In conversation with nik bärtsch

by Stuart Nicholson

I first saw Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin in the Kaufleuten, Zürich’s classiest rock club, in 2006. Its foyer had a plush red carpet, tall mirrors and marble-top tables with massive vases of fresh cut flowers -- indications that closing time was here not the fraught experience it could be in some rock clubs in England, Germany or Holland that I’ve visited. At the time Bärtsch had built-up quite a reputation in Switzerland with his music which he then called “Zen-Funk.”

                                    Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin (photo by March Metli)
        (L to R: Nik Bärtsch, Sha, Björn Meyer, Kaspar Rast, Andi Pupato)

It was certainly different music, but the means he used to achieve it were conventional enough ?- piano or electric piano (he has since dispensed with the electric piano), bass clarinet, bass, drums and percussion. It was music that throbbed with a pulsating dynamism that was almost hypnotic. The insistent rhythms made you think of trance, but when you got up close they also suggested the minimalism of Steve Reich. In fact, what Bärtsch had come up with amounted to a new musical concept.

Woven into the rhythmic tapestry was startling imagery that grew from simple beginnings, often opening with a repeated piano phrase over an insistent groove which gradually took on a trance-like quality that soon had the tightly packed crowd on the dancefloor of the Kaufleuten moving in time to the rhythm. Bärtsch knew just how long to build the tension, and before it reached breaking point, cued the band into a new section. With his head shaved like a Zen master, he had a flair for the dramatic. Inscrutably presiding over the interlocking rhythms and haunting melody lines, he carefully choreographed the lighting to match the moods of the music.

It was body music for the mind. Drummer Kapsar Rast summoned up the spirit of funky New Orleans groove master Ziggy Modeliste of the Meters; Björn Meyer’s bass lines took inspiration from James Brown; Sha’s bass clarinet haloed everything in mysterious ambient soundwashes; and Bärtsch’s less-is-more piano created a unique form of forward momentum. While “the groove” was central to each composition, Bärtsch built up layers of competing rhythmic and melodic complexity that gave the music a hypnotic, trance-like feel. Each piece was like a sonic journey that swept you along and before you knew it, sixty minutes of dizzying music detail had gone by, with more puzzling allusions than Ezra Pound’s Cantos.

Yet these influences flowing through his music were an organic meshing of musical textures, a process Bärtsch describes through analogy to Japanese martial arts (he is a black belt in Aikido), “You can study Aikido if you are Swiss or Eskimo, but behind Aikido there is a very culturally orientated aspect of Shintoism, very special, very Japanese. But that does not mean you cannot study Aikido and use its principals -- because they are universal and I am looking for that in styles [of music]. You must always check out what is universal in a style to use it. If I listen to The Meters there are some principals in this groove music that you can work out and study.”

In 2003 Bärtsch came to the attention of ECM record boss Manfred Eicher, who had heard the band play at Wasserkirche. A month later they met up, and plans for an album were drawn up. The result was Stoa, which was released in 2006. Since then Bärtsch has been touring Europe extensively but until recently their North American appearances were limited to two enthusiastically received concerts at last summer’s Montreal and Vancouver festivals, and a successful showcase at Joe's Pub in New York. Shortly after the release of Holon in 2007, Bärtsch embarked on his first full-scale tour of the USA, with dates in Portland, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Boston, Knoxville, Washington D.C., Columbus, New York City and San Francisco.

Bärtsch calls his compositions “Moduls” as he believes song titles can give audiences a preconception, or word picture, of what is to come, “I give no names to my tunes because I don’t want to give you a picture of the music, about the style it is,” he explains. That way, he reasons, audiences have to deal with his compositions on purely musical terms. He also speaks of the band’s way of working as a “spiral continuum,” rather than the newness-at-all-costs priorities of the Western avant-garde. With the release of Holon, the distinguishing characteristics of his music were clear: modular constructions, polymetric pulses, complex interlocking patterns and cells and repetitive motifs. What impressed me was the group’s cohesion, internal balance and ease in dealing with complex musical constructs while sustaining the groove.

Since we met in 2006, the group has worked a lot more together and grown closer musically, it seems to me. This aspect of working and growing together is so important in an age of pick-up bands, where so many ensembles meet for the first time on the bandstand. I think it is only by playing regularly together a group grows together and develops its own personality.

This is one of our main goals, also one of my own goals. Kaspar Rast the drummer and I met together as children, we have known each other our whole musical lives, so this relationship with Kasper is something we can build on. With the others in the band we have been working together for a long time, and we want to try and create on the stand a continuum where we grow, year on year. I think it is a big challenge – a funny thing working together so long, you create a spiralling continuum, you see the consequences of the continuation of your work, the consequences of what we’re doing and consequences of developing your work, and this creates a paradox. You find yourself back with older work yet you can see the new work developing within the continuum.

I guess what I mean was that by playing together regularly, an ensemble can develop into something greater than the sum of its component parts.

