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Nik Bartsch: Commitment, Movement, and the Batman Spirit

By Published: July 24, 2006
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.

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