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Nik Bartsch: Commitment, Movement, and the Batman Spirit

By Published: July 24, 2006
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.

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