The mesmerizing music of Nik Bärtsch and his Mobile ensemble is hard to label, but it may appeal to the constituencies of many contrasting styles. The repetitive nature of his
grooves evokes the work of minimalist composers like Phillip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley. The tonalities and rhythms are reminiscent of Balinese gamelan music and traditional West African percussion ensembles. The rhythmic focal point resembles an acoustic form of such contemporary dance music styles as trance and techno. The easygoing grooves suggest a commonality with jam bands. And Mobile sounds like a more austere version of Mr. Bärtsch’s other band, Ronin, which has toured the U.S. in recent years.
Mr. Bärtsch, who is 44 years old, was born and is based in Zurich. He calls his amalgam “ritual music” and cites the 1968 György Ligeti composition “Continuum for the Harpsichord” as a cornerstone influence. He formed Mobile in 1997 and put together marathon performances that often included video arts, lighting design, and even swordsmanship. (Asian battle techniques are a fascination of Bärtsch; Ronin derives its name from freelance samurai.) Some Mobile performances lasted up to 36 hours; the eight compositions on the ensemble’s new recording, “Continuum” (ECM), last only 68 minutes, but it’s not hard to see how they could be expanded into much lengthier experiences.
Mobile—which features Mr. Bärtsch on piano; Sha on bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet; and two percussionists, Kaspar Rast and Nicolas Stocker—makes captivating
sounds from gently repetitive figures. “Continuum” begins with “Modul 29_14,” a piece that starts with gentle, stately chords from Mr. Bärtsch’s piano that are accented with bass drum beats and then a triangle, before it opens into a full ensemble performance with Sha’s reedwork providing a bass line as the others form complex melodies. Then the ensemble sections alternate with piano-triangle duets as the piece winds down.
Another highlight is “Modul 5,” which features stellar, up-tempo piano from Mr. Bärtsch subtly accented with small percussion instruments and bass clarinet murmurs. The piece moves from furious, strident chords to smoother resolves. Several tracks feature what Mr. Bärtsch calls “Extended Mobile,” in which the quartet is joined by violinists Etienne Abelin and Ola Sendecki, violist David Schnee, and cellists Solme Hong and Ambrosius Huber. On these pieces the mood is stately, but the music remains focused on short figures that are repeated and develop from simple chords into fascinating, elaborate statements.
Mobile is touring the U.S. for the first time, with stops this week in New York City and Troy, N.Y. Mr. Bärtsch has built a devoted following for Ronin; Mobile’s distinctive fusion of disparate genres should receive a similar reception from a diverse crowd.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.