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Nik Bartsch: Commitment, Movement, and the Batman Spirit

By Published: July 24, 2006
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.

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