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TONUS . INTERMEDIATE OBSCURITIES I + IV
2xcd

Disc One : I

Jan Daelman : flute
George Hadow : drums
Dirk Serries : acoustic guitar
Martina Verhoeven : piano
Nils Vermeulen : double bass
Colin Webster : alto saxophone

Constructed during the Jazzcase residency between November 13th and 16th 2017, based
upon a piano leitmotif by Martina Verhoeven. Performed live at Dommelhof, Neerpelt
(Belgium) on November 16th, 2017. Recorded by Piet Vermonden. Mixed by Dirk
Serries. Mastered at the Sunny Side Inc. Studio.

Disc Two : IV

Cath Roberts : baritone saxophone
Dirk Serries : acoustic guitar
Benedict Taylor : viola
Tom Ward : bass clarinet
Colin Webster : alto saxophone
Otto Willberg : double bass

Performed live at Hundred Years Gallery, London (UK) on January 14th 2018. Graphic
score by Dirk Serries. Recorded and mixed by Dirk Serries. Mastered at the Sunny Side
Inc. Studio. Sleeve Notes : Guy Peters. Layout : Rutger Zuydervelt.

“The third release by Tonus is a double CD and sees them on both as a sextet, but with
different members. Both discs are live concerts, the first one recorded in Belgium, following a three-day residency. Besides Serries and Verhoeven (who wrote the leitmotiv) there is Jan Daelman (flute), George Hadow (drums), Nils Vermeulen (double bass) and Colin Webster (alto saxophone). Despite the extended line-up and quite different instruments, ‘Intermediate Obscurities I’ is another radical piece (I wrote these reviews one a day, I must add, not right after each other; that would simply be too demanding), lasting close to an hour and contains some music that is not unlike that of Morton Feldman; sometimes long sustaining sounds, sometimes a succession of shorter sounds. They overlap each other at times, or stand entirely by themselves, stretching it out, compressing them, but whatever configuration is chosen it is  always different. While it is demanding, I think there is also an aspect of easiness to this; tranquillity if you will that is almost ambient like, albeit of course of an acoustic nature. The other sextet was recorded some months later in London, and Verhoeven wasn’t present, so we have
besides Serries, Benedict Taylor, Colin Webster, Cath Roberts (baritone sax), Tom Ward (bass clarinet), and Otto Wilberg (double bass). That is three times stringed instruments versus three wind instruments. The three wind instruments provide a more sustaining sound, so this becomes quite a different Tonus; the one with the least amount of silences between the notes and there is always something happening. Serries wrote the graphic score for this piece (would love to see  these sort of things printed on the cover) and no doubt the layering is shown there. The three string instruments acts accordingly and also seem to be playing longer formed notes. After some three or more hours of Tonus music on a succession of days I believe this is an ensemble with much potential.” Vital Weekly – The Netherlands

“Tonus as an ensemble grew out of my Jazzcase residency in 2017,” wrote Serries in an email. “I brought together a sextet to work around a slow piano motif by Martina Verhoeven. The literal translation of Tonus is muscle strength, but in this context defines a musical system that places equal importance on the space between notes. Both definitions apply here as the music is an exercise in discipline and anticipation while controlling the clarity, sustain and effect of each single note played.”

The work is sparse and dramatic. Frequent, sometimes extended periods of quiet (if not outright silence) enhance the impact of each performance. What we get, in fact, is a series of precise, short performances that make up each lengthy piece. (The seven new works sport runtimes between 9:06 and 57:59.)

That is not to suggest that each is a series of solos. There is real interplay at work here. But by slowing it all down, Tonus luxuriates over every single idea.

Intermediate Obscurities I-IV is a double-live album recorded at Jazzcase in Belgium and Hundred Years Gallery in London. The first performance features Verhoeven on piano, Serries on acoustic guitar, Colin Webster on alto saxophone, Nils Vermeulen on double bass, George Hadow on drums and Jan Daelman on flute. The second has Otto Willberg on double bass, Tom Ward on bass clarinet, Benedict Taylor on viola, Cath Roberts on baritone saxophone, Webster on alto saxophone and Serries on acoustic guitar.

