Free improvisation’s commitment to constant reinvention from the ground up is a both a blessing and a curse. Done well, this protean restless is a source of liberation for performer and listener alike. But when it is unsuccessful, the approach can seem rigid, a set of rote gestures repeated ad-nauseum, never taking flight. The line between transcendence and failure is often micron-thin; indeed, sometimes it’s not even a line at all, more a shifting field that’s too easy to get caught in. Constant vigilance is a necessity.
This, perhaps, explains the strategy adopted by Dirk Serries for his compelling set of improvisations with saxophonist Jan Daelman and pianist Thijs Troch. Serries is relatively new to the world of free improvisation, but he has a venerable background in carefully-produced ambient electronica, and his considered approach to creating new works has, undoubtedly, informed the way he’s put together this release. Rather than getting everyone together in a room and recording the results, Serries curated an evolving lineup of two duos (Daelman/Serries, then Serries/Troch), a trio and then, finally, a reworking of what’s gone before into a longform electroacoustic exploration. Each configuration gets a whole side of tape to play with, allowing for some serious sonic investigation and a satisfyingly diverse experience all round.
The guitar-sax inferno that is Daelman and Serries tips us headfirst into the action, with a scorching duo set recorded in Anderlecht. Daelman’s playing is brassy and atonal, laying down squealing, overblown riffs like a volcano disgorging flaming rocks while Serries sprays out barbed wire fuzz that is just as incendiary. It’s uncompromising, open-ended stuff, not so much communication as furious embrace, the two grappling each other with pugilistic glee, at least for the first two-thirds. The final section takes the heat off slightly, Daelman wheezing and kvetching like a goose with a burst lung, his ragged breaths giving way to Serries’ metallic scrapes – it’s entirely possible he’s emptied an entire cutlery drawer onto his instrument and is desperately searching for a missing cake fork, such is the tinny clatter that he achieves.
The teaspoons and steak knives have been well and truly cleared away by the time pianist Thijs Troch arrives for his shift. This is a differently flavoured dish, its three-act structure indebted to classic free improv modes. The duo circle each other warily at first, Troch’s prepared piano alternating dampened thuds and avian plinks, while Serries lurks in the background, content with visceral, wince-inducing scratches. Though not as high-octane as the Serries-Daelman exchange it’s hectic enough, but for my money the brooding lull halfway through is more rewarding, the eerie creeks floating free from their creators in a dark lagoon of space. Apart from a brief flurry of spiky dissonance, this is the path taken for the rest of the session, Serries coaxing arco-like clouds of whine from his guitar before Troch is drawn, finally, into an extended foray that balances melodrama with lyricism.
When the trio finally get together, what could have been an explosive collision turns into a case study for restraint. Serries occupies the early minutes, rubbing the guitar as if he’s polishing His Lordship’s horse brasses, and Troch’s piano interventions, though sparing, are never less than well-judged. Daelman, meanwhile, is on flute and occasional baby violin, a decision which also pays off in spades. His woody, questing flute licks take the trio deep into the magic forest, like the luxurious vibrations of Herbie Mann’s Stone Flute recreated by the New London Silence crew. The trio’s bed of scrapes and hisses requires only the most basic nod to melody to recast the whole monochrome scene in colour, and the breezy flute-piano interlude two-thirds of the way through feels as if the warmth of the sun has finally penetrated the woody canopy.
To be honest, any of these three meetings would have been worth the price of admission. I’ve seen full-price CDs containing less invention, not to mention shorter runtimes. But the icing on the cake is Serries’ cold-blooded sculpting of these sessions into a new 20-minute piece. For free improv purists, this may be sacrilege – after all, to treat these documents as mere sound-sources to be processed and manipulated is to violate that communal engagement and interpersonal communication fundamental to this form of musicking. And, if you think that, there may not be much I can do to dissuade you. But I would urge doubters to rein in their skepticism and listen to this marvellous slice of abrasive meditation, its icy space traversed by a series of melancholic, droning chords and punctured by bursts of white-noise fuzz.
That the original duo and trio performances are unrecognizable should be taken as read, but, in addition, Serries has transformed each of the individual contributions into something completely different, too. You’d be hard-pushed to pick out saxophone or piano from this shifting canvas of overlapping tones, and even the distorted burps of guitar, while retaining their essential identifying characteristics, have an abstracted, glitching quality, as if their source code has been subtly tampered with. The result is a proper music of the cosmos – freezing cold, pitch-black and starkly beautiful.