Live review

Nik Bärtsch and Sophie Clements (2019 EFG LJF)

Nik Bärtsch & Sophie Clements
(Barbican. EFG London Jazz Festival. 15 November 2019. Review by Leah Williams.)

Marooned on an island made for one man and his piano, Nik Bärtsch sat surrounded by a still sheet of water and backlit by the screen behind him, empty for now but full of promise for the ‘light and sound poem’ to come.

Nik Bärtsch. (iPhone snap by Leah Williams)

From the opening moments, where Bärtsch repeatedly hit the same note, making it speak out with its many possibilities, attacks and overtones, it was clear a journey had begun and we were all caught up in it wherever it would go. This uncompromising rhythmic intent barely relented throughout the 80-minute set and Bärtsch’s unique brand of minimalist sound – which he calls ‘ritual groove music’ or ‘zen-funk’ – takes some getting used to. Relentless in its intensity and movement, there is no real melodic line to offer an olive branch to the audience, and for the first ten minutes or so it can feel like you’ve been swept away on a tide of, at times uncomfortable, sound.

This is clearly the point though. Relinquishing control and expectations to give in to the interplay of the immersive sound and visuals offers the kind of meditative experience not easily found in the middle of modern life, certainly not in London. This is mirrored by the discipline of Bärtsch’s faultless playing. With barely a moment to take a breath as he moved fluidly in between sections, there was both a discipline and an effortlessness to his driving, pulsating sound. Its ever-building texture was mesmeric in its ritualism with almost imperceptible shifts and variations ensuring the journey’s momentum was never lost.

Sophie Clements’ artistic mind engulfed the stage. Shards of light panned across the water and the pianist himself, with monochrome backgrounds relenting to soft-focus projections of the sea. From hazy visions to stormy seas and through to moonlit stillness, this is a journey that felt both universal and yet would undoubtedly speak to each individual in a different way. When rain began to fall into the pool, now rippled from the piano’s vibrations, there was a blurring of reality as nature invaded the space in the most beautiful ad hypnotic way. And by the time the moon came to rest and the intensity of Bärtsch’s playing eased to a more contemplative tone, there was a feeling of utter calm and absorption across the auditorium.

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