Benedict Taylor performs viola with Verhoeven and Serries on Texture Point. Cagean Morphology features Verhoeven and Serries as a duo.” Badd Press – Canada

“Wanneer we op zoek gaan naar iets dat de vroegste noise (en latere ambient) van vidnaObmana verbindt met de gitaarexperimenten van Fear Falls Burning of Microphonics en de huidige passie voor improvisatie (YODOK III), komen we uit bij de atmosferische invalshoek en de onstuitbare drang naar volmaakt minimalisme.  Met zijn jongste incarnatie, TONUS, lijkt Dirk Serries deze passie tot het uiterste te drijven.  Wie zich aan luide kakofonische toestanden verwacht, wanneer men een improviserend freejazzsextet probeert voor te stellen, komt op de dubbele live-cd ‘Intermediate Obscurities I+IV’ zwaar bedrogen uit.  Eerder het omgekeerde is waar : elke instrument waaiert zacht uit in een drones en galm, en de sfeer is dermate sereen dat je de indruk krijgt dat de zes muzikanten bijna angst hebben om eens welk geluid te produceren.  Saxofoon, bas, akoestische gitaar of klarinet, het speelt geen rol: elke klankje draagt subtiel bij tot een kortstondig dronescape, en dat geen van de deelnemers bang is van stiltemomenten, had intussen je zelf al geraden.  Zeer geschikt in een rituele context (denk : tempelmuziek), en wat ons betreft ook aangenaam tijdens het lezen.  Op ‘Texture Point’ wordt het deelnemersveld gehalveerd, en de stilte verdubbeld.  Het is vooral de dreigende pianoaanslag van Martina Verhoeven die ons bij de les houdt, terwijl Serries (gitaren) en de altviool van Benedict Taylor (London Improvisers Orchestra) eerder zacht schrapen dan slaan.  In tegenstelling tot het sextet, levert dit trio moeilijke muziek voor moeilijke mensen af, die weinig andere nevenactiviteit verdraagt.  Luisteren in opperste concentratie, tot een pianoklank je een meter hoog doet opveren, is hier de boodschap.  Tot slot blijft voor ‘Cagean Morphology’ enkel het koppel Serries-Verhoeven over op respectievelijk akoestische gitaar en piano.  We zouden kunnen schrijven dat het tweetal de instrumenten gebruikt om met elkaar in dialoog te gaan, maar dan moeten we vaststellen dat ze elkaar vierendertig minuten lang bitter weinig te vertellen hebben.  En wat er te horen valt, is bijzonder kort en soms van een zachtheid die met de gehoorgrens flirt.  Eerder lijkt dit op een psychologisch spel met de luisteraar : komt er nog klank of niet ?
Hoewel er vanuit andere bronnen vertrokken wordt, denken we onder andere aan het werk van Bernhard Günter.  Natuurlijk zijn we evenmin blind voor de verwijzing naar John Cage, maar als we het principe van 4’33” toepassen, wordt de compositie van Verhoeven en Serries tijdens onze sessies vervolledigd met de bosmaaier en de elektrische hegschaar van de buren.  Industrieel geschoold of niet: we kiezen dus voor gesloten ogen en een koptelefoon.  Eerlijk gezegd hadden we nog op een vierde cd gerekend, waarop Serries in zijn eentje stilte produceert om het concept te vervolmaken (bijvoorbeeld door het onaangeroerd laten van een piano) maar naar het schijnt is dit al eerder voorgedaan in een live setting (de componist is ontschiet ons even).  Deze cd’s zijn gelimiteerd op driehonderd exemplaren en huizen in een passend sober hoesontwerp van Rutger Zuydervelt.”  Gonzo Circus – Belgium

Usually when someone says a thing is too simple, they’re saying that certain familiar things aren’t there. – Donald Judd (1965)

Tonus – literalnie: siła mięśni, ale także rodzaj systemu muzycznego, który w procesie tworzenia dźwięków przykłada takie samo znaczenie nutom, jak i przestrzeni pomiędzy nimi.

