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Nik Bartsch: Rhythmically Dancing Around Fugato Fires

By Published: December 6, 2010
AAJ: Going back to Stoa, you wrote in the liner notes of the influence of, "the percussive construction of cities," but everywhere people are experiencing increasing levels of noise pollution—maddening levels—and I wonder where you hear music in this.

NB: Stoa was our chance to present this long- developed concept on the international stage, as with ECM we had a different presence. So when I wrote these liner notes, it was important to show my way of thinking behind the music and why there is not so much melody and narrative development. For me, the space and the possibility to move freely in a piece was a very important picture. I read a quotation from [Igor] Stravinsky once, where he said if modern compositions were houses, he wouldn't want to live in them. I liked this picture very much. A very good friend of mine is an architect, and we had worked on several projects together. His idea of creating dramaturgy in space and organizing movement in space was very inspiring for me.

For me, music is a combination of architecture and dramaturgy. The city is a melting pot for many ideas, but of course it's also a danger because of the noise and you have too many things, too many influences, too many possibilities. There's too much noise and no emptiness, but that is exactly the challenge for somebody who is interested in meditation and clearness and peace---you have to choose, you have to take responsibility for what and why you choose something, why you bring it into your music.

AAJ: Outside of Ronin you are involved in all manner of projects, and one which stands out is your collaboration with pianist Christoph Stiefel. His album Sieben Meilen Stiefel (Neuklang Records, 2006) was outstanding, and it's maybe surprising he's not better known. What can you tell us about working with him?

NB: I have known him since I was a teenager because he's living here in Zurich and I would go to see his concerts, which then was more fusion music. He was always great in terms of phrasing and rhythmical playing. Later I had the chance to do a project where I could do anything I liked. I thought it would be interesting to combine these two pianos because I know his music and I know what he's working on. I thought it would be a big challenge to play his tunes, and I wanted to learn more about the way he treats rhythms and isorhythms and patterns and things like that. He was also interested in my pieces, so we created a duo for this event.

It was very inspiring for me because there is a certain nearness in the basic idea, and this is interesting because it shows you a lot about your own music also. There is nobody like him who can play this music in a jazz context. I'm more a classical- oriented composer who works with groove music. Christoph, for my taste, is a very groove-experienced pianist who brings his ideas of patterns and isorhythms into a jazz trio context or a solo context. He's such a good player with his right hand that he can play freely in a jazz solo over the groove. I'm also working on this at home, but I'm not doing this in the band because I'm going in another aesthetical direction which would change immediately if the pianist or the saxophonist was going towards a more solo- oriented expression.

AAJ: Another project which sounds interesting is your collaboration with New York group Bang on a Can, on your composition "Modul 26."

NB: Sometimes I have the possibility to write for another group that's interested in the aesthetics of this music. Evan Ziporyn, who is a strong member of Bang on a Can, wrote to me to say he was interested in the music. Finally, it was possible to do something together, and I was very excited because there are not too many crossover ensembles who understand the compositional classical thinking and the groove aspect. In Bang on a Can you have many interesting members, like the guitarist [Mark Stewart] who knows African music. It was a very minimal, a little bit rock and contemporary classical music ensemble. I decided to work on a piece that I had already written and to transform it into another orchestration, write some new parts and adapt it for this Bang on a Can group.

It was interesting for me because there were more acoustic strings and people with experience in classical music, and I thought that in the flow and a certain pattern structure that "Modul 26" would be a good piece for a group with people of this background. I asked Evan if we could do an early rehearsal so I could see how they would like to treat it, what challenges they have, where they are inspired by the piece and where maybe not so much. I need this time when I develop a piece together with other people. The rehearsing process and the process to materialize the music is very important.

With Bang on a Can I was not afraid that they would play it with too little ambition, but it is maybe interesting to work with the composer to get the picture of what is behind the music and how the tension is created, or how I interpret the creation of tension in a piece over so many repetitions in this spiraling process. "Modul 26" especially moves in the way of a planet, not in a circle but in an elliptic way. In the end, the planet goes out of the ellipse and into a straight, forward movement. The way you move up to higher energy levels in this piece is difficult to write into a score. I was constantly challenged by how much I could write into a score and how much is interpretation. But you also find this challenge in a Beethoven sonata.

With Bang on a Can, it was really a pleasure because they wanted to do this process even if economically and time-wise they were totally challenged to create enough space for this. But if they like a composer, their interest is total and for me this is important. The rehearsing process, the development of the piece together as a group, understanding each other in the sense of interpreting the background and the energy you bring into a group---this is a very important process, and I think you can hear it in the results of the playing.

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