TONUS : CAGEAN MORPHOLOGY
Dirk Serries : acoustic guitar
Martina Verhoeven : piano
Performed, recorded, mixed and mastered at the Sunny Side Inc. Studio, Anderlecht
(Belgium) on March 10th 2018. Sleeve notes : Guy Peters. Layout : Rutger Zuydervelt
“Now that the hot days are finally (!) behind us, or so it seems, it is time to switch off that ventilator and put on some quiet music that otherwise may have been lost and luckily there is a lot of quiet music to be heard. Dirk Serries, whom you might know as Vidna Obmana, Fears Falls Burning and Microphonics, has embraced improvisation music and with the same force he did his older works he is now in full swing playing that. His new ensemble is called Tonus, and it is a rotating group of people, including Serries on acoustic guitar, his wife Martine Verhoeven on piano and a changing cast of other players. I started with the disc with them as a duo, ‘Cagean Morphology’,
recorded in March 2018 and it is a single, thirty-four minute semi-improvisation (which I assume implies some level of planning), which I guess is inspired by John Cage and his notion ‘silence is music as well’; or ‘silence doesn’t exist’. Somewhere in time everybody seemed to believe that all music by Cage should be silent, so also all that he inspired. I beg to differ, which is of course a whole different discussion. Serries and Verhoeven play a very silent piece; a tone here, a strum there, maybe even two notes, but it is always followed by a bit of silence. Rather than thinking of Cage here, which, had it not been mentioned in the title, wouldn’t have occurred to me, I was thinking of Wandelweiser composers, without any one in particular, with the exception of Taku Sugimoto. Serries delicate work on the guitar and the level of concentration reminded me ofTaku’s work in that direction. The recording is beautiful; spacious and quite detailed and this is
an utterly refined work.” Vital Weekly – The Netherlands
“Na de vele verschillende projecten waarbij in de beginne uitgesponnen ambient (Vidna Obmana), later doom drones (Fear Falls Burning), weer wat later ambient drones (Microphonics / Dirk Serries) en uiteindelijk improv (waarin ook veelal, maar niet alleen langgerekte gitaren te horen waren) keert Dirk Serriesmet zijn ensemble/collectief Tonus weer een nieuwe richting in.
Op “Cagean Morphology” (een van de drie nieuwe releases, een andere keer meer over de twee andere) werkt hij samen met pianiste (en partner) Martina Verhoeven.
Na de eerdere, zeer geslaagde samenwerking “Innoncent As Virgin Wood” waar ik moest denken aan Keith Rowe en John Tilbury, nemen ze samen nu nog een stap verder richting het verstilde. Eigenlijk zoals de naam al doet vermoeden doet het wel denken aan John Cagedit maal, maar ook Morton Feldman lijkt niet ver weg.
De akoestische gitaar en piano wisselen elkaar af door steeds een enkele noot te spelen waartussen steeds zeer veel ruimte voor stilte is. Stilte waarin je het voorgaande spel op je in kunt laten gaan, of ook (zoals Cage zou willen) kunt luisteren naar je omgeving.
Of het improvisatie is zoals eerder werk op A New Wave Of Jazz, of een uitgeschreven compositie is moeilijk te zeggen, maar er lijken patronen in het spel te zitten, wat vooral bij de piano van Verhoeven meer naar voren komt.
Een album voor bezinning en rust, en net zoals het werk van Cage en Feldman zeer aangenaam om naar te beluisteren. En een van mijn favorieten in de A New Wave Of Jazz serie.” De Subjectivisten – The Netherlands
“A New Wave Of Jazz is readying a package of three Tonus albums for release next month. A double-live album called Intermediate Obscurities I-IV and two studio-recorded discs: Texture Point and Cagean Morphology.
Tonus is a rotating ensemble built primarily around the dual-axis of Martina Verhoeven and Dirk Serries.
“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
“34:06, Cagean Morphology
Miejsce i czas: Sunny Side Inc. Studio, Anderlecht, 10 marca 2018. Muzycy: Dirk Serries – gitara akustyczna, Martina Verhoeven – fortepian.
Po dwóch sekstetach i jednym trio, na sam finał Tonusowej epopei, wracamy do bazy fonicznej całej koncepcji. Tylko akord piana i akord gitary, a pomiędzy nimi ogromne połacie białej, lekkiej jak puch ciszy. Cage przywołany w tytule tej części, nie wymaga uzasadnienia. Jakby muzycy wykonywali jego 4:33, przypadkiem podkreślając dramaturgię spektaklu pojedynczymi dźwiękami. Piano z dużym pogłosem, gitara zdana jedynie na swe niezbyt duże pudło rezonansowe. Akordy Martiny nieco dłużej wybrzmiewają, akordy Dirka giną w sekundę po ich ujawnieniu. Sporadycznie ta pierwsza pozwala sobie zagrać więcej niż jeden dźwięk w trakcie pojedynczej sekwencji. Ten drugi raczej stroni od takich ekstrawagancji. Ekspozycja pełna Morfologii Cage’a z pewnością dostarcza nam więcej ciszy niż samych dźwięków. Na poziomie konceptualnym – pełna akceptacja, na muzycznym – płyta do przetrwania.” 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
“***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.” 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