This record Holon, I was not sure what it meant, it is much more than the individuals when I listen to it now. And listening and comparing it to Stoa, I felt this spiral continuum strongly, because we always go back to the basics interests, the group playing, the microphrasing, and ghost notes, breaks in-between the lines of notes, but on the other hand we’re also working on the new possibilities of combining rhythms, to explore minimalist strategies on other levels, like pattern combinations and so on, trying to explore units based on cells, and create a landscape built-up of cells. For this kind understanding in a group there are a lot of things you have to talk about when you first come together new, but when you know each other for a couple of years, a lot of things we don’t have to talk about. We’ve developed a very fast and intuitive understanding of each other – and we challenge each other waiting and listening to each other. One of our main interests is waiting and listening until something happens, because always something happens. The whole is more than the individual players.

                      Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin (photo by Martin Moll)

One thing that struck me about Holon is that the music sounds more at ease with itself, while in contrast Stoa sounded tense, wound-up tight as a drum.

Yes, probably true, because in the studio there was a lot of tension in our development of the band and also working with producer Manfred Eicher. There was another tension now, the tension had changed, and Stoa was very attacking, structured, very clear in its arc. This album for me has enormous power and structural clarity. Holon for me developed in a very smooth way. There are a lot of things happening that were not planned, unlike Stoa.

Of course, all the pieces are structured and composed like before, and I through-composed most of the pieces very strictly so I could show the band they had potential for growth. This is also a sign of respect to the band -- that I can present a structure that makes sense. But the beautiful thing in this record was the process of playing it before we went to the studio, working on the compositions. It was important as the compositions themselves. In the end, Holon is an album that created itself in a way, out of this group thinking, through the consequences of each person that was involved in that album. I’m very happy that you call it relaxed, because under the relaxed structure there is a lot of discipline and a lot of practising, but of course, this was not our goal, to show that this is complex music. We want to have a relaxed flow which surprises you on the one hand; on the other hand, allows you to get into the flow – a kind of relaxed tension.

I think this comes across on Holon with the ease the band handle complex musical constructs, and the delineation between the written and improvised, for example, is often never clear.

Playing together the solo actions are more integrated, as if the soloists are camouflaged in the surroundings of the sound, individual voices almost “hidden” in the whole. Soloing is more a matter of phrasing inside the compositions. It’s hard to tell where the solos leave the structure and what is or isn’t composed. The album is much more a group record than Stoa was. Together something has been created that is certainly more than my compositions.

Can we talk about some of those compositions now? The final track on the album “Modul 44,” for example, seemed to me a very interesting piece, both in construction and in execution by the band.

For me “44” was an interesting new composition process, a new approach, it grows out of a little cell which is based on a harmonic and melodic and rhythmic structure which grows and goes through different registrations and grooves. “44” was a very strict composition and it was my intention to create a piece that really works if you interpret like a classical piece, but on the other hand the band as a whole played it so much that it started growing and gave it a life which I never realised! So I went with the flow and grew with the piece.

It is very difficult to describe a lot of our work, a lot works intuitively from the mind of the band as a whole, from understanding each other, how can I say? It’s almost like dancing with each other, moving with each other, or maybe like a good team in sport, like in soccer, if you know what is happening behind your back, how everybody is running and is acting on the field you are able to run with ball. This process of becoming a band is very difficult to describe! It needs time, it needs respect from each other, it needs openness, so we can criticise each other, it needs a lot of playing time.

We have this club [called The Bazillus Club] we play every Monday in Zürich, we play together now for more than three years [and recently played our 150th concert there], and this is a very important thing. It has become so difficult to create a social situation to create a band and play together regularly, and keep this daily contact open. Each member of the band knows how important for us to get together and play and develop our repertoire. I think this is something special about the band we know it works like this, how important this is. Often bands collapse through economical pressure -- arguing, crisis are normal. This is a challenge.

Can I ask you to talk about another piece on Holon that fascinated me, which was “Modul 42”?

In “Modul 42” there is a very simple chord and it is very much through composed, there is no improvisation in the traditional sense, but in the interpretation in our sense often means giving life to a tune. Playing it with the knowing of improvisation, with a background of improvisation, with a background of soloing, all these possibilities give you a certain range that maybe don’t appear on the surface of a tune but are in the background when you listen to it. You kind of feel it. It is very important for us that soloing gives energy and new life to a composition it is often hidden in the root of the composition and suddenly when you move it disappears in the composition – this border between composition, improvisation and interpretation is a main topic for us.

You once coined the term “Swiss minimal scene.” is this still going on?

Yes, it's moved on. An interesting term here is the word minimal. When Stoa came out one of the main references was Steve Reich because of his work with patterns, and also because we talked about his influence. But the ritualistic aspect of minimalism is overlooked. You sometimes find it in ceremonies, or in the early music of Stravinsky, for example, a certain kind of popular or unknown minimalism, which I like very much. Every Monday in the workshop sessions we have people come who are interested in learning about practices and strategies about this music, about minimalism, the influence is still growing. Sha [the bass clarinet player in Ronin] has his own band now, he has recorded, so as records come out its influence grows. Many people have an idea they follow a minimalist strategy, for me the minimalist strategy itself takes a lot from “less is more,” a lot from folk art, changing on a people level, so its important to explore minimalist strategy over a long period.

