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18 March 2021

Nat Bartsch: Between genres is where I feel most comfortable

Nat Bartsch Image: Nat Bartsch  
© Brett Scapin

Nat Bartsch is an award-winning Australian pianist and composer who creates work that explores the space between classical and jazz genres. She has released seven recordings of original music, and toured domestically and internationally. She is releasing her next album, Hope, on 7 May. She was recently awarded the Merlyn Myer Commission at the Melbourne Recital Centre, and is currently touring as the pianist for Playschool!

Q: Your career path has been a really interesting one, from studying improvisation and performing with your own jazz trio, then finding a new direction that brought you closer to composing in a more classical idiom. Looking back at the past decade, how aware were you of this trajectory that you took, and where it might take you?

A: If someone had told me, a decade ago, that I'd be releasing an album for ABC Jazz, and then an album for ABC Classic within the same 18 months, I flat out wouldn't have believed you! I nearly quit music at least twice in the past decade! I think I was aware, right from the beginning, that my musical aesthetic was a little different to the average Australian jazz artist - I adored ECM records, playing with lots of sustain pedal, space and ambience, writing with ostinatos… writing for my own trio was the only way I could make my own musical statement. But eventually I realised it was time to shake off the 'lead sheets', and the 'rhythm section'. I found an awesome little niche as a solo pianist where I could write as much or as little notation as I wanted to - still improvising, but sometimes not. The rise of neoclassical piano as a genre, and my friendship with Luke Howard, helped with this I think. I also wrote my first chamber music work, Into the Light, for Plexus Collective, and experienced that incredible feeling of sitting in your work's premiere, and not having to play it yourself - and I think it was that moment that set me on this new path as a classical composer.

Q: The influences you've named include pianists from Australia and overseas. Can you tell us why you have been drawn to these particular colleagues?

'Forever, and No Time At All' alternate take from Forever More (YouTube).

Close to home, Andrea Keller and Luke Howard have both had a huge influence on me. Both of them are genre-bending, with a jazz background, leaning into classical, with ostinato-writing. I was very lucky to study with Andrea at the Victorian College of the Arts, and to have an ongoing collaborative friendship with Luke (who has produced several of my solo albums).

Further afield, I studied with ECM pianists Nik Bärtsch (not related to me!) and Tord Gustavsen, who are both incredibly distinctive pianists. You hear their music and immediately know it is them - they both have a total commitment to their musical principles and aesthetic. Their guidance gave me the confidence to stick to 'my voice'. I think that's something the Europeans sometimes do really well - they find their sound, and nurture and evolve that in a very dedicated and focused way (where as here in Australia, perhaps out of necessity, we often have to work across multiple ensembles/projects/genres to cultivate a career).

Q: Your probably best-known project is about lullabies - as heard on your most recent album, the ARIA Award-nominated Forever more (ABC Jazz), which was a jazz sextet reinterpretation of the earlier album Forever, and no time at all album (ABC Classic). I'm interested in this reinterpretation process, and more generally about blending and moving between genres within your own music - can you talk a little bit about this?

A: My first lullaby album, Forever, and No Time At All, was initially a project borne out of pragmatism. Thinking, 'when this baby comes, what kind of music could I manage to create in a sleep-deprived haze?!!'; also hypothesising that my music might be an excellent fit for a 'lullaby' style. Though of course, when my son was born, the lullabies were written out of love. Then, the re-interpretation of this music in a jazz ensemble was also a pragmatic idea - 'how can I find more opportunities to play this music live?', and using my connections to jazz artists and venues. But, I think it was also because I knew, deep down, that these simple little structures would be interpreted so beautifully with the right jazz ensemble. And I was right - I remember the first show we did as a quartet, with Robbie Melville, Tamara Murphy and Maddison Carter, was like an out of body experience! The compositions seem to create a space for very deep listening, sensitive, lyrical playing by jazz artists.

I've realised that sitting between genres is where I feel most comfortable - I'm not easily compared to others, just doing my thing. I improvise music at classical venues; sometime play quite notated music at a jazz venue, and I've realised that's all OK! That fluidity is something I now aspire to put into my chamber music writing - encouraging other classical players to find their voice as melodic improvisers (rather than improvising in an aleatoric or graphically notated way). Bring back the improvised cadenza, I say!!

Q: You've said that in the lullaby project you wanted to create music that is meaningful for adults as well as children. What is it for you that is important about the lullaby, and why have you wanted to explore it to this extent?

A: I interviewed a couple of music therapists before I wrote Forever and No Time At All, and used certain musical parameters (eg. simplicity, repetition, tempos similar to a mother's heartbeat) to help babies sleep. But their suggestion that stayed with me was how important it is to create music that parents find soothing too - if the parent is calm, the baby is more likely to be calm. So I didn't follow the parameters to the letter - I did what I could, whilst also trying to make a cohesive, balanced record. My mantra was 'would an adult enjoy this, even if they didn't have children?' The best part about this project is my approach actually worked far more than I imagined. The music helps countless babies and children fall asleep, but is also played by adults across the lifespan. Literally from birth to death. I feel incredibly moved by the messages I receive from listeners!

Q: Your 2020 single 'Searching for the Map', is a taste of a forthcoming album Hope. What can we expect of this new album?

Hope was originally intended to be a lullaby-like album, with a string quartet, to respond to climate change, Trump, and some of the uncertainties in our lives. And then… the bushfires happened, and Covid-19 happened, and the music became a lot more epic. I now see the title as an abbreviation of hopefulness and hopelessness, and the music exploring the space between. It's essentially a neoclassical chamber music record, with some improvisation and electronics. But there are a lot of driving rhythms, jazz harmonies… I completed the pieces in lockdown, yearning for forward momentum out of our situation, and finding it in the music I was making! I never expected to write a String Quartet with bars and bars of demisemiquavers… but somehow that felt like what was required!

Q: You are studying composition formally at the moment, and have written a number of commissions for chamber music groups such as Plexus and The Muses Trio. Can you tell us a little bit more about your chamber music?

A: I find my chamber music writing is a little more florid, lyrical and complex than my work as a solo artist… maybe because someone else has to play it! But I think it's also that I have all these neo-romantic ideas in my mind that are so beautifully brought to life by ensembles like Plexus, and Muses, that have that classical training. I haven't put too much improvisation in my chamber works so far, trying to ensure the ensembles feel comfortable and the work is brought to life as I really imagine it. But I am hoping with my next commission (Merlyn Myer) to try and connect these two worlds a little more.

Q: And what is on your composing desk at the moment?

A: A running sheet for Playschool Live (such a hoot!), and some little scribbles for the Glasshouse Suite, a musical response to the portraits of Victorian-era photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (for the Merlyn Myer Commission), with Inventi Ensemble, in November. From the ridiculous to the sublime?!

> Nat Bartsch - AMC profile. Purchase info for albums and sheet music: www.natbartsch.com.

> Listen to representative works by Nat Bartsch (YouTube): albums Forever More (ABC Jazz) and Forever, and No Time At All (ABC Classic); singles 'Searching for the Map' and 'For the Koalas' from the forthcoming album Hope (ABC Classic). For more albums, see discography.

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