For a number of years Jon Balke has been among Norway’s, and Europe’s, most influential jazz musicians, making his impression through groups such as Masqualero, Oslo13, Jøkleba, Magnetic North and Batagraf. The latter two constellations are presented in the documentary”Magnetic Musician” which is being released internationally after two recent viewings on Norwegian TV. The 50 minute film trails Balke and his musicians over five years and through the recording of three albums, Kyanos, Statements and Diverted Travels. In this interview with Ballade’s Knut Steen director Audun Aagre relates on the filming process, while Balke himself shares some thoughts on why improvisation becomes freer and more challenging by subjecting it to a couple of compositional limitations.
By Knut Steen / Translation Christian Lysvåg
“Magnetic Musician’s” temporal scope makes the film rather unique. Why did you choose Balke for such an extensive documentary project?
-Due to a combination of planning and coincidence, says Aagre, who got his first Balke record, Oslo13’s “Off balance” in 1987.
-Since then I’ve related to Jon’s music, so when Vossajazz 2002 (a jazz festival) approached me with a request for a video installation, I promptly agreed. For that project I filmed the recording of Kyanos in 2001 and also a train journey across the mountains. It was on that trip that the thought of making a full documentary entered my mind. The reason for the prolonged process was simply lack of funding to complete the project, and while I was waiting for this I kept filming.
Despite the film presenting a number of musicians there is little doubt that Balke is the focal point.
In this documentary you give people an opportunity to see how you work Jon. Do you think this might contribute towards a better understanding of your music?
-Hopefully, even though it requires a certain interest for the specific kind of music from the start. This is not TV entertainment, and does not make the music accessible in such a way. On the other hand, we have no defined intention with this film, we’ve simply been trailed by a filmmaker, and I hope the authenticity can shed some light on what we’re up to.
Energy and technique
What has it been like to have a camera crew on your heels for five years?
-At first we all found it odd, but pretty soon one forgets the camera. Audun has been appearing here and there, and as such he has been like a band member. Kind of like: “You’re coming with us to Paris? Cool!”
Are there differences worth mentioning regarding the way you are received on Norwegian stages compared to international venues?
-The dissimilarities between countries are great, in terms of audience behaviour and ways of listening, and this makes touring all the more exciting. In Germany e.g. the audience tends to be intellectually oriented, whilst in Portugal or Ireland the audience will respond immediately to the energy of the music more than the technical aspects.
How does Norway fit-in in this picture?
-It is impossible to generalize really, since there are huge differences between the venues. In Norway all varieties of audience-culture are represented, which means, I guess, that you can depict Norway as a mixture between the German and the Irish experience: Norwegian audiences are often knowledgeable and experienced when it comes to improvised music, like the Germans, but at the same time there is an immediate response to the power and energy of the music.
The documentary features music by Magnetic North and Batagraf. For those not acquainted with your music, can you outline the differences between the two outfits?
-Magnetic North was initially a starting point for fusing an energetic approach to rhythm sections with chamber music. Then it evolved towards purer chamber sonics and art music. At one point I felt the need to set up a forum dedicated to rhythmic energy, discarding the focus on melody. Oscillating between these two stances has been a very positive experience, says Balke.
The film features a stellar team of European musicians. Was it easy to get people like Per Jørgensen, Ingar Zach, Helge Andreas Nordbakken and Peter Spissky to play along?
-I would say so yes. We all work in an international environment where musicians of this calibre constitute a large family, of sorts, which means we are acquainted with each other and each other’s music. It functions as a continuously communicating network of friends. I’ve made a point out of meeting people socially before collaborating musically, because playing is a social process; if this process is difficult the music itself will not work.
Freedom through limitations
Even though the compositions are Balke’s, the film concerns music that arises underway; through changes, suggestions, conversation and listening. Balke emphasizes the musicians’ impact on his ideas as they go along.
-This is a constitutive aspect of my bands: They are based on a notion of need for uncertainty in the music; in order to keep it alive and dynamic and challenging to play each night anew. For this reason I have reduced the composed material to a core, which must be as compressed as possible while at the same time distinct enough to give the music character and be a tool for furthering it.
And this is Balke’s overriding idea:
-Within improvised music one has the dynamic uncertainty that can infuse a tune with a special edge. But without guidelines one often ends up repeating processes, because one lacks the tools to move on. A compositional framework can yield music that is rich and complex, and not just a reproduction of a fixed complexity.