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14 Nov

Nik Bärtsch (Ronin)

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George Voudiklaris has met Nik Bärtsch 2 days before his performance at  Onassis Cultural Center with his Quartet Ronin.
Nik Bärtsch currently works in three parallel musical settings: as a solo artist, with the acoustic group Mobile and with the 'zen-funk' group Ronin. As a solo artist he performs his own compositions on prepared piano with percussion. Mobile plays purely acoustic music, performed in rituals of up to 36 hours, which include lighting- and room design. Ronin, by contrast, is more flexible and plays rhythmically complex compositions that contain elements of jazz, funk and acoustic rock

GV - I’ts a pleasure to be talking to Nick Bärtch.

NB - t’s a pleasures for me too, George


GV - Apart from loving your music, I’ve been looking forward to this interview because I find your views on music truly interesting. For example, the term “zen funk” which you have used to describe the music of Ronin is quite interesting to me. Would you like to explain?

NB - First of all, as you know when we talk about music, sooner or later we have to find terms, and I’m not against it. I think it’s interesting to talk about music, philosophy, about everything, in language, but as you know often journalists find the term, and I thought it would be also interesting if I think myself how I want to describe the music that developed away from jazz or minimal or funk specifically into something new, and I looked for a short good percutient  term and I found zen funk, because it helped me to describe the two energies that I need to live and to survive in a way not only musical, it’s the energy of meditation and flow, calmness and presence and stillness, and on the other hand rhythm, sensuality, direct impact of groove. So I came to this little paradox this term that has also a certain irony, and maybe in the first moment you think these two directions, these two styles have nothing to do with each other, but they have a lot, at least in our music.

GV -  And believe me, I think it’s a good idea to find your own terms about your music, because if you leave that to the journalists, I don’t believe the result will be a great success!

NB - You know, I totally respect what all the people think or write about the music, and of course everybody has the right to find their own terms to describe it, but I like to think about, and also to talk about music, and I thought that this term quite precisely describes the energies of our music, but also the challenge of our music. To combine an intense sensual rhythmical music with a meditative flow and, as you know, maybe in both traditions, percussive sounds play a big role. So the two terms, zen and funk, are not against each other, but they have also a lot in common.

GV -  Another word that keeps coming up when you talk about music, is the word Ritual.

NB - Yes.

GV - To my eyes, ritual is something that has certain rules which are very precise, and also a sense of repetition. Yet there is a freedom of expression within a ritual. Is that so ?

NB - I think what you said is very interesting: that you need some kind of rules, very precise rules, also maybe chosen rules, to organize a ritual and community, because everybody has to know how it works. But then in these rules, there is a lot of freedom as you said. You can develop a certain rhythm, a certain flow, because you know the rules. And as Stravinsky once said, with chosen clear rules and restrictions, you can create a lot of freedom. And that means just that you keep the agreements to go deeper when you move in the rules. And as we know also from African tradition, drumming and ritual traditions, where ecstasy plays a big role, we can see that there is a high organization in these rituals. So it’s not like everybody’s dancing wild (laughs) and then goes crazy, but there’s always one, for example, in certain rituals, that is allowed to go for ecstasy, because if you have a chaos and everybody goes in ecstasy, then maybe the village burns down! So the plan of the ritual is clearly to organize the community in a good way, that the ritual and the community is possible in a way.

GV - A question that keeps popping up when I’m talking to people that function in what today we call jazz music, is the very definition of the term. Right now jazz music contains almost everything. From contemporary to world music, whatever we can think of. So in what ways do you believe that what we call jazz has evolved ?

NB - I think that jazz was a certain way of living, a certain feeling of seeing things and also a certain feeling of how to phrase rhythm. And of course also it developed in maybe the most conscious tradition about improvisation. You find a lot of improvisation also in folk music and several other styles, but jazz has developed a certain high consciousness especially for improvisation, its tactics and strategies, and most of the jazz musicians are really good improvisers. And that also is an influence to our music, the thinking about freedom in music, how can you treat materials freely, but, as we said before, with clear interesting rules that the band has a good structure to improvise in. And in our case, for example, usually we don’t improvise so obviously, where you have one highly developed improviser who plays just everything he can, but we try much more to improvise as a band on the level of dynamics, micro phrasing and ghost notes. So maybe it’s a different way. Sometimes the improviser is also like an animal that hides in its surroundings, so when iot moves you see it, and when it doesn’t it is a part of the surroundings. But this huge tradition of jazz about thinking and trying out improvisations especially has influenced us a lot, and is also the rhythm, the feeling of timing, and phrasing that can be found also in the genes of our music although there are a lot of other rhythmic traditions in it.