57:39, Intermediate Obscurities I

Miejsce i czas: Dommelhof, Neerpelt (Belgia), nagrane na żywo, 16 listopada, 2017. Muzycy: Jan Daelman – flet, George Hadow – perkusja, Dirk Serries – gitara akustyczna,  Martina Verhoeven – fortepian, Nils Vermeulen – kontrabas, Colin Webster – saksofon altowy.

Bazą dla prowadzenia rozbudowanej narracji, opartej na swobodnej improwizacji, ale także dyscyplinie, kontrolowaniu emocji i antycypowaniu zdarzeń na scenie, jest leitmotif grany przez pianistkę. Kluczem do zrozumienia przedsięwzięcia artystycznego zdaje się być przyjęta przez muzyków metoda twórcza, oparta na strukturalnym minimalizmie – akord piana, rezonans talerza, plusk gitary, szmer z tuby altu i fletu. Opowieść budowana jest z pojedynczych fraz instrumentów strunowych i fortepianu oraz nieco dłuższych interwałów instrumentów dętych. Misterna pajęczyna akustycznych dźwięków i duże porcje umiejętnie dozowanej ciszy. Rodzaj abstrakcyjnej kameralistyki, wtłoczonej w proces kolektywnej improwizacji. Narracja prowadzona w oparach dychotomicznego minimalizmu, który nie pęta jednak inwencji muzyków, ale wręcz ją kreuje. Pytanie recenzenta o zasięg i charakter predefinicji samego procesu improwizacji pozostaje na ten czas retoryczne.

Czas zdecydowanie pracuje na korzyść naszej percepcji, zwłaszcza, że struktura dźwięków generowanych przez szóstkę muzyków gęstnieje (choćby rozbudowany dron Webstera w 12 minucie), ma swoje punkty przegięcia, momenty stopowania i twórczego restartu. W sumie najmniej dźwięków zdaje się wydawać sam Serries, który dyskretnie czuwa nad przebiegiem spektaklu, być może także prowadzi małą dyrygenturę. Uroda długich dźwięków fletu i altu, ulotność fraz perkusisty (Hadow dużo wnosi do tej historii – drży, szeleści, kontrapunktuje), także kontrabasisty, konsekwentna repetycja pianistki. Saksofonista, co rusz zdobi przestrzeń drobinami swoich z trudem tłumionych emocji – małe drony i skrawki ekspresji. Jak na przyjętą konwencję minimalistyczną, opowieść toczy się wartko, ma wiele smaków i ozdobników. Oczywiście repetycja jest tu narzędziem dominującym. W 30 minucie na gryfie kontrabasu bodaj po raz pierwszy pojawia się smyczek. To nowy element, który zaczyna dominować w procesie improwizacji i będzie to czynić nad wyraz konsekwentnie już do końca koncertu. Dobrze wspomagają go coraz silniej rezonujące talerze. Druga część spektaklu obfituje w większą ilość sustained pieces. Jakość ekspozycji zdaje się rosnąć w oczach! Po 45 minucie dostrzegamy pierwsze symptomy wygaszania narracji, ale nie wszyscy muzycy są w tym dziele równie zdeterminowani. Interwały zdają się być dłuższe, a tworzenie dźwięków odbywa się w jeszcze większym skupieniu. Chyba tylko rozochocony smyczek kontrabasisty zgłasza tu zdanie odrębne. Złowieszczo grzmi choćby w 48 minucie. W samym finale rola Vermeulena jest również kluczowa. Dalece wyraziste pasaże fletu i altu. Oto, jak kameralistyka delikatnie wpada w ogień. Końcowa cisza zostaje wszakże osiągnięta bezkonfliktowo.

45:20, Intermediate Obscurities IV

Miejsce i czas: Hundred Years Gallery, Londyn, nagrane na żywo, 14 stycznia 2018. Muzycy: Cath Roberts – saksofon barytonowy, Dirk Serries – gitara akustyczna, Benedict Taylor – altówka, Tom Ward – klarnet basowy, Colin Webster – saksofon altowy, Otto Willberg – kontrabas.

