Nik Bärtsch’s band Ronin is on a four-date UK tour next month: Manchester (March 9th), then Bristol (10th) Gateshead (11th)and the ICA in London (Friday March 12th, starting at 8pm.) The last CD, Holon, is on ECM.
But Ronin is not just a touring and recording band. In fact it stays remarkably put. On the Monday before it leaves for the UK, the 8th, the same band with its stable personnel – will be appearing at their regular venue, the Exil, Hardstrasse 245, Zurich. “Montags: Nr. 275“, it says on Bärtsch’s website. And then they’ll back there again on the Monday afterwards, the 15th: “Montags: Nr 276.” Same personnel. Same venue. And back there again on the 22nd. “Nr 277.”
Bärtsch, a Swiss composer-pianist who will be 40 next year, pursues his musical vocation thoughtfully and patiently. These Monday sessions are where the musical development really happens. His compositions for Ronin (they don’t have titles other than “Modul” followed by a number) develop gradually in live performance at these Monday sessions in the club setting of Exil. “Entrance next to the car-wash,” the 150-capacity Zurich club’s website says.
The name of the band Ronin refers to the lonely, masterless warriors in Japanese samurai who pursue their own ambitions, and accept the huge cost, which is to be despised by the majority of warriors who conform to the dictates of the master samurai. Bärtsch’s frequent visits to Japan, and his reading about Japanese culture and art forms – Noh theatre and butoh dancing, for example- have been key influences on his development.
The choice of the band’s name is symptomatic of how plugged-in Bärtsch is to a disparate range of influences. He reads widely – currently he’s absorbed by Richard Sennett’s Craftsmanship, which he describes as “close to our spirit,” and Oliver Sack’s Music and the Brain.
In the Germanic world, Bärtsch’s work gets discussed properly in the culture supplements, and notably the most prestigious of them all, the Hamburg-based weekly Die Zeit. A recent piece in Die Zeit developed a very elaborate philosophical theory about “Fluss” and Stasis in his music (Fluss in German has the double meaning of a river but also of flow or motion). Another writer for the same paper went into ecstasy about the experience of hearing Bärtsch’s band live, and mounted (why?!) a no-holds -barred personal attack on Manfred Eicher of ECM for making the sound too resonant.
I talked on the phone to Bärtsch about his compositional method, and in particular how he gets a new piece started. He quoted, with more than a hint of humour, Stravinsky’s remark about what a composer does. “I’m like a pig sniffing for truffles.” It sounds much more graphic in German “er schnüffelt.”
But having the initial idea is just the start of the process. In fact, when he described the gradual evolution of the pieces, Bärtsch frequently refers to creating a “dramaturgy“, a complete experience with sound and choreographed light. His unhurried craft reminded me of the old Swiss saying “s’het solang s’het,” literally “it takes as long as it takes.”
Bärtsch may glean his inspiration from a wide range of sources , but he stays close to his roots. He grew up in the Seefeld district of Zurich, by the lake, and still lives nearby. He keeps his most productive artistic relationships going: he has known the longest-standing of his band colleagues, drummer Kaspar Rast, since the age of nine.
Bärtsch’s parents, always supportive of the development of his music, were visually aware people, both grounded in the visual arts. His father is a graphic designer, his mother has spent most of her working life in fashion.
Bärtsch studied classical music at the Conservatory in Zurich. He then re-started undergraduate studies in philosophy and linguistics. He got interested in aesthetic and philosophical enquiry- Wittgenstein, Hilary Putnam and Foucault were particular areas of interest. But he soon abandoned these studies for another degree. The imperative to pursue music full-time had taken hold.
Bärtsch’s music goes under the name of zen-funk. You could also call it a fascinating variant of groove-based minimalism. It hypnotises in the same way Steve Reich does. But it grooves. Ronin was last in the UK in 2009. Having heard the CD a few times, I’m now fascinated to hear and see the band live at the ICA.