Ronin: Sha, Kaspar Rast, Nik Bärtsch, Thomy Jordi
“Like the fella says, in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
– Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man
Lime grossly underestimated the significance and possibility of the clock. The mechanical clock (and watch) depend on the precise balance and interaction of delicate components that each move at their own pace while in concert steadily accumulating the seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, and centuries. Lime ended up like one of those “ants” he spoke of contemptuously, people he viewed from the great height of the Ferris wheel. Meanwhile all those cuckoo clocks ticked on, implacably and steadily, until they came together in one of those coincidences of human values and agency that we call the zeitgeist.
In 21st century Switzerland, appropriately, there is a small group of musicians connected to each other—loosely or tightly—through a mutual set of values; a dedication to reducing their material to an absolute minimum, and the use of repetition and polyrhythms. The sound of this music stretches from the meditative, rich beauty of Colin Vallon’s piano trio to the metal (as in heavy machines) of SONAR.
Most of this music (except Vallon, whose records are on ECM) is currently centered around—or launched on—the Ronin Rhythm (roninrhythmrecords.bandcamp.com) record label. Pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch founded the label, releasing Ritual Groove Music with his ensemble Mobile in 2001, and Randori, with his main band Ronin, in 2002, as well as SONAR’s first recordings. Bärtsch has been recording for ECM since 2005 (his latest release is this year’s Awase, with Ronin), while continuing to release albums by musically sympathetic artists like singer Ingrid Lukas and the groups IKARUS and Kali.
“I discovered that there are actually a lot of younger bands that are creating interesting things that I wanted to support and give them a platform,” Bärtsch told me in early May, the day after a driving, punchy performance of material from Awase at (le) poisson rouge, “The style we are playing inspired a lot of younger musicians with their own concepts.”
How did this style come about? Like most everything else that ultimately matters in creative culture, it happened without any plan, through musicians exploring their curiosity and applying imagination through praxis. Bärtsch, practitioner of what he calls “groove paradox,” “zen funk,” and “ritual groove music,” has been exploring these ideas for decades. “The first five against four” he wrote in the form of what he would later call Moduls, “was in 1992. Through coincidence I just heard a beat and made a pattern, and I realized it’s in five, so the drummer who played in four suddenly had five times four, it created a very different dramaturgy, different pick-ups, different solo moments. And through that I discovered that very natural development of discovering these grooves with colleagues by playing live.”
Bärtsch was already playing jazz as a teenager, and also playing with drummer Kaspar Rast, his musical right hand man in both Ronin and Mobile. At sixteen he discovered classical music through Gerswhin and Bartók, and that classical music, especially through it’s 20th century branches, became a foundation of his concept. The compositional and intellectual examples of Stravinsky and Morton Feldman are particularly important to him, and equally so has been the practical and social aspects of leading bands, of playing with other musicians.
“There were a lot of different people developing this, but with different influences, so we were a strong community. For example with Kaspar, we had played together since we were kids, so we already had bands and we were always experimenting with meter, I was always interested in that. But then there was a community of several people researching different directions. For example, SONAR [guitarist] Stephan [Thelen], he was one of the first in Switzerland creating [music] under the influence of prog rock and minimalism, before we showed up.”
Imagining the connection between classical minimalism, prog-rock, and jazz is not hard—Steve Reich has said he wanted to make music out of Bach, Stravinsky, and Charlie Parker—but what is coming out of Switzerland is both new and unique. While Vallon is very much a jazz pianist using riff-like material and repetition familiar from Reich, SONAR is the epitome of the modern rock band. Their sound is heavy, ominous, yet the profile of their music is lean.
Keeping a mid-tempo rock beat, SONAR truly uses the absolute minimal material. There are more notes than you’ll hear from Earth, but there is also more activity. SONAR’s lineup—guitarists Thelen and Bernhard Wagner, Christian Kuntner on electric bass, and drummer Manuel Pasquinelli—make music with machine-tooled precision and the engrossing, exhilarating groove of a powerful sports car inhaling kilometers on the Autobahn.
Bärtsch’s idea of the groove paradox in music is “that you do not have everything on the one [the downbeat], there are several ones. For example in [“Modul 60” on Awase] there is a formal one that you feel in the middle of the cycles going against each other, and that creates a lot of interesting possibilities—how we experience groove and space in the music.” SONAR’s groove paradox is music that plows through time yet always stays in place, circling back on itself with ever increasing tension—one of their albums has the perfect title of Static Motion.
Melody and harmony are almost irrelevant to SONAR. Instead there are interlocking fragments of rhythms, no more than a few notes. This makes them the ideal backing group for the right kind of player, and that’s the sound of Vortex (RareNoiseRecords, 2018), which pairs the group with guitarist David Torn. Torn’s mass of sound and his ripping playing on top of the group is one of those rare blends of differing chemistry. SONAR gives Torn a foundation as steady and powerful as the turning earth, and his playing adds abstract melody that perfectly fits into the band’s conception.
The listening experience that both SONAR and Bärtsch produce shares a quality of drama. Talking about his music, Bärtsch returned again and again to what he called “dramaturgy,” Drama in Western music has for centuries been conveyed through the tension and release of harmony, at times boosted by rhythm (Beethoven is the master of this), but for SONAR, Mobile, and Ronin, drama is all in the rhythm. There is the small scale drama of polyrhythms synchronizing before they separate, and the larger experiential dramaturgy of ritual. Even when slow and quiet, this music builds up kinetic energy that reaches what Bärtsch describes as “the transcendent moment that is very strong, that in traditional tribal music where three goes against two helps you go into the world of ghosts. You can take that as a belief or you can take that as pragmatic, without feelings, in terms of your reception and awareness.”
Without feelings, perhaps, but never without feel. This music grooves, whether it’s rock, the funk of Ronin (Bärtsch names The Meters as an important influence), or the delicate zen beauty of Mobile (their hypnotic continuous-hour set at the ECM stage was the high point of the 2017 Winter Jazzfest). The pulse is so gripping that you barely stop to wonder what meter it’s all in.
Making such music “means for the band, the music might at times be quite complex in terms of learning it to play, but the band also has joy for playing it in an organic, natural groove . . . through a simplicity that you can learn by heart and understand. But it has so much paradox in potentially how you hear it that it can be a lifelong piece. For the person listening, it’s not important whether it’s an odd meter or a double meter or a cycle, just having them hang in with the experience is for me very important.
“It’s like Monk wrote stuff on the beat and off the beat, it gives a different view of the pattern. That allows the written material—to present it in the way that there is a really strong flow, but having a small entity that creates formally interesting bigger entities. Then when you put it in the relation to [repetition], you suddenly create a form that has a three or four dimensional space in which the more you play, the more you see what’s coming. At the beginning you just have a map of something and you find you feel it. Like when you are in a city somewhere and off center from your hotel, you have to check it on the map, and you go and you don’t know how long it takes. But when you do it ten times you know how long it takes and you get a feeling for the district and for that space in between, you get a feeling for everything. And that’s how these [pieces] work, suddenly you get the feeling of space, and it’s actually closer to what Morton Feldman and Stravinsky do than this narrative way of Western, traditional music. You don’t tell a story in a linear sense, that’s a very different concept. It’s not complicated music, it’s complex.”
And it’s all in the groove.