Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile: Continuum (ECM 2464)


Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile

Nik Bärtsch
Sha bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
Kaspar Rast drums, percussion
Nicolas Stocker drums, tuned percussion
Etienne Abelin violin
Ola Sendecki violin
David Schnee viola
Solme Hong cello
Ambrosius Huber cello
Recorded March 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 22, 2016

Swiss pianist and bandleader Nik Bärtsch makes no distinction between the old and the new, thriving instead on constant transformation. Freed of evocative titles, he writes in so-called “modules,” each of which combines through-composed and improvised material. This approach has yielded a series of albums for ECM under the name Ronin, but on Continuum he debuts his parallel ensemble, Mobile. Drummer Kaspar Rast and mononymous clarinetist Sha are familiar standbys, while percussionist Nicolas Stocker and a string section are the new recruits. Those familiar with Ronin will recognize certain tics in Mobile’s larger body. I ask Bärtsch to elaborate on their differences.


“Mobile is acoustic and Ronin amplified, resulting in different consequences concerning power, pressure, volume, and listening behavior (for musicians and audience alike). We recorded Continuum in close proximity with each other while the Ronin sessions had us in different rooms. Mobile is also a music ritual group and often plays long concerts of several hours or even days. In Mobile we include rhythmic strategies of contemporary classical music, for example in ‘Modul 5.’ The band’s name refers to a ‘perpetuum mobile,’ while Ronin is a ‘groove generator.’ Mobile creates groove equilibriums and orchestral maneuvers while Ronin attacks with a paradoxical mix of empty meditative roughness and strong rhythmic energy: Zen-funk.”

The ritual foundations of said “Modul 5” reveal the virtuosity of their execution with patience. The same holds true for “Modul 60,” in which strings interlock with their surroundings like stairways in an Escher lithograph.

On Continuum, Bärtsch has taken his craft one step closer to an ideal that, while perhaps unreachable, is more audible than ever. Beyond my own idiosyncratic impressions, however, the music of Mobile is rooted in the presence of its musicians, as anyone who has seen them live can attest. Movement would seem to be central to “Modul 29_14” in particular, a force of suggestion made by its pairing with martial arts in a promotional video:

The binary relationship between Rast and Stocker in this piece unpacks bits of code into full-blown programs. High notes in the glockenspiel, doubling those of the keyboard, activate those programs in one artful sequence after another. Bärtsch, for his part, is careful to keep his own perceptions grounded the physical body. “A musical pattern, rhythm, or resonating structure is a sensual movement,” he says. “Sometimes, when I am practicing intensively, I dream of becoming such a musical being: a pure resonating energy of movement. We are all dancers in the universe.”

And is this dancing indicative of the project’s classical leanings?

“The music might seem more ‘classical,’ since we give the impression of a chamber ensemble. In principle we work the same way as with Ronin: I compose a piece, which in the context of the group develops its own instrumentation and dynamics. But in one respect your reception is probably correct: there is less obvious improvisation than in Ronin, although ‘Modul 12’ is completely improvised, if on the basis of a modular, coherent structure.”

That latter module is remarkable for Rast’s brushwork, by which he smooths out a layer of gravel over Sha’s tunneling contrabass clarinet.


While most comfortable on the live stage, in this instance Mobile is uniquely bound to studio parameters. This does not, clarifies Bärtsch, equate to a reduction. “An album is a different genre altogether,” he notes. “It has and creates its own rules. But the group profits from the long-playing rituals, which leave us open to the situation of the recording: a new space-time continuum to be explored and created.”

To my ears, “Modul 18” is a well-rounded example of this brand of creationism. Its elements—metal, wood, air—come to life in a vibrational field of bowed strings against a repeating bass drum, Stocker shining like a constellation in its darker sky. Throughout “Modul 4,” too, the two drummers act as one as a high overlay of notes from Bärtsch foreshadows closure. Listening to such older modules, I can’t help but wonder how they’ve changed. Are they seeds for cultivation or do they become unique entities with every iteration?

“The modular way of composing allows a piece to evolve, while also retaining compositional coherence. The triangle of composition, improvisation, and interpretation should be connected and alive. Usually a pattern, piece, or musical strategy has more potential than you first recognize. You have to explore it for years through playing and observation. I see this as a natural, spiraling development forward into roots.”

Such is the modus operandi of “Modul 44,” in which Rast’s skins serve as palimpsests for musical poetry. The subtlety of his drumming is unexpected from such a robust figure. As in the gradual progressions of “Modul 8_11,” his interaction with the others results in so many orbits that the after-images of their playing form one glowing sphere. Despite the utter precision required to pull off this effect, a free-flowing, interdimensional quality prevails. If any message stays behind, it is Bärtsch’s own: “Trust your ears. They are the most sensitive antennas for the resonating inner and outer world.”

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.)

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Holon (ECM 2049)


Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin

Nik Bärtsch piano
Sha bass clarinets, alto saxophone
Björn Meyer bass
Kaspar Rast drums
Andi Pupato percussion
Recorded July 2007, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“A band should mature into an integral organism—then it is alive, like an animal, a biotope, an urban space.”
–Nik Bärtsch

With the release of its ECM debut, Stoa, Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin hit the air flying with its meticulous brand of Zen-funk. Two years and eons of experience later, we have Holon, the title of which reveals the band’s underlying ethos: that which is simultaneously part and whole. The beats of this sophomore studio effort are no less regular than those of their predecessor, but now there is something more unitary and, as Bärtsch himself observes above, downright biological going on. Such wording is no mere metaphor, but a lived reality helped along by the decidedly acoustic mix (only Björn Meyer’s bass is plugged), as well as by the fearless integration the group has honed over countless hours of playing as one.

