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Interviews

Nik Bartsch: Commitment, Movement, and the Batman Spirit

By Published: July 24, 2006

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.

AAJ: I would think, in Mobile especially, it would be very important for each musician to submit their ego into a group mind for the music to really exist.

NB: Right. Absolutely. And we didn't know if this would work. I didn't know if the group could develop over the years. So all these projects were created to find out if we could develop this if we stayed together. We went through crises! At the end of this first 36-hour concert, the experience was so interesting that we created a trilogy of concerts over three years. To come back to your question of what "ritual groove music" means: through my development and especially through the development of this trilogy and working with Mobile and then later Ronin, I found this mixture of creating this kind of musical ritual and groove music, as opposed to a very intellectual new classical music. I like that too, but I need the body as well as the mind. So that phrase "ritual groove music" is just a way to use a few words to give an idea of it, but behind it is a big cosmos; there are a lot of details.

After this first concert, I also noticed that creating rituals and events like this is not just very challenging—you also need a lot of time, money, and preparation. After about three years, I thought that this music would also be interesting to play with a group that's more flexible, and in a way, more attacking. That's when Ronin was born. Now behind that, it's important to note that I had been training in the martial arts as part of finding myself and of training for this concert. This Ronin spirit, this martial-arts spirit—aikido especially—was very important for me. It helped me stay very focused, but also very modest and polite. Not radical in the sense of neglecting others, or the world, or other styles of music. It helped me stay on my path—to really just do this music and nothing else with no compromises in the sense of earning money in doing anything I don't want to do. So I had a clear mind and a trained body to be able to perform rituals like this one. Ronin is a name that refers to the martial arts spirit, but the Ronin are also samurai without masters—so they're a sort of underground people, people in the half-shadow of society and often you find them in great comic or film stories about this Ronin world. I like that in an ironic sense.

AAJ: Well, I love those films non-ironically.

NB: That was very important. Because outside of any deep musical questions, I loved heroes like Batman who were fighting in the dark for good. They were kind of ambivalent heroes, not like, for example, Superman, who was just a very bright figure.

AAJ: He's a little bland and definitely part of the establishment.

NB: Right. Exactly. So this mix was very important: stay consequent, be very focused, but also be modest, self-effacing and always sort of proving what you and the group are doing with your actions, either in your playing or just socially. So "ritual groove music" became a kind of a motto. And Ronin and Mobile provided a sort of balance. Mobile's name came from [sculptor] Alexander Calder's mobiles. My pieces were first called "polymetric mobiles," and then I changed the term for them. So all these names have a meaning in this cosmos of this ritual groove music. Now, the Moduls—in the beginning I didn't give names to the pieces because I did not want to describe them too much—not for the listener and not for the player. For that first Mobile record, the black one, Ritual Groove Music, we had no titles.

AAJ: Right, just "1," "2," "3," and so on.

NB: Yes, the number and the length of the pieces. But then I got into trouble with all the rights, and people in the group found their own names for all the pieces. So we'd call something the "blue piece," or the "elephant piece." There was too much confusion. So I thought I should find a name that describes my kind of composition in general. If they had a number, we could talk about them and put them in a historical context, but it would also show that they are combinable.

AAJ: Yes, you combine pieces all the time, like "Modul 38_17" on Stoa or "Modul 8_9" on Randori.

NB: That is also important when you are playing live. At our club [Zurich's Bacillus Club], we do something every Monday. At these concerts, we just play with all these patterns and pieces; many things can happen. When we're going on tour, we prepare more of a set—it is more of a show. I like both. I like the freedom, but I also very much like to be very precise and follow the energy of the music in a fixed way, like you find in the scores of traditional classical music.

Actually, I really looked for something in between. In jazz tradition, people often treated freedom in a way that the piece could go anywhere they wanted—and there are great jazz masters who can do that. But I was always interested in a more modest approach to the material. But on the other hand, in classical music, the freedom for the interpreter is so small, so specific to one place in a score, and for me, it felt too constraining. I like the flow of music, especially groove music, but in groove music, I missed the exact details that you find in classical music, in the combinations of sounds and instrumentation. So I'm probably a strange guy [laughing] who needs just a few aspects of all these musical styles. I love them all, but I needed to find a style in which I can move and play and feel freedom—but as Stravinsky said, freedom is created out of form and structure. But structure that you choose yourself.

