I have first heard about Nik Bärtsch's Ronin by LP of their ECM album Llyria, which is released in 2001. The outer cover is a calm fire photograph, which is different from the usual cold landscapes in ECM albums, whereas the inner cover is designed by photos of serious and happy musicians. The album caught me at the first note and impressed me with its each detail. The high tension in the sound of bass clarinet, the sterile and precise tone of the piano, unbelievable timings of percussion and wonderful compositions that are full of rests and great harmony between musicians are among the details stayed in my mind. After listening to that ritual-like record, which consists of organic transitions between Jazz, Funk and Classical Music genres and ever evolving partitions, I have quickly found their two other ECM albums Holon(2006) and Stoa(2008). By listening to these two predecessor albums, which are technically intense and a bit less lyrical, I have found myself as their fan.
I missed their coincidental concert in London Jazz Festival in 2011 by two days following this period of being fan. Fortunately, I found the chance to listen to them in the fantastic performance hall of Borusan Music in İstanbul on March 10th in 2012. Having bought a ticket for the foremost seat, I went to the place hours before the performance after a long concert-specific journey from Ankara to İstanbul and got the opportunity to meet the band members. The ritual-like concert was really extraordinary and great. Everything I know from the album records were in front of me with their beauties. The incredible concentration and wonderful tone of the piano of Nik Bärtsch are still on my mind. Andi Pupato, standing at the center of the stage, performed his perfect timings in harmony with drummer Kaspar Rast. Thomy, is certainly a good bass player, taking place of Björn with success. Sha presented deep basses as well as beating rhythms with his bass clarinet. They played modules from Lyrria as well as modules from Stoa and Holon. The written music is sometimes left and many great improvisations are performed. We, as the listeners, were like human beings who have faced with a new religion. Nik was so polite that he thanked to the audience between each module and he said that he would have been happy to have talked with each one of us after the performance about their music. Lastly and surprisingly, I have met the Ronin in an Olympic event concert in House of Switzerland in London last month. I have talked with them about their İstanbul concert on October 4th in 2012 and found the previous 5 albums before ECM, for which I had been looking so long. In this post, I will try to share what I know and learned about Nik Bärtsch and Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, about which I’d like everyone interested in modern music to learn some.
To review the music and the albums made by Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin; I can describe the music as highly meditative and tensional, composed of minimal partitions, founded on repetitions, transitions and written music as well as on improvisations, in which rests and holes are intensely used with many ghost notes. According to Nik Bärtsch, simple things can have higher concepts and this idea is the reference for their music. The parts include modern, contemporary and Japan ritual music as well as European trio music. Reading biography of Nik Bärtsch, one can see a half year spent in Japan in 2003-2004. Thus, you feel Japan effect after that year intensely. The sound can be generally described as cold as Nordic records. The albums before ECM can be said to be more minimalist. Holon and Stoa from ECM also can be described as similar with their improvisational structures, whereas Lyrria should be evaluated differently, with its almost oriental affected tone and written structure. Generally speaking, modul numbers are preferred rather than names of the pieces in all albums.
There is another band leaded by Nik Bärtsch other than Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, which is Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile. Drummer Kaspar Rast, saxophonist Sha and percussionist Mats Eser play with Nik in this band. Besides that formation, Nik also gives and records solo performances. If we go a little bit further through past, the foundations and formations of the bands are as follows: Nik Bärtsch first founded Nik Bärtsch Mobile in 1997 and Don Li was on the bass clarinet and alto saxophone. Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin is founded in 2001. There isn’t Sha, clarinet or alto saxophone in the first three albums of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin; Randori (2002), Live (2003), Rea (2004). However, we see Sha in the album Aer (2004) of Mobile instead of Don Li. Following this album, Sha has found place also in Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin. Nik Bärtsch usually uses zen-funk and Ritual Groove Music to describe their music, which is the name of their first albums with Mobile. This actually shows how the first album is so important and how a reference it is for his music. Ronin has a more free format in music compared to Mobile. Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile, which is described as the acoustic band by Nik, is mainly concentrated on giving performances of long hours in architectural designs. We are talking about performances of nearly 6 to 36 hours. Yes, that’s right, they are performing a ritual in some concepts as Mobile or with some other musicians, about which you can find info in their websites.
