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Nik Bartsch: Rhythmically Dancing Around Fugato Fires


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Hungarian composer and pianist Béla Bartók once said, "In art there are only fast or slow developments. Essentially it is a matter of evolution, not revolution." Pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch would be the first to recognize that he is no revolutionary, as his aesthetic vision draws inspiration from multiple sources, ranging from 20th century classical music to funk, and from Japanese ritual music to minimalism. The distillation of all these sounds results in a music that invites meditation and at the same time urges you to move to the groove—something of a feat, it has to be said. Whether or not Bärtsch's group, Ronin, has evolved quickly or slowly in its first decade of existence is a relative matter, but evolve it most certainly has. An organism that began life as a trio at the beginning of the decade, Ronin soon became a quartet and then a quintet. Yet despite the addition of musicians over the years, the band seems to be heading towards a reduction in sound.

On Llyrìa (ECM, 2010), there is less of the obvious groove that characterized the band's previous ECM recordings. The band sounds looser, though the music remains notated for the most part. In the past, if the band used rhythm to accomplish melodic functions, here the emphasis is more on melodic development; a greater lyricism pervades the compositions. The increased space in the structures allows more room for reed man Sha to assert his presence, though there is less of a role for the contrabass and more opportunity for the alto saxophone to color Bärtsch's "Moduls." This greater emphasis on space and the resultant new sounds that occupy these spaces has much to do with Bärtsch's interest in architecture and dramaturgy— the construction of spaces.

That the music has evolved, rather than taken a radical turn, is due to the constant refusal of Bärtsch and his colleagues to let the music gather dust. Ronin's regular Monday night concert at its club in Zurich is much more than just a gig. Here, since 2004, the band has worked on the music, experimenting and continually seeking the musical growth that comes from deepening empathy and common goals. The five musicians of Ronin are, as Bärtsch states, servants of this music.

All About Jazz: Did Llyrìa turn out the way you envisaged it when the music first started coming into your head?

Nik Bärtsch: In a way it turned out like we intended because as a group we made a new step in performing together. For me, as a composer, I never know how it will turn out in the end, but the dramaturgy of the pieces when I develop them at home can change with the band, and it's always a surprise how the band can handle the compositions.

In the studio, it takes a lot of time working on it together with the producer Manfred Eicher. It's something we have prepared very carefully, but everything changes and surprises us. It happens because everyone has the will and the tradition to focus and concentrate but also to outfox ourselves. We went into the studio a day early to have a whole day of preparation, to check all the mics, all the details, and that helped very much to create a warmer band sound in general. I'm very happy with the way it turned out.

AAJ: You mention the band surprising you, and each other. How much can Manfred Eicher surprise you all in the studio?

NB: Manfred is always surprising. His enormous experience, in my opinion, does not influence him to do what he knows and what he likes. He uses his experience to always create new and surprising combinations. He once told me that it is important that the band comes really prepared with a present concept, and well rehearsed. From then on, you can really create the now—the specific take that really convinces everybody. It maybe also has some mistakes or surprises in it, and for this he is an enormously careful and intense listener. He gives very precise feedback, not only in terms of the details of the composition but also in terms of the mood of the piece and the mood of the band in the studio. I think that's exactly what a producer, in the musical sense, is all about.

He puts all his energy into the production process. For me, it is astonishing how someone with such huge experience can concentrate so much on the now and also enjoy the now, and be challenged when the now does not happen. He does not think he knows everything. That's something which inspires me very much.

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.

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.

Björn [Meyer] especially, as a bassist, is also melodically a very developed person. He's able to play like a guitarist, but he plays in tenor or bass register. I like this very much because there I can enjoy the melody in a different way, and the ear is led towards all the combinations with the rest of the band. In an opera register, the ear only listens to the soloists.

The whole band is a rhythm section, and you change the way of listening when you listen to the band. However, melodies and shorter motifs were always very important for me. I'm very inspired by Igor Stravinsky who created melodies not so much as narratives but almost like rhythmical dancing. You feel a certain pulsation in the body.

AAJ: On Llyrìa there seems to be more emphasis on the melodic rather than the forceful groove that dominated the previous two albums.

NB: That's correct. As a composer, I was interested not to limit myself to, you know, certain dogmas of avoiding too many melodies. I tried to combine rhythms with simpler, shorter melodies that still create a certain polyphonic energy. The scenes are not as usual, where there are one or two scenes but the scenes have a certain connection; in a piece like "Modul 51," you have many scenes that have relations between each other and show a scene in a different rhythm, and you can hear how it can change. I was more interested in a polyphonic energy of little motifs, based on the rhythmical understanding of my own music.

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.

AAJ: The playing of percussionist Andi Pupato is amazingly subtle and his contribution to the micro-phrasing is ever so deft, and this is all the more striking given his background in Afro-Cuban, African and flamenco music. Do you compose all of his parts on Llyrìa?

NB: We have published a score, which can be bought as hardcover or as a PDF file, where you can hear what was written and what was not. Andi usually has the most freedom of all, but there are a lot of precise, written rhythm parts as well because they interlock with the drums and the bass lines. I understand percussion as a sounding and resonating instrument in terms of instrumentation—that's when we combine bells or certain metal percussion or wood percussion. And there is a certain combination of notes that I try to combine with prepared piano, piano, bass clarinet or drums, so the patterns created make sense not only rhythmically but also make sense resonating.