Początkowa sekwencja dźwięków jest następująca – gitara, kontrabas i saksofon. Muzycy improwizują wedle wskazówek graficznych przygotowanych przez gitarzystę. Ponownie dyktat pojedynczych fraz, wspieranych minimalnie dłuższymi wypowiedziami klarnetu basowego. Onirycznie, tajemniczo, więcej odcinków sustained niż w trakcie pierwszej części Intermediate Obscurities. Serries stawia małe stemple, reszta płynie dość zwinnie, nie unikając wszakże punktów przystankowych. Struktura dronów, jakie wydają z siebie muzycy jest dalece interesująca – trzy wyraziste dęciaki i kontrabas ze smykiem mają swoją moc i dar przekonywania. Jakby mniej minimalizmu, więcej upiornej i nie rzadko błyskotliwej filharmonii. Baryton i klarnet basowy, niczym mur chiński, nie biorą tu jeńców. W 17 minucie cały sekstet staje w głębokiej ciszy. Serries pojedynczymi akordami nawołuje do nowych ekspozycji. Fragment niemal zatopiony w głuchej bezdźwięczności. Altówka – chyba o niej zapomnieliśmy! – gra tylko długie dźwięki i wtapia się w dęty obraz sytuacji scenicznej. Gdy nagle wszyscy muzycy wypuszczają oddech, ekspozycja potrafi być nawet głośna. W 24 minucie alt Webstera próbuje szarpać strukturę narracji, ale nie znajduje specjalnego posłuchu wśród pozostałych improwizatorów. Po chwili kolejny pasus ciszy wyznaczy start nowej opowieści. Okazuje się, że hałas potrafi być od tejże ciszy jedynie nieznacznie oddalony.

Podobnie, jak w trakcie pierwszej części sekstetowego Tonusa, w połowie koncertu bardziej aktywną postawę zaczyna prezentować kontrabas. Ryje głębokie bruzdy w ziemi, ostrym jak brzytwa smyczkiem. Faktura dronów gęstnieje, choć pojedyncze ich pasma wydają się bardziej separatywne. Bez problemu jesteśmy w stanie rozpoznać poszczególne instrumenty (zwłaszcza alt Webstera). Docenić należy urodę pasaży generowanych wspólnie przez altówkę i kontrabas. 40 minuta, to początek tłumienia emocji. Strunowceszukają inspiracji w okresie późnego baroku, dęciaki dmą niczym filharmonia w trakcie napisów końcowych. Na ostatniej prostej niespodziewanie tembr sekstetu ponownie gęstnieje, przypomina pomruk stada wygłodniałych niedźwiedzi. Finał opowieści jest definitywnie piękny, tak w wymiarze akustycznym, jak i dramaturgicznym. Trwały niepokój bardzo swobodnych dronów. Koniec jest nagły i dotkliwy.” Spontaneous Music Tribune – Poland

“Ok, the label name is unfortunate. The three items above are the first I’ve heard from this imprint and, as it happens, the music has little to do with jazz, though I take it from looking through the label’s catalog that prior releases do.