GV - Nick, you got involved in music pretty early in your life. How did this happen? Was there music in your family? Or where you always attracted to music?

NB - There was always a certain affinity to rhythms. I played on everything I put my hands on, even forks or the Japanese chopsticks that my parents had. So I liked the rhythmic view of the world in a way. I have no idea where this is coming from. My family is coming from the art background, painting and graphic design and fashion.  So the music spoke to me especially through rhythms very early, and very directly. But my mother took my interest very seriously, so she supported me and gave ma all the possibilities, I first played drums, I wanted to play drums, and at the end of the 70s this was not common for a child in Switzerland, to choose drums as a first instrument, so the teacher said that maybe this was not the right thing,  I should start from an easier or more melodic instrument, but my mother said: But my son wants to play drums, he really likes it, he plays on everything! So we had to look for a private teacher, and this was the beginning, that she took me seriously, what I liked… and I played drums, and then I wanted to play piano, and so… I saw a guy playing some boogie-woogie on the piano, and I went home and told my mother I want to play this music, and I didn’t like the children’s songs, but this groovy stuff, like boogies and blues, so she had to look for another teacher, because this was not so common at the music school, that i wanted to play this music, and she found one, and so… Because my mother took me seriously in my interests, I think I came very early into a very healthy, natural flow, by respecting music and my own affinities.

GV - The things that you tell me explain your use of the piano as a percussion instrument, at least to my ears.

NB - Yes. I like also the rhythm section of the band. When I listened to bands, I sometimes thought it would be nice if we had the melodies away, or if the solo would shut up, (laughs) maybe for a second, so that we can listen to the rhythm section, because they’re playing so beautiful things together, they phrase together, they have a different view of structure and time than the people who play the melody. Or they organize themselves differently than when you look for the function of the melody. And of course a piano is also a percussive instrument, with the hammers and everything, and for me it was very interesting to transform this instrument into something of the 21st century, because actually the piano is an instrument from the 19th century, from the romantic century, but when you work on it percussively, with preparation, but also with your hands inside, and when you use it in a certain way, like Bartok or Stravinsky or Ligeti do sometimes, you can create this interesting tension, or sometimes phony tension, between an  archaic instrument and a very futuristic instrument, including a lot of abstract sounds that the piano has in its beauty of the natural sound for which it is actually made. So this combination for me was always important and I avoided for a long time to play as normal jazz pianists do, with the melodies in the upper regions and chords in the last stand, but also as a lot of the classical traditional people do, so that I could transform the piano into a new instrument with new sounds, also of course in combination with percussionists, especially with the drums. Because the drummer, Kaspar Rast, I met already as a child, when I was ten and he was nine, and we started together playing football and music at the same time, so it is a long funny story that we have together, and he influenced me also a lot as a drummer, and also as my friend.

GV - A think that strikes me as I hear you talk, is that you combine the facts of a man that has had  a real musical education and knows how different styles of music function, then again the music you make doesn’t sound at all like the music that someone out of a music school makes.

NB - (Laughs). I have maybe several ways of how I came to music. One is academic, in terms that I decided when I was 16 and starting to play classical music and learning to read notes, scores, that I couldn’t before, and this is one way. But  before and also during my studies I played a lot of jazz in clubs and everywhere else, without having made a jazz school or something, and especially together with Kaspar, the drummer, we went out a lot and just played with whoever we could, so we learned very early also to play in clubs and in bands and to adopt styles, but I also learned a lot about the social function of all of this, and also how styles develop. How community works on something when they cook it out in their clubs and their neighborhood. On the other hand, when I was twenty I studied seriously piano because I thought that it makes sense to study classical piano, because for jazz also you need the body technique and to develop the ability to really play on a high level technically and soundwise, and for this  you need a good master, a good teacher, which I also had the chance to find then, but on the other hand we always worked on this idea that when you learn musical languages then you’re still on the level of just a common language, but then yoy have to develop your dialect, and in a way maybe even your neighborhood slang. And this we did always by just rehearsing and playing all the time in a small community. So like when you live somewhere, suddenly you only  understand the jokes and the triple meaning of words and stuff like that, and like this a certain aesthetics developed because we also talked a lot about music and joked a lot about music, and we talked a lot on phenomena like breaks or pickups  or how many crashes a drummer uses or in what registration you play on a piano and all these effects. And when you do this over years, like with Kaspar I already play over thirty years and Ronin as a band exist already twelve years, so when you do this really as a community and not only as an individual artist, then a lot develops from itself. We also nine years ago created this Mondays session in a club, I rented a club and now I founded my own club the last five years, and in these clubs we always play every Monday and develop the tunes very slowly, like a spiral all over the years, always going back to the roots. So in a way we go further to our roots and that creates maybe this dramaturgy of learning and developing really our own style.

