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Dirk Serries: Microphonics xii & xiv

img  Tobias Fischer

The idea of creative ambition relating to perpetual progress is somewhat exclusive to music. David Lynch certainly hasn't come under too much fire for  repeatedly returning to the claustrophobic world of Eraserhead, while his Italian colleague Fellini used to quip that he was essentially shooting the same movie each time. Writers like Phillip Roth, Paul Auster and even Shakespeare or Jane Austen were precisely lauded for their ingenious ability of approaching all but identical themes from a plethora of fresh perspectives. And it was only when artists like Mondriaan, Haring and Escher discarded  experimentation to arrive at a personal and recognisable script that their work began to command widespread attention. In music, on the contrary, the consensus generally seems to be that artists fall into one of two categories only: Those that have signed their name in favour of re-inventing themselves with each new album. And those formulaically recycling the same chords, melodies, sounds and ideas. It is a creed sadly adopted from the times of the 19th century romantics, when the notion of maximalism ruled supreme and composer were outbidding each other in their strive for undiscovered chords and unprecedented structural extremes. And it has made appreciation of a cycle like microphonics difficult for those charmed by its ideas.

One could even go as far as to claim that it has even made life hard on its creator. Both his previous projects, vidnaObmana and Fear Falls Burning, had Dirk Serries constantly renegotiating borders, as he took their fabric to the limit. With microphonics, the search for renewal hasn't been called off. But it is now taking place within a different set of paradigms. The „old“ - in this case, meaning the sober and minimal arrangements and looping techniques of his mid-phase Ambient work – is allowed back in as a tool for the expression of timelessness and beauty, while the „new“, is now to be found in the exploration of an already defined sound. One could compare this approach to the mastery of Japanese craftsman Hatori Hanso in Quentin Tarrantino's Kill Bill. Hanso may be manufacturing seemingly identical swords. But each one nonetheless comes equipped with a unique personality of its own. What this means is that it is only the outward form of the sword which is perfect and change, now, must consist in focusing on the alloy of its metal and the perfection of the balance between the blade and the handle. There is never an end to this process, neither in sword-building nor in sound: While Hanso's dreams of the ultimate weapon is bound to falter in face of the imperfections of his working tools, Serries's quest for the best of all drones is both kindled and hampered by the fragile fabric that has remained the main inspiration for his oeuvre: Human emotion.

And thus, his latest releases are to be seen less as successive entries in a traditional discography but rather as different coordinates within a musical cube defined by sound, space and time. It doesn't take a degree in quantum physics to understand that this immediately disqualifies the typical gauges of the music industry: Early entries may occasionally seem more „advanced“ than later ones and themes may re-appear on various records. Perhaps, in this regard, it helps to think of microphonics as a single, epic and open-ended album. Those who have witnessed Serries take the concept to the stage have already been able to discover that this only seemingly static concept, by reducing the focus on an extremely reduced set of elements, has merely opened up listeners' attention to far more subtle factors: The quality of the floor serving as a resonance board, the dimensions and characteristics of the concert hall, the tactile interaction with the audience, the artist's mood and predilections on that particular day as well as the way the materials – which, as part of an interactive system between Serries and his loops, take on a life on their own – turn out to be malleable to his will and intentions. Sitting at the back of his recent gig at Münster's tiny but well-attended black box club for experimental sound art, I was certainly surprised by the heavy bass vibrations emanating from the amps, veritable thrusts of deep, stomach-hitting frequencies intermittently cutting through the fragile web of melodies and harmonies floating in the air. It was as much a tender performance as it was a discomfiting one – and further proof of the fact that there was still plenty of explorative headroom left for the future.

Just how discrete the nuances between episodes in the microphonics-cycle can be is adequately demonstrated by microphonics xiv, recorded during a performance at the Kinky Star Club in Gent, Belgium and now released in three limited runs of gold, silver and white vinyl: Quite clearly, the first half of the performance is a new take on microphonics xii, performed during this year's European tour in April, while the finale premieres thoughts which would later be reworked in Serries's soundtrack to Dutch photographer and video artists Jan-Kees Helms's aquamarijn-film. In both cases, these different parts are not so much improvements, developments, sketches or (least of all) remixes as they are variations on the aforementioned dimensions of the cube: time, space and sound. This is most apparent with regards to microphonics xii, separately available as a 10inch, since it was realised in his home studio just outside of Antwerp and therefore instructively demonstrates the impact of location and mood. Essentially, the thematic sources are all but the same for both (with merely microscopic details separating the main themes), with these pieces comprising of nothing but a sustained ground drone, two chords, a continued series of broken guitar pickings as well as a handful of interrelated melodies. But while xii conveys feelings of isolation, sorrow and sadness corresponding to the solitary ambiance of a private concert, its live pendant is marked by an air of calm, grace and majesty, expressing itself foremost in the carefully measured, slowmotion unfolding of the individual layers – the opening section alone, in which nothing but a few long notes gradually merge into a single, suspenseful tone, takes up several minutes, after which the tempo, if anything, only decreases even further.

The usual atmospheric frequencies distinguishing a studio- from a live-performance are only one part of the equation, however. The other is a technique perhaps best described by the term „lateral variations“: The shifting and juxtaposition of motivic loops in a way that makes them seem like an endless, infinitely intricate improvisation on small melodic cells. Compared to the soundtrack-work of Fear Falls Burning, these cells remain clearly audible over time rather than integrating into a tight web of lines, and thus provide for hooks, which the listener can latch onto as the music progresses. At the same time, they are engaged in a merry-go-round with other inventions, creating new patterns, which can, in turn, serve to propel the piece slowly forward like a tiny toy ship in a bath tub. Thus, while the music remains locked in a tightly delineated field of sound, mood and themes, not a single moment is quite the same. As a result, these pieces allow the listener to perceive time as an organising principle and as a being related to space - it is only when the hunger for progress has been satisfied that one is free again to perceive reality as it really is.

Which is why, next to more obvious associations with the blues and ambient, these pieces can be seen as spiritual brothers of the kraut-philosophy, which, albeit for slightly more esoteric reasons, did not believe in the separation of astral and physical realities: A few minutes can seem like an eternity here. No wonder Ash Ra Temple called one of their most intimidating and immersive tracks, off 1973's Freak n Roll, „Jenseits“, referring to the most time- and space-less state imaginable, that of the afterlife (the original German title actually also translates to „Beyond“, still containing the spatial references of the term). It is this aspect of his work that can only be achieved by rooting the music in the moment and resisting the temptation of transferring them to the tightly clocked, artificial and clearly boxed time of sequencers. Perhaps one of the most telling differences between Fear Falls Burning and microphonics are the beginnings and endings of the tracks: While the former would open with a sudden, ferocious blast of sound and end with Serries pulling the plug of his amps, the latter features some of the most extensive fade-ins and fade-outs imaginable, signalling, if anything, that they could just as much have started hours ago and could potentially go on forever. It is a feat acknowledged by the typical ending to a microphonics-concert: The artists disembarks the stage, leaving his instruments and loop-pedalds, turning into an outside observer and awarding all credit to the music alone.

What do singular albums mean in a body of work so attached to the notion of  flow, flux and mutability? They are markers, signs along the path, invitations to join in. You may not need them all. But for those looking for suitable entry points into a cosmos of continually growing dimensions, these two releases make for ideal candidates.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Dirk Serries
Homepage: Tonefloat Records

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