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Friday, November 2, 2018

The Minimalist TONUS Series of Dirk Serries and Martina Verhoeven

Belgian guitarist Dirk Serries has explored different dynamics and strategies of free-improvisation in recent years, most notably with YODOK III, Kodian Trio and other ad-hoc outfits with sax players Colin Webster and John Dikeman. His TONUS series, with his wife, pianist-double bass player-photographer Martina Verhoeven, suggests an attempt to create an alchemist mix of aesthetics that brings his past ambient-abstract experiences under the monikers Vidna Obmana, Fear Falls Burning and Microphonics and his new sensibilities as a resourceful free-improviser towards compositional and improvisational ideas of avant-garde minimalism.

TONUS - Cagean Morphology (A New Wave of Jazz, 2018) ***½

The Serries-Verhoeven acoustic, chamber duo - Serries on the acoustic guitar and Verhoeven on the piano - is actually the last one to be recorded in the TONUS series but the duo distills the very essence of the series serves as a fitting introduction to this series. Cagean Morphology was recorded, mixed and mastered at the Sunny Side Studio at Anderlecht, Belgium on March 10th 2018. The minimalist layout of the TONUS series, was designed by Rutger Zuydervelt, aka Machinefabriek, with whom Serries has recorded Buoyant Live (Tonefloat, 2106).

Cagean Morphology has a vague connection to John Cage curious and even innocent search for new sounds and new modes of listening experiences. But Cagean Morphology does not seek to alter the familiar sounds of the acoustic guitar and the piano, just to arrange these sounds anew in space and in continuum, as innovative colleagues of Cage, minimalist composers like Morton Feldman did. Tonus, in real world refers to muscle strength, but Serries and Verhoeven recontextualizes this term as a musical system that places equal importance on the space between notes, devoid of any significant change or dramatic and emotional climaxes. And, indeed, this 34-minutes piece offers a patient and highly disciplined investigation of minimalist and sparse sounds and silences of a subtle piano motif, with great attention to their tonality, intonation and pulse.

In a way, it is an introspective journey into the the inner depths and naked essences of these simple motif, how its sounds interact with time, space and silence; how these sounds form together a fragile structure and how these sounds affect us, the listeners; and what is the cumulative effect of the repetitive motif. This exquisite experience demands us to experience anew these subtle sounds, until its bare, fascinating morphology are exposed.

More to listen to, here.

TONUS - Texture Point (A New Wave of Jazz, 2018) ****

Texture Point offers another version of the acoustic, chamber duo Serries on the acoustic guitar and Verhoeven on the piano with British viola player-improviser Benedict Taylor, recorded at at the Sunny Side Studio on December 2017. It offers three extended “Texture”s and one extended “Point”, all abstracting in a trio format the simple piano motif. Again, in a highly disciplined approach that focuses on great attention and control of every single note, its clarity and lingering sustainable effect in time and space.

The addition of Taylor adds delicate dimensions of tension, reserved drama and darkness to the crystalline interplay of Serries and Verhoeven. Taylor’s extended bowing techniques, including imaginative multiphonics and scratching of the viola strings, often blur the clarity and transparency of the simple, by now familiar, piano motif of Verhoeven, Taylor sounds as introducing a subversive spirit that asks to uncover a hidden layer behind the simple, naked suchness of the repetitive motif, even insisting on doing so the tensed “Point A”.

The contrast between the restraint of Serries and Verhoeven restraint and the more open, provocative approach of Taylor deepens the methodical, ritualistic atmosphere of this meeting. Unlike Cagean Morphology, Texture Point suggests some transformation of the stark piano motif and in the trio interplay, climaxing in the best realized “Texture III”, a piece that feels like an improvisation that matured beautifully to an arresting composition.

More to hear, here.

TONUS - Immediate Obscurities I + IV (A New Wave of Jazz, 2018) ****

Immediate Obscurities translates the TONUS aesthetics to two ensembles, both are sextets that were recorded live. “I” teams Serries and Verhoeven with fellow-Belgian flute player Jan Daelman and double bass player Nils Vermeulen and British drummer George Hadow and alto sax player Colin Webster, all collaborated before with Serries. This ensemble was recorded at Dommelhof, Neerpelt, Belgium, on November 2017, as the finale of Serries’ Jazzcase residency.

This Belgian-British acoustic sextet continues the disciplined investigation of the piano motif of Verhoeven for almost 58 minutes. Now the sextet explores new and richer sonic characteristics within this motif and throughout horizontal interactions that shift the search for space in sound, to that for space between sounds. Guy Peters, who contributed insightful liner notes to the TONUS series three releases, comments rightly that the disciplined, chamber construction of “I” brings it closer to the modern avant-garde - the minimalist works of Feldman or the free spirit of the graphic score-based experiments of Cornelius Cardew. This ensemble uncovers subtle harmonic possibilities, injects fragile tension, charges “I” with surprising dramatic shifts and finds a profound emotional core within and throughout the highly disciplined abstraction of the simple motif.

“IV” offers a completely different aspect of the TONUS aesthetics. It teams Serries - without Verhoeven - to a cast of British musicians - the reeds trio Webster on alto sax, Cath Roberts on baritone sax and Tom Ward on clarinet, and the strings trio of Serries on acoustic guitar, Benedict Taylor on viola and Otto Willberg on double bass. This sextet was recorded live, and played a graphic score of Serries at Hundred Years Gallery, London, on January 2018. Without Verhoeven’s piano that anchored other TONUS sessions towards her motif and with the distinct contrast between the reeds trio and the strings strio, this ensemble feels free to suggest rougher dynamics and new, darker colors within the disciplined and minimalist strategy of TONUS. This 45-minutes stresses again the subtle emotional outlines of this exquisite strategy that were less prominent in the former duo, trio and sextet abstractions of the piano motif. “IV” sounds more lyrical, even melancholic and suggests the many possibilities of the TONUS aesthetics.

John Dikeman / George Hadow / Dirk Serries / Martina Verhoeven / Luis Vicente - Ideal Principle (Raw Tonk Records, 2018) ***½

This quintet was recorded at the Sunny Side Studio before the TONUS series began, on February 2016. The quintet features American sax player John Dikeman, British drummer George Hadow, both are Amsterdam-based, with Portuguese trumpeter Luis Vicente and Verhoeven on the double bass and Serries himself on electric guitar. All collaborated before with Serries on different ad-hoc free-improvised meetings. As all Raw Tonk releases this one is also a DIY one. Serries did the mastering and label owner, sax player Colin Webster, did the artwork that does not betray any details about its content.

Ideal Principle is another free-improvised meeting and its introspective atmosphere, focus and restrained tension may have prefaced what have materialized later on in the TONUS series. The five pieces of Ideal Principle sound as attempting to contain the irresistible energy of Dikeman, the sonic pyrotechnics of Vicente, the imaginative, colorful pulses of Hadow and the more quiet and reserved dynamics of Serries and Verhoeven. The quintet manages to do so more on “Motion” than on the urgent “Ideal”. But it succeeds to channel all its distinct and opinionated voices to the poetic but somehow fractured texture of “Principle” and the brief, most beautiful, minimalist “Substance”.


Stef said...

Hi Eyal, Thanks for this nice review. My preference also goes to "Immediate Obscurities I + IV", and I would even give it a higher rating. I also like the wonderful tension between the intensity of the playing and the overall quietness of the volume.