it like that for a second, I had to get this confidence from the people around me. It’s so difficult to play that one, because is just one note!, any lack of concentration will come through and I felt miserably at it in several shows, I used to open my live shows with Ass Drone as a kind of collective meditation, a way to find concentration, and it was brutal, sometimes I couldn’t, but then since it was the first track it was forgiven.
I did find for a while that in order to perform some of these songs I had to re-live some experiences, all of these tracks are somehow little narratives, they are retelling experiences that I’ve had, but they are not situations with a particular order. On an emotional level it was a little difficult to find back the current state of feelings that I was having, I found myself in the past. There’s one song from that album that I don’t play live called Stall, is also not really my idea, I’ve taken it from somewhere, but in the process of remembering it and retelling it, it became mine and different from the source material.
I want to take this opportunity to talk about your potential as translator and interpreter. You’ve been working and transforming sonic matter in peculiar ways, just think in the Surrender cycle, from your vibrant experiences in the flashy Berghain, to coexist with Vigeland’s ethereal nakedness and the commissioned remixes for Adjust made by Total Freedom, Lotic, Rezzett and Deathprod that took back Surrender to its start point.
BG: In the production of the album I started asking if people wanted to make the elaborate version of it. As a debutant this felt like a new journey for me, I burned down the house a little and this is what emerged from the ashes.
I wanted to do everything in the album, I think that’s a very common disease, at the time I didn’t really see that I was going to make another after this one, there was so many possibilities that I saw in working with this material, and since I had all this dogmas… I really also wanted to make the other album, which was the rich produced one, where everything was possible, but that didn’t happen and instead I commissioned the remixes for Adjust, that had to happen, someone had to work with the source material and do something else, it made sense that it was a remix logic, because I got busy doing other things.
It wasn’t an attempt to go back to the beginning, I wanted to reach out to the people that I admire, in the sense that they’ve taken a queer approach and created resonance. I knew Deathprod and Lotic from before and Total Freedom has been so instrumental in creating this community, really, also I was curious and interested about listening a Lotic rework, it was super obvious that I would ask them to do a remix.
Dimensioning space for venues like the Kirkhelleren cave in Norway (in the middle of the rain) for the Trænafestivalen must be defiant.
First let me talk about the cave you mentioned before, Kirkhelleren, that stage is part of a festival in Norway, it’s a great festival, and they put on a show in that cave once every year, they’ve found traces of human activity dating back from the stone age, people have been in that space for so long, just stepping into the cave gives me this sense of awe, I love reverberant spaces.
I actually feared for my health there, I wore the high heels Stefano Pilati gave to me and when I climbed this rock as I was playing I realized that I was getting a little dizzy, I closed my eyes and I started to move and at one point I thought I was going to fall down!
One of the most interesting qualities in your work is the impressive saxogymnastics you apply on live performances.
How did you figure out that circular breathing could be a successful method to push and extrovert the lungs as potent magnifiers?
I learned circular breathing as a kid because I grew up partly in Bali, where playing the flute means that you are circular-breathing, that’s how you play the flute, is not a mystery. I also learned didgeridoo, I didn’t learn it from any authentic way of playing, I learned the adapted version, which included all sorts of spiritual search and meditation practices, circular breathing becomes part of you very fast. It took me a long time to understand that I could use it for anything, I found that breath has such an empathic power, when you present a prolonged outward breath, it prompts the audience to decide from themselves when they will inhale, and I’ve discovered many times that people really empathize with my breathing, and at some point they have to disconnect from my breath and find their own breath, and there I found some sort of connection.
Talking about saxogymnastics, I found that in performance you need to get into a state somehow, you can’t fake the performance, you have to actually live it, that’s what it is, I found that there is a really interesting clarity and vulnerability on the limit to exhaustion, and I really enjoy for my own self to work on a momentum and move my body, prolong my breath and control all this aspects to the point where it gets risky somehow. I enjoy to get to that point, and speaking about empathic powers, that point also has a very a strong empathic power, that’s where really I start to connect with people, where it feels risky, is not politically risky or anything like that, is risky because I might not see it through.
