Friday, June 19, 2009

Nik Baertsch's Ritual Groove Music: When is the Same Different?

The music perhaps unfortunately dubbed "minimalism" is an Amero-Euro development that draws heavily on world music traditions. Repetition is the key. And like all musics of this sort, the music distinguishes itself on what remains the same and, critically, what changes, how it changes and when it changes.

Like for example in some traditional West African ensembles, the group of drummer-percussionists set up a repeating groove and the master drummer improvises variations on top of that. Pre-minimalist composer Erik Satie wrote some pioneering works, and sometimes absolutely NOTHING was suppose to change, like with the solo piano piece "Vexations," which consisted of a page of piano music to be repeated two-hundred-some-odd times, exactly the same each time. And that fits in with world music trance traditions. With constant sameness, you enter an altered state. You get high. Like if you say "pumpernickel" fast 30 times in a row, the word starts to change in your head sometime through around the 5th time to the end. It puts your head somewhere else. And it just drives some people nuts.

Minimalist pioneer La Monte Young often has set up a drone and had the drums and soprano sax, for example, create endless variations around a narrow set of scalular figures, rhythms and tones. Early Steve Reich compositions emphasized repeated parts gradually going out of phase and then recombining in a new set of repetitions. Philip Glass, early on, tried the additive and subtractive approach. Repeating phrases were lengthened or shortened over time, new notes were added or the same notes were repeated in a different sequence. Then again, all minimalism sometimes just changes abruptly to a new set of related repetitions.

All this brings me to the music of Nik Baertsch, which he aptly calls "Ritual Groove Music." First, a piece of news, then I'll talk about his first recording. The entire catalog of Nik Baertsch's Roninrhythm Records, including various Baertsch ensembles, solo work and the work of some of his associates, is now available as digital downloads through Iapetus Distribution/Unsung Records. And of course the CD versions are also still available.

Now on to the first release, by Nik Baertsch's ensemble Mobile, created in 2001 and titled Ritual Groove Music I. Like with African music, the groove is all important. It runs in various guises throughout the entire recording. Drums, winds, Baertsch's piano (which occasionally is manipulated in the manner of John Cage's prepared piano, that is to say altered by string dampening and placing objects on the strings), all get busy creating interlocking grooves of repetition, then they may add quasi-solo parts over that or contrasting figures. The music can build, or it just simply can change from one groove to another. Like the Australian group The Necks, the afro-groove aspects of rock and jazz have something to do with the music, clearly. Baertsch, at least on this first volume, rocks out and gets funky at many points. So many listeners will not find it alien, rather somehow familiar.

After saying all this, I should emphasize that though Baertsch's music is squarely anchored in minimalist sameness, yet you would not mistake his music for that of someone else. It's different. There is a hugely rhythmic component. The ritual part of the music is the trance-like effect of the repetitions; the groove part of it is what may make you want to get up and shake your whatever. This first volume does those things very well. I found myself entranced. You probably would too. Download it or get the CD if you are so inclined. Take a look at the Ronin site:

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