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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Time stood still during Nik Bärtsch’s musical marathon in Abu Dhabi

Steeped in Reichian minimalism, the music sounds modern, yet these ritual grooves feel as old as the earth. Like a sacred life force – it's easy to lose yourself in this primordial pulse.
Experimental Swiss pianist/composer Nik Bartsch leads his acoustic quartet, Mobile, NYUAD on Friday. Delore Johnson / The National
Experimental Swiss pianist/composer Nik Bartsch leads his acoustic quartet, Mobile, NYUAD on Friday. Delore Johnson / The National

When exposed to a continuous music installation for a period of several hours, your body starts to organically follow the flow of the music.

During intense and frenetic phases, you sit taut and alert. When the sound mellows and slows, limbs stretch out and eyelids dim. This is not your attention wavering, but deepening – the body merely is reacting to the vibrations around it.

This is what I found, anyway, during the 27-hour “ritual groove music” performance by Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile, hosted at NYUAD on Thursday and Friday. After a night at the opera in Dubai – there’s a sentence I thought I would never type – I arrived on the Saadiyat Island campus at noon for the final 10-hour stretch, with a little over a third of the marathon remaining.

I had already lived with the music for longer still, having fallen asleep to the live stream the night before, waking subconsciously to a groove that continued to accompany my morning chores.

So entering the Arts Centre’s Black Box for the live performance feels like arriving at the source. The quartet sit in the centre of the room, facing inward on a stage inclusively sunken into the ground, with majlis-style seating arranged around all four walls.

Day-sleeping bodies litter the floor, while thick stage smoke hovers heavily in the dark, spotlit space

Meticulous melodic and rhythmic fragments orbit and interlace, as the musicians – piano, reeds and a playground of percussion – dip in and out of the room, staging crescendos and devolving calm. Communicating with a mix of shouts, gestures and giggles, Mobile seamlessly segues between Bärtsch’s “modular” compositions, familiar frameworks recurring and interloping, building to seven sustained, hour-long rituals.

The line between rhythm and melody is thoroughly blurred – Bärtsch hammers single, muted notes, the sax blowing breathy toneless gutter stabs; tuned percussion follows, even drives the harmony.

Steeped in Reichian minimalism, the music sounds modern, yet these ritual grooves feel as old as the earth. Like a sacred life force – it is easy to lose yourself in this primordial pulse.

Finally, the sound snowballs to one last, throbbing, ecstatic climax, and silence suddenly falls 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Awaking the next morning, it feels like something is missing.

rgarratt@thenational.ae