Focused Freedom

Swiss composer Nik Bärtsch explores the space between improvisation and composition with his band Ronin

Scanning the sheet music for "Modul 35," one of pianist Nik Bärtsch's compositions from 2006's STOA, it appears to be a dizzying array of eighth and sixteenth notes, bridging across the page and rarely, if ever, letting up. It's a tight, aesthetically delicate arrangement, no doubt, designed with all the precision of an architect, so that the layers of Bärtsch's quintet can seamlessly build on top of each other. At least that's how it looks on the page.

But when "35" begins to play, it's just a simple, repetitive chime, barely audible over a vast and barren soundscape. Half a minute passes before things really get started with an impressive—and lightning-fast—flurry of hyperactivity, courtesy of Bärtsch's Fender Rhodes. The chime continues to ring, if you care to listen for it, keeping its phrasing softly in the background.

As dense a musical tapestry as Bärtsch is capable of weaving—"35" being one of his most deliberately dense—he rarely allows any layer to become an overpowering presence in the piece. Not long after he begins to play in "35," the piano stops abruptly, and things begin anew. The soft, repetitive chime still rings. Everything, even what can sometimes appear to be pure improvisation or instant composition, is calculated, even expected as the piece moves on, as he melds genres and avoids classification as best he can, but for the most part, Bärtsch is at his best gleaning elements from jazz, funk, and modern composition to incorporate into his arrangements.

Kasper Rast, who has been playing with Bärtsch since they were both 10 years old, handles the drum kit. Rast's swift and surgical precision is tempered by percussionist Andi Pupato, who was schooled at the Escuela de superación profesional de musica Ignacio Cervantes in Havana, Cuba. Sha (née Stefan Haslebacher) is the resident reedman. Stockholm expatriate and bassist Björn Meyer adds a hefty thump to Bärtsch's minimalist grooves. As a composer himself, Meyer is all over the map, playing bass in a style he calls "Tripfolk" or "Bazaarmusic."

"Freedom is a very interesting word," Bärtsch says from his home in Zurich, Switzerland. "If I have total freedom, it is often too much." There are moments of pure, uninhibited bliss on each of Bärtsch's Modules. At the same time, there's always tension.

"Between improvisation and composition, and also interpretation," Bärtsch explains. "The conscious freedom, the thinking about freedom in music is very important. I'm interested in a focused freedom, to give us the possibility to be creative."

For Bärtsch, this music creates a space, something that borders on the spiritual. It's a moment in time, never permanent, and it's nearly impossible to explain without a little bit of religious or philosophical fervor.

"Music fills the room, like a light," he says, "You feel comfortable, you want to stay in a piece. A mix between meditation and emptiness, where all the high energy takes place."

Bärtsch definitely talks like a philosopher, or maybe an eccentric ascetic hermit. His slogan—"Ecstasy through Asceticism"—is a curt description of his thought process. His music can meander, filled with moments of sheer minimalism before it becomes shockingly boisterous. Then there are moments, thankfully very few, where the arrangement shifts into a syrupy, almost schmaltzy groove, which is just an unexpected bit of fun each time it happens.

During a brief stint at the University of Zurich, Bärtsch began studying linguistics, reading such French philosophers as Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard. The theories he learned continue to affect his music, even though he never received a degree.

"It was important to me, because I wanted to find out what's really possible to say," he remembers. "What's the poetic potential of a word? What's it thinking? What's possible with intellect?"

Ronin, as Bärtsch's group calls itself, celebrated its three-year anniversary with the release of Holon, a collection of five new Modules. There's even some dipping into Ronin's past catalog. "Modul 38_17," the last piece on the new album, combines rhythmic elements of two Modules, interlocking the two in hopes of creating something new.

Ronin, a term popularized in the Western world by Akira Kurosawa films in the '50s, refers to the lonely samurais who had no allegiance to any clan in feudal Japan. They roamed the countryside, and if you hear Bärtsch talk about them, these warriors "had to take certain risks, to search for their own ways." In its simplest terms, the ronin is a character of pure romance, a kernel of history that seduces our imagination in unexpected ways. Bärtsch imagines warriors fighting "to find out what freedom is—

"If you translate that into the music business—" He pauses and leaves it at that.