»My music should open rooms« (nd current)

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Melting with others through music: Nik Bärtsch looks out of a window of the Umeda Sky Building in Osaka, Japan

Photo: Andrea Pfisterer

Mr. Bärtsch, your music is difficult to categorize, it contains elements of minimal, funk and classical. Do you actually see yourself as a jazz musician?

As a child I was fascinated by rhythmic music, I started on the drums. I didn’t know what styles are. Then I got to the piano via Boogie Woogie, played blues, Brazilian music and Chick Corea. Then I came to Bartok through Gershwin. I’ve never been a purist, and I’m not a classical jazz musician who comes from a certain tradition. Jazz was a passion, I just listened to an incredible number of records with colleagues. At the same time, I always liked pop and funk. Then I coined terms for my music myself.

“Ritual Groove Music” is what you say. What does that mean?

It’s more of an attitude, a view of music that interests me. I don’t want to say I made this up. Rather, it’s the way I move in music. Then I wanted to prevent someone from saying “minimal jazz” for lack of knowledge, that would have been too soft for me. And »jazz« scares off a lot of people – they think of certain saxophone solos or swing. And that has nothing to do with us. Then I came up with the term »Zen Funk« for my band Ronin. There is much in the paradox of words of what we are. But of course jazz shaped me. It is the only direction that consciously deals with freedom and improvisation and keeps asking: What is your part here?

With »Entender« you have just released your first solo album in 20 years. How did that happen?

I’ve been playing solo live over and over again for many years. On the record you can hear outlooks into the future, but also recordings of old pieces that I have played over and over again with my two bands over the years. You can hear it like this: This is how I play at the moment. But it wasn’t the point at all to show that I can play the piano. There was no pressure, no will. Simply an inspiring studio atmosphere with engineer Stefano Amerio and producer Manfred Eicher, in which I could indulge myself without ambition. I really got to the essence of structure and free treatment. There is a certain maturity in leaving things out. Such a solo statement actually speaks for itself. You don’t need to explain a lot – I am happy when the music does the talking.

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You explain a lot more in your new book “Listening: Music – Movement – Mind”.

It’s important to me to locate things and see what happened. That might be appropriate after the 13th album. Above all, I wanted to inspire others with the book. Help them to sift through their work, to tell them how they can more easily listen to themselves. The book is called »Listening,« as the album is called »Entendre« – different aspects of listening. I wanted to turn that around: the book should listen to you when you read it. Because then you can develop your own ideas. When you hear my music, it shouldn’t fill you with meaning, but rather open spaces.

There is a whole chapter in the book about comics and Hergé’s “Tintin”.

I was a fan of comics early on. My parents have an artistic background. So my mother went to the bookstore and had “good comics” recommended, whereupon the lady showed her “Tintin”. My addiction began with “The Treasure of Rackham’s Red”, and I became a real collector. There was a time when I sold all of my records but kept the comics. I started thinking about this influence while writing the book. Hergé’s classic style, the Ligne Claire, has a few essential strategies that help us develop a clear dramaturgy, be it for an album or a play. This way of creating a motif with just a few strokes, with a certain spin, helped me more than just studying the great role models.

You also write about the martial art of Aikido, which you have been practicing for a long time. Why did you start doing this?

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When I was 27, I was ambushed in an underpass. The money was gone, but luckily it was non-violent. But the next day I was really scared and perplexed because I hadn’t done anything. I went to a dojo, i.e. a training room, on the same day. I haven’t stopped since then.

So it’s about self defense?

Aikido is neither a martial arts nor survival training, it is a martial art. It is about a confrontation with oneself, with one’s own role in society. Aikido developed rather late, after the Second World War the founder had the idea that martial arts can also serve peace. It’s a paradox, but I was fascinated by it.

How does that work in practice?

It’s about directing an attack where you want to. You don’t want to hurt your opponent, you want to accompany him gently to the ground. It’s about an idea and an attitude. Our society is no longer used to receiving attacks. We live in democracies where we have been able to reduce violence, and yet it sometimes explodes without explanation. What we’ve also forgotten is how to fall. We sit on chairs or walk, but we are never on the ground – in contrast to many Asian countries. In each workout, you go down and get up a hundred times. That helped me a lot to feel my own body better.

How does an attack redirect work?

It’s incredibly difficult, I train it all the time: not to go against an attacker or run away, but to fall into a kind of yin-yang. It plays a huge role in music. Anyone who improvises and acts with others needs immediate attention. You actually have to hear faster than your shadow. Expect everything and nothing! Things that you can’t control with your head.

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How do you hear so quickly?

If you move out of the center, you can do it at a high pace. When making music, it is important not to occupy oneself with one’s own head, but with the whole organism and merge with the others. In Aikido this is called »Awase«. One poem says: I have no ears, my five senses are my ears. Hearing is immediate. You mustn’t focus on observing or analyzing.

What does Aikido give you personally?

I am someone who thinks a lot and is very self-critical. Aikido helps me to be in the moment, to reduce things to the essentials. It’s similar to practicing the piano. A very direct occupation with the hands.

You’ve been dealing with Japanese culture a lot longer, haven’t you?

Even as a child, I admired the Japanese works of art in the apartment of a friend of my father’s. When I was 14, I sneaked into the cinema, to the »Ran« by the legendary director Akira Kurosawa, which was released from 16 onwards. The bloody battles were shocking, I’m actually a pacifist. But the energy and music in it fascinated me. From then on I worked intensively on cultural phenomena from Japan.

Why are you always dressed in black?

For me, black is the color of life. In Japan, white is the color of death. Black is the color of committed neutrality – and total presence. I don’t have to think about what to wear either. And in such clothes you can both go to a reception and set up your instruments.

What is the piano for you?

The piano is home to me. Many pianists need a good instrument in order to play well, one instrument is actually enough for me. Each one has its own character and story. When I touch it and am in contact with the resonances, I feel secure. I am immediately at home in the universe.

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