Often Andi has the function of like when the wind blows through a tree; his way of giving wind into the space creates a certain hue and understanding of the movement of the whole. It's a balance of free parts and written parts. I write for him as a person because I think that's his strength. With all his background that you mentioned, he can play neutral percussion. When he plays a pattern you don't think, "Oh, he's a Cuban-influenced percussionist or from a certain African tradition," but he can play shakers and patterns that have a neutral way of sounding, and it fits in very well with our music. When you give him the freedom to make sounds, he's able to do so in a compositionally oriented way. When you listen, you are not sure if it is composed or free, and that's our intention in general.

We move in the triangle of interpretation, improvisation and composition, and people listening from outside don't know where we are, exactly. For me, as a composer, the tension in modern classical music, jazz, groove music and maybe ritualistic world music should have a module of freedom in the music but have a composition-oriented system at the core.

AAJ: The reed player Sha started off playing contrabass and bass clarinet on Stoa but there seems to be quite a shift towards an emphasis on alto. Could you explain how his role has changed in the band?

NB: Personally, I very much like the bass clarinet because of its tenor and bass register, and when you have melodies they have a certain warmth. It combines in a very interesting way with the piano. He fits very well into the band. He works very hard on all his skills and developed the alto saxophone in an interesting direction. I like to use the alto saxophone a bit more in combination with the piano to try to develop new sound possibilities. He developed very fast on the alto saxophone, and it is important that he is challenged to use it, then. It's a bit both my development but it's also his development, and of course when we work as a group on the pieces in rehearsals, the ideas of the players maybe also influence how we re-orchestrate a piece. And so it came much more in the direction of the alto saxophone.

On this record you have no contrabass clarinet, but it has not disappeared. I still like it very much. It simply made no sense to use the bass clarinet, because the music sounded better. However, the deepness and power of contrabass clarinet and bass clarinet is still very important and present, and it will stay.

AAJ: The Fender Rhodes which played such a lovely role on Stoa has gone. Does that mean that your concept of Ronin's music is more acoustic?

NB: It would not be honest to call the music purely acoustic music because we have an electric bass and we have amplification and we work with a lot of techniques in the studio. But the idea is that the resonances are very important, especially for the records, so that we tried to go in this direction to play acoustic. But live, I always have the Rhodes with me, depending on where we are, and I still work every Monday with the Rhodes in the club and I like it. The Rhodes gives a certain interesting aspect because I mistune it a bit in the upper regions so I have interesting combination possibilities with percussion and certain gongs. It is still for me a very important and inspiring instrument.

We just try to minimize and focus on a clear concept for a record, and it turned out that this time the Rhodes did not make sense.

AAJ: How much of your composition stems from the drums, which you also play, and how much from the piano?

NB: The piano is my first instrument and inspires me very much, and I often distill drum grooves out of certain piano treatments. I do not have a drum set at home anymore, but I work a lot with body percussion in my workshops to develop an independence of rhythms in your own body. Martial arts movements and also sports movements inspire me very much for pieces. But the piano is, in a way, a percussive instrument. It's the drums, in a way; with your fingers, you have 10 sticks. If it's playable for me, then for Kasper usually it's playable. I'm an amateur drummer, but I feel if a groove has the potential to move in a bodily way, in an understandable way so that you can move with the groove.

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.

AAJ: Ronin has now performed over 300 Monday night concerts at your Zurich club. Do you ever invite musicians up on stage to play with you?

NB: We have done many special concerts over the years, and earlier we had a chamber music ensemble which played with us. More recently we had Bugge Wesseltoft who played with us. He liked our music very much and played one set with us on the Rhodes while I played piano. It was a great concert because he's an enormous musician in terms of listening, adapting and playing. He's also modest enough and inspired enough to not just play as a soloist over the whole thing. We also invited Eivind Aarset, the Norwegian guitarist, who has also a certain understanding of group playing, and this also turned out very nicely.

We sometimes work with local friends like the singer Ingrid Lukas, who made a record on our label [We need to Repeat (Ronin Rhythm Records, 2009)]. But when you have a project like Ronin that tours often during the year, we need to meet every week to play and keep the material alive and to develop it for the next tour and to keep it at a high quality level. Our concerts are not just playing some songs at a high level, but it's the tension and dramaturgy over a whole evening, and it's important to train for this constantly.

AAJ: Has Ronin ever missed a Monday night concert?

NB: We have when we are on tour. Then we have a band which is close to our community that we invite to take over. This can happen maybe two or three times a year, and now if we are away, Ingrid Luka's band will play. Sometimes one of the musicians or more are on the road, so then we play as a duo or a trio, and I have also played twice solo on a Monday. Once it was December 31st and my colleagues said, "Come on, the 31st is special. We can cancel it just once." We had also played on the 24th, Christmas, and few people had turned up because they were all at home eating with their families. I thought it was important that we do it, or I could do it solo. We thought there would be 10 or 20 people, but in the end there were 120 people.

This idea of respecting this Monday as a part of your everyday life, and that you are a servant of this music and of the development of this music seems to me a good training in modesty and in understanding the relationship between repetition and change—in you as a person, but also in your surroundings and your community.

Selected Discography

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Llyrìa (ECM Records, 2010)

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Holon (ECM Records, 2008) Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Stoa (ECM Records, 2006) Nik Bärtsch's Mobile, Aer (TMR, 2004) Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Rea (TMR, 2004) Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Live (TMR, 2003) Nik Bärtsch, Hishiryo: Piano Solo (TMR, 2002) Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Randori (TMR, 2002) Tonus Music Labor Research Result, Live, Vol. 1-2 (TMR, 2002) Nik Bärtsch's Mobile, Ritual Groove Music (TMR, 2001)

Don Li's Tonus, Gen (TMR, 1999) Don Li's Tonus, SU:N (Brambus, 1999)

Photo Credits Page 1: Mike Stemberg

Pages 2, 5, 6: Martin Moll Page 3, 4: Peter Fankhauser



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