Nik Bärtsch: Listening – Music, Movement, Mind

The book by the Swiss pianist and minimalist and his wife presents a philosophy of creativity, music and possibly jazz

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Co-produced by the Swiss Ritual Groove-master Nik Bärtsch and wife Andrea Pfisterer, Listening – Music, Movement, Mind brings together their shared interests in music and martial arts (Aikido) into what might loosely be described as a guide to mindful listening.

The authors’ belief is that the relationship between mind and body is an essential component within the creative process, and with the aid of a carefully curated selection of photographs, essays (some previously published), interviews, musical scores, physical exercises and games, they set out to make their case.

The authors’ cultural frame of reference is at times mind bogglingly vast, yet there’s a clarity to the prose which makes even the most left-field of ideas engaging and persuasive. Readers can land on almost any page and find a witty, razor-sharp aphorism, and the authors rarely settle for the obvious.

Amongst other things you’ll marvel at the unexpected connections between Diego Maradona’s “goal of the century” against England in 1986 and Bärtsch’s strategies for ensemble playing, or the “ligne claire” (clear line) drawings of Hergé’s Tintin comics and the “reductive strategies” of minimalist New York school composer Morton Feldman (both of whom were important formative influences).

Central to the book’s thrust is the idea that attentive listening is the most essential skill that any musician can learn. “When you listen, you cannot talk,” Bärtsch states in response to the fundamental question of why should we should listen. The greater point is that a silent mind allows a person to sense more deeply and act without preconception. Listening should become an attitude of mind, part of an artist’s intellectual muscle memory. Quoting an old Samurai poem (“I have no ears. The five senses are my ears”), Bärtsch explains his belief that attentive listening with mind and body helps the artist to develop a sixth sense which can reveal a composition’s inner spaces and contours.

One of the most compelling chapters, Democracy, Artistry and Band Balance, explores the visible and hidden tensions that can arise when an individual becomes part of a group (“The band is a paradox: golden cage and unleashed free organism”). Bärtsch brilliantly describes the exhilarating and transcendental sense of “awase” (matching and melting together) which comes from being part of a tight-knit ensemble, and you’ll quickly understand why he chooses not to accept ad-hoc freelance work as a sideman. Part III of the chapter describes the rules and strategies for band work at greater length, and I suspect that for many readers it will be worth the cover price alone.

Elsewhere Bärtsch takes us deeper into his love of Japanese culture and philosophy, and his commentary on the theory of “unobtrusive differences” explains so much about the nature of his highly ordered yet loosely organic music. An essay dedicated to his approach to performance (Ecstasy through Asceticism) really brings his ideas to life, while the chapter on composition, interpretation and improvisation raises some important and universal questions about the nature of originality. A series of short pieces devoted to each of Bärtsch’s recordings, up to and including the recent ECM solo album Entendre, offer penetrating contextual insights, while his list of his 20 all-time essential albums, honed by necessity, would make a great starting point for any adventurous listener.

Sumptuously produced by noted arts imprint Lars Müller Publishers, ambitious in its scope, and bristling with thought provoking observations, Bärtsch’s defiantly unconventional volume rarely shoots wide of the mark. 

Listening – Music, Movement, Mind by Nik Bärtsch in collaboration with Andrea Pfisterer-Bärtsch. Lars Müller Publishers, 352 pages, 194 illustrations, pb, English, €40.00. ISBN 978-3-03778-670-3