GV-  The word “community” keeps coming up. And I believe we’re talking about an urban culture.

NB -  Yes, of course. Community is a general term, but I’m in a way an urban person since I grew up in a town and I think a town, a city,  is always a place where a lot of cultural interests meet. So maybe you can compare this to Debussy who was in Paris and was at the Word Exhibition and heard there a gamelan orchestra playing, so he did not go as a musicologist  to Bali or somewhere to study it, but he heard it and combined it with all the things that were around, Stravinsky’s music in this time, and these influences have set an urban dramaturgy, how they meet and melt and develop and I think that has to do with an urban idea of community. But what I like also is this neighborhood thinking. Although we got international and I also travelled a lot and lived with my wife for a while in Japan, I always thought that I don’t have to go to New York or London or Berlin,  and there everything is better, and there is the true jazz world… I thought, well, what we have to do is develop something on our own,  and since I had such good colleagues in musicians here, I thought when we really work long and develop something and have the reliability that grows out of community and the interest and respect to know each other very well, then we can really develop something on our own, and we are not becoming victims so far, we are role models in the world.


GV-  I would like to know the part that each individual project you’re in plays in your musical world.

NB - First of all there is of course Ronin, that is the most known band and also we had the chance through the ECM label and producer Manfred Eicher to make this internationally much more present and known, so people have the chance to really listen to this music and we could tour a lot and we still do, so Ronin is the most popular project in a way. Ronin is actually the amplified version of my music. And there is another band called Mobile, with which we started, which is an acoustic music ritual group. So we started to explore these social and musical energies with Mobile the acoustic group, with long music rituals of several hours or days. And this was for me an important start, after I had played so much with pop bands and jazz and classical everywhere, and got a little bit tired of this quick change of musical energies and groups and I wanted to start from zero again, in the mid of my twenties together with my friends to explore what we actually want to say and if this really works also with the audience. So this acoustic Mobile group is more developed like a chamber orchestra, but with very percussive music, actually with mine and our music. And Ronin is the amplified club and festival version that is also easier to travel with, because Mobile has a lot of percussive instruments on stage and a lot of big drums. And then I play also myself, solo as a pianist, because this is always very challenging and also shows you a lot about yourself. And also it’s very good in a way to drain these polyphonic and polyrhythmic things because you have to play alone, so this is a big challenge. And then I write sometimes for people or groups that are really interested in our music, and also want to work together with me on the phrasing and on certain ideas, because sometimes it’s maybe a bit challenging to just adapt this music from the scores.

GV-  Last question: The choice of the name Ronin for the group, how did it happen?

NB - Well, Ronins are, first of al,l in Japanese tradition, samurais that do not serve a master. So to make it simple, they are freelancers in a way. And in Ronin, in the band, still in the organization are mostly freelancers, that means they really play this music and give their commitment because they believe in it and they like it, and do it because they like it. So it’s not primarily a job, it’s an interest with a high commitment. And also these people make no compromises that would allow them to develop a free zone somewhere, but where they have to do their day job. So we always took high risks, but also with the belief in the band and this idea of the community, that we can develop something out of it and get a lot of resonance with it. So this spirit is not only about a freelance, but it is also the martial arts spirit and idea of taking responsibility for your actions and for your freedom and for your choice. But I like also the term because in the Japanese kanji way to write Ronin, the two, Ro and Nin means wave men.  It’s actually meant because Ronins do not serve a master, so they are sometimes up the wave, and sometimes down, sometimes they have something to eat and sometimes not. I liked it also because Ronin means wave men, men of resonance for me.

GV-  Nick, thank you very much for your time.

NB - I thank you George, for your time and questions.

Interview George Voudiklaris - November 2013

Last modified on Friday, 06 June 2014 12:19