AAJ: Well, I think you've found a wonderful solution to all your concerns, and I also think that the existence of two bands—Ronin and Mobile—gives you the luxury of two very compatible but different ways of expressing these desires. Although none of your music is mechanical-sounding, Ronin feels more humanly grooving. It's more about surges and dynamics, whereas Mobile's music seems more about eternal repetition. Its pieces give the impression they could go on forever.

NB: The rituals of Mobile are also more special. When we play, we often play in a theater context or places where people are used to performances. And I need that, but I also like the direct contact with the public, and Ronin is the band for that. You're right: for me, these two things are absolutely important. I need them to live. So I am lucky and glad that I have these special friends and musicians who do this. Everybody also tries to develop these groups in a social sense—to learn from each other, criticize each other, so everyone keeps moving forward. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of perspective and development. If I don't bring new music, new energy, things get stiff.

AAJ: That puts a great deal of pressure upon you, since you compose pretty much every element of these pieces, don't you?

NB: Well, actually, that has changed a little bit over the years. In the beginning, there was a piece I wrote for my diploma for Mobile. And this was completely written. And then this 36-hour ritual came, and there we started with this modular treatment of the material, and out of this we got some experience in how we could work with the compositions. So there are a few of the compositions, for example "Modul 8," that are actually just very short patterns, and the flow of the music and the structure are created by the band, but are guided by my taste. Luckily, my taste is very close to the taste of everybody else so we don't have a lot of arguing.

But the longer I worked and composed, the more interested I became in creating forms that could possibly be played by somebody else—like a classical score. There is always the problem that you need to know the style and the phrasing, etc., but in general, if you read the score, it should be possible to play it. I like that, and perhaps that is a connection to Steve Reich: I like form. A form that makes sense.

What I always admired in Steve Reich's music, especially in the beginning, was that he never took repetition and just repeated and watched what happened. He always worked with musical material very intelligently and created forms out of this material in a very interesting and modest way so the musical material that he chose often created the form by itself.

If you look at the tradition of modern classical music, like Schoenberg, Webern, etc., they often tried to work with the material and give the material more direction in the way of a story or a narrative chain of decisions. But what I admire very much in Reich's music is this play between the composer and the material. So, sure, Reich is one of the most important and influential composers for pattern music. But I think his music is very much a pulse music, not a groove music. That's a big difference, I think. So Reich is an important influence—but often, maybe because of the harmonic structure, people do overestimate his influence on our music. I agree that the influence is very important, but I do think that Stravinsky's way of treating patterns—and also his way of creating a modern urban music with an archaic background of folk music melodies—is just as important for me. You don't hear it so directly, maybe. Maybe you also don't hear Morton Feldman's music very directly, but his thinking about music and the way he treats patterns is also very important to me as well.

AAJ: Can any Modul of yours be performed by you solo, by Mobile, by Ronin or by anyone else?

NB: Well, a lot of them. When I play solo, I know the music maybe so well that I can also use only part of a composition. For example, let's take "Modul 35," which is the second piece on the new record. You can look at the score of this one on my website, by the way. This piece should be playable for a quartet without my saying how it should go, but you'll notice that on the record, the piece is longer than it is on the score, because Ronin already did something with the piece. The last part, which is, I don't know, a Batman/James Brown groove, is really Ronin-style, and I didn't write this part. But it's created out of the rest of the score, and the bass line is exactly the same, but I changed the harmonics and the drum beat is actually interpreted a little differently. But it's the same form.

In general, sure, most of the compositions are flexible. That's something that "modular" means—you can bring the piece to different bands. But you'll find that good improvisers often play improvisations several times that are kind of similar. It's a different way of thinking, of having a score that, in a way, works—works in its connection of different patterns. For me, it's a big challenge to find patterns and connections between musical material that really creates sense and form. I improvise a lot and I totally appreciate free improvising. But I rate the challenge to create a piece that works, that speaks through itself, very high. So I'm happy like I child if I find something like that, or hear something like that from another composer—for example, like "Piano Phase" by Steve Reich. This is a very simple piece that just works; it's interesting, it has a flow, it's great. It's very simple material but is produced by very intelligent decisions by the composer.

