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Interview with Vidna Obmana

August 03 2004, by Igor PETRUSKA


Belgian Dirk Serries , alias vidnaObmana rates among the most noteworthy performers within the current electronic/ambient scene. His extensive discography is comprised of thirty highly rated albums (both professionally and by the listeners) whether they were released by himself alone, or realized within collaboration with other artists such as Steve Roach, Asmus Tiechens, Alio Die, Jeff Pierce, and Sam Rosenthal. To his credit he also has music for Dutch national radio, the Zoo in Antwerp, and Japanese television...

He first came to the awareness of the listening public at the end of the 1980`s with a production markedly influenced by Brian Eno, and into which he began adding various musical styles including ethno, world music, tribal-ambient, industrial, as well as post-classic. The concept of his work is perhaps best characterized by the title itself - Vidna Obmana, which in Serbo-Croatian means something like `optical trick` or `illusion`.

"Personally, I see music like water," Dirk said at one time through one of his interviews. "It is a singular element with the unique ability to change form, flowing and changing, but never losing the qualities of movement and fluidity. It can be very lively and dramatic, but at the same time it can be very silent and cold..." Just as water constantly changes its form and shape, change itself is the constant element within the work of Vidna Obmana... During the two decades of activity on the scene, which he has decided to mark these days in a manner which suits an active musician - with the release of two albums at once. The final installment of the trilogy based on Dante`s Inferno titled "Legacy" , and the twelve track anthology called "Anthology 1984 - 2004" (this one though his own label Ikon) - a collection of rarities, things never released, and live tracks which map the individual stages of development for what has today become a legendary project.

This then was the occasion for us to arrange the following interview with Dirk Serries...

How would you characterize your involvement over the last two decades on the electro/ambient scene?

"One definitely with ups and downs but overall when I look back at these 20 years I do have to admit I´m fairly proud of what I achieved as vidnaObmana. Especially the way how I maintained my vision as an artist, and this kind of persistency definitely led to the creation of my own style within a genre which has been overexplored in the last decade. I always considered myself as an outsider as well, since my longing to
experiment with different elements, styles and sounds has constantly kept me outside the circle of pure ambient devotees. My music continues to have a specific edge which a lot of listeners of ambient music find too experimental or provocative."

You have been considered to be one of the most productive as well as most inventive performers on the scene. With the exception of the albums which were produced `to be continued`, such as "Tremor", "Spore", and "Legacy" as part of a trilogy inspired by "Dante`s Inferno", practically each of your albums have proved to be a journey into completely new dimensions of electro/ambient music. It would seem that the role of `artist without frontiers` suits you perfectly...

Thank you, Igor, for the compliment. Like I said previously in reply to your first question, it´s a role which I didn´t take on deliberately but it´s just the way I am as a human being. I did realize when I started to make music that I would never compromise,since my music is so interconnected with who I am as a person. Limiting my musical creativity would definitely be a block for my longing to experiment and explore new musical terrain. True, I like the concept of trilogies or double albums to the extent that it gives me more space to develop what I like, to create it just right and in every detail. But even my solo albums are each time a continuation of where I left off with the previous album. This is also something I really take much pride in realizing. It has to be a continuous story in which the evolution of my music progresses naturally until the right moment occurs, to shift gears and change the profile like I´m doing now with the Dante trilogy.

Are the contents of your various albums mostly the result of spontaneous improvisation in the studio, or rather `bringing to life` a concept which was determined earlier?

Both, I think. Conceptually seen I´ve got a well determined idea in my mind before I actually start to record the album. A series of guidelines: which direction I like to take with a new album, and how and with which elements I want score the CD.But from the moment I am in the studio, most of the songs are being created on the spot with a window for improvisation and spontaneous interaction on the moment itself. This method of working truly has grown on me over time, along with the confidence of playing live before audiences. To my personal feeling, while the arrangement of instruments has slowly changed as well, I matured as a live musician rather than melticuously building up each composition layer by layer.

Apart from the number of various electronic, acoustic, and ethnic instruments you have used over the past few years, one constant partner on the road and in the studio is the `fujara` - something very closely connected to Slovak folklore. How did you get acquainted with this instrument?

I always have been very very interested in acoustic wind instruments, but I never found an instrument that could be my own, or to rephrase that, an instrument which I can easily play according to my own techniques and ability. It is thanks to musician Jan Marmenout, with whom afterwards I recorded our collaborative album ´Spirits´, I was able to buy myself a fine collection of small and full-length fujaras directly from one of the best builders. During my learning process, I discovered the expansive character of the fujara and how I actually could incorporate it into my collection of sounds.It truly became my favourite instrument to play, especially in combination with the various processors and effects I´m using to give it that personal flair.

On the fujara you play with your own individual style. Is this intentional, or does it come from a lack of information concerning the instrument and its original styles?

It´s absolutely intentional as I am completely aware of its folkore and original playing techniques. But like I said before, I was searching for an instrument, diverse enough which I could completely shape according to my needs and for what I hoped to create.I established my individual style of playing by using it along with the various processors and effects as it is just this combination which makes me play the fujara so differently and if I may say so, quite uniquely. It is also a fantastic live instrument to go on tour with. Not only visually, but soundwise it´s quite penetrating and overwhelming.

