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Nik Bärtsch’s Ritual Groove

Nik Bärtsch is an unsung wunderkind of European new music. I first heard him in Graz, Austria, with his trio Ronin; they played tightly arranged jazz and funk riffs with Loten Namling, who surely must be the world’s first Tibetan rapper, and Nawang Kechog, a Grammy-nominated Tibetan flute player, guest-starring. Saturated with global influences, the music was arranged with a fresh and original sensibility. Not since the late Quwali maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook released Night Song, their breakthrough 1995 collaboration, have I listened to such a complex effort presented so innovatively.

But Nik is not only a doyen of world collaborations. His range is much wider than that, as is apparent from his three fiercely original CDs. The first, “Mobile,” is an excerpt from the 36-hour “Mu Blue”, an uninterrupted acoustical event staged in specially constructed rooms using light, art, and nature sounds. The second, “Hishiryo,” showcases Nik’s solo piano efforts and shows the influence of Morton Feldman and a minimal Zen monastic aesthetic. “Randori,” Nik’s third release, features Ronin (with Björn Meyer on bass and Kaspar Rast on drums) and explores the experimental and “attack-style” pieces of the trio’s work.

“Mu Blue” derives its name from Mu, for emptiness, as in a Zen koan, and Blue because the event took place inside an old beer factory with blue-tinted windows (an old trick to keep beer from warming up). Inside the factory, the blue hue and light constantly changed throughout the day. Mu Blue was the final part of the three-year Mobile, an urban trilogy collaboration between musicians, dancers, and sound, light, and video artists in Zurich, Switzerland. Mobile was always staged over the course of 36 hours on the day of the September full moon.

In what was billed as a “ritualized groove,” the musicians set their instruments up inside a mandala-circle of sand. Every hour a figure moved 10 degrees within the 360º circle. At 6 p.m. on Friday, as “Mu Blue” began, the figure stood at zero degrees north. It returned to the same position by Sunday at 9 p.m., when the 36 hours ended. On Saturday, as the early-evening full moon rose, a martial arts swordsman appeared to enact a Zen poem: “though the moon reflects upon water, when the water moves, the moon remains still.”

At 9 p.m. on Saturday the circle lay at the westernmost apex, celebrated with a standard 90-minute concert. The whole room was programmed in illusory walls of synthesized light and space. After the concert, people were invited to stay and lie down on transparent blue rubber rafts to “groove” to the improvised music, which continued throughout the night and late into the next day.

“Hishiryo,” Nik’s solo recording, brings the grand piano into the 21st century by combining percussive and ethereal aspects in an experimental, modernist style. Jazz is a myriad of ideas expressed through a wide range of notes; Nik’s piano recording is based on a history of those ideas linked with classical styles via improvised "modular compositions." A modular approach is different from the modern fusion movement in that it aims for a new type of music distilling the vast scope of available forms in the 21st century. "Randori," Ronin’s CD, has an aggressive guerrilla style that builds up the instrumentals and supports them with a strong backbeat. Ronin rhythmically complements a native Tibetan singer like Loten to create a unique "sound room" where indigenous strands are given free reign but embroidered by a strictly arranged jazz syncopation.

Meditative music, which is usually associated with the nomenclature "spiritual," often suffers from lack of ground or earth principle. It can be weak and sappy. Nik’s music incorporates the "deep dark sounds" of Japanese Zen percussionists, based on temple bells and wood-block sounds that portray the ancient yet act in the present. The group’s name, Ronin, conjures an image of free-agent Samurai who embody the strength and vigor associated with the martial arts. Ronin favors a minimal approach, taking only what it needs from an array of musical styles and traditions, while emphasizing underlying funk and jazz arrangements. This combination is something that I’d never heard before and hope will one day make it across the ocean to New York.

To find out more about Mu Blue and order Nik Bärtsch’s incredible CDs, go to


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

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