DIRK SERRIES was asked to contribute to Tobias Fischer’s interesting FIFTEEN QUESTIONS interview series. Read the full interview here below.
“Everything you discover while improvising continues to be completely transformable. Every structure you generate, whether solo or in group, is exposed to constant change.”
When did you first start getting interested in musical improvisation?
Told the story already several times but it’s really the origin of where the passion for musical improvisation begun.
I always have been a control-freak, especially during the vidnaObmana period, a bit less during Fear Falls Burning and Microphonics but still everything was structured and mapped out. It’s when I got invited to a recording session with Tomas Järmyr and Kristoffer Lo that I got exposed to the magical side of improvisation. At least when it works.
I went to Norway with a plan, some themes I created but from the first note we played together I became motivated by Kristoffer and Tomas’ incredible sense for improvisation and it just dragged me along. Didn’t touch any of the ‘scores’ I brought and the first baby steps in improvisation became a fact. It was a blast and I truly felt liberated, free of that constant pressure of preparation and focus in advance to what would follow.
From there on this all became a rollercoaster ride for me in terms of experience, adventure and touching upon a scene in which I could feel myself fully myself.
Which artists, approaches, albums or performances involving prominent use of improvisation captured your imagination in the beginning?
Naturally prior to my plunge into the free improvisation I had been listening to free jazz so I’d been aware of impro to a certain degree, it was when, again during that encounter with Tomas and Kristoffer forming YODOK III at that studio in Norway, Tomas suggested me to listen to the absolutely fantastic ‘Out Of The Past’ album of Derek Bailey with Steve Noble.
From that moment on when exposed to the music of Derek Bailey a brand-new world opened. Particularly Derek’s music just hit the right nerve and it goes without saying that his music, his philosophy and approach to guitar playing influenced me tremendously.
Focusing on improvisation can be an incisive transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?
Oh absolutely, not really on purpose but after coming artistically to a hold with Vidna Obmana and all my other projects, I just felt burned out. The improvising aspect made me revive the pleasure of creating music, being on the spot with kindred spirits and shedding off that striving for perfectionism that has dominated my music for more than 25 years.
How would you describe the shift of moving towards an improvisation based practise, both as a listener and a creator?
Totally liberating. As I told before, the later Vidna Obmana period was heavy on the mind as I felt completely stuck in the constant self-demand for perfectionism. The studio became a lab where everything was created with chirurgical precision but pushed out every bit of musical enthusiasm and spontaneity and which at the end resulted in a burn-out. So when I discovered full improvisation, the sensation was overwhelming.
Of course these were baby steps but from there on a different world opened for me and it became a rewarding learning experience both as listener and creator. The musical freedom returned and I fully embraced it with all that followed.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to improvisation? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage?
Ain’t we all part of a tradition? I mean we all are influenced by facts, creativity, thoughts, philosophy and actions that happened before us, no?
I myself have always been on a quest for finding music that challenges, motivates and invites. Searching, listening, analysing and understanding. But I always have been equally careful and proud to have found my own voice, whether it was in my ambient period or what I do now.
I firmly believe that, despite I’ve been heavily influenced by the approach of Derek Bailey and John Russell on the guitar, I think I slowly am finding my own voice and technique on the acoustic and electric guitar.
What was your own learning curve / creative development like when it comes to improvisation – what were challenges and breakthroughs?
Being exposed to my own ability to improvise was an epiphany, thanks to Tomas and Kristoffer. Not that they said anything but it was just what they both musically fired at me. It just de-clicked something inside of me, making me slowly progress from a full-on control freak to a musician who found back the love for playing music live and creating on the spot.
From there on it has been a constant learning curve, with ups and downs, with great and rewarding projects to failures. It’s all part of the transition and just gaining experience.
Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?
Coming from working with solely electronic instruments (synths, effects, etc.) in the eighties and nineties, the transition to work solely on the guitar has been nothing but quite extreme. Not only did I initially detest the guitar, I had to change my mind over the years when I discovered its possibilities.
First on electric guitar with a lot of pedal effects to compensate the loss of the electronic devices but slowly gaining confidence by dropping the effects and finally to discover the amazing archtop guitars. The guitar is an acoustic instrument, one made of wood that breathes and lives. Every guitar is different but just a handful are so perfect for your own hands and that takes a long time to find out. Trying out, working with them at home, in the studio and on stage, by trial and error. Never have been interested in playing the guitar in its most standard and classic ways but as a tool to discover the diversity of what a wooden instrument can produce.
Just in the last couple of years I really became fascinated by the German Höfner brand. Their archtop guitars of the 50s and 60s are just extremely fascinating due to their unique sound character and atypical for what was currently the standard. Way more upfront in its tonality and smooth in pushing it towards creating new sounds. Since then their guitars have been my companion during all the free impro projects and concerts, apart from one or two different ones I use for two significant projects.
Can you talk about a work, event or performance in your career that’s particularly dear to you? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
That’s a difficult one. Choosing one might diminish the extraordinary experience of another one but if I may combine a few I would now choose for the 4 day residency I did during the ROADBURN festival at jazzclub Paradox in Tilburg (NL).