AAJ: I think that "Modul 35" is a perfect illustration of the way you construct a piece out of different lengths of musical phrases, parts, which combine together. Over the course of time, they combine at altogether different moments, so the emphasis and time shifts. It reminds me of the ancient Mayan calendar, which can be illustrated by interlocking wheels of different sizes so the cogs come together at varying places. How do you compose such a piece? Do you start with just one part and add the others one by one? Or are you hearing an overall conception in your mind as you begin?

NB: That is often different, but the drum groove is very important for me. I I often walk and hear rhythms and I often play the drums myself and find an interesting rhythm. So I must confess that on the piano I often play in a more rhythmic sense, trying out rhythms, balances of rhythms and different distances of notes. I try out a lot of connections between odd meters, what happens as I'm listening to them, where is the—Schwerpunkt. What's the word in English? Hold on, let me look it up. [After a pause] Maybe "balance point" or "emphasis." Like you have the "one" in music, and the "two," and here you find the balance between five and three, for example. I also like to find very simple grooving pieces where you don't hear immediately that it's an odd meter; you don't hear that there are strange balances because it grooves. But then, if you listen closely, you find something strange. There are very specific, subtle balances. For example, again, "Modul 35." It really started with this little bell.

AAJ: Yes, that little percussion phrase that goes through the whole first section.

NB: Right. I think I was singing this very unspecific thing when I was walking. Then I played it and I tried it out to hear what happened when you have the three against the four, things like that. Then I found this pattern, this piano pattern. Stravinsky said that often his inspiration came through movement, through playing, through a very simple mixture of listening and moving the fingers and the body. That's why he composed so well for ballet. I think it's very important that he started his known career with ballet. Often in modern classical music, it's about the development of an idea that comes from someone's mind. But I like movement; I'm very interested in movement. Movement of the body, angles of the fingers, stuff like that, like you have in the martial arts. And playing is nothing else than moving your body, moving the air. So a lot of my compositions are inspired by something like this in the beginning.

So I try out drum grooves, overlappings. I have to find out not just if I can write it, but can I play it? Can I play several interlocking and overlapping parts on the piano?

AAJ: Your music is extremely demanding on you. "Modul 6" on your solo piano Hishiryo has you playing simultaneous percussion and piano, and at the same time you're playing a Fender Rhodes lead on "Modul 8_9," you're also playing a very intricate piano arpeggio. You often are filling the role of two musicians.


Ronin (l:r): Kaspar Rast, Sha, Nik Bärtsch, Björn Meyer, Andi Pupato



NB: I thought something very funny a few days ago. I was thinking about "Piano Phase" of Steve Reich, and I thought, "This piece should be played by one guy." That would be very interesting! Two pianos—that would be a challenge, and a totally different challenge than, say, playing György Ligeti's piano études. That's something else; the challenge there is that very highly-developed classical attitude of bringing it together on the piano in the tradition of the virtuoso. That's like the études of Debussy, Chopin, Liszt. I like the Ligetis, but they're in this tradition. But I'm interested in playing things in the flow, with timing, like you find in funk and jazz, with dedication to these patterns, to this flow. Dedication to a score and a musical process, but with the experience of funk and jazz, especially if you listen to the old rhythm sections, like those of Erroll Garner. That's great—I always listen to the rhythm section of the song.

Now, if you listen to James Brown or the Meters—very important band—you'll find this devotion and dedication to the groove. We know a lot of James Brown pieces, and we know the versions of three or four minutes. But there are pieces by him that take 15 minutes, and nothing changes—except it grooves more and more.

AAJ: Well, in 20 minutes it changes once, rather like your tunes. That's why I thought of James when I heard Ronin for the first time. But you don't scream "bridge!" when it's time for the change.

