Nik Bärtsch Wants his Ensemble to be a ‘Flexible Organism’

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Kaspar Rast (left), Nik Bärtsch, Sha and Thomy Jordi recorded Awase for the ECM imprint.

(Photo: Jonas Holthaus)

The Swiss pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch is best known for Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, an electric group that plays what the bandleader calls “ritual groove” or “zen funk.” Bärtsch has straddled Ronin and its acoustic sibling, Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile, for several decades. He also heads the Ronin Rhythm Clan, an ensemble replete with horns.

Bärtsch’s music of delicious dread is layered, contrapuntal, hypnotic and psychologically fascinating. He calls his intricately patterned, maze-like compositions “moduls,” a term that aligns with his curiously affectless, yet paradoxically alluring, music. In April, Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin released Awase (ECM), its first album in six years; he kept the fires smoldering with Continuum, a Mobile album, issued in 2016.

Since the 2012 release of the two-disc Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin Live (ECM), the group has downsized from a quintet to Bärtsch, long-time associate Sha on bass clarinet and alto saxophone, Thomy Jordi on bass, and Ronin veteran Kaspar Rast on drums.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What prompted you to downsize?

It had to do with how we wanted to play in the future; it had to do with the concept of this music, quite composed and prepared by myself.

In the beginning, Ronin was a trio, and we had flexibility. With the quintet, we wanted to come back to the idea of a trio, but we decided we had to reduce again the number of players to become a more flexible organism. That’s why we changed our relationship with Andi [Pupato], our percussion player, and went in another direction. That was actually in 2012, when we presented the live album, a summary of what we did as a quintet.

Although we have quite a strong concept, in terms of modular playing, we were always players strongly influenced by the jazz ethic of flexibility, of really reacting very quickly and having a strong interplay.

Have you considered writing for chamber orchestra or symphony orchestra?

I did that also, a composition for my personal chamber ensemble that is like an extended version with percussionists, piano, reed players and seven string players. That’s on Continuum, three tracks with the bigger ensemble.

I’ve always composed chamber music and came to bigger ensembles, a very interesting process. I’m already writing music for bigger ensembles, and it looks like we have the interest of bigger orchestras. These are not my ensembles.

Awase, your new album, takes its name from the Japanese martial art Aikido, which speaks to the notion of togetherness. What is it about Japanese culture that appeals to you?

I was inspired as a young player by Japanese ritual music and meditation music, where you have wood blocks, drums and gongs and all that stuff. It is the sound and the spatial organization of the music that appeals to me. I went to Japan in 2003 and 2004 to study music, martial arts—like non-violent, harmonizing Aikido—and meditation. These are important influences for my music and that attitude toward playing together.

Do you settle on the sequence of your “moduls” before you record?

We knew what we wanted to record, with two additional pieces and old compositions that we like to show in a new way. Finally, we had the core material [moduls] “58” and “60,” and Sha’s piece; the old ones are “34” and “36.” “Modul 34” actually goes back awhile—it was composed in Japan in 2003. But really, working on the album probably goes back about four years.

We now have 62 moduls in total and maybe 20 are not recorded yet. An album needs a certain energy and focus, and for this, you have to decide what finally is on an album. An album is not only a collection of titles, but is also a statement and a dramaturgy.

Awase is leaner and more democratic than previous iterations of Ronin. How did Sha’s “A” come about, and does it mark the first time you have opened up Ronin to another composer?

It’s the first time we play another composition from someone else. Sha has developed a lot as player, but also as a composer, and I wanted to give him an opportunity to show that off in our context. It gives certain connections and shows the rest in a different context.

The moduls on Awase are dense and transparently layered. How much is improvised and how much is written in advance?

In each piece, there is a specific idea; that’s why they get numbered. “Modul 58” has certain topics, and it works as a form; it has a clear structure. But then we rehearse it and play it in our steady dates at my club Exil, where we have workshopped in a high-concept performing level every Monday for 13 years. We played “58” maybe for four years.

When did you start work on this album, and when did you know you were done?

We are never done. It’s the state of the moment and, of course, when you record with ECM producer Manfred Eicher, you have to be clear about where the music should be.

This time we were ready for quite a while, so this time it was at a very developed level. DB



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