Nik Bärtsch piano
Recorded September 2020, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 19, 2021
The word entendre means “to direct one’s attention.” It’s root, entente, is the Old French from which we get the English “intent.” It’s akin to the modular concept that links the interpretive experiences of composer and pianist Nik Bärtsch—as indeed, each piece is a frame without a window. The nature of any light shining through that window is at the behest of the given moment, which arranges its particles simultaneously through passive and agentic being. Bärtsch serves the music rather than forcing it to bow at his feet. Its ritualistic qualities, therefore, have nothing to do with conjuring energies out of nowhere and everything to do with illuminating energies already around and within us so that we might begin to understand the generative qualities of the body’s interactions with the physical world.
While some of these modules will be known to longtime listeners, one will surely hear them anew when stripped of their brethren, flowing from ocean into river rather than the other way around. It would be challenging, however, to separate these self-directed readings from the bleed-through of their collective predecessors. One will hear the influences of not only his own projects, especially the well-documented Ronin, but also his relationships with producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Stefano Amerio, whose fingers leave their prints in the very air like Bärtsch’s on the keys.
“Modul 58” is a bird in our aural binoculars. It flits from one branch to another to engage the muscular scores with which it has been encoded, bone by bone and feather by feather. Passages of wonder give rise to fallen dances, a clan of hunters stripped of everything they own as a test of their inward focus. In place of swords, they wield a self-awareness that only the martial body can attain: efficient, visceral, and clean. As all of this blends into Modul 12 (an organic transition suggested by nothing more than the Lugano studio in which it was recorded), the touch of flesh, string, felt, and wood coheres into an ideographic language all its own.
The more forthright attack of “Modul 55,” as subtle as it is direct, eschews the violation of injury. Bärtsch shunts his bodily organs onto tracks of far less absorbent purpose so that flesh does not risk the temptation of polishing itself as a one-way mirror. Every time he strums the piano’s strings, the instrument’s very heart shimmers with a delight that can only be described as celestial. Thus, the moods and textures of Entendre are never stable. Realizing this is key to aligning oneself with the granular synthesis that abounds in this sequence. In “Modul 26,” an open sustain leads us into the temptation of a reverie, only to quickly fold itself in sentient origami. Each crease is so slight that the illusion of roundness reveals itself until the minimal becomes maximal. This highlight of the Bärtsch catalog shines with all the power of a supermoon, minus the fanfare. Cut off from all possibility of exaggeration, we stand before it in silent regard. This is enough.
“Modul 13” reveals only slivers of its various profiles, each more beguiling than the last but always within the reach of memory. Perhaps, this where all of this music is meant to live—that is, in a realm content with the idea of space but not its full realization. The seeking of harmonics on the dampened string of “Modul 5” unravels the biography of a half-tone. Loosely guided by variations on a heartfelt theme, it blurs its own skin until it is indistinguishable from the wind that caresses its follicles. Higher note clusters give way to moonlit floors across which only empty armor stands cast their shadows.
In the absence of geographical names, “Déjà-vu, Vienna” brings about the deepest blush of familiarity. Gone as quickly as it arrives, turning as a fallen leaf in search of its resting place, its veins flash a map for future travelers to follow when all is lost and prophecies fall dead, unfulfilled except as fertilizer for that one tree upon which the following verse will be carved:
to those who walk with eyes open
be not afraid to see with your ears
to those who walk with eyes closed
be not afraid to listen with your heart