I never "got" Phillip Glass. I get that his brand of classical minimalism is based in part on ethnic trance music, but unlike the soundtrack that accompanies Sufi dervishes, or the chiming of a Gamelan group, Glass' use of western orchestral instruments playing repetitive motifs always sounded mechanical to me. If you are going to make machine music, why not use machines? This, of course, is what certain types of electronic music are all about--that I got. An extremely cursory listen to Nik Bärtsch's Ronin might initially conjure up thoughts of Mr. Glass, and the six instrumental tracks on Holon are all named "Modul" with various numbers suffixed, which would imply a cold, mechanistic world, but the music ultimately reveals a very different attitude.
"Modul 42" opens the record with Nik Bärtsch playing a repeated high piano riff, soon shifting to longer section featuring a low ostinato. The brief clunk of prepared piano is followed by a minimalist pastoral duet with the apparently mono-named Sha's alto sax, before returning briefly to the opening motif. If this all sounds like a recipe for tedium, it is only because I have not yet mentioned the funky syncopation of Kaspar Rast's drum accompaniment that through its contrast makes the whole something new and exciting.
"Modul 41_17" follows, driven by a two-note pluck of the piano's strings that offers a platform for bassist Björn Meyer's opening sitar-like solo. After three minutes the bassist begins an interlocking riff of his own. This continues with minor flourishes from reeds and percussion, until about 5:20 when someone yells a signal, at which point the drums enter with an orgasmic crack to release the tension. This tension-and-release dance continues with more release and less tension until the end of the near fifteen-minute piece.
"Dance" is the operative word here, though this is by no means dance music per se. What makes it work for me, in a way that Glass' does not, is the sense of swing and groove that is always there. Whether Rast's drums and Andi Pupato's percussion are present or not, the music affects the body every bit as much as the mind. Other essential elements are the band's show-stopping dynamics and luxurious textures, brought out by Manfred Eicher's eternally gorgeous production, but fully in evidence in live performance as well.
Playing this kind of music takes the discipline of a samurai, but like the breed of Japanese warrior that gave the band its name, Ronin have broken away from their minimalism masters, allowing them to create music that, though based on repetition, is joyfully human, multi-hued, and endlessly interesting. • Michael Ross