Tonus seems to be a project of guitarist Dirk Serries, the personnel varying from album to album, in these cases from duo to trio to two sets of sextets. ‘Intermediate Obscurities I + IV’ is a two-disc release, performed by those sextets. On ‘I’, listed as being “based on a leitmotif by Martina Verhoeven’, the ensemble has a superficial jazz-like aspect: Jan Daelman, flute; George Hadow, drums; Serries, acoustic guitar; Verhoeven, piano; Nils Vermeulen, double bass; Colin Webster, alto saxophone. If I were searching for any quasi jazz-related music to compare with this 58-minute work, recorded live, maybe I’d go with some of the sparer Roscoe Mitchell. Carefully composed, softly played longish lines overlap in ever-changing patterns, the tones ranging from clear to harmonics-laden (especially the arco bass, sometimes the alto). The flute and alto tend toward the higher registers, never harsh, the percussion arhythmic and sparsely colorful, the piano and guitar injecting slightly acidic chords as needed. The basic character and approach is maintained throughout but the interior details are constantly shifting. It only moves internally, but that movement and the choices made are engrossing. ‘IV’, a graphic score by Serries, utilizes an ensemble with Cath Roberts, baritone saxophone; Serries, Acoustic guitar; Benedict Taylor, viola; Tom Ward, bass clarinet; Webster, alto saxophone; and Otto Willberg, double bass. There are certain similarities with the previous work: a single piece, here about 45-minutes long, remaining in more or less the same territory for its duration, the instruments playing longish, overlapping tones. But, perhaps via the instrumentation, it’s pitched lower, darker and, to no small degree, more sumptuously. When the baritone, alto (played low) and bass clarinet combine in complex harmonies, the effect is quite luxurious. There are also occasions where the intensity level surges, though not for long. Some listeners might consider the two pieces overly akin. I don’t have that problem at all and hear them as related, but entirely distinct and very absorbing entities.

‘Texture Point’ presents four tracks, performed by Serries (acoustic guitar), Verhoeven  (piano) and Taylor (viola). There’s no indication of compositional credit given here, so I’m guessing the pieces are improvised (Guy Peters, in his liner notes–he also wrote them for the other two releases–is a little defensive here, as though writing for listeners unused to this atmosphere), though the three “textural” pieces are indeed that while the single pointillistic one lives up to its title. ‘Texture I’ offsets deep notes from the piano, lending the music a darkly romantic, even gothic aura, with mid-range, rich plucks from the guitar, both sliding alongside rougher scratching, bowing and rubbing from the viola. ‘Textures  II’ is more vibrant, the piano crystalline, though the viola is more somber, with low, wailing laments. The pointedness of “Point A” resides in the piano and, especially, the guitar–the viola casting skittering harmonics that swirl around the two more stationary sound emitters, the music growing harsher as it progresses. Finally, ‘Texture III’, returns to the rich bleakness, both the guitar and piano plucking dry tones against sustained, darkly questioning, isolated piano tones. A very impressive recording.

The third release, ‘Cagean  Morphology’, is a duo with Serries and Verhoeven, a single 34-minute piece. Again improvised, this is easily the sparest of the three offerings, the single, ringing tones of the instruments allowed to hang and decay, leaving much silence. One picks up the likely influence of the Wandelweiser school here. As with the previous works, the music remains consistently within one “space” throughout and, again, manages to offer patterns, exceedingly slow as they are, that subtly vary, more than maintaining the listener’s interest. Toward the end, the piano hits several high, brilliant notes while the guitar answers with more hesitant, wavering ones–very lovely.

All three recordings carry a fine quality of perseverance, of sustaining an idea over a long time, closely investigating aspects encountered, a favorite approach of mine. Highly recommended.” Just Outside – USA

“Belgium label A New Wave of Jazz has released a steady discography of albums, all sharing an in-house visual design that favors minimal aesthetics. This visual identity, incidentally, is the work of Rutger Zuydervelt, the experimental sound artist who records as Machinefabriek. This dedication to minimalism extends to the sounds on these releases, each exploring a less is more approach to improvised jazz.

Label director Dirk Serries is present on all recordings, and this month sees the release of a trio of Tonus albums. Tonus is described as “the next chapter in his ongoing investigation into the relation between sound and time”, which is certainly evident on these three new works. Space, slowness and an exercise in restraint are common threads in each. Tonus is a collaborative project which involves Serries, his wife Martina Verhoeven and a revolving cast of musicians, and this set of albums documents both live and studio settings.

Intermediate Obscurities I + IV contains the largest group of artists with Serries, and also the most material, clocking in with two long-form pieces just shy of an hour each. “I” sees a total of six members utilizing a range of instruments, but never feels crowded. A single piano key or hit of a drum will dot the piece as will a strum of guitar, but these are connected by longer drones and flutes. This piece was constructed as part of a residency in Belgium and has a “live in the studio” feel. “IV” on the other hand is an actual live recording from a performance in London which is looser and a little more jagged, adding tension and unpredictability. Improvisation is often referred to as a language, where the members are forming a narrative in the moment, and this first statement in the Tonus series is doing just that. Group communion, group communication.

