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Nik Bartsch: Commitment, Movement, and the Batman Spirit

By Published: July 24, 2006
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.

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