NB: And with James Brown, it's twice as long during that bridge. I don't think he means that word in the pop sense, where it is something that just comes up once and it goes back to the first part. The bridge will go on and on, and that gives you a total power when you do come back to the A part. If you listen to these long interpretations of his pieces, it's amazing how the band grooves more and more. This was an important realization for me: that to develop a groove and to develop that higher energy takes time. It takes dedication to the groove; you can't create it in two minutes. It's not possible!

John Robinson, the drummer who played on the earlier Michael Jackson tunes, very great player—in the studio, he often played for half an hour before recording, just to groove, to really fit in it and to come to that other point. Maybe you can also find that in minimalist music, but in a totally different sense. So there's this balance between written music, interpretation, developing groove, improvisation, and surprise. Surprise is a big challenge. These are the things we're working on, and nothing is given—you can't just compose it. Sometimes it works, sometimes not; you have to always be totally present.

AAJ: You were speaking of commitment, and that is very important here. I'm struck by the obvious commitment of the musicians you play with to this concept. The ultimate expression of this commitment would be Sha, who plays bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet. His parts are so minimal that he really has to care about the whole musical entity—he can be a leg of the animal, but he has to be happy being just one important part. Musicians tend to want to play a lot, so I'm impressed with everyone's dedication to being part of an overall musical organism.

NB: Well, I think he's a very good example because he's young. I think he's more than ten years younger than everybody else; he's like 22 now. He got the point of what's important for everyone in the band—to listen to the micro-phrasing, to listen to the rhythm sections. The band can work as a whole. That only works if you totally forget your possibilities, what you could do.

I must say that all the musicians are capable of playing anything, and this experience of theirs is important. All the musicians play a lot of styles and they're all virtuosos. But to decide to just focus on a few interesting things with the possibility to do much more—you feel that. The listener feels that, and that gives an enormous quality to the music because it's very different from somebody just playing something because he cannot play something else. Sha is a reed player, and to be a part of this band, to sometimes be a shadow of the piano, to sometimes be another percussion instrument—this is a really new kind of treatment of the instrument.

This is important for all of us. It was important for me, when I created, or found, or developed, my piano style, to not play all the lines that have been played on the instrument in history—but to know it. To know as much as possible, because I love it! I love all these great pieces. We often find records, old records—for example, [drummer] Kaspar [Rast] brought me an old Louis Prima record, just to show how that band phrased together. Things like that. But in the end, you focus on your style, on the band, on the development of the band. That creates something that is rare today in general: a group that works together for years. A group that stays together when times are difficult or, even worse [laughing], when times are successful!

AAJ: Yes, that can be terrible for a band.

NB: You're right! But I don't mean this is an old socialistic sense. It's just meant in the sense of modern times, of working together to create positive energy over many years. Maybe it's also an Asian or Japanese concept; they have a tradition where you study things for 20, 30, 40 years—mastership is something that develops very slowly. So commitment and respect are so important. I think that's important for us. I try to do that with my music, and it doesn't always work, but the idea is always in the conception of the music.

AAJ: You know, I think in that Asian approach you mention, it is good and important to be a master—but the process of becoming one is just as important as the result.

NB: I think process is very important over the years, the process of getting experience. But if we go on stage, we never experiment in the sense of showing the weak points of our development. If we're going on stage, we risk a lot, but we risk it with material is developed and has been played a lot. This is out of respect for the listener, the audience. I think it's important that you don't play under a certain level.

AAJ: Does Mobile improvise at all?

NB: I would not say "improvise," but I think we develop a kind of also-modular treatment of known material. So Mobile can often, for example, stretch a piece, or sort of flavor a piece with very small notes that you don't find in the composition. But not improvise in the way that somebody is playing lines or solos over something. Not because we don't like it, but for that, we have Ronin. The challenge of Mobile is to create this music in a more classical sense that's deeper, more ritualistic. We often play longer with Mobile; we normally play six or eight hours. We don't do normal concerts of 90 minutes.

AAJ: You speak of the ritual quality of a Mobile—I won't even say "performance"—experience. What, if there is one in general, is the effect of Mobile's music on the participating audience member?

