Name: Nik Bärtsch
Occupation: Pianist, composer, improviser, record producer, author
Current release: Nik Bärtsch has two new projects out: His new album ENTENDRE, which came out in March 2021 on ECM and features Bärtsch himself on piano. May then saw the publication of Listening, "a conceptual and practical book about the creative relationship between mind and body in the context of music and martial arts." Both are available directly via Bärtsch's website.
Recommendations: I recommend my own book “LISTENING – Music, Movement, Mind. A useless guide for everything.”, written in collaboration with my wife Andrea Pfisterer and designed and published by Lars Müller Publishers. In it, you can find much more background about the answers I gave in this interview. You can then find the musical expression of this attitude on my new solo album ENTENDRE, which is actually a result of many collaborations before that album and also with the producer Manfred Eicher, the sound engineer Stefano Amerio, the painter Fidel Sclavo, the photographer Caterina Di Perri and the designer Sascha Kleis. Also, a solo is always a team work.
In the book you'll find lists with inspiring art works, music and books you are invited to read!
If you enjoyed this interview with Nik Bärtsch and would like to find out more, his official homepage is the best place to start your journey. He is also on Instagram and Facebook.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Already as a kid I had a innovative piano teacher who encouraged me to compose, improvise and also to record music. He made tapes with me and also introduced me to synthesizers and home recording. I still have these tapes with piano, tambourine and guitar played by me and him.
Already before I started playing drums and then piano, I liked rhythms and grooves and recording gave me the opportunity to play several voices together with overdubbing – I would later use that on my first solo record HISHIRYO.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Of course we are all inspired by other artists, teachers and preferred pieces. What we rarely talk about, is our capacity to listen into the unknown cosmic space of music inside and outside of ourselves. It took a while until I understood that listening is more essential than playing. Music is like the deep sea or the rain forest: there are still infinite beings to discover if you are able to observe or, respectively, to listen. You're even your own ocean.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I create, therefore I am.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The relation of knowledge and not-knowing is always the challenge. In the beginning you know too little and now I know too much. We need a refined not-knowing spirit to create. An experienced beginner’s mind, a beautiful paradox.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made over the years?
I always liked drums and piano, both mini-orchestras themselves. When synths and samplers appeared in the 80s, I tried these all but then came back to acoustic playing. I wanted to let drums and piano sound timeless.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you? Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I think Bailey’s statement shows precisely the nature of music. It is evolutionary. The idea of the perfect masterpiece is an idea of musicologists. Composers, improvisers, even classical interpreters know that the process of transformation through creative listening is never finished. Our mind, spirit and soul are the best instruments and our emotions the best technology to constantly develop the musical flow.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Playing music is THE thing to show the true value of cooperation, collaboration and empathy in human evolution. Therefore the working band is the most challenging and also most beautiful and effective form of being creative and of sharing togetherness and tightness in group playing.
In my case, I usually write a score with all voices outwritten and also create a listening version of the piece and then we start to rehearse. We first try to realize my composition - but very often it can change - or better: evolve - over time with a lot of contributions from my colleagues.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I get up early to wake up the children. Hereby I alternate with my wife Andrea during the week. After a serious breakfast with very good Japanese green tea, I start with about 45 minutes physical exercises to bring smoothness into the body, shifting towards shaker and rhythm playing, shifting to the piano with warm up exercises alternating with parts of piece and improvisation. From time to time I take a break on the piano to stretch or to move a bit in space.
At 12.00, the children are coming home so I prepare lunch, also here alternating with my wife. In the afternoon, I take care of communication, meetings, administration, etc. and usually try to sleep 30 minutes at about 3pm. When the children come home at about 4pm, we need to be flexible and depending on the daily business I can work again or do something with them. Dinner again the same like breakfast and lunch.
Twice a week I also train Aikido at the dojo where my wife is also a teacher. Of course these flows vary depending on touring or project focus, which are things that can change my work flow. Depending on the development with my compositions, I also change morning hours to compose. But there's always a serious breakfast and physical exercises with flow!
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The initial music ritual trilogy, called “Blue Trilogy”, by my acoustic group MOBILE was an experiment, statement and reality check of my aesthetics on a social and musical level.
Always in Autumn of a given year, we played a 36 hour music ritual three times with guest artists like visual artists and martial artists. The ritual was prepared for 3 years and it was essential for finding out if our band-, community- and modular music concept works and resonates. The results spoke for themselves and have done so since then.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Mind, spirit and soul have to be in the now as a holistic expression of the moving body. We need to think with our body.
I always found it interesting to study and develop methods and principles to make that state of body-mind available. A good artist does not need to wait for inspiration but just needs to train, concentrate and work. This complex process is described more in detail in my new book “LISTENING – Music, Movement, Mind” which just came out. You find a more precise exploration of that topic there.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
More neutrally said: music resonates and inspires, like in Star Wars the force is not good or bad itself but we can use it for both. I can only speak for myself here since everybody needs different energies to stay alive. I need the balance of meditative and groove energy to survive the weirdness of many things in the world. My own music making and the music of many inspiring artists help me to believe, to share, to love the world. Our cosmos is resonance.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
It’s a question of taste, differentiation and purism. A serious artist is not satisfied with copying, that would be boring. Music luckily depends on resonance not on genders. Listening is blind in a mind opening sense.
German composer Heiner Goebbels once said, that groove has collective ownership. It is not “discovered” by someone, it is a universal and collective energy. If we work on creating our own music and art we can help to avoid misunderstandings and traps by studying what part of a phenomenon is universal, cultural and individual.
Usually communicative art has a good balance of these three perspectives. A sensitive artist also usually has a rich internal life and can not be restricted with simple classifications.
Independent of our background we often are too quickly victims of our own view if we judge. We should invest more in attentive listening.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I read a beautiful Samurai poem about that topic. The part that stayed in my mind was: “I have no ears, the five senses are my ears.”
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art is always political. Art depends on interactive communication and is an expression of and in a community. You can not be “not political”. The actual question is how explicitly you formulate your political statement.
I am more focused on making and creating. I want to create, offer and share music, musical spaces and musical projects which realize an artistic way of living, an realization of utopian planet music. This is for me more important than telling other people what to do or to criticize others. I want to offer alternatives for the community.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music expresses music, a special form of all the various resonances in our cosmos. Life is resonance.