With Texture Point, the group is reduced to three, and the reduction of sounds is taken even further. Serries is joined by Benedict Taylor on viola and again Martina Verhoeven on piano. Verhoeven’s piano notes on this recording are much darker and lower than “I + IV”. The spaces between all points on this studio recording become longer and longer, the reductionist aesthetic more pronounced. At times the viola is scraped into alien textures that add dissonance to otherwise clean guitar plucks and keys. Toward the second half of the third track, “Point A”, the sounds forge together and rise up to form a rare moment of denseness, before retreating into even lengthier shadows of silence. The last five minutes of the final track, “Texture III”, are filled with room tones and almost-silence that serve as the perfect way to end this CD.

The final installment is a single 34 minute piece spread across the disc entitled Cagean Morphology. Clearly named after John Cage, this piece sees only Verhoeven as Serries’ collaborator, again on piano, him on acoustic guitar. Of the three albums, this takes the philosophy of minimalism to its most extreme. No doubt informed by Cage’s maxims on the notion of silence, prolonged stretches of nothingness rest between single notes, creating a deep, quiet music that requires active listening. Listening to this, I’m reminded of Taku Sugimoto, whose ultra-minimal guitar playing could often test the patience of his audience. His work in Tokyo’s experimental “onkyo” scene has a rival in this new Belgian strategy. Dirk Serries and his Tonus collective appear to be seeking out new scenarios of improvisation based on silence, minimalism and collaboration that signals an exciting future in this area.” Toneshift – USA

“As the name of his New Wave Of Jazz CD label suggests, Belgian guitarist Dirk Serries has, in recent years, concentrated on creating gnarly free-jazz and improv with willing co-conspirators such as UK saxophonist Colin Webster. With his new TONUS project, however, he moves perhaps a little closer to the ambient works he’s also known for. Working with pianist Martina Verhoeven and a team of guest performers across a handful of discs, TONUS concentrates on creating minimalist acoustic music that is slow, sparse and spacious – almost to the point of distraction. Cagean Morphology is a 34-mnute piece for acoustic guitar and piano that contains more silence than sound: single, isolated notes separated by yawning chasms of anticipation. Texture Point widens the aesthetic, but only just – expanding to a trio with British viola player Benedict Taylor whose spectral scrapes and ghostly harmonics provide a fragile bed for Verhoeven’s Feldmanesque clusters and Serries’ diffident plucks. Intermediate Obscurities I+IV features two discs, each with a live performance by a different sextet. ‘I’, documents an AngloBelgium ensemble negotiating the challenge of creating a coherent, hour-long group statement while leaving enough room to make sure that no individual gesture ever overlaps with another, while drummer George Hadow provides a ritualistic backdrop of gently swelling toms and sighing brushes. On ‘IV’, Serries and an all-British cast of collaborators, including Sloth Racket’s Cath Roberts on baritone sax, navigate his graphic score, generating crystalline drones and maudlin moans. Serious music for serious times” Jazzwise – UK

“****. 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.” The Free Jazz Collective – USA

“When Dirk Serries announced that his excellent 2018 set Epitaph would be his final release of vintage ambient material, one part of me expected he’d follow the two-CD set with an even more intense brand of high-decibel free jazz than the kind he’d earlier issued on his New Wave Of Jazz label. How surprising, then, to be presented with a triptych of releases that’s even quieter than Epitaph, three exercises in extreme minimalism that strip music to its skeletal core. Each is credited to Tonus (literally, “muscle strength”), a name that serves as an umbrella term for Serries on acoustic guitar, his wife Martine Verhoeven on piano, and an ever-malleable cast of others. That the Belgian guitarist is credited with acoustic on all three rather than his standard electric is obviously an immediate sign that the project’s unlike any other with which he’s been involved.