NB: Well, that's a question that you should ask the listeners. But in the beginning, when we created this 36-hour ritual, it was important for us that people didn't have to listen to this. It is an offer, not an attack. It's an offer of these surroundings, this concert, this performance, whatever you want to call it. I call it a ritual. It's an offer where people can come into this room and can join for 36 hours—but they can also join for 36 seconds and say, "It's crap." I think it's important to not force or impose anything on the people, any certain attitude of how they have to listen to this. I like that very much. There were people who stayed for a few hours, said, "That's enough," and then something interesting happened. They went out of the room and back out on the street and suddenly felt, "I have to go back." It was interesting, a totally other energy. It's something where you feel comfortably challenged. Happy in a new way.

There are also very different listeners—listeners who listen more in the sense of modern classical music. But I think it's hard for those that just want to lose themselves in the music, because we always have some sort of rough part. Like if you compare this to Zen meditation—Zen meditation is not meditation in the way of just feeling happy. It's not an easy way of enlightenment! It's a mix between total focus, comfortable meditation, and in between, rough changes. And the music can be that way, very earthy, very percussive. This is a problem I have with Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians," and his later pieces; the music is very bright, very light and I like it very much, but I miss the Batman factor. Not that he wants it; he wants a piece like what he's done, but I like the dark part of things. But in a positive way—a roughness and an earthy energy. I find it also in James Brown's music.

AAJ: Yes, a roughness of texture in particular. Your music is extremely textural, of course. We can talk about composition and elements of composition forever, but texture and quality of sound is an enormous quality of your work.

NB: Absolutely. That's very important. Maybe that's also a difference—if I can say so in general—from the jazz thinking of instrumentation. In the world of classical music, I really appreciate this totally subtle working on instrumentation. On Stoa, I worked a lot with gongs, behind the instruments and the mixtures of the instruments. But gongs that were not from Japan, Korea or China—gongs from the drum firm Paiste, which is here in Switzerland. They've developed gongs which are very pure, in a way, so you can't tell if it's a gong like in Gustav Mahler's music, or an Asian gong. It's got a non-precise sort of sound, especially if you mix it. I like that because often in world music, you immediately hear something and say, "Okay, this drum is from Ghana, this gong is from Japan, this reed is from Romania." I like mixtures where you can't say exactly where something is from. That creation of textures and instrumentations is a big challenge and I like it very much.

AAJ: Stoa has both a cleanness of sound and some ambiguity at times about what instrument one is hearing. It's got little touches, like a bit of Fender Rhodes under the piano—little secret instruments that are hidden, or at least blended.

NB: That is very important for us and is in the other records also. But it is also a quality of [producer/ECM Records head] Manfred Eicher. That's something in which he has enormous experience; he has wonderful ears for that—especially mixtures of piano overtones and certain overlappings that are created in the room by the blend. I think that's something that is an influence from him, but it's an influence that goes well with our sensibility. We liked it. I especially liked it, because of this classical-music tradition of bringing the acoustic instruments together so that two instruments, say, create something new in the mixture. That's a great thing, and I always cry when I hear Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps" because it's unbelievable the way he blends the instruments. Even a bad conductor can't destroy it!

AAJ: Then it's like Superman, not Batman, because it's invulnerable to bad conducting.

NB: Exactly. He was a master of instrumentation, like all great composers. But he was also a master in efficiency, of bringing a few voices together, especially rhythmically, so they create something totally new. He often combined, for example, in the early string quartets, three voices when usually there were five. That's amazing. It's magic—you don't know why, but if it's well done, you scream because it's so great.

AAJ: It is magic. And I hope music stays like magic to me. I never want to get so analytical about it I don't experience it that way.

NB: Me neither. And I must confess that on, for example, "Modul 35," I don't know exactly how I did it. I don't mean that to say how great I am—absolutely not. Just the contrary. But I have absolutely no idea. This piece is very efficient, in a way, and very ironic as well, with its interlockings. I wonder, "Just where is this bell pattern coming from?" I wonder myself, because when we play it, each time I hear a new balance and get deeper into the piece. Maybe that's something that we didn't mention until now: to play this music is always a great challenge because it is not easy to play. But it's not hard in that it should not be exhausting. If it's exhausting, you lose the flow, the sense of, well, I don't know the word. The sense of being relaxed. You must be totally focused, go into the flow and don't think too much. But you must be relaxed at the same time, or it gets stiff. You also can't read this piece. That's what I meant when I said "Piano Phase" should be played by one man, because he would have to know the flow by heart. It's not possible to read that; the flow is created by just playing.