Every day of this fantastic festival I offered to fill in a concert, to my own liking. Each concert was a blast, amazing audience, very receptive while it wasn’t an obvious one if you know what the festival stands for. Day one and day two were the more easy ones to digest, more drone-oriented with a solo ambient concert and on day 2 YODOK III.
But even for my TONUS ensemble (a project around minimal music, mostly based upon graphic scores) and on the 4th day the MARTINA VERHOEVEN QUINTET, after all a full-on free impro / free jazz performance, the appreciation was just overwhelming and immensily supportive and motivating. An experience I’ll never forget.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your collaborations? Do you feel as though you are able to express yourself more fully in solo mode or, conversely, through the interaction with other musicians? Are you “gaining” or “sacrificing” something in a collaboration?
I really think that improvisation really flourishes when playing together with kindred spirits. Solo is a totally different thing, way more towards research and exploring. Playing in duo, trio or in group is where you are pulled out of your own comfort zone.
Naturally it stands or fall with whom you play. The success of an ad-hoc group is measured by who chooses you or you pick out to team up. But the experience, when the magic truly happens, is just extremely interesting and I feel that in a good constellation you never feel limited or deprived from expressing yourself.
For you personally, how would you describe the relationship between a clear individual vision and cooperative results?
Improvisation is a live thing, this is where the magic happens, and in partnership with fellow musicians. Like I said, the solo impro performance is for me personally more research, creating a personal laboratory on stage or in the studio.
Perhaps way less interesting for the audience watching one musician being introvert and being occupied with the tools. After all, watching and absorbing a constellation is way more attractive and even entertaining. But the solo I do to learn and grow as an improviser, and to explore new techniques and sounds on the guitar.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
Oh absolutely fully agree. Derek’s philosophy on improvising in general is just spot on. I mean everything you discover while improvising continues to be completely transformable. Every structure you generate, whether solo or in group, is exposed to constant change.
Over time you do create forces of habits, tricks and ticks you master but with each new impuls you get from your fellow musicians or by that particular moment in time and place it fully transforms that. Making you travel different sonic places, often with failure but extremely interesting and rewarding.
So yes, let it keep transforming. We all benefit from this as human beings and musicians.
Nik Bärtsch reduced the art of musicianship to three principles: 1) Listen! 2) Only play the essentials 3) Make the others sound good. What’s your take on this and how do these principles pan out in practise?
Mmm, not really agree. As I explained before, I do look at musicianship more as a gathering of kindred spirits. Musicians who will motivate each other to step outside the comfort zone. Present to not please each other ego’s but to develop together new material, to go for that unified goal to create music that stands on its own.
I’m sure Nik Bärtsch is right in his own context as he afterall has a more avant-garde approach and perhaps there the rules are more strict and defined, essential to the compositions he wants to achieve. But for me the principles are : 1) loose your ego 2) listen 3) create together.
Pretty self-explanatory, I guess.
In a live situation, decisions between creatives often work without words. How does this process work – and how does it change your performance compared to a solo performance?
Oh absolutely, it’s actually unspoken rule not to talk, negotiate or discuss how to approach a live performance. Really nothing is being talked about, not even who will start or end a performance.
Again, me coming from a claustrophobic environment of working on music meticulously and in extreme detail, this is a truly liberating event and I wouldn’t have it differently. It’s so rewarding and just so much fun.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? In which way is it different between your solo work and collaborations?
Oh yes, there’s a huge difference between performing solo and in collaboration. Just the state you’re in at the moment of truth is so the opposite, at least it’s for me. Not only musically but also time-wise a solo concert is way more controlled and focused on what you want to aim for.
In collaboration you just loose that notion of time as you know when it’s time to end, the musical language dictates it all. The sheer pleasure of jumping unprepared into such a group session is really overpowering.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
Quite important since most of the improvisations I do or am part of are fully acoustic ones. Sometimes we do use amplifiers or so but the balance between all is made on stage. No front of house amplification is used. So the acoustics of the stage and the space you’re performing in is essential to the smoothness on how an improvisation evolves and is rewarding.
But even bad acoustics are fascinating at times as you have to work harder to reach the result you want to have. The interaction with the audience is another part of the entire process, not that our intention to ‘entertain’ the listeners but somehow you do feel the vibe and how the performance is being received. It can dictate the further exploration, for sure.
Just recently we did a quintet session at a local chapel and since the reverb was relatively long (but luckily warm) we all had to work around it and even communicate with the room to assure the blending of our instruments. Interesting how a room become an extra player in the improvisation.
In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music and improvisation express and reveal about life and death?
Interesting, never looked at it like this. I always felt that, despite the way of recording, improvised music over the years has been timeless. It stands the test of time, I feel. And this is exactly that what probably draws me to the genre as well as there’s no obligation, state of urgency or commitment to keep everything in the present and future.
For me improvised music moves beyond the concept of time, and luckily outside the actual facts like life and death.