In a 1944 essay on the relationships between music and dance, modern classical composer John Cage presented an interesting assessment of rhythm. Cage saw it as a duality of clarity and grace, or to put it more simply, body and soul. Clarity is an essentially mathematical entity which one can know, but grace has a warm, mysterious quality that works against clarity. “The two are always present in the best works of the time arts, endlessly, and life-givingly, opposed to each other,” he said.
Fast forward sixty-plus years, and that idea applies very well to the music of Nik Bärtsch, a very serious Swiss pianist and modern composer. Bärtsch’s music combines elements of trance, minimalism, funk, and jazz, which makes it extremely quirky almost by definition. To get right to the point, he’s firmly in the Cage school: “An ecstatic groove and an ascetic awareness of form and sound in composed music are not mutually exclusive: they can form combinations that take our senses by surprise.”
Bärtsch first appeared on record as a leader in 2006. This is his eighth disc, his fifth with the quintet he calls Ronin (a standard piano trio plus percussion and a horn), so there’s ample evidence out there to show how he enjoins clarity and grace. The quirky intellectual details of his music are regularly subsumed by funk and the groove—so what comes out is both odd and familiar at the same time.
Bärtsch’s polymetric modules (each composition a numbered “Modul”) are at their very core a pulse. The shifting rhythmic patterns tend to be exact, even as they morph. Those patterns fit together in weird, unpredictable, but precise ways, obviously the mark of a calculated mind. Every player in the band is essentially a drummer, including Bärtsch at the piano or keyboards. How much of their interplay is pre-planned vs. spontaneous is anyone’s guess—but that guesswork is actually a lot of fun.
In the two-year interval between the 2005 recording of Stoa (ECM) and this session, Ronin spent a lot of time on the road, and it shows. Everyone has loosened up, played more with the pieces, and figured out intuitively how to fit together in the process. A heavy dose of spontaneity, not to mention improvisation, has wormed its way deep into those funky shifting patterns. If you had to point a finger at a musical style with an incredible amount of clarity and an equal amount of grace, it would be jazz, whose very serious lock-step harmonic changes are merely a platform for instrumental flight (not to mention swing, which is all about defying the beat).
And that’s what makes Holon a new, and better, snapshot of Ronin in action. If you need proof of how much things have opened up, just listen to the shifty details and accents Kaspar Rast adds on the drums. Listen to the chords in transition. Midway though the last piece, funk breaks harder and harder in waves. Sha takes alto saxophone solos of the most outspoken sort. Björn Meyer whips his instrument into a vicious menace of a bass, working the all-important “one” of funk into a wild beast, eventually duelling with Bärtsch, whose syncopated piano playing might be termed riffing if one didn’t know, um, better.
All this points to the fact that Bärtsch has taken Ronin, or more likely Ronin took itself, to a new place which is much more involved and involving. Stoa was great; this new Ronin is just very different. It’s easy to wax academic about this stuff (guilty as charged), but it’s just as easy to ride the waves as they come and enjoy that primal pulse. Clarity and grace, in action.