Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Live (ECM 2302/03)

Ronin Live

Nik Bärtsch´s Ronin

Nik Bärtsch piano
Sha alto saxophone, bass clarinet
Björn Meyer bass
Thomy Jordi bass (on “Modul 55”)
Kaspar Rast drums
Andi Pupato percussion
Recorded live 2009-2011
Mixed at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Recording engineer: Andi Pupato
Mixed at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines by Gérard de Haro, Romain Castera, Manfred Eicher, and Nik Bärtsch
Mastered by Nicholas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The rōnin, or masterless samurai, is an iconic character in both historical and fictional tales of feudal Japan. Many such tales rest on fulcrums of honor, whereby the loyalty of retainers is tested by ill circumstance or, in one infamous event, vendetta. Unique to the rōnin ethos, however, is the fact that, despite having gone rogue, he still possesses the tools of his training. Unlike contemporary figures of martial authority, whose badges or weapons are confiscated as a lawful consequence of their unlawful disallegiance, the historical rōnin wandered with identity markers intact, even if he was helpless to use them. Thus, he constantly skirted the edges of his own social—and sometimes physical—mortality. In Gerald Vizenor’s 2010 mash-up novel Hiroshima Bugi, for instance, protagonist Ronin is “a storier of death, and by the evocation of bushido, his many deaths are imagic, an eternal end and tricky resurrection by another name, in another character and presence.” That said, when I listen to the music of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, I feel as if the tools of his trade blossom anew: not as weapons but as instruments of survival. His music, in other words, builds fire in a cold world. It also finds honor in the resurrection of expectation. Often forgotten in popular representations of rōnin is that some actually became glorified in death, granted as they were by the shogunate the honor of ritual suicide—all of which complicates the rōnin figure as an agent purely of disavowal. He is, then, more rightly an enabler.

Ronin 1

In light of this, perhaps no word better describes the music of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin than the Japanese term shibui, which connotes an aesthetic balancing of the minimal and the detailed. The overall effect of a shibui aesthetic is the constant disclosure of new perspectives and interconnections, each an enabler of the other in constant refresh. The muted intro of “Modul 41_17” (recorded in Lörrach, Germany) is thus a microcosm of all that is to follow. Bärtsch’s touch at the keyboard and bassist Björn Meyer’s geometric poetry harmonize, separate, and dance like mirror images in delay, while drummer Kaspar Rast’s undercurrent floats through the background as if it were the fore. Shimmering keys bid the groove welcome, punctuated by the bass clarinet of the mononymous Sha. And just when you think you’ve grasped their core sound, a stunning textural change occurs by way of Meyer’s looping as dampened pianism weaves through and around it. It is by far the most intimate portion of the album and becomes something of a philosophical turning point thereof. “Modul 35” (Leipzig) is a brighter and more harmonious machine of joyous shifts in density and light. An electric piano provides extra splashes of mercury.

In contrast, a sizable portion of the album is devoted to cloudy vistas, each more internal than the last, so that the fluid inflections of “Modul 42” (Vienna) and the arpeggiated chains of “Modul 48” (Gateshead) pave runways for melodies of great attraction, while the drone of “Modul 47” (Mannheim) yields a landbound trek of sand and moon. Through this low tide Bärtsch sends splashes of meticulous attention. Between the bass’s rocking and the piano’s rolling, there’s plenty to get the heart and mind moving in synchronicity with these exchanges, shedding its skin as might a talisman a fold of cloth.

Even a more propulsive construction like “Modul 17” (Tokyo) implies an afterlife through Rast’s locomotive brushes. More often, however, such slips into the void harbor a need for extroversion. “Modul 22” (Amsterdam) is among the subtler excursions in this regard. What begins as a delicate syncopation turns, at Bärtsch’s call, into a glass-blown groove. Pops from bass clarinet accentuate the off-kilter feel, mining the imperfection of every crystal until it resounds. “Modul 45” (Mannheim) reverses this formula, pouring grinding digs from the two bass instruments into its crucible until only a transcendent fountain of emptiness is left unfurling from a full-throated saxophone: the road to silence, paved in solar flare.

Sadly enough, Meyer would leave the band during the course of this assembly. He is replaced by Thomy Jordi on the concluding “Modul 55” (Salzau), a slice of nocturnal wayfaring that takes melodic precedence in a funk of ebb and flow. Wonderful.

Ronin’s Live proves that data streams have existed long before modern technology caught up and destroyed their souls. Theirs is clandestine clockwork that follows neither sun nor moon, but only the heartbeat of the listener. More than a summation of the band’s career thus far, it is a statement of new beginnings. It represents some of the most sustainable music on the planet. The recording is equally eco-conscious, sounding to the naked ear almost like a studio effort, clothed as it is in audiences’ quiet rapture, but feeling like a suit woven of leaves.

In the words of Makoto Ueda, Zen Buddhism “advocates liberty and all-inclusiveness of the soul.” Likewise, Bärtsch has developed a distinct language within the piano, a precise harmonic touch at the strings, a rattling of the cage. His skeletal awareness serves to emphasize the ephemeral nature of culture, which melts into an awareness of non-awareness, and dances until its feet leave the ground for good.

These rōnin have succeeded in making art of their weapons.

(To hear samples of Live, click here.)

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