AAJ: Muscle memory.

NB: Yeah. And this is a total challenge, and each time we play—when I play "35," I cannot be sure that it works. I'm just totally concentrated, and I can't tell. But that's great, because as a player, especially as a player who is deeply into the music, like all of these people which I have the honor to play with, the challenge must be in the music.

And yet, simplicity is the goal. In that way, an attitude of folk music is important—Björn Meyer, the bassist, has a lot of experience in Swedish folk music. He's a Swedish guy and he also has a band that plays modern Swedish folk music. He calls it "trip-folk." That's a danceable music, but it's modern, it's folk, and it's totally great. But he brings this attitude in, and I very much appreciate it because I must confess that I don't have a tradition like this. My tradition is in a way, an urban tradition, a tradition of living in an urban atmosphere, listening to a lot of different musical styles, a lot of traditions.

You know, there's your own self, but the influence of urban culture is very important. Like, for example, Debussy was influenced by gamelan orchestra music, but he heard that gamelon orchestra at the World Exhibition in Paris, not in Bali. Stravinsky was an urban guy in a way, compared to Bartok, anyway.

But anyway, this challenge of playing the music is important. But 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. It's very difficult to create a music that has this directness, but has an intelligent inner life.

AAJ: Well, there is improvisation in Ronin, especially, I think from you. And then there is everyone responding to you in various ways. And if everyone were totally concerned with just accurately performing exactly what they felt they were supposed to, no one could play at all, let alone improvise.

NB: Yes, and often the solo player is more the guy that shows the rhythm section and what's happening in it than anyone else. The soloist brings the light to the rhythm section and the rest of the band. You can, for example, hear Björn's enormous playing on the Rea CD, I think on the second piece ["Modul 22"], where he has an introductory solo. You know, on Stoa, he played so modestly. Before we recorded "36," the opening tune on the CD, which was also the first recorded tune, we had discussed it. We'd agreed that, like in the concert before, he would do an introduction for this piece over the band's opening. But then he played much more modestly—he's very about playing with the band and not showing how much he can do.

AAJ: He's a very restrained player, and his parts are pretty grooving, but he's a very melodic bassist.

NB: He can play like a guitarist on the bass. When we play live, it's a bit of a different experience—there's more freedom. But when he plays live, he never uses his capacity in a way of showing off what he can do. He always uses it for the music. Kaspar, too. He once said, "During a piece, live, there are maybe 30 breaks occurring to me, and in the end, I play maybe five." That's great. And when you have five pickups and not 30, they grow like flowers—you really hear them.

AAJ: You made Stoa for ECM. Is this a continuing relationship? Will there be Mobile record on ECM as well?

NB: At the moment, we can't say. But I think the work on this record we did with ECM, especially with Manfred Eicher, was such a great experience that we will probably continue. I hope we continue. But we as a band, and I as a composer, must develop and create something new—create the energy for a new record. I do not doubt that we can do this. But let's talk about it when it's time for it.


Selected Discography

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Stoa (ECM Records, 2006)
Nik Bärtsch's Mobile, Aer (TMR, 2004)
Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Rea (TMR, 2004)
Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Live (TMR, 2003)
Nik Bärtsch, Hishiryo: Piano Solo (TMR, 2002)
Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Randori (TMR, 2002)
Tonus Music Labor Research Result, Live, Vol. 1-2 (TMR, 2002)
Nik Bärtsch's Mobile, Ritual Groove Music (TMR, 2001) Don Li's Tonus, Gen (TMR, 1999)
Don Li's Tonus, SU:N (Brambus, 1999)

Photo Credits
Top Portrait and Ronin Photo: Marc Wetli
Second Portrait: Martin Moll

Live Photo: Palma Fiacco



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