Illustration by Gauraang Biyani

(More than) a day in the life of Nik Bärtsch

A look back at Bartsch's recent performance at the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center.

Sep 25, 2016

Before entering Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile, attendees were asked to remove their shoes. “Wear nice socks” was the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center’s advice. Having pulled apart the stage doors to enter the Black Box theater, attendees navigated a passageway lit with soft blues and greens, in a spiral that mirrored the structure of the performance, before entering the inner sanctum of the performance.
Rather than being just a passive observer in the majlis setting, one felt more like a visitor, able to come and go as desired. Throughout the performance, Bärtsch and his band played in sync with each other through smiles and gestures, with the groove ever present.
“My idea was to create something new that was very simple…” said Bärtsch. “The idea was just to start from the beginning and explore again the social and musical impulses that the group and an audience can have.”
The music swelled and shifted over the 27 hours that the show ran for. Within this time, there were seven standalone concert moments, designed to follow the rhythm of Abu Dhabi. Each Mobile performance is designed to reflect the setting in which it is performed.
“What we always do is adapt the performance to sunset and sunrise,” said Bärtsch. For Abu Dhabi, Bärtsch and Bill Bragin also discussed the rhythm of the campus, taking prayer times and student schedules into account.
“We try to find a schedule that challenges us and gives us structure dramaturgically, but also that fits to the local audience. That helps a lot for us to not get lost somewhere in this time,” said Bärtsch.
The idea for the performance grew out of the community that Bärtsch is a part of in Zürich. There, Bärtsch runs a concert series where he has played with friends every Monday for 13 years.
“The Mondays is an example [of] a ritual that is very pragmatic and simple… but it has… a huge impact, not only on us, but on the quality of the music and on the resonance of the people who are interested in [the performance] and come to share it,” explained Bärtsch.
This repetition and style of work brought in other collaborators: Nicolas Stocker, the drum and percussion player, and Daniel Eaton, the lighting designer.
Kasper Rast and Sha have a relationship with Bärtsch that predates even the series of concerts on Mondays. Bärtsch met Rast as a child and they have played together ever since.
“Because he is a drummer and I write percussive music, we shared this affinity for rhythms and percussion from the beginning,” said Bärtsch.
While in Abu Dhabi, Bärtsch held a masterclass, which several NYUAD students attended. Sophomore Atoka Jo found Bärtsch’s style of percussive piano playing to be a completely new approach.
“I learned that the playing of the piano should not only be limited to playing the keys… there are so many different ways to use the instrument,” said Jo.
The students were not the only ones to learn from this experience.
“The time here was just very inspiring … [Abu Dhabi] is somehow in the middle of everywhere,” described Bärtsch.
This did not prevent students from slipping in and out during the performance. Senior Lucas Olscamp attended the performance for six hours, which was a requirement for Thinking Theater.
In his response paper for the class, Olscamp wrote, “As I lay there, the hours began to melt away and I lost my sense of time and place… I found myself both hearing everything and nothing at the same time… my brain was acknowledging the presence of the music around me but also failing to register it… returning to my room after my six-hour endurance was both uncomfortable and unsettling. I found the rhythm of the music still whirling through my head, the blurred images of my dreams mangled with the flickering of the screen, the clouds of smoke and the shifting tonalities of the lights. As I drifted back into sleep once more I awoke unsure whether I had truly experienced any of it at all.”
Laura Waltje is the Arts Reporter. Connor Pearce is Editor-in-Chief. Email them at
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