Before he coined the term “ambient music,” Brian Eno released an album called Discreet Music. Inside the 1975 album’s liner notes he described listening to a record of harp music at an extremely low level. It was a serendipitous event. “This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music – as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience,” he writes.
Dirk Serries happens to be an electric guitarist who shows a profound understanding about this notion. The Belgian-based artist has experimented with ambient music for over 30 years. He released his earliest work behind the pseudonym Vidna Obmana. His latest work is a sort of return to Vidna Obmana but informed with a subtlety that only comes with his growth as a musician who has spent decades exploring his craft.
Some might find this music so spare it may seem undeveloped, but it’s quite realized in its subtle quietness. Serries avoids hooks, and there is little sign of sentimentality in his music. Serries returns ambient music to its discreet origins. This month saw the release of three ambient records by Serries on limited edition 180 gram vinyl. The pieces are unedited, live run-throughs meant to fill up a side of a vinyl record, released on the boutique tonefloat/ikon imprint. Visit this website to stream all six pieces in their entirety and learn about ordering details: tonefloatikon.bandcamp.com.
The album titles are all “Streams of Consciousness” followed by varying numbers. For instance, the first release is titled Streams of Consciousness 130806. The names of the individual instrumentals, however are more evocative. “The Illusion of Sense” opens the first release. It starts with what feels like an almost orchestral swell for a couple of notes. It almost feels like the notes are prepared to take off in a rhythmic dance. However, the piece reveals itself as something else as the volume slowly rises and something much more minimal comes to light. It is composed of a throbbing whine and a distant response from a slurred, falling note. The pattern repeats at a hypnotic, slow pace until it gradually fades away, at about 20 minutes in. It’s the perfect introduction to the sonic world of Dirk Serries.
Not much changes across his pieces, as Serries seems much more interested in creating atmosphere over melodies. “Harmony is an Effect” takes up the second side of the first release. It is composed of what sounds like a distant horn cutting through the gloom of a fog that gradually morphs into a bright, shimmering piece.
Streams of Consciousness 131006 opens with “A Ghostly Apparition,” which reveals how Serries can play with high-pitched notes yet remain unobtrusive. As soon as the music enters the high range, a series of lower notes drone below. The high note is hardly ever allowed to differ in timbre or duration. It appears with the routine quality of an oscillating fan, melding into the background. The dynamic comes from the varied lower notes, which throb, hum and shimmer like the sparkle of light on the undulating surface of a night-drenched ocean.
With “An Ideal Opposite” on the second side, a minor key progression is revealed during a very slow fade-in on sighing electric guitar strings, as an undulating chorus of shimmering chords seem to tug at each other, taking turns between silence. They blend closer and closer with each refrain until they overlap into a cozy union of chilly yet luscious harmonies that ebb and flow with a random quality that speaks to the nature Serries reaches to capture in his unique orchestrations.
Streams of Consciousness 131106 starts with “Principle Origin,” which sometimes features a distant trickle of falling or climbing notes that appear with little pattern. It could also be composed of a sustained howl. This is the audio-hallucinogenic effect of Serries’ music. It does not drone. It has a verve of randomness, despite its lulling quality. Finally, “Faith and Reverence” appears as one sustained stroke of the guitar, shifting low and disappearing. It returns again and again, only a tad louder each time.
The hypnotic nature of Serries’ music comes with time and restraining anticipation. It’s all about a delicate touch that never disturbs between sound and silence. Though improvised, it’s carefully crafted work. I was keen to tap into the mind of this musician from Belgium, and I reached out via email with some questions. I was grateful he was game to entertain my queries and also share some images of the vinyls which were just released:
Hans Morgenstern: So, I was looking into your history, and I see you have been at this for years. Have you made a career of it?
Dirk Serries: I believe the only thing I really succeeded in is to establish myself as a willful artist with a persistence to move forward, explore and expand my own specific sound palette.
Over the years, I met pro and contra and despite some bigger success in the mid ’90s, I never was able to make a career of it. But now with almost 30 years of baggage I’m really proud of what I managed to build up and the music I’m currently focusing on.
From the time you’ve been going, since the mid-80s, how has your approach to this ambient music changed?
I always have been pushing the boundaries on what ambient could be to the disappointment of many followers back then. The world of ambient music is a pretty conservative one, as from the moment you’re exploring new elements criticism was to follow soon. It’s therefore that I deliberately moved away from making ambient music per se. I never shied away though from incorporating harmony, mood and expansion in my music, but it surely was different, and a break with the ambient circuit unavoidable. But with the re-installment of the tonefloat:ikon label, I returned to the harmonic spaces I was known for in the late ’80s, early ’90s. The current experience and maturity made me recapture the ambience with solely an electric guitar and a few pedal-effects, while back in the days, I needed a stack of synthesizers and outboard effects to create those spaces. The fulfillment now is bigger, more intense and rewarding.
What to you is special about droning music? Where do you find the pleasure in performing it versus listening to it?
I don’t know really. I hardly call my music drone music either, as I feel it’s much more. Each piece is a moving canvas where layering timbres, shifting harmonics and subtle dissonances meet each other or not over the course of numerous minutes. It’s just that breathing quality that is so essential in ambient and minimal music. For me, personally, it’s precisely that process that draws me to this kind of music. Focusing on just a few configurations of notes but working towards a maximum effect in atmosphere, emotion and construction.
The music I make now is all about performing real-time and this is exactly where you get so in tune with how the sound moves, modulates and expands. Listening to what comes back, interact [with it] but most of all anticipate without playing those unnecessary notes. It truly heals, guides you to focus and makes you enjoy the effect of each note, no matter how sparse and minimal they are.
What ambient/drone music do you enjoy listening to and how do you listen to it? Is it accurate to call it musical wallpaper?
I hardly listen to ambient or drone music, and the ones I’m currently listening to and enjoying, although not sure to use this label, are Duane Pitre’s Feel Free, Cory Allen’s The Great Order and Richard Skelton’s Verse of Birds. I feel it’s absolutely not correct to label ambient or drone musical wallpaper. With good ambient music you actually need to listen closely and attentively to discover its progress and subtle changes, but I can relate to the fact why most of the people call this musical wallpaper. OK, there’s music out there that only serves the purpose of being background music, but the music I perform and listen to demands much more from the listener. Therefore, with the current improvement of vinyl quality, I decided to release this new series of minimal music exclusively on vinyl. The format does demand more involvement of the listener and therefore avoids the risk of having the music being used in the background. It’s sort of re-educating the listener to the point of going back to where listening becomes discovering.
You ask that the music be played at a low volume. What does this do to affect the listening experience?
Simple, because it was made that way. The tonality, the combination of the harmonies and the slow-expanding nature of the sounds is especially made for listening to on lower volumes. The low volume accentuates, to my ears, the movement of details, particular notes and tones that move in and out, appear on the surface and fade out. An experience that would be less effective if played louder. Another option is the headphone, as it’s combination with playing it on lower volume results in discovering the full sonic pallet.
Visit the following website to stream Serries’ latest sonic experiments and learn about ordering details: tonefloatikon.bandcamp.com. These records are limited to only 99 physical vinyl copies each.