Nik Bärtsch – Etudes for Rhythm, Cycle and Space Awareness
(Ronin Rhythm Productions. CHF28 as book. CHF20 as download. Review by Mike Collins)
The most recent of Nik Bärtsch’s albums for ECM is “Entendre” for solo piano (review below). Bärtsch – who has four UK dates next week in London, Manchester and Norfolk (listed below) – has also published the sheet music. Writer/pianist Mike Collins has been getting to know the music through both the disc and the score… “I’ve entered into an alluring sound world,” he notes…
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Mike Collins writes: Let’s start with Modul 58. The pianist’s left hand is getting quite a work out. First there’s an insistent single note, repeating rhythmic pattern. Fluently delivered, it builds an urgent, intensifying momentum. Open right-hand chords drop into gaps in the pattern. Then the left hand bursts into a racing, bubbling pattern over which the right hand plays little motifs that seem to slide across the patterns.
Scrutinising the sheet music, I note the ‘7/4’ time signature and the dense black ink on the bass clef mapping out that racing pattern. When I play the semi-quaver patterns however, they resolve into a repeating 7 note pattern that’s somehow pianistically quite comfortable. An unusual assignment from London Jazz News is turning into an enjoyable and educative voyage into the musical universe of Nik Bärtsch, Swiss pianist, composer, academic and martial arts teacher.
It all started with a book of sheet music, detailed and precise notation of pieces from Bärtsch’s solo piano album 2021 ECM album Entendre. The album is notable. For nearly 15 years or so I’ve been familiar with the ‘minimalist zen funk’ of Bärtsch’s band Ronin, since encountering them at a Bath Festival gig. The prospect of that trance-like, steadily mutating, layered but deeply grooving music rendered for solo piano was intriguing. It turns out to be spacious mesmerizing and alluring music with the minimalist element of Ronin’s self-characterisation very evidently at the core.
The sheet music to is notable. Introduced to it by London Jazz News and invited to ‘write something,’ I’ve been struck by how closely scripted the pieces are. The solo recording has an open and exploratory air. The notated pieces reveal some detailed devices; engaging to get to grips with, and food for thought for future playing. Juxtaposed rhythmic patterns for example provide much of the tension and movement, rendered effortlessly by Bärtsch, trickier for this humble pianist to nail.
In Modul 58 the flurries in one hand hold steady whilst shorter motifs move across them. Modul 55, one of my favourites, starts with a steadily pulsing note in the right hand (in ‘6/4’ this time) whilst the simplest of two chord phrase moves around it making the pulse shimmer before the materials are recast into a wonky, loping pattern. The more contemplative air is present in Modul 13, another odd time pattern (‘11/4’) in the left hand with a right hand motif gradually displaced across it. This time there are helpful annotations on preparing the piano, with specific advice on the type or eraser to insert between the strings!
Bärtsch has given the book the title ‘Etudes for Rhythm, cycle and space awareness’. After spending some time reading, exploring on the piano, listening and following the journey of some of these pieces from band to solo piano, the title works as good summation of the experience of being immersed in the music. An intriguing impulse has also developed, the desire to play some of the pieces with other people, unpacking the careful packaging.
With the engagement with what for me has been a different approach to music making, I’ve entered into an alluring sound world. It seems to have an almost austere asceticism and economy at it’s heart and, I reflect, may not be to everyone’s taste. Whether challenging or engaging, the effort is definitely worth it.
LIVE DATES / LINKS
10 August – Ronnie Scott’s, London RONIN (quartet) / Two houses – DETAILS
11 August – Band on the Wall, Manchester RONIN (quartet) – BOOKINGS
12 August – Houghton Festival (Houghton Hall, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, PE31 6UE) RONIN (quartet)
13 August – Houghton Festival Nik Bärtsch solo piano