In my opinion, there is a certain correlation between the musical view of Nik Bärtsch's Ronin with his minimalist lifestyle. Nik, as a child of a designer family, has started music by playing drums. He mentions the reason for this choice that everyone was choosing piano or violin at that time. He, later, passed to the piano and is inspired by his private piano teacher, who has taught him Chick Corea solos. He is also impressed by the rhythms in films of Japanese film maker Akira Kurosawa. He is graduated from the 'Musikhochschule Zürich' in 1997. He has studied in philosophy, linguistics and musicology at the University of Zurich between 1998 and 2001. He has stayed in Japan between 2003 and 2004. You can see Japanese effect also on his interesting clothes. The small article that Nik Bärtsch added to their webpage about life of a samurai can be summarized as follows: “There are two paths a samurai can walk: that of a clan member, and that of a ronin, a lonely warrior. The former is highly esteemed in Japan, the latter is bitterly detested. The despised warrior without a clan is viewed by clan people as a hungry wolf, roaming through the country, with no ties or obligations, no duties or support, no protection, no respect for people’s material well-being. Despite his virtuosity as a swordsman, a lone fighter is unable to withstand gangs or clansmen eager to fight. His readiness to die could be tested any time: not in a great battle between two mighty clans where he might die a famous hero but in trifling rows over a mouthful of rice or a sip of sake. If a ronin wants to survive, he must, wherever he goes, remain extremely careful. If only those destitute samurai could view their situation without prejudice! They might see that, at the cost of tolerable poverty, they have acquired a rare treasure: freedom. They are free to cognise the world, free to discover and fulfil the true purpose of man. They can toughen themselves in the wilderness; they can study budo wherever a master is available; they can visit monasteries and practice meditation."
I have talked with the members of the band in London about what they are doing for music besides playing with Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin and/or Mobile. Nik founded Exil Jazz Club in Zurich in 2009. There are performances in many different genres in this club and you can listen to Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin regularly in this club in Zurich. Nik Bärtsch and Kaspar Rast conduct Montags, which is a platform for the continuous work on the Ritual Groove Music by Nik Bärtsch, in this club. The Montags workshops incorporate the practice of the principles and the philosophy of their music that lie between funk, jazz and new classical music: work with patterns, as well as on the concepts of minimal groove and improvisation. Sha and Kaspar released some good records as Sha’s Feckel. Their music is a bit more on the rock side. Andi took place in many different projects and played with many important musicians in Africa and Cuba. He performs with really extraordinary equipment. Thomy also plays within different genres, however he says that the music he produces with Ronin has a dedicated place in his heart and most inspiring times for him is when he is with Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin.
Let me also review their live performances. Their extraordinary musical view reflects to their live performances. I have felt a continuous intensity from beginning to the end of each module in both performances. There is an incredible harmony between the band members. There are spontaneous tension level changes and organic transitions in the ritual. Similar to Mobile, the light effects are adding considerable boost to Nik Bartch’s Ronin’s performances. The lights are generally calm, but sudden changes in the colour and direction with changing rhythms and melodies are really impressive. Nik sees their music as an architecturally designed space: “It is governed by the principles of repetition and reduction as well as by interlocking rhythms. A piece of music can be entered, inhabited like a room. It moves forward and transforms through obsessive circular movements, superimposition of different meters and micro-interplay. The listeners attention is directed toward minimal variations and phrasing. The band becomes an integral organism - like an animal, a habitat, an urban space. One must think with ears and hands. On the one hand, accentuation, ghost notes, and variations within a composition are tossed back and forth between the musicians; on the other hand, a particular voice within a composition might have more freedom than the others. My thinking and music are based on the tradition of urban space. They are not distilled from a national or stylistic tradition but from the universal sound of cities. The city in its roaring diversity requires an ability to focus and concentrate on the essential: to measure one’s actions, to remain silent at the right place. This music draws its energy from the tension between compositional precision and the self-circumvention of improvisation. From self-implied restriction stems freedom. Ecstasy through asceticism.”
To summarize, a performance of Nik Bärtsch's Ronin is certainly an experience that should not be missed. Attend to this extraordinary concert, which is in İstanbul on October 4th in Babylon and listen to the ECM albums in advance.