Swiss composer and pianist Nik Bartsch has led the quintet Ronin for a number of years. Holon, the ensemble’s second recording, is full of music not easy to digest, but like wine given a chance to breathe, multiple listenings will reward the listener with music worthy of the effort. The shifting palette of minimalistic and repetitive rhythms, meters, and motivic fragments, like the music of John Adams and Steve Reiche, gather steam and meaning through the shifting of overlapping fragments which, in turn, create varied contexts.
Don’t expect grand and oversized musical dictums in this music. Even though Bartsch writes his thinking and music, "come from the tradition of urban space.... distilled from the universal sound of the cities," in Horizons Untouched, The Music Of ECM (Granta Publishing), this music is more about restraint than flurries or fury. "Modul 42," for example, is as much about silences as it is about timbral sounds. The seemingly simple rhythms mix in a coordinated scheme, layering until the final statement, which encapsulates the excursion taken from the point of view of the beginning of the journey. For those that believe all music is in essence some type of arch form, a stronger case could not be made.
Modul "41_17" has an ostinato at its core that actually works to negate rhythm and melodic motive, leaving only the timbres at the forefront. As the piece builds to the 8:00 minute mark the piece shifts into a series of small climaxes. Eventually Andi Pupato’s light percussion playing is brought to the forefront as he interacts with Bartsch’s single note sustained multi-metered line and Kaspar Rast’s subliminal drumset rhythmic drive. Next Sha’s exquisite low clarinet ostinato timbre growls under the mix as Bartsch moves to play the strings of the piano. The rumble builds as the group takes the tune out after almost 15 minutes.
The entire recording follows this pattern; layering, shifting, mixing and highlighting different ensemble elements continues throughout. While Bartsch may define the group on his website as "zen-funk," that doesn’t really capture the spirit of the ensemble. This is not a good disc for the car, but carefully attentioned listening will uncover more than is initially apparent.