In February I had a performance in Mexico City where I had height sickness, I was inhaling, but I wasn’t getting the oxygen that I was used to, and I just had to stop, and I was seeing stars and moons and I was really out of it, and it became this fantastic moment, a moment of collective urgency somehow, where it felt like the people in the room were relating to my feeling.
I see these two moments associated in the same balance of your practice: Stine Goya’s recent collection and the astonishing reaction at AA Bronson’s Garten Der Lüste filmed by Sven Gutjahr. Both are linked to a transformative element that persists in your way of creating emergent environments, one is completely choreographed and the other is a clear and pure reaction.
It is difficult to achieve a deep level of connection with your collaborators?
BG: Sven Gutjahr made a 17 min long film that we haven’t released yet, so that was the project and the AA Bronson exhibition part happened as the byproduct. I think collaboration is necessary to find clarity in what I do, the reason of playing the saxophone is not because I want to be alone, it’s because I want to offer up a clear way of elaborating on my collaborators’ work and I want them to elaborate on mine as well, so most of my collaborations are not with musicians, I collaborate with dancers, artists and people from other disciplines. That pushes you to understand collaborations and projects that you feel included in and the directions you want to take in them.
Collaboration is always a negotiation, is also important in a collaboration-elaboration to know that they are not permanent, is not a marriage, you are not going to stay together forever, you are going to move on and do other things.
For this tour you enlisted Shiaz Legz (who also starred Adjust) as an endless resource of mutual feedback on stage. I was particularly moved when I saw footage of Shiaz dancing at Badesøen Festival, for queer identities the antenna built between both of you is a liberating moment.
Can you talk about this collaboration and how Shiaz nurtured the audience reaction on this tour?
Let me put the finger on the last part of what you said, I’ve found that creating an experience for someone else is not the way to go, once you create an experience for yourself, that’s when it becomes powerful and interesting for other people, I’ve heard a lot of people come to that conclusion.
The fact that Legz has been onstage with me is part of their generosity, not mine, is really Julian (Fricker) offering up their energy, inspiration, ideas and presence, is not me enlightening them. We know each other very well, the collaboration started when I played at the CTM festival in Berlin, a festival I really like. We wanted to create some sort of echo between us, so we decided to explore intuition. The music video for Adjust was never intended to be a music video, it started with the label, they said they wanted to upload a music video with the picture of the album cover, and I thought, “lets see what Legz can do with an iPhone first!”, so Legz did it in an hour and a half and then they came up with these loops, which I thought was way better than putting the picture of the album cover.
I wanted to talk about the power of owning Surrender, and how much of the original meaning of the album remains in your thoughts for the tour.
The tricky part of that album is that I’m finish with it and I’m thinking about other things, so it’s a little bit difficult to talk about it because it’s a memory for me now.
Perhaps we can point a little bit forward, and I can offer some of my current thoughts. Is easy to think the creative process as some sort of therapy, I don’t see it that way, the subjects that I address artistically are the subjects that I’ve explored privately first, It’s the representation, is me creating little imprints of what’s going on around me, just manifesting little things along the way, and for me that’s music and performance, and a way to communicate that is to make a record.
I’m excited about the way in which people identify the basic structures from electronic music through your live performances, that’s really unique.
What is the aesthetic direction for your next project?
On the next project I’ll work with some interesting collaborators and the voice will be a large part of that, but as it happened with the saxophone before, I want to do it from a slightly skew perspective or take the queer approach somehow. One of the subjects that I wanted to explore with Surrender was the urgency to question masculinity, this is a public discourse now, what I find a little bit problematic is this alienating narrative to the individuals that don’t see themselves as contributors to a structure and that’s problematic. I want to take that decision in my music, to be a more open, receptive person and an asserting one, to keep exploring topics in that sense, figuring ways to do it differently and also lose some fear about performing what you are supposed to be, and that’s largely part of this project, investigating new possibilities, to be fearless.
Bendik Giske: Breath, body and metal: fearless beauty was originally featured in METAL Magazine, 2019