Nik Bartsch: Commitment, Movement, and the Batman Spirit

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You don't want to play difficult or challenging music for the purpose of making the listener say, 'Wow! These guys are playing really difficult music!' It must sound simple, direct.
Swiss composer/keyboardist Nik Bärtsch doesn't play jazz, pop, or classical music.

Rather, he and his groups Mobile and Ronin play a remarkable synthesis of the above genres, and the result is something Bärtsch calls "ritual groove music." Although Bärtsch has been developing this music—and the elaborate aesthetic and philosophical aesthetic that support and surrounds it—most listeners' first encounter with it has been the new CD from his band Ronin, Stoa, Bärtsch's first album on ECM Records. It's utterly remarkable—the repeated, interlocking musical phrases made me think of minimalist composer Steve Reich and the organic, hypnotic and fearsomely grooving power evoked James Brown. Bärtsch acknowledges each as an influence, but feels that other influences, such as Igor Stravinsky and Morton Feldman, are just as important, if not as apparent. There's a high level of composition in Bärtsch's pieces, which he calls "Moduls" and identifies only by number. There is also improvisation, at least with Ronin; his other group, Mobile, a sort of acoustic alter-ego group to Ronin that features most of the same players, eschews improv for a more hypnotic, eternal presentation of Bärtsch's compositions. The sound of his music is strikingly novel—but when the novelty fades, the memorable quality of the pieces and the excellence of the performances become increasingly apparent.

There's a good deal more to say about Nik Bärtsch, but when I telephoned him in Zurich, he said it all for me. Read on.

All About Jazz: Before we speak of specific bands, musicians or pieces, we need to discuss your overall musical vision. Few artists have as focused or as specifically systematic a conception of their music as you do, and this conception has been in place for some time now—although it has, perhaps, become even more distilled and, I think, successful. You compose pieces which you call "Moduls" that are numbered and that contain rather specific parts for the players so that the parts combine to form one, interlocking, grooving musical animal. There is repetition and overlaid rhythms that feel inspired by Steve Reich, perhaps, and a sectioning of parts, with your band Ronin especially, that makes me think of James Brown. You call your work "ritual groove music" Would you care to explain this concept?

Nik Bärtsch: Well, these are quite a few points you mention. In the beginning, when I was in my twenties, it was important for me to bring all the experiences that I had had with different musical styles together into a concept. I asked myself why I was doing this—why I was into music, why I played and composed, what was the sense of all that? Let me start a bit earlier, because this is important for the concept. I started out playing jazz, funk and pop music and then, when I was 16, I started doing classical music with a very good teacher. But with all these styles and concepts and bands, especially with jazz groups, I missed the focus, the continuity of work—I wanted something very distilled, something that was very much my own. So after my piano studies at university, I practically stopped playing in all these jazz bands, stopped doing a lot of gigs. I stopped playing clubs, stopped playing amplified.

That's when I created a new form of concert. I started the first band, which was called Mobile. This band and I wanted to create an alternative to this faster club culture, and, on the other hand, an alternative to this stiff classical culture. We created rituals, musical rituals, in which not only the music, but also the room, the light and the time played very important roles. It was kind of a multimedia vision, but not in the sense of using a lot of videos and stuff—more multimedia in the sense of thinking about all the parameters of live performance. The first of these rituals was in 2000. We prepared for it for almost two years, and it was a 36-hour concert.

AAJ: Fantastic.

NB: During this concert, the group changed but there was always a minimum of one player playing. So you had a lot of possibilities to play: duos, trios, etc. Mobile was then a quartet. And we did that first album, the black album, which was recorded after the 36-hour concert and was called Ritual Groove Music. That was our motto. This form of playing was supposed to bring back the focus and concentration to music—all the musicians were really there for this 36-hour concert. They were focused on the music and really felt its energy. They also felt what was possible and what happened when you're getting tired. In this situation, you really become close to the musical energies.

AAJ: Well, you can't get much closer than in that situation.

NB: [Laughing] Right. But in this ritual, it was not the kind of musical experiment where we just improvised. We prepared for a long time. I wrote a lot of pieces, and we worked on them. We were playing in a modular way with the patterns of the compositions. This was also the beginning of this kind of modular thinking. This is not my invention; I've also found it in Stravinsky's way of composing, for example in Le Sacre du Printemps [The Rite of Spring], in which he uses a lot of patterns and a lot of combinations of patterns. And Morton Feldman very much developed modular composing, which created all these possibilities through combining musical patterns.

This isn't about linear thinking or developing a thought, narrative thinking, like with the traditional Vienna School—for example, Beethoven. It's more about creating a room through combining musical patterns. And yes, this plays a role in Steve Reich's music. But for me, and also the group, it was important to not just recreate these experiences like LaMonte Young did, but to try to find something between classical music, jazz and funk. These were all very important for us. So to play this music, it was important to have had this experience—for example, to know what to do with a very detailed interpretation of a score, like in classical music, but also to know the importance of timing, which we got from jazz and funk. It was also important to be modest and not play too much, like in a pop solo, in the way you play a pop song.

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