Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: A beautiful sound garden and its master gardeners

An interview with Ronin’s founder Nik Bärtschon zen-funk, music production in empathy  before his Istanbul show that took place on July 13 as part of Istanbul Jazz Festival.

Interview by Yetkin Nural – Illustration by Ethem Onur Bilgiç

You have started to take piano and percussion instructions at the age of 8. When you go back to your childhood, did you always feel that the piano will be the major outlet of your creative energy? How would you describe you and the piano finding each other?
I started with drums first, already at the age of 7. I already before was drumming on all sorts of things and also sang drum beats. At the age of 8 I saw a child playing some rhythmic music on a piano and this inspired me immediately. I went home to tell my mother that I want to play piano. I decided this intuitively, it happened naturally, no pressure. With the piano I had the chance to play, to compose and improvise from the very beginning on. It was like you enter a beautiful garden the first time. You are impressed by all the plants, structures and animals in there. Then you learn to become a gardener yourself by experimenting and by learning from experienced masters of gardening. It’s so interesting, inspiring and enriching that there is no reason anymore to leave the garden. So I became a rhythm gardener on the piano. The piano is my horse and partner on which I travel through the garden.

You are coming to Istanbul with your band RONIN and we know this is not your first time in the city. What do you recall about the city from your previous visits and is there anything that you look forward to experience here again?
We played once at Borusan Müzik Evi and once at Babylon and it was every time enormously inspiring and crazy in a positive sense. I especially stayed longer to visit some parts of the city and the great record store Lale Plak and had also the chance to meet many creative people in person. Istanbul is a very impressive city with such a rich history and creative scene. Of course every city creates also its own challenges but for us it’s is an honor and pleasure to be able to come back and share our music and energy with the audience here. Look very much forward!

The idea behind the name RONIN, a rogue / lonesome samurai, is closely related to the concept of consequential freedom, liberation with the cost of social ties. Your band, however, is practicing the opposite, a group of “freelancing” musicians joining each other to create together, strengthening their ties through ritualistic rehearsals like the Monday sessions, so on and so forth. How do you think individualistic expression, improvisation and freedom, together with empathic co-existence and collaboration feed each other?
Community means to agree together on self-chosen rules and then to find and develop freedom in these. The total freedom in music is destructive. If you really want to be together in the groove but also flexible and surprising, you need training and emphatic togetherness. You can compare that to a sports team: to enjoy the game, you need the right mix between precise team mechanisms and surprising creativity – not only individual creativity but group organism creativity. Like this you can create a longterm evolution which often is more effective than a revolution. Empathy, spirit and creativity are as important as discipline and team agreements.

You describe RONIN’s sound with the concept of “zen-funk”, a paradoxical implication of the chaotic groove hand in hand with a calm, collected and precise approach. Am I totally wrong? Where do you locate RONIN’s musical output in the map of your creative psyche?
Creative Psyche – an interesting expression! Zen and Funk might be seen as paradox like “individual freedom” and “community spirit” but maybe they are just two poles of the same planet. Groove is for me not chaotic but must be quite precise and organized in Funk music, so that it really flows. The discipline, which is needed for Zen and Funk, might be even similar. But in both you need to let go at a certain point to find the natural non-egocentric flow. Maybe the paradox is more the stillness and meditative energy in Zen versus the strong physical rhythmic power in Funk. I like both and I need them as survival energies so I wanted to unify them in my music, even if they might have paradox potential. So I guess, I need to work on this musical riddle in my creative psyche my life long…

Llyrìa came out in 2010 and other than the live album which came out in 2012, that was the last installment of RONIN’s discography. Do you feel it is time to go back to creating/releasing new recordings with RONIN after 5 years? Can you hint away any new releases that are coming up?
Yes! We are working on the new record. In between we released CONTINUUM by my ritual music group MOBILE in 2016 but in Istanbul you will be the first audience that hears most of the new program. Look forward to your reactions!

In 2014 you co-founded the Apples and Olives Festival, which features aged and classical as well as avant-garde, fresh indie music. What are the essentials of creating a well-rounded, unique and enriching festival experience for you?
I always wanted to not only play music but support the whole community around it and also create opportunities for other artists to play. That’s why I co-founded the EXIL music club and the Apples&Olives Festival in Zürich. Also there I wanted to open new possibilities of musical developments, just with the idea of pure curiosity and respectful interest for new ideas, bands and artists. You also learn a lot about all sides of the music business when you are in different roles and really experience them. Sometimes hard but very salutary!

What are you obsessed with recently? Any recent discoveries; books, music, art or anything else, that you would like to inform us about?
I would like to recommend some of the new young bands from our community very much: Ikarus, Kali and RONIN reeds player Sha’s band Feckel. They have their own ideas and are creating strong joyful results out of them. I read at the moment a book by Pankaj Mishra called “From the Ruins of Empire. The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia”. I would like to understand more the background of my own political history and then it is often fruitful to read a book from another perspective. But as important as the fine arts are for my movement arts, especially Aikido, a non-violent martial art based on partnership. To train Aikido helps me enormously to stay positive and in connection with the universe.

* This interview was originally published on Bant Mag. No: 58, July-August 2017 issue.