Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile gets ready for unlimited groove at NYUAD

With the organisational rigour of classical composition and the freedom of jazz, Swiss musical maverick Nik Bärtsch does not write songs or sonatas, but systematic numbered “modules” which can be adapted, extended and conjoined on the spot.
From left, Nik Bärtsch, Nicolas Stocker, Kaspar Rast and Sha of Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile. Photo by Christian Senti
From left, Nik Bärtsch, Nicolas Stocker, Kaspar Rast and Sha of Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile. Photo by Christian Senti

With the organisational rigour of classical composition and the freedom of jazz, the music of Nik Bärtsch is both compelling and confounding.

This Swiss musical maverick does not write songs or sonatas, but systematic numbered “modules” – hypnotic rhythmic structures that can be adapted, extended and conjoined on the spot. Oh, and he prefers to present them in day-long continuous “rituals” – such as the 27-hour performance he will present at New York University Abu Dhabi this weekend.

Bärtsch and his ensemble, Mobile, will take to the Black Box stage at 7pm on Thursday, and there will not be a moment of silence until 10pm the following day.

Conceived to mark the arched cycle of the sun, and accompanied by a visual installation, The Abu Dhabi Resonance Square Ritual will be completely unique and unreplicable.

Locked together by a rhythmic pulse, the quartet – Bärtsch’s piano is joined by two percussionists and a reed player (clarinet/saxophonist) – draw on and rearrange existing ideas in a way that wilfully blurs the lines between recital and improvisation.

“One of the beautiful things with these music rituals is you really have a very different time feeling,” says Bärtsch, “so things that are developing have a chance to come out of nothing – you’re not planning it, although you have a clear, coherent structure for the whole thing”.

The ritual will build, crest and recede with the organic currents of the day. Inspired by local traditions and prayer time – the musicians will perform seven hour-long “main ceremonies”, at 8.30pm, midnight, 3am, 7am, 1pm, 5pm and 8.30pm.

During the intervening hours, the musicians fragment into trios, duos and solos, allowing the others time to rest and refresh – Bärtsch expects to take two naps of about 30 minutes each throughout the cycle.

“It sometimes helps the flow of the music when you take a little rest, a walk, eat something, drink tea,” he says.

Of course, audience members have needs, too. Aside from the reverent concert space – inside which concertgoers are required to remove their shoes – The Arts Centre foyer will be transformed into an informal “ambient majlis”, where they can relax, chat and eat while the performance is streamed.

“The listener can just forget themselves, or be very focused – you can lay down or go out and eat,” says Bärtsch. “It’s a very different mental state – we are usually analysing things and acting very intellectually, and this setting really allows you to go deeper into the processes and energies of the music.”

A neighbouring room will host a project exhibition space, where listeners can learn about the history of Bärtsch’s music rituals. They will learn that his longest concert was 36 hours, or how the pianist formed Mobile in 1997 after becoming frustrated with the ambivalence of regular club gigs. Since 2003, Bärtsch has led weekly music rituals at the Zurich venue he cofounded, Club Exil, allowing the ensemble to develop their almost telepathic approach to spontaneous composition.

“Mobile grew out of a crisis I had in my twenties,” says Bärtsch, who is now 45.

“Playing in clubs, I had the experience that everything was very quick. People come for dinner and the music somehow gets lost.

“Instead of complaining I wanted to try out another alternative. These rituals were very radical – but they were not an avant-garde attack, more an offer to the audience to take part, stay longer, give music time. If they don’t like it they can leave after 30 seconds, or they could also stay for several hours.”

It was the same dissatisfaction with existing forms that inspired Bärtsch’s unique conception of musical modules. While training as a classical pianist, he became entranced with the rhythms of funk and Brazilian music, as well as finding inspiration in the work of contemporary composers, especially serialist Morton Feldman.

Also the leader of Zen-funk ensemble Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin – an electric offshoot of Mobile that translates the same modular system to larger spaces – Bärtsch has been signed to ECM Records since 2006, releasing five albums for the label, most recently this year’s Continuum. Based in Germany, the heavily fetishised label is renowned for a pioneering catalogue of both modern jazz and contemporary classical releases. Conceptually he sits somewhere between the two, and critics have noted Bärtsch may be the quintessential “ECM artist”. It’s an observation that pleases him.

“Very often when I played classical music – say a Beethoven sonata – I suddenly liked a certain part and wanted to repeat it. But the composer of course didn’t write it the way I felt it, so it’s a bit of a sacrilege to change these masterpieces,” says Bärtsch.

“On the other hand, in jazz there’s lots of freedom, where very often a piece is just a sketch or a start for improvisation.

“I looked for a third way. I had the need to create a music that respects the integrity and coherence of a piece and compositional idea, but on the other hand allows a certain freedom.”

It’s this tension between the written and the invented, the preconceived and spontaneous – and the thought and the feel – that makes Bärtsch’s live performances so thrilling.

Whether or not it will keep Abu Dhabi audiences awake for 27 hours, however, remains to be seen.

• Free preregistered tickets have sold out but additional audience members will be admitted subject to capacity at approximately 30-minute intervals. Visit for details. To watch NYUAD’s live stream, click here

Published: August 29, 2016 04:00 AM


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