The seed for Tonus was planted during a 2017 residency when Serries convened a sextet to create material using a piano motif by Verhoeven as a starting point. Performances by that ensemble are featured on Intermediate Obscurities I + IV, a double-CD set performed by two iterations of the group, one that appeared at the Jazzcase residency in Belgium and the other at Hundred Years Gallery in London. The second release, Texture Point, pares the ensemble to a trio with Serries and Verhoeven joined by British violist Benedict Taylor, while the third, Cagean Morphology, features the married couple only.

An in-studio piece recorded in March 2018 and described on the inner sleeve as an “exercise in minimalist composing in real time,” the duo set’s a single-track, thirty-four minute performance comprised of the tiniest of brushstrokes. If one were to add up precisely how much time is dedicated to pregnant pauses and silence, in all likelihood there would more of that than instrument sounds. Typically, a single note by one, often an emphatic splash of colour, is answered by the same from the other, which engenders a further response, and so on, the couple’s dialogue executed with an almost unnerving degree of patience and discipline. Tension pervades this spacious meditation as the resonance of one note fades away before the equally resonant pluck of the next follows. Think of it as an introspective, minimalistic exercise in time-suspension and deep listening.

Without betraying the minimalism principle, Tonus’s world naturally expands with Taylor added to Texture Point, which presents four settings as opposed to one only. Just as Serries and Verhoeven favour single-note plucks, Taylor eschews conventional statements for gentle plucks and guttural scrapes, his bow for the latter dragged across the strings to produce raw expressions (one might, in isolated moments, be forgiven for thinking of Tony Conrad in his early Theatre of Eternal Music period or John Cale during his tenure with The Velvet Underground). The balance between instrument sounds and silence tips in the former’s favour, with the three largely filling the space while still leaving enough room for notes to bleed into silence. Though the general character of the fifty-three-minute recording is still meditative, there’s a greater amount of activity than on the duo set, which makes for a more animated result, even if the trio’s methodical interplay is often of the lurching and stop-start variety.

Arguably the release with the broadest potential appeal is Intermediate Obscurities I + IV, which presents different sextet configurations on two discs, the first a single-track, fifty-eight-minute live performance recorded in Belgium in November 2017 (following a three-day residency) and the second also live, this one forty-five minutes and captured in London on January 14th, 2018. On disc one, Serries and Verhoeven are joined by Jan Daelman (flute), George Hadow (drums), Nils Vermeulen (double bass), and Colin Webster (alto saxophone), an all-acoustic outfit that could execute an uptempo brand of free jazz if it were so inclined. But in keeping with the spirit of the Tonus concept, the musicians opt for methodical, lurching flow and single-note statements untethered from regulated tempo. Moments of silence are naturally in shorter supply on this release, with the expressions now tending to overlap and assemble into multilayered formation. Distinct contrasts in timbres also allows for clear separation between the instruments, which makes for a rich, stimulating sound field. Hadow restrainedly punctuates the flow with percussive accents, while the others colour this generally peaceful landscape with painterly gestures and sustained tones, from the rasp of Webster’s sax and groan of Vermeulen’s double bass to the murmur of Daelman’s flute. Dissonance sometimes creeps into the performance when pitches combine, but the material is largely placid in character, the execution ultra-disciplined and the outfit more chamber ensemble than jazz group.

The London performance brings with it significant changes in instrumentation, with Verhoeven sitting out and the ensemble split between strings and woodwinds: Serries (acoustic guitar), Benedict Taylor (viola), and Otto Wilberg (double bass) the former, and Cath Roberts (baritone sax), Tom Ward (bass clarinet), and Colin Webster (alto sax) the latter. Though the meditative, ponderous approach of the other Tonus performances remains in place, this ensemble takes on a dramatically different sound when the deep low-end generated by Ward and Roberts is heard alongside the sustained tones of Taylor and Wilberg. Contrasts of pitch and dynamics are boldly evident in the performance, and consequently this thickly textured drone very quickly pulls the listener into its absorptive world.” Textura – Canada