While attending school, he began listening to 20th century modernist, avant-garde composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Steve Reich, thus fusing the multiplicity of disciplines. In 1980, he first met drummer Kaspar Rast, who became a rhythmic fixture in his ensembles and in Mobile and Ronin. He performed and toured with the European guitarist Harald Haerter before performing and recording solo and trio efforts, leading to his initial small ensembles for the Swiss-based Tonus label. When Mobile evolved into Ronin in 2001, Bärtsch established his distinct and unique ritual groove music, playing every Monday night at the night club Montags in Zurich, and attracting attention for his spiritual, minimalist, ethnic, rhythm & blues elevated music, which has generally been called "zen funk."
Bärtsch described his sound in an interview saying, "to me, music is an art of motion, and thus akin to dancing, an ecstatic groove and an ascetic awareness of form and sound in composed music are not mutually exclusive. They can form combinations that take our senses by surprise." Over the years, he has retained that regular early week gig while touring greater Europe, reaching Canada and the U.S.
ECM Records owner Manfred Eicher recognized not only Bärtsch's original approach, but its similarity to the music the label has championed since the early '70s. He signed them, beginning with the album Stoa in 2006 (2007 in the United States). Ronin expanded to a quintet with stalwart Rast, percussionist Andi Pupato, bassist Björn Meyer, and saxophonist/bass clarinetist/guitarist Sha. Holon followed in 2008 to wider acclaim. In 2009, Bärtsch and a business partner opened the club Exil in Zurich, and he became one of three co-artistic directors of the city's Apples and Olives Festival.
Bärtsch, ever confident in his band's musical potential, expanded his composing palette. Moving further afield from the "zen funk" that typified both Mobile and Ronin up to that point, he began employing elements of modern classical composition in their repertoire. This new direction was documented on 2010's Llyrìa. Ronin Live, issued in 2012, documented concert recordings from 2009 through 2011.
After Ronin's intense touring and recording activity of the previous few years, Bärtsch settled into running his club and working on Apples and Olives, spending time with his family, and teaching.
Bärtsch formally resurrected Mobile in late 2014. The quartet included Sha, Rast, and new drummer Nicolas Stocker (Bells for Pony, Marylane). The bandleader extended the ensemble for his next recording with a string quintet that included violinist Etienne Abelin (his co-artistic director of Apples and Olives). This group recorded Continuum in Lugano in March of 2015, with Eicher as producer. It was a released a year later ahead of an international tour. ~ Michael G. Nastos, Rovi