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Nik Bartsch: Rhythmically Dancing Around Fugato Fires

By Published: December 6, 2010
AAJ: For sure, people, even total strangers, will sometimes mimic another person's accent or body language without realizing it.

NB: Exactly. It's like in martial arts; it's friendly fighting and respecting your partner and seeing his energy in yourself and all these things. I allowed myself this time to emphasize this empathy a bit more. Empathy is an important term, but I am careful not to get too explicit about my ideas of the world, as this can lead to a simplistic view of the big questions of mankind.

AAJ: You state, in the liner notes, that empathy "enables us to reflect our partners in ourselves." Are there not limitations, paradoxically, from a creative point of view in always playing with the same musicians who share such a deep empathy?

NB: Well, you're right, and the interesting thing, which is very close to my understanding in general, is that maybe you get to know each other better and better and you know better your own patterns of relationships, but it's a constant development and you have always to create tension. Nothing is sure, nothing is a given.

I have had a relationship of 25 years with [drummer] Kasper [Rast], but things can change—the health, what's in the head. It's a special relationship.

AAJ: You've been playing with most of the other members of Ronin for almost a decade, so the level of understanding must be quite deep with the other musicians as well.

NB: Yes, that's absolutely right. We try to respect all the other views, and until now we have always found a solution or ideas which everybody in this band is interested to develop together. But also when someone pulls out of a tour due to personal reasons or a family tragedy, everybody is very keen on finding a solution which serves the whole in the long run. We try to find a balance of everybody's interests. Even if I am very strong in creating, writing, organizing and financing the whole thing, there are many parts of this project, and over the years we try to develop individually and promote the strengths of everybody so that nobody has to do anything where he's not strong.

AAJ: On Llyrìa, on the song "Modul 53," it's amazing how five guys playing together can tread so softly. Ronin has gradually evolved over the course of a decade from the initial trio to a quartet and then to a quintet, even though on Llyrìa the band seems to be heading towards a reduction in sound. How do you see it?

NB: Firstly, "Modul 53" for me as a composer was perhaps the most ambitious piece because I really tried to do an empty piece, but based on these groove ideas that you have rhythms and rhythm relations and balances. This is not so easy because when you always have a groove or a subdivision there is often a lot going on in the musical space. For me, this piece was very important to prove my own way of composing. The next step of the challenge was sound, and it starts to groove even when it's empty. It's based on an 11 structure everywhere, which is not so easy to play in a relaxed, groovy way. In balance with the other pieces, this was always like the glowing end piece—a soft, mystical kind of piece which shows the quality of the band playing softly and empty, but warm; a cool warmth [laughs]. Even when it's an empty piece, it should be a strong one with a certain emotional stability. You're right, we could not have played this piece two years ago, but I probably couldn't have composed it either.

AAJ: Rhythm and beat are essential elements in Ronin, particularly on the first two ECM albums, perhaps more so than melody. Would you describe Ronin as essentially a percussive ensemble?

NB: When people with a melodic or harmonic view of music ask me this, I would say that Ronin treats the rhythm like the melody. The function of the melody in our music is the function of the rhythm and maybe sometimes also the opposite. Of course, it's a percussive ensemble in that we all have a strong affinity to rhythms and the combination of sounds that arise out of rhythm.

You can hear this, for example, on "Modul 49" and "Modul 44," where there are almost little fugato energies, little fugato fires in the compositions. I was challenged by the question: is it possible to do this with rhythmical music? I'm very inspired by Bach; I play Bach a lot at home at my modest level, and I'm very inspired by how he keeps the music alive through these fugato principles.

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