“Listening: Music, Movement, Mind” is the first book by Swiss jazz pianist Nik Bärtsch.
Published this summer by Lars Müller, it is the first time that Bärtsch explains in detail the workings of his own creativity and the democratic process of the various groups he has led for 20 years, including Ronin and Mobile.
Bärtsch was deeply influenced by Zen meditation and Aikido martial arts practices in his ongoing explorations of freedom, sound and performance. And he was inspired by a wide range of musical fields, including Bach, the Japanese shakuhachi, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Brian Eno.
All this has led Bärtsch to very consciously develop what he calls Ritual Groove Music. This unique and dynamic rhythm-based music is deeply sensitive one moment and seriously grooves the next. The tempos are often fast, the patterns complex, and Bärtsch sometimes plays the inside of the piano very effectively as a “percussion weapon”.
The Sentinel recently spoke with Nik Bärtsch about his music and his new book “Listening: Music, Movement, Mind”, created in collaboration with his wife Andrea Pfisterer and dedicated to his three daughters Aina, Ilva and Mika.
Q: “Tell me about the democratic process you have with your different groups. You write that it is very important to “combine a clear individual vision and cooperation”. You point out that sometimes artists think they have to choose one or the other.
A: “I would call it balancing all interests, needs and ideas,” Bärtsch said. “There may be the idea that it is not very fruitful when looking for a clear vision. But I didn’t experience it like that. As in a democracy, there are people who take more responsibility and who have a certain energy and perhaps certain skills. But in our groups, I naturally need to be respected for my skills. It is therefore a natural authority. If I try to cheat on them or force them or buy them in a certain way, it doesn’t work. People need to feel respected.
“There are bands that after their concerts talk a lot about the details of their performance. What didn’t work, what worked. And sometimes they even argue. We have a deal that we don’t talk about mistakes right after the gig. We talk about these things at monthly meetings. At the concert, it’s kind of a sacred thing that you should appreciate even when something is wrong. Especially right after the concert, when you are still in this atmosphere. Later in the monthly meeting, we discuss things and learn from them in a constructive way. “
“I consider myself above all as a free citizen of the music world. “- Nik Bärtsch
Not explicitly political
Q: “I guess people might say your music is not political. But in a sense, all art has to do with society and culture.
A: “That’s a very important point, actually. I am explicitly not explicitly political. Because I think our way of working is political. The things we are proposing are very political; to be community-oriented, process-oriented, ”said Bärtsch. “They are very respectful. Also, in a way, we might not take ourselves that seriously. Our work is at the center of our concerns. And our way of doing things is very political and very democratic.
“Sometimes artists can be more explicitly political. I’m not doing this because I want the music you hear on our records to be free, itself. I don’t want to put something on the music that you have to read in a certain way. You must have the freedom as a listener to react to this music as you see fit. And that’s a very political statement; this is how music is created and presented, then shared with people who can then react with their own poetic freedom.
Groove Music Ritual
JM: “I love your presentation of music as a ceremony. Would you say more about Ritual Groove Music? “
“When I was a kid I heard a lot of music of all kinds of different styles. When I found what I wanted to focus on, I noticed that it didn’t make sense to give my music a style name. But maybe more of a prospect; how we work and the spirit of music and its results, ”explained Bärtsch. “Ritual Groove Music is a certain way of working, seeing music and creating strategies for musical performance and expression.
“Ritual is a way of taking care of things that are important. We know this from a Japanese aesthetic. Repetition plays a big role. Repetition is a form of learning and deepening things. We have that in spiritual traditions. But we also have this in a lot of craft and artistic traditions. Even if it’s a mug or something that we use in everyday life. Repetition is actually when you like to continue with something instead of stopping. So it is this angular moment of motion that increases your energy. That’s the groove for me. You are on the way; you can’t jump. Music is a way of hearing and experiencing life. So I found Ritual Groove Music to be a fairly precise flow, but also quite open.
The silent mind is open
Q: “You write that:” In playing music live, we face the same challenges as in Zen meditation, with its curious philosophy of constantly reinventing itself by making itself disappear. And, “the silent mind is open to the entire auditory horizon.”
A: “I find it interesting that in music studies we talked so often about technical and musicological aspects. But rarely talk about performance aspects. I learned mainly from aikido training that the now changes when you play, ”said Bärtsch. “It’s like that famous moment when a student tells you; “At home I could play it, but now during the lesson it doesn’t work anymore. It has nothing to do with bad training. It just has to do with when you play in a community. You are not playing for yourself. You play for and with someone who is listening. It has to do with this present moment.
“And that’s what we learn in the form of very focused Zen meditation, the practical idea of meditating. And you learn it in martial arts. But you can also find it in sports and theater, even in the circus. In many moments now performing. In the world of sports, people have coaches for these things. But music schools, rarely.
“Without martial arts and Zen meditation, I couldn’t play like this,” Bärtsch continued. “It means learning to manage these different energies in order to finally be able to benefit from the performance! And not our own stress, all the time. And be able to connect with your colleagues on stage and the audience in space. For me, the audience is an integral part of the performance; the public is a friend. He is not an enemy. The concert is an energy and a positive challenge that must be appreciated. But we also have to stay connected throughout the performance.
Q: “Everything you say seems very important when it comes to improvisation. People often forget that Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart excelled at improvisation and that some of their pieces were originally improvised.
A: “Exactly. Knowing your own style is not enough. You need strategies to outsmart yourself! (laughs) And it’s an evolutionary energy. You need stability and knowledge, but you also need the spirit of improvisation to scare yourself to create new perspectives, ”said Bärtsch. “What is beautiful about improvisation is that it is very present. So you have to somehow be faster than yourself! (laughs) And this paradox fascinates me. And it’s also trainable. You can train yourself to trust this momentum to be faster than yourself. Which means that you also have to learn to make yourself disappear. And we know it thanks to Zen. You know, the ego isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The ego is only one of the different aspects of being. But at times, it doesn’t help us! (laughs) And in those moments, we have to learn to avoid it. It is very simple. But this is one of the main techniques we can learn from Zen. This paradox of training and letting go is such a beautiful thing, and probably a vital energy in our lives.
Listen to this interview by Nik Bärtsch on “Transformation Highway” with John Malkin Thursday at noon on KZSC 88.1 FM / kzsc.org.