“Modul 42” is where Ronin’s openness comes most explicitly into play. It is an aural body built around contrasting elements. Sparkle and shadow, peace and unrest, freshness and decay—all of these intermingle in recurring dreams, inflected slightly differently with each repetition. Here and elsewhere on the album, Bärtsch’s contact inside the piano reveals a percussive, resonant core less obvious in previous recordings: a staple of his performance style since.

“Modul 41_17” is the first of two transfusions, this one offsetting the same earlier Modul 17 that was dovetailed with 38 on Stoa. Set atop a spinning plate of two notes, Meyer’s contemplative spirals join with others in the fray, cohering into a veritable golem of groove. One can almost feel the platelets conjoining in renewed life as the elements shift and sway to the pulse of some physiological alterity, which marks by its upward chromatic swings the flexion of something divinely ordered. Bärtsch’s dampened finger tapping looses sonic sponges, which soak up all the surrounding water until nothing is left. The second pairing, “Modul 39_8,” is among Bärtsch’s most enchanting. A delicate chemical infusion, it strikes the ether as if it were a matchbook.

“Modul 46” is a blush of autumnal nostalgia that proceeds by delicate propulsions. From the enchanting pianism to the underlay of rhythmatists Kaspar Rast and Andi Pupato, Meyer’s rounded spine and reedist Sha’s tender pocket, this especially jazzy module builds to a luminescent peak.

Rhythmic stacking continues to be a leitmotif of Bärtsch’s vocabulary, and the corridors of “Modul 45” are noteworthy in this regard. Anchored by a rubbery bass and smoothed by interplay between piano and saxophone, it slows into utter transcendence, balancing the piano’s reflective highs with Meyer’s twangs of reconciliation before opening into a stretch of desert music. Sha’s yodeling saxophone cleaves the night with rifts of ebony, while Bärtsch’s solo epilogue reveals nakedness beneath an outer skin.

“Modul 44” tells the story of the former’s slumber, not a dream but a sleepwalk through vestiges of time and space. This is a skeletal creation, a constellation that maps an intergalactic railroad ridden by remnants of ethers whose tickets have yet to be punched.

Call the music of Ronin whatever you will. I call it a jamming of dark matter that abides by its own string theory, and which through self-absorption finds an alternate identity waiting in the wings. One flap, and its echo is felt galaxies away.

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Stoa (ECM 1939)


Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin

Nik Bärtsch piano
Sha contrabass and bass clarinets
Björn Meyer bass
Kaspar Rast drums
Andi Pupato percussion
Recorded May 2005, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“The rule of Japanese martial arts is: think with your body.”
–Nik Bärtsch

With Stoa, Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin dropped into the pond of ECM—indeed, of the world—with profoundly concentric ripples. Listeners can be thankful the effects of those ripples have yet to dissipate, and can only hope decades’ worth more from this nonpareil collective awaits. Pianist Bärtsch drafted the architecture of Stoa while in Japan, the enigmatic and fiercely vivid culture of which had long been the philosophical foundation of his work, yet which remained distant to him until fortune brought him there during the rainy season of 2003.

The formula of Ronin is rooted in the “module,” a molecular prism of being through which Bärtsch’s headstrong quintet splashes light. “Modul 36” thus opens the program with the intermittent glow of a harmonic piano hit, tolling the hour with fallacies of salutation. The only things tangible in these inaugural stirrings are those lone hands at the keyboard. Divorced from body, they step even as they hold themselves against the chill. Wrists plant themselves in the first patches of soil they come to, glowing like eyes in the black ice. Their fingers stretch into branches, from which scatter the blossoms of Ronin’s melodic art proper.

More than any Ronin album since, Stoa measures its respiration in clear-cut rhythmic overlay—this courtesy of drummer Kaspar Rast and percussionist Andi Pupato—with phenomenally engaging results. The stealthy bass of Björn Meyer in “Modul 33” sets off the deepest chain reaction in this regard, followed in kind by the piano’s upper register, Rast’s careful flurry, and the popping bass clarinet of reedist Sha. Overlapping circles, squares, and triangles—each the essence of a different spiritual idea—dance in lockstep toward densities in the latter half. A solid bass line muscles through the smog with finesse. Even subtler syncopations abound in “Modul 32.” Phasing heart rates with magical depressions, it braids the air of the studio with timelessness. From planetary to nebular, its hip-rocking moves evoke the gait of a tireless nomad who has found that middle ground by which to renounce any claims to territory.

“Modul 35” is classically urban Ronin, a world of revolving doors and robotic drones, whose mouths open and close to the tune of cash registers and credit swipes. Yet hovering around these bar-coded souls is a guardian angel of repose, one that counts not tender but connections on its fingers and who speaks through Bärtsch’s own fingers in pylons of light. Microtonal lifts from Meyer add spongy evanescence. Similar contrasts abound in the finishing “Modul 38_17,” another mechanistic fantasy that cuts a line through landscape like a bullet train—which is to stay, smoothly and with barest indications of its actual speed. Winds follow, rolling like the hills in denser chord voicings here. A gorgeously minimal flavor laces the proceedings with tension, urgency growing like a beard on the face of change. Before long that sense of speed catches up with us and tousles our hair, keeping sleep at bay with the sheer energy of self-realization and pulsing through to silence, as resolute as it is fragile.

What we have, then, is not a journey, per se. Instead, a flame rejuvenating itself with every flicker. It travels down the match, edging ever closer to bare fingertips until a gasp of pain and shaking hand offer its ashen frame to the water. But its smoke trails upward yet, the final tether between flesh and firmament.