WITH THAT INVITATION to simply ‘hear’, Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch releases solo album Entendre – an intimate performance that bears a particular attraction.
Over the last fifteen years, the predominant outlet for Bärtsch’s distinctive, cyclical music has been his Ronin project – an ensemble with a core of piano, bass clarinet/alto saxophone, bass, drums and percussion that interprets his signature shifting metres, phrases and grooves, each composition identified only as a numeric ‘Modul’. The crafting of what can sometimes deceptively appear as digital processes, but are in fact acoustic, physical manifestations of Bärtsch’s writing, have long been a fascination through ECM albums such as Stoa (2006), Llyrìa (2010) and Awase (2018) – and this ‘minimalist’ approach can find a comparison with the music of Terry Riley or even La Monte Young.
For Entendre, recorded in the spacious surroundings of the Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Bärtsch sits alone with a Steinway grand, laying bare the wireframes and stratifications of his polymetric ‘ritual groove music’ (described more as templates, rather than prescribed compositions). At face value, it’s difficult to imagine how the complexity and fullness of the Ronin sound world can be presented this way; might it be just a pale reflection? As these absorbing fifty minutes or so prove, honed after Bärtsch’s 2017 solo piano tour experiences in Teheran, Cairo, Alexandria, Kolkata and Delhi, certainly not.
The pianist opens with a single, syncopated note, from which the widening mesmerism of Modul 58_12 unfurls, combining themes from the Awase and Continuum releases. Bärtsch’s deftness in maintaining and expanding on a bubbling, minor-key motif is immediately apparent, while complementing or combining with pealing and pirouetting melodies, adding depth through sustained string shimmers. The momentum is infectious, characteristically repetitive, while never lacking colour or contrasting oases of invention. There are muted hints of the blues in searching Modul 55, the piano’s ‘prepared’ chord strikes and tremors awakening these eight minutes with chromatic, Bartokian/Debussyian mystery; and Bärtsch’s metrical discipline is fascinating, both in the sparser passages and the heavier, internally-effected episodes.
Gradually-shifting layers in Modul 26’s delicate yet chattering dance (reminiscent of Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’) climb towards the light – and, at some fourteen minutes’ duration, how Bärtsch holds together the framework of its increasingly busy saturation is quite extraordinary before percussively descending the keyboard to its conclusion. A suggestion of symphonic Glass is palpable in the sinister, rhythmically inertial merry-go-round of Modul 13 as tintinnabular discords intersperse its hypnotic progression; and reinterpreted from 2016’s Continuum, the harmonic glow from Bärtsch’s impetuous, hard-hitting technique leads the way into Modul 5’s ferocious gallop. To close, Déjà-vu, Vienna (modelled on the live album’s Modul 42) winds down with the tolling reverence of Arvo Pärt, albeit with this pianist‘s inner scrapes and dampened bass motifs.
In Ronin’s output, there’s energy, dialogue and an amalgamation of individual creativity (which prompted my return to their back catalogue). Bärtsch’s singular focus at the piano is similarly engaging, for different reasons, while still communicating exhilaration, pace, intensity and serenity. Remarkably, everything heard is created with precision and minus post-production embellishment or multi-tracking, offering an immersive and deeply rewarding personal connection with each listener.
Nik Bärtsch piano
ECM Records – ECM 2703 (2021)