Nik Bärtsch's Mobile Rubin Museum of Art New York, NY May 6, 2016
When is music a ritual?
A relevant question in regard to pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch, one of few modern musicians to live out his worldview in every thought and action. His "Ronin" project laid fresh tracks in the vast network of ECM Recordsno small feat considering the label's diverse, decades-long locomotion. But behind Ronin's curtain, in his native Zürich, Bärtsch had for years been exploring even broader philosophies through his "Mobile" collective. Though known for marathon concerts lasting until sunrise, a 90-minute performance at New York's Rubin Museum of Art gave listeners stateside a rare glimpse of Bärtsch's artistry up close.
While Continuum (ECM, 2016), Mobile's third album and its first for ECM, features strings, at the Rubin none were needed. Joining Bärtsch on stage were the mononymous Sha on bass and contrabass clarinets, Kaspar Rast on drums, and Nicolas Stocker on drums and tuned percussion. Because Bärtsch eschews titles, save for the numbered "modules" he uses as compositional DNA, the concert felt like one large body with different organs highlighted throughout. He opened the ceremony at stage right, coaxing the two percussionists into a dance as he shifted from atom to molecule and back again. The dynamics of this first tune would ramify as meditations gave way to grooves. If simple in theory, in practice Bärtsch's repetitions acted as overtures to complex reveals, each more savory than the last. Stocker's glockenspiel, attuned as it was to overlying melodies, added to the afterlife of Bärtsch's right hand. If the rhythmic precision required to pull off such synchronicity was astonishing, so too were the freedoms accommodated by the music's alignments. The effect was such that when Bärtsch set the tone with minimalist arpeggios, he did so as a means of opening his bandmates to channels of personal expression.
The groove has always been central to Bärtsch's work, but with Mobile the feeling was more ritualistic, especially when the quartet dipped oars into droning waters. In one extended passagea highlight of the concertRast brushed his snare to Zen-like consistency, treating every reiteration as rebirth. Yet even with such inward turns, the beat of Bärtsch's craft stared right into our faces as jazzier impulses accumulated in intensely textural subductions and head-nodding goodness cloaked the final pieces with masterful subtlety.
Despite apparent seriousness, Bärtsch filled the stage with constant smiles, and his joy served to emphasize the genuineness of it all. The result wasn't just music, but an experience in the fullest sense of the word. The concert was additionally framed by the Rubin's Director of Programs, Tim McHenry, who at the end of the night presented the band with traditional Tibetan white scarves. In kind, Mobile draped our necks with gifts far less tangible and which will always be with us, giving until we give out. All of which answered this review's opening question with another in its place: