Nik Bärtsch – The Ronin in Bucharest (interview)

Nik Bärtsch will perform in Bucharest and will offer to the Romanian public an intriguing musical journey somewhere over a strange landscape which moves around jazz and minimalism tonalities. The artist talks about the project Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, but also about music and what defines an authentic experienceand about Zen Music.

1. If one googles your name and reads about the Ronin project, the results are all in this area: “funky jazz”, “neo-jazz”, “minimalism”, “Steve Reich-style minimalism” and so on…
And after hearing just one of your songs, it is clear: you made minimalism and jazz coexist. But how can it be? Because we are talking about two very different musical concepts: jazz (defined by syncopation and usually by improvisation) VS. minimalism (in which musical phrases are reiterated, transformation is gradual, predictable)…

I don’t think in stylistic categorizations. Jazz and also Minimalism are in these days huge musical regions with many sub landscapes. Fortunately we do not need any passport to travel from one region to the other and in the passage zones we even are not sure which flora and fauna belongs to which region. Borders are made in our heads. We interpret, categorize and want to bring order into things which helps us to function. That’s why we named our music with an own name. We “discovered an new landscape. But of course the landscape was already there before we discovered it. Maybe our music discovered us?

I am interested in musical strategies. You are right: in Jazz conscious soloing is a high developed art. We have highest respect of it and appreciate the history of the great soloists. In our music we use the solo as a dramaturgical strategy rarely very direct. Often the soloist moves like an animal who hides in the natural surroundings: When it moves you see it, when it doesn’t you don’t.

[alert close=”true” background=”#a1a3b5″ color=”#ffffff”] Vezi si o galerie foto de la concertul sustinut de Nik Bartsch’s Ronin la Sala Radio[/alert]

I am interested also in the minimalistic strategy of trusting the musical material: through reduction and played repetition the music can discover itself. Both styles, Jazz and Minimalism, use flow strategies as main dramaturgical parameters: through constant rhythmic flow, form and sensuality develop.

But we are also very much influenced by general groove and percussive music: ritual and tribal music, funk, pop and rhythmic classical music like Strawinsky or Bartok.

2. You named your music “Zen Funk”. Why/how is your music “Zen”?

I need two energies to survive: Groove and Meditation. Sometimes both are even the same. You have to play our music in the eye of the hurricane. Stay calm and relaxed when the groove tension is raising. But you have also to keep the tension when stillness and emptiness are in the music.

I personally appreciate the meditation form of Zen very much. It is a very effective, ironic and serious spiritual and cultural technique to learn, to outfox yourself and to create true presence. You disappear through your own presence. Funny, isn’t it?


3. Why is your project called Ronin and how does it get along with the “Zen Funk” musical philosophy?
(I know you lived in Japan for a while, the place where the Ronin “rogue-masterless samurai” concept was born)

First of all RONIN means „freelancer“. All the musicians in RONIN are playing this music together because we want to. We don’t serve anybody except the music itself. In RONIN all musicians keep the spirit alive to do what you love to do in life – with respect, liability, integrity and all its consequences and with taking responsibility for all your actions. So we are poetic RONINs with a consciousness fort he dignity of our way. Polite radicals with serious self-irony and the will to work.

3. How did you get to enter & be fond of these very different “worlds” (the minimalist music and the jazz music)?
I followed my affinities: I always liked rhythmic music. My mother took my which to play drums very serious and later also the which to play piano. I told her that I wanted to learn Blues and Boogie Woogie and she found a teacher for this. This all leaded into Jazz since improvisation was always important for me too and my teachers help to develop it.

The interest for minimalism and reductive strategies came through my occupation with philosophy and Japanese culture: How much material is needed to develop coherent dramaturgies? How can the music discover and develop musical material itself? How is the relationship between archaic culture and high modern consciousness?

4. Many of the Ronin songs are called “Modul”, followed by a number. Why did you name them like this? Why not choose titles that would be easier for fans to remember, to tell them apart?

Scientists say it is easier to recognise faces than recall names. Do you think the same thing happen when regarding music vs. songs titles?

I want to let poetic freedom to the listener and the players: Everybody has its own feelings, memories, pictures and words for a piece of music. In the beginning we even did not give a name to the pieces and just marked them on the record by their length. But this leaded to a big confusion and to nicknames for the pieces that were poetic or ironic (“the blue piece”, “the difficult piece” etc.). So i called them after my composition technique which is modular. When a piece has a good potential, is coherent and seems to have a good dramaturgy, I add a number.
Probably it would be easier to remember a piece with a poetic name, but I like also the names like “Sonata Nr. 1” etc., so the fans will probably know the number or find a good nickname for the pieces sooner or later…I believe that music does not “translate” emotions but communicates “ideas”, although it evokes emotions.

5. Do you regard your work as “music for the mind” (this is what one of your YouTube listeners said in a comment)? Or is it (also) “music for the heart”?

Some try to introduce this dichotomy in music in general: music meant to be mostly understood (mentally) VS. music meant to be felt, music not so much mentally challenging.
I am not interested in this dichotomy but in this paradox. “Mind” and “heart” are two sides of the same coin. Do you seduce your favorite woman only with brain OR body? By the way: the brain is part of the body as the heart too. Our music is intelligent simple or danceable complex. At the end you decide.

6. You are a black belt in Aikido, you wear a hakama, one of the bands you play in is called Ronin and you make zen funk – so concepts such as “discipline” and “balance” and “equilibrium” and “stability” come to my mind. Do these terms manage to entirely describe your music and why?

Yes if you combine them with: surprise, roughness, irony, being relaxed, presence, swarming behavior and fun. Our music is a paradox.

7. How should one listen to your music: is it proper to listen to Ronin songs at home, or maybe is concert halls, or as “background”-ambient music in elevators, or – why not? – music to be listened to in the car?

You decide! But i can recommend it specially for all sort of movement activities…

8. How would you describe the “relationship” with your Ronin band, considering not only the hours of rehearsal, but also the number of concerts you held in a certain place in Zurich, every monday, since 2004. + How many concerts did you play there, until now? 🙂

We play today the 385. concert.

The Monday developed out of my tradition to invited all the people I know to my house always the first Monday of the month from 12.00 to 24.00. Sometimes many people came sometimes only a few but it was always interesting and helped to establish liability for the community. When I came back from Japan in 2004, we needed a home base to rehearse and play weekly. I did not want to depend on organizers and venues for our development and I wanted to offer also a platform for us to meet and work every week. So we rented the Monday first in the Bazillus club in Zurich, then in 2009 I had the chance to found the EXIL club together with four other partners to have a club more in our own style. Since then we play there. This Monday meetings help to establish and develop our music regularly in our everyday life. Unbelievable how much this helped to energize, specify and freshen our music and social connection. It is our own initiative. I can highly recommend it. Please copy it somewhere.

9. “Mobile” is another one of your projects, which has concerts that even last for 36 hours. There is also Ronin and all that it stands for. So one can say that there are some philosophical concepts behind all your music. It’s not all about music (=about sounds), but also about ideas (=philosophy). Is it true?

It’s all about music as our life. Its about our ideas of community, responsibility for your actions and self irony: the right mixture of self-confidence and modesty, very paradox. Music is about resonance – got I?

10. Is music also meant not only to entertain, but also to educate and make people think?

Music is a basic food for life. It can help to develop consciousness: dance smart, think sensual, act with responsibility, resonate with your surroundings.

11. Should the commonly used term of “listener” be upgraded to “thinker”?

When you listen you think anyway. You cannot “not think” like you cannot “not breath”. But you can learn to think with your body and to act faster then you think like Lucky Luke shoots faster then his shadow. But for this you have to train – your life long: playing music and listening to music can highly increase your capacity to learn.

Cosmin Navadaru –

Citeste traducerea intergala in limba romana a interviului.

[alert close=”true” background=”#a1a3b5″ color=”#ffffff”] Vezi si o galerie foto de la concertul sustinut de Nik Bartsch’s Ronin la Sala Radio[/alert]

In this article

Join the Conversation