Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin Live
(ECM 371 4093. CD Review by Chris Parker)
If you can imagine minimalist music played by a band consisting of keyboards, reeds, bass, drums and percussion but with the overall improvisational approach of, say, the Necks, then you might get close to predicting what this double album of live performances by composer Nik Bärtsch’s quintet sounds like.
As reviewer Sid Smith points out (talking about the band’s gig in Gateshead), Ronin’s ‘music doesn’t so much “happen” as accrue over a period of minutes where nothing much appears to be happening’, but it does possess ‘a deep funky, accessible groove’. Bärtsch himself helps define his music by referring to the positive aspects of playing to Japanese audiences: ‘[they] have a culture of waiting.
This is a positive aspect in their traditional music and ritual theatre and it heightens anticipation. I like that idea very much, and it connects to our own ideas.’ Certainly, listeners to these recordings will be unusually conscious of time passing, and may actually feel as if they are being hypnotised by the patient build-up from mesmerising repeated motif to full-on climax; they may also enjoy speculating about what, precisely, they’re listening to (Bärtsch refers to his music as ‘somewhere between jazz and modern composition, progressive pop, ritual music, groove music in general’).
Rather like (some) conceptual art, however, Ronin’s music might be said to be more satisfying to think about than actually to experience, for while there is much to enjoy here (particularly the eloquent bass of Björn Meyer and the extraordinary drum/percussion sounds and textures of Kaspar Rast and Andi Pupato respectively), both the keyboard playing and Sha’s reeds contributions are more concerned with providing layering and texture than the sort of improvised solos jazz listeners might expect to hear.
Bärtsch, again, sums up the experience of immersion in Ronin’s soundworld perfectly: ‘the space becomes a kind of acoustical coral reef. Like light in water, sounds and resonances appear in the air; strange creatures seem to swim by our ears – where are we, when we hear music?’ If this description intrigues you, then Ronin’s concerts will fascinate you; if, on the other hand, Bärtsch’s philosophising, and his description of his band as ‘a socio-musical entity … feeding from the concert situation and the audience’s energy’ makes you wince, then …