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Nik Bartsch: Commitment, Movement, and the Batman Spirit

By Published: July 24, 2006
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.

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