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Nik Bartsch: Rhythmically Dancing Around Fugato Fires

Ian Patterson By

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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.
About Nik Bärtsch
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