Bendik Hofseth: some favourable moments in time

Norwegian saxophone player Bendik Hofseth first made a name for himself more than twenty years ago when he joined one of the super groups of jazz, the New York-based Steps Ahead. In the 90s he moved on to a diverse solo career that comprised pure pop albums as well as more conceptual outings, shifting between musical genres and expressions as well as language. In recent years he has first and foremost stood forth as a player of the game of culture politics. Because without the political support and regulation there can be no great art, thinks Hofseth, at least in our day when artistic livelihood has been rendered precarious by the digital revolution.

<- Listen to and download Bendik's lates release here

Bendik Hofseth 2006

-Art is a vital, ubiquitous part of society, more so than many politicians seem to realize. This is something I have become acutely aware of in my time as leader of the Norwegian union of composers, says Hofseth, and more recently, as the president of the international union of composers CIAM.

We had a talk with him about his efforts in the culture-political field; the challenges that face musicians and the music industry in the digital era, and not least his recently released record XI.

-Norway has every occasion to be at the very forefront of what is now happening, says Bendik Hofseth. The fact that Telenor (the Norwegian telecommunications giant) is state controlled ought to entail that a definitive solution to the predicament is readily at hand. We got of to a really bad start in this matter, but now the time is right to align the interests on each side and find a solution.

The predicament in question is of course the uninhibited sway of the downloading spectre and the general lawlessness that reigns regarding the copyrights of music in the digital age. And the solution referred to is the much discussed subscription model, where one pays a monthly fee to freely download music, legally. But this of course requires the cooperation of the Internet providers.

-The problem is that the principles regulating the telemarket and the role of the operators were laid down before the erosion of copyrights became the problem that it is today. Telenor are understandably concerned about the greater ethical issues that will arise if the broadband provider becomes responsible for user content. So the only solution is that the politicians can modify these regulations to the new situation. But so far many of them seem to be working in the opposite direction. Many political parties seem downright oblivious to what is at stake here; they don’t seem to realize that the information society they all embrace requires a definitive key to the protection of copyrights. I’m optimistic though, because the technological solutions are already at hand, and I think that if we could just coordinate a strategy all involved parties would listen, because by now everyone is interested in coming up with a lasting solution. I believe in the voluntary model of payment, i.e. subscription –studies indicate that such models are actually very popular with the users– but we are exploring the other option too, which is monitoring and policing the Internet. In both cases the politicians must be willing to regulate the operators.

Bendik Hofseth has big issues on his mind. It seems to be his nature to embrace projects on the grand scale, whether they be culture-political or artistic in nature.

His recent record XI is the culmination of a musical master plan that he conceived almost twenty years ago when he released the first record in his own name, IX, in 1991. It was the instigation of a musical project designed to allow him to «unlearn» some of the technical ability he had acquired through years of study, and transcend the artistic palette that his musical career up to that point –notably with Steps Ahead– had left him with.

-My motivation for the concept was that I found it difficult to sit down and write contemporary and popular music, says Bendik. It was not so much a matter of ability, as of discipline and structure. So I figured that conceiving a master plan that nominally would stretch years into the future would allow me to work within a framework and against a conceptual background. I know it must sound pretentious but it was never all that serious. The whole idea of unlearning and calling the venture the «reversed university», was always meant as partially as a joke. It was never intended to be a specific plan or a logical project, more of a way to organize ideas and sustain momentum. And I did become very productive, but at the same time I guess I had Marcel Duchamp’s dictum in mind as well; about never completing what one has started.

Now that you have completed it, is it fair to say that the conceptual whole is something that only has become visible in retrospect?

-Yes, It was really only when I went back to New York last summer to record this album with Mike Mainieri and some of my colleagues from back in the eighties that I saw it as a circle having been completed. XI features new versions of tracks from all my solo albums. From a selection of 110 songs I chose the ones that I have enjoyed playing live the most, and so it sums up not just the records but the live experience as well. It does not however, conclude my collaboration with Mike, I am working with him again very soon on a project of his called Northern Lights.

Can you tell us how it happened that you were invited to New York in the first place, in 1987, to fill Michael Brecker’s shoes in Steps Ahead?

-The funny thing is that I never saw myself as a saxophone player at that time. The demos that caused Mike Mainieri to invite me over were song writing demos really, things I had done in my home, playing all the instruments and singing myself. Mike wanted to know who was playing the sax. When I told him it was me, I got the vacant slot in the band. Now that the circle has been completed I not only feel like I’m ready for a new debut as an artist, I also confess that I feel like real a saxophone player for the first time in my life.

For someone who was offered saxophone legend Brecker’s job in one of the leading jazz groups around this may sound conceited, but Bendik is referring to the fact that for the first time in many years he has actually been able to practice systematically on the sax. What has kept him from practicing is also what caused the IX project to take ten years longer than anticipated.

-When I took up duties in the Norwegian composer union and eventually other musical organisations I obviously had less time to practise and write music. Naturally the creative and performative side suffers when one gets involved like that. But on the other hand I feel that I have learned a great deal, not just about the machinations of music economy, and culture politics, but perhaps more importantly I have experienced first hand the great scope and quality of Norwegian music. I now understand much more clearly how ubiquitous and important music is to society. That in itself is really inspiring.

Bendik Hofseth has held a number of positions in different Norwegian musicians’ organisations and unions, and for the past to years he has been president of the international unions of Composers, CIAM. Wanting to focus again on his music he has extracted himself from his central role on the Norwegian music-political arena, but he might continue as president of CIAM, if he is asked.

-There is a convention coming up, and if they want me, I will stay on for two more years. I have a big network and I know and like the job. One way or the other I will still have a lot more time for my own music and new projects.

The presidency of CIAM brings us back to the copyright issues. Is there a plan in place for how the revenues will be dispersed in the case of a voluntary, subscription- based model?

-Yes and no, dividing the money is something that will have to wait until we have secured it. It will not be a problem since we already have models of how to do this, and the positive aspect of the digital revolution is that everything can be monitored, measured and calculated. The technicalities can wait. First we must deal with the principal aspects. It is really quite unbelievable that we have politicians in Norway who argue for blatantly flaunting international copyright agreements.

How long do you think it will take before we see a lasting solution?

-It could happen very soon. The vital thing is to get a pilot model up and running so that all parties can see that it works and that this is not really such a huge problem and dilemma as it is made out to be. Like I said, we got off to a bad start in this matter in Norway, and there is still a lot of scepticism and ignorance surrounding these issues. In other countries there have been very promising models set up, and they work. This doesn’t mean that there is only one solution. The point is that technologically, and from the perspective of a fair handling of copyrights as well as consumer satisfaction, there are no obstacles. It is just a matter of getting the decision makers to take responsibility. Norwegian politicians need to understand how important it is that we allow all the exceptional musicians we educate in this country to be able to make a living.
Another aspect of this is the low priority we have put on the necessary support functions. It is a catastrophe that we have so many internationally renowned musicians that have little choice but to take their business out of the country, because we do not have the expertise in Norway. That is why I am setting up master program of Music Business Management at the University of Kristiansand. We need to develop the entrepreneurial spirit. With the new technology the entire corporate aspect has become obsolete, which means that the time is right to educate a new generation of music business people who can work this field in guerrilla-like manner and bring Norwegian musical profits back into the Norwegian cultural economy.

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