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Nik Bartsch: Rhythmically Dancing Around Fugato Fires

By Published: December 6, 2010
AAJ: Your liner notes that accompany Ronin's CDs make for interesting reading, and the imagery you used to describe the flow of the band's music on Holon (ECM, 2008) was very striking: "like a school of fish moving across a coral reef at lightning speed." Now, two and a half years later, the metaphor on Llyrìa is strikingly different; now it's a floating, luminescent creature floating gracefully in the depths of the ocean. This description suggests a significant change in the philosophy or the approach taken toward the music. How would you describe the evolution of Ronin's music from Holon to Llyrìa?

From left: Sha, Nik Bärtsch, Björn Meyer, Kasper Rast, Andi Pupato

NB: It's always interesting doing interviews because the questions challenge my thinking about the whole, and there are many things I don't know about my own work. What is interesting is that we have changed from the picture of the coral reef to the deep, because when we work as a band we try to develop our experience of the music towards a deeper spiritual understanding of the music. It's not so easy, but as you get older you get more experience. I think this happened with the whole album—not only with my compositions but also with the ideas of the band. This deep creature, the Llyrìa, is a very good picture because I often don't know myself what this music actually is, what the Moduls and the patterns are. My wife is a biologist, and she brought me a book about the deep and read to me about this creature, and it immediately struck me.

A few years before, she showed me a book for Holon—a book about mimicry. It was about how animals hide in their surroundings and we only see them when they move. This gave me a very good picture of how we often interpret improvisation or solos: you move like an animal in its surroundings. You move in the band's play, and sometimes you see the soloist and sometimes you don't. Even if I have a clear concept, the mystery of the whole is very big, and I often don't understand exactly what I'm doing. But I can feel if a piece has a dramaturgy.

AAJ: This sense of mystery is contained nicely in the liner quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein: "The real foundation of his enquiry does not strike a man at all."

NB: I like this quotation, firstly, because I like the book. I don't know the title in English, but in German it's called "Philosophische Untersuchungen" [Philosophical Investigations] (1953) and it's a book about language and understanding. It's a very inspiring book for me because I also study movement, gestures, meanings of musical patterns and motifs and so on, and how we react with them. This book is not a very strict development of his arguments but more a questioning of several phenomena and his thoughts about them. How you read music, how you develop musical styles from a general language to a certain dialect, to a certain slang of a group—that is the topic of the text in the liner notes.

Then there is the story by [neurologist] Oliver Sacks about the person who loses the sense of knowing that he has a body. This person knows that he is here in terms of "I am here," and has a soul, but he has lost the sense of feeling his own body. For us this is totally normal; we never think about this. What we do in music is to try to question these normal, everyday processes or understanding. We talk about jazz, we talk about beats, we talk about 4/4 beats and things that seem so common, so normal for us all. But how normal are they? How do you communicate with them? How do you change them? As a composer, but also as an interpreter, as an improviser and as a player in a group, questioning these ideas is very important. So you develop a style very carefully, very slowly, but radical in a way.

AAJ: You raise the question of what gives rise to characteristic phrasing and how codes of style come about. Is empathy the key to a codified musical language?

NB: I read a book about apes by Dutch scientist Franz de Waal, where he tries to show that empathy, but also sympathy and antipathy, are ancient phenomena in our ancestors that you find in other species. That's interesting, because we, as a group, often have conflicts and also strong conflicts, but everybody is normally focused on a solution even if we don't share the same opinion. We go into a process of talking with each other and playing with each other, and you need a lot of empathy not only in terms of focusing on yourself and your personal development but on a group process.

I try to emphasize with this natural way of empathy and not such a disciplined, military way of empathy. This natural way of developing empathy towards group solutions I have come to understand very well in the last two years. This process of empathy is very important; it is an intuitive reaction and not so much a developed process. You often intuitively react in a moment even if you don't know why.

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