How Bendik Giske deconstructed himself through saxophone play

The Berlin-based musician talks about how his new album Surrender speaks to queerness, nightlife, and vulnerability.

February 08, 2019
How Bendik Giske deconstructed himself through saxophone play Photo: Daniele Fummo  

Bendik Giske remembers his first honk like it was yesterday. He was 12 when he enveloped the saxophone's hard rubber with his lips and blew, sending vibrations through his teeth. “My mom was in the room and she was like, 'Ugh!' And I was like 'Yes!'," Giske, 37, recalls. “It was absolutely an instant connection.”

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As an adult, he developed an antagonistic relationship with the instrument. Friends in Berlin felt “betrayed” when discovering that he played professionally, a fact he wouldn’t readily offer in conversation. His reticence was fueled in part by the rage he felt at having to tone down his queerness in the straight, male-dominated jazz world — particularly where he studied in Norway and Denmark. “The falsehood when you're receiving applause for being something you're not became me hating myself and the instrument,” he says. He felt disconnected from the public perception of the instrument. “I never play a melody,” he says. “Because once you play a melody on a saxophone you step into that understanding of what the saxophone is supposed to be — what it usually does.”

It was until Giske went to iconic Berlin nightclub Berghain that he reconciled his relationship with the saxophone. He was reluctant during his first visits: “I felt like everyone was an idiot,” he says. But simmering within the hedonism of long nights and early mornings, his various identities merged. This included his earliest musical memories as a child, moving back and forth between his birthplace of Oslo and Bali, where he and his mother occasionally resided in. In the swell of Berghain’s techno sets, Giske identified shades of Balinese music including the gamelan ensemble, an intricately percussive outburst played at Indonesian ceremonies that involves “a lot of gods and demons and quite a few demigods,” he says.

Surrender (his January-released album on Smalltown Supersound) is the saxophonist’s ode to queer nightlife. Over eight tracks, Giske pushes the instrument to unrecognizable limits, replicating the building blocks of electronic music through single takes. The result is both otherworldly and fleshy, as tiny microphones placed all over Giske’s body capture the physical exertion contained in creating sound. There's also an expansiveness to the project, the result of recording in the Emanuel Vigeland mausoleum in Oslo. “It's my favorite place on earth,” he says. “The walls are covered with paintings of fucking, childbirth, death, rimming, erections, and tits — everything that's essential to humanity. And the reverb is amazing.”

Giske spoke to The FADER about subverting his own instrument sound, how the album relates to gay sex, and more.

I love your Skype handle, Benny G. Do you think Kenny G would like this record?

I think he would like it. Kenny G used to hold the world record for playing the longest note — he did a circular breathing section for over half an hour, so he's got some skill.

At what point did you realize you could subvert the saxophone's sound?

I was always aware of John Coltrane being someone who took the instrument to a whole other place, so I really don't think that what I'm doing is new. What I do comes out of opposition. I've been furious with anger at where I came from. I went to music school in Copenhagen. There was 200 students there and 90% were men, all straight. I was the only "out" homosexual there. The whole culture was coordinated by this fear of not being accepted by the male-dominated system. In my experience, opposition leads to searching for new ways. It propels you forward.

Me trying to figure out other ways to play the instrument became a necessity because I found myself in love with this techno scene and way of experiencing music — people going in and out of consciousness. It became such a unifying thing. I found myself producing a lot of electronic music and all the while having the saxophone lying on the table. That's my bread and butter, you know? I just hate being a saxophonist. What's an "ist" anyway? It's about me, it's not about the instrument. I have a very tense relationship with my instrument. [Laughs]

Tell me about going to Berghain for the first time.

The first time I went there — eight years ago, in my late twenties — I had no clue what was going on. It wasn't particularly comfortable. If what you're used to is loathing yourself while you get drunk at the bar, then you're going to hate that place. That's not what you do there. When I moved to Berlin five years ago, I started going on the regular. That’s when I learned that I could be the happy boss of my own experience. There is a no photo policy there, no mirrors, and not everybody gets in, you know? [Laughs] It's massive and fabulous. I still can’t believe that I get to be alive and present in a thing like that, in a time like that, because it's not going to last. It's such an amazing culture when it goes right.

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What struck you about the experience?

I started listening to a build-up that must've lasted 15 minutes. It was so satisfying. I thought, If I love it, and this is a part of me, I should give access to this — the saxophone, the Bali, the Oslo, the gay, masculine, feminine. It released the floodgates.

You’ve also made a connection between your music and sex, specifically in regards to the act of bottoming as it relates to surrender.

Tom Ford says that all men should try to bottom once. [Laughs] I thought it was genius when he said that, and I completely agree. Brian Eno talks about the act of surrender as either religion, intoxication, or sex. When I use circular breathing, it's quite strenuous and tricky. It can go to oxygen deficiency very fast — a fine balance between awareness and dizziness. I found myself having to enter a meditative state in order to perform this music.

My motivation for making this record was not very advanced. I took in all this free improv technique, put it into a strict grid, and make it very simple. I found it extremely liberating to have clear parameters to work with so that my mind and my body could be intuitive in a way where I wasn't really the creator. I was just there — like a DJ. A DJ friend explained to me that he makes sure all the technical details are in place, and the rest just happens. That's his favorite set. That's how I feel about playing too: I make sure all the technicalities work, and then it just happens. That's a state of surrender, isn't it? A way of giving access to something else that isn't you. As a man, you're not really taught that. You're taught that you're supposed to have balls and thrust your dick into whatever you can find. You're not supposed to give access and let something overtake your body.

Tell me about recording this album with producer Amund Ulvestad.

A small detail that makes everybody cringe is that Amund is the first boy I ever had sex with. [Laughs] So I knew we could go somewhere together. When I started recording, I had a microphone and a little studio setup. It sounded completely flat. I realized what I heard was very subjective. So we took all the microphones we could get our hands on and put them up my nose, on my breath, on my fingers, and out in the room, further and further away. The idea was that we could play with being up in the clouds or [makes suction noise] take it close and really play with that parameter, which in electronic music is not a big deal — you just turn the ultimation on the reverb. But we tried to achieve that acoustically.

The song titles imply some kind of experience, sexual or otherwise.

I heard these teenagers talking on the bus once: "And he was like [inhales sharply] and I was like ‘no’ and they were like ‘yeah’ and I was like ‘ugh ugh.’” They just talked in sounds. That's exactly what I'm trying to do, except my story is like [ughhhhh] and then [makes shrill noise] and then [panting].

I think my favorite title is “Stall” simply because if you've ever been to a toilet stall at Berghain and eight other people walk in, it kind of has a double meaning. Your night stalls, and you're in a stall [laughter] and after that you kind of feel like you're in a hole, at the bottom of a well. You understand that something is going on but you're not taking part in it until you're high as fuck. And you're just owning this place. And there is an “Exit” moment. The “Ass Drone” is just because— yeah there's definitely a narrative. It's my favorite experience described in little [inhales dramatically] and [exhales sharply] and [voice warbles].

How Bendik Giske deconstructed himself through saxophone play