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Nik Bärtsch at the Barbican

Nik Bartsch Barbican

This is how is began, with a seven-foot Steinway marooned on a dais in a lagoon of water installed on an enlarged stage at the Barbican Hall, silhouetted against a rhombus of light projected on to the back wall. As the house lights dimmed to blackness, the Swiss pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch, as usual shaven-headed and dressed in the black robes of a ninja monk, emerged from the wings and made his way to the instrument across a causeway which was then removed by stagehands. Bärtsch settled himself before launching into an hour-long piece called When the Clouds Clear, a “light and sound poem” created in conjunction the London-based visual artist Sophie Clements.

Bärtsch’s music is utterly sui generis: a highly personal version of minimalism that is most often expressed with the other musicians of his quintet Ronin, a project developed over almost 20 years at weekly sessions in a Zurich club that he co-owns. Each of his compositions is titled “Modul” and given a number. This mirrors the seemingly industrial precision with which they are conceived and performed, based on small melodic cells and exacting rhythmic overlays whose teasing syncopations generate tension, but it gives no idea of the emotion generated when, on a sudden shouted cue, one locked groove instantly gives way to another, the intensity rising exponentially.

All this was reflected in his unaccompanied playing last night, opening with a single repeated note tested for overtones and modified for attack and decay before evolving through an hour of contrasting moods and densities, often displaying his highly personal use of the prepared-piano techniques now common among those of his and subsequent generations of acoustic keyboard improvisers. Bärtsch can stun a note so that it acts like a rimshot from Philly Joe Jones or Clyde Stubblefield, laying it against a frantic weave of arpeggiation or letting it punctuate in a moment of silence. Sometimes he reached inside the instrument to make it hiss or growl, before building fantastic cataracts of sound that forfeited all note-definition and seemed about to burst the walls of the auditorium.

Sophie Clements’ lighting and projections began with minimalistic monochrome geometries creeping across the set before she introduced backdrops of waves and skies, washed in blue or grey. This seemed worryingly literal — waves of water, waves of sound — but only for the briefest moment until it became apparent how beautifully the visuals and the music were creating (to paraphrase Wallace Stevens) something beyond them, but themselves. Towards the end, drops of water began to fall from the roof into the lagoon: an illusion of the elements invading the music. (There was some wry amusement about this afterwards, given that parts of Britain had spent the week battling floods.)

The  austere, almost hieratic air of Bärtsch’s music and self-presentation is utterly deceptive; its end product is human warmth, and the prolonged ovation he shared with Clements was generated by art that, for all its refinement of technique and conception, communicated on the most immediate level. I’d be surprised if there were a soul in the hall who, having absorbed a genuinely extraordinary experience, wouldn’t have been happy to sit through it all again straight away.

* Nik Bärtsch and Sophie Clements were appearing on the first night of the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival. This was the second performance of When the Clouds Clear, which was co-commissioned by the Enjoy Jazz Festival and the Barbican and received its première in Mannheim earlier this year.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Anne #

    Thanks for that, Richard. It’s good to have a record of such a special event. And yes, I would happily have sat through it all again.

    November 16, 2019
  2. I really wish I had attended this. I had long intended to, and then for various reasons didn’t. But I last saw Bartsch do a solo gig at the Union Chapel a couple of years ago, and it was terrific. Live anyway, I think I prefer his solo performances to the Ronin gigs.

    November 16, 2019
  3. stewart Gunn #

    I wish I’d known about this earlier, loved Ronin gig last year. Your very evocative review rubs it in. One day I’ll get to Zurich on a Monday evening.

    November 16, 2019
  4. GuitarSlinger #

    Jealousy and envy abound as I read the review …. sigh

    Unfortunately we barely get Nik’s Ronin live here in the US never mind Nik Solo .. so the odds of ever enjoying Nik solo are next to nil .

    Hopefully … ECM will see fit some time in the future to release a solo album of Nik’s so we can at least enjoy studio version of his solo playing… hopefully ( you reading this TP ? )

    FYI ; Got a Radiohead / Portishead etc fan friend who’s still intimidated by jazz ? Turn him/her on to Nik Bartsch’s Ronin and you’ll make a convert of them in no time

    November 19, 2019
  5. I almost feel as if I was there reading this. I have got to know Nik a little through my work and there is a straight arrow into the bullseye with the comment:
    ‘The austere, almost hieratic air of Bärtsch’s music and self-presentation is utterly deceptive; its end product is human warmth…’

    I have felt so inspired by the care Nik shows toward people, new talent, music, anything he comes into contact with. If you ever have the time and money to visit Ronin’s club, EXIL in Zürich, then go to the band’s weekly Monday gig (yes, weekly). The power and magic of music is very present.

    November 27, 2019

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