Can I ask you to talk about what interested you in jazz, and how you seem to have developed a complete musical philosophy around what you do?

What pulled me into jazz? As a child I played boogie-woogie jazz, groove stuff. I didn’t grow out of a musical family. I liked drums, and when I was eight years it was not possible to play drums in school because they said it was not an instrument. So my mother looked for a private teacher, then after two years more or less, I saw somebody play boogie-woogie. I was nine, and this fascinated me immediately. I don’t know why, symmetry? I have no idea why. Then it was not possible to study jazz in a music school, so my mother looked for a piano teacher who had an idea about jazz, a bit more deep than general ideas, and he showed me a lot of boogie-woogie, blues, and standards and a lot of Chick Corea tunes. And the only classical tunes were Bartok tunes, because they were connected to Chick Corea. So I liked it, and listened to a lot of music.

In school at the break a twelve o’clock I didn’t go to eat but went to the record shop and listened to the history of jazz, I was very interested in that. And then we started to play and jam. Until sixteen I didn’t have a real idea of classical music. I didn’t study it, I was not so interested. I played a lot in many styles, not very drawn into one style, always rhythmic aspects of the different styles. But at sixteen I started to work on classical piano. I had an “old school” classical teacher, very serious, and then I decided to study music at university, classical piano because I think if you are a pianist interested in jazz this is a must, to play a Bach sonata and so on. But also new stuff, complicated stuff. It is really important for a pianist to study in a classical sense. That’s a tradition also, then I thought what is really important, what really interests me in music is the economy of material, the less is more aspect, don’t waste too much material, like Monk, for example.

What in everyday life is important, to me is simple things like good food, love, good relationships, integrity, things like that and I think you can also bring this into the music world. . . . It makes you to think about form in traditional classical music. If you compose, you really compose, really think about the material, really ask the material what are the possibilities. In the jazz context it is more open, compositions sometimes mean melody and style, a few chords and the band does everything. It’s a different thinking it always influenced me very much, if you play a line, play it exactly, maybe fifteen seconds in the right spot, be more modest as a soloist, as in pop where you don’t have a lot of soloists, the band and the song is then very important.

I was interested in isolating some of the influences I hear in your music – ambient, trance, minimalism, Steve Reich, Gamelan, James Brown, the Meters – although some of these may not immediately obvious.

Yes. I think the James Brown aspect is more that I like funk especially, but not this P-funk thing. James Brown has this thing, how the band treats beats. A bit less famous, but very important, the Meters, these kind of funk people who treat rhythms in a certain way. That’s a very big influence, I love this music, I don’t know why. I love it, for its very important for everyday life and I think also for drummer Kasper Rast, my drummer, who is a close friend, we always liked this music. Then later Prince because he has this feminine treatment of funk, very tough, rhythm orientated but also smooth, in between, not stomping everything, that’s what interested us. The trance aspect is more an interest in ritual music as such, it may be written music in Japanese traditions especially, not trance as a club style, the question is always what is Trance? Is it the kind of trance that’s related to drugs? Maybe more stoned feeling and I was never interested in that.

I’m also interested in ritualistic music styles, folk music, especially in Japan. I am interested in rituals, how they treat ecstasy through escapism in a way, that’s very interesting. Not in trance as a “club beat,” but in a way more serious, in a spiritual sense, not religious sense, but the ritual sense. And that’s also maybe the connection to minimal music. Often you say music creates a kind of trance if you are not following the musical material in a kind of narrated way, but you have to follow it with your intellect, more in a way that you are getting into a room, or a kind of space, and you’re attention is focussed in details. Suddenly, I am interested in that. But also in a kind of seduction of the listener, I’m interested in that too.

You are about to tour the USA, which is very exciting.

Yes, we have been in New York last year for just one concert at Joe’s because we had been invited to the Montreal Jazz Festival and Vancouver Jazz Festival so we could arrange this concert in New York too. It was a very good experience and we had a very good audience and it was an important first appearance. Of course, it was too short, only one concert where we could taste the US audience and now it is the first time we have a regular tour, and see a lot of listeners directly, a lot of people who have already have brought Stoa and are informed about what we are doing. As you know yourself it is extremely important to see this band live, because a lot of the processes I have been talking about you can only see if you see the band live. I’m very happy and relaxed, the balance is a challenge stay focussed and clear and on the other hand on to stay relaxed and open on the other, this is a kind of paradox challenge, an ironic challenge sometimes, which makes it fun to explore music on a higher level.

Well, good luck on your tour and thanks for answering my questions in such interesting detail.

A pleasure.


April 09, 2008 · 2 comments

  • 1 bill ngale // May 06, 2008 at 01:46 PM
    love your music and iam a great fan.Keep making us dream with such wonder rythms.Thumbs up and goodluck.William
  • 2 hamid // May 14, 2008 at 06:31 PM
    I love the album HOLON & I'll definitely buy the STOA. I love TAO, ZEN & anything on "why we are here". Your MUSIC just transfer all of these in one musica package. You have a serious fan in this part of our planet NIK. Cheers. Hamid. Tehran-Iran