Just recently your new compilation album has come out - "Anthology 1984 - 2004", made up of rarities, or recordings which haven`t been released yet. Was it hard to select the concept for such a jubilee type album? A retrospective was already put out at one time called "Memories Compiled", and there was also another albums of rarities and outtakes titled "Twilight of Perception" back in 1998...

´Memories Compiled 1 & 2´ aren´t really retrospectives since they are more re-collections of my older ´official´ cassette releases, remastered and added with bonus tracks. ´Twilight of Perception´ was a compilation of outtakes and rarities but of a specific period and time in my life as vidnaObmana.My new release is therefore the first complete anthology because it spans the 20 years of my work as vidnaObmana. It wasn´t difficult at all and in fact it has been one of the most fascinating and pleasant things to do, especially since I had to go back to my early days as vidnaObmana when I was still recording noise and experimental music. The remastering job was a detailed one but I loved every moment of it. I´m currently compiling and working on a new anthology which will cover my noise and experimental phase and this means that it will feature some works for the first time ever on CD. Also scheduled for release on my own label Ikon. It´s all part of my philosophy that the completion of the circle has been achieved.

Apart from the number of solo albums you have to your credit, there are also a number of titles which were put together with other musical artists, and taken from different genres. From these let`s mention just one from the recent period - a well received album by both the critics and the fans - "An Opera of Four Fusion Works - Act 2", which was done together with saxophonist Bill Fox, or the album done together with David Lee Myers called "Tracers". Perhaps the greatest success was seen in your projects with the American ambient master Steve Roach... How would you characterize that fruitful and successful co-operation? Do you have any special criteria when selecting the people you play with? Is the most important thing if the person in question is on your wavelength, from both the human and musical perspective, or are you willing to emphasize the vision inherent in an interesting collaboration and put it above the `human factor`?

I always valued collaborations as a very important part of my evolution and progression as a musician but also as a human being. Sometimes you collaborate with a musician and you create a beautiful album but thoughts and spirit are never part of one individual entity, and it remains a single collaborative disc. You learn a great deal from this but sometimes you do that collaboration with another musician and out of it grows a friendship for a lifetime. With Steve I have such an understanding. He became a dear friend when we both went through the various challenges of tests and confrontations during our tours together and dealing with the various labels. I truly enjoy every minute of working together. Whether we´re working together real-time in the studio or apart in our separate studios, our understanding is one without compromise and quite an emotional and intense process. In such a way that when we reach a specific momentum of satisfaction, we do share the spontaneous aspect instead of having a sober and distant conversation about what we achieved.We literally share the enthusiasm and it honestly benefit the records we´ve made so far as they include a lot of live improvisation and performance on the spot. It´s just that makes you stand out as a musician in terms of developing new sounds and performing differently on specific instruments. To really love it when a collaboration is much more than just a fusion of both personalities behind the work together but that it generates a new and not so familiar blend. So the human factor is equally as important as just collaborating with a highly talented musician. Anyway it is to me as I did experience fantastic and unfortunately less positive situations with fellow musicians and colleagues, as sometimes their agenda is a different one than yours. But luckily they remained pretty rare as I still can look back at most of my collaborative albums with good memories about their process.

In regards to the the fact that you perform live more or less sporadically, your concerts have started to become something of a special holiday for your fans. If have noticed that apart from clubs, you also enjoy performing in places which offer their own specific atmosphere - in churches (the Prague show for example), at old castles and so on...

On the contrary, I think I´ve been touring quite extensively the last couple of years with concerts in Europe and the States but if you want to compare it with mainstream groups, you can say it remains fairly rare. I always enjoyed performing my music at less obvious places like churches, chapels, ruins, caves, bunkers, industrial lofts and so, but since the recent releases (Tremor, Spore and the forthcoming Legacy) I also felt more comfortable playing live at clubs or in regular concert venues as well. The music has become more powerful, dynamic and overwheling. Less intimate than when I performed at these special places. Each venue contributes its own specific atmosphere and to me this has become quite interesting and inspiring as every time you do experience this differently and affects how you will play your music live that particular night.

Apart from the music itself, you place a good amount of emphasis on the visual aspect of your projects, whether we talk about the video projection at the live shows, or the interesting graphics for the album and CD covers, with photographs from the workshop of your wife Martina, or even the interesting design of you web page...

Yes, I never liked the idea of introducing or describing my music for that matter with words as I feel that my music should speak for itself. On the other hand I think photography does serve its purpose since it captures a mood without forcing a philosophy or a particular concept upon the listener. To me, music remains universal so every listener experiences the music so differently from another and this is the way I like to keep it with my music. I really got lucky with the photography of my wife Martina Verhoeven as it´s so in sync with my music that we don´t need any words to define what you´ll hear or feel. The same goes for the concerts I do. It almost provokes a similar atmosphere like the covers of myreleases do, but on a larger scale and more dynamic and confrontational than the covers. The projections we have for my concerts are the slow morphing images by Martina Verhoeven and along with a minimal set of lighting and the powerful music, it´s a performance concept I´m very satisfied with.

What is contained in your `instrument park`?

Never been a real gear fanatic, but what I´ve got in studio I carefully selected so that the set-up remains quite minimal but effective. Aside from a few keyboards (Korg M1, O1/W and the Nordlead) I´ve several effectprocessors, drummachines, an Emu sampler, 2 electric guitars, several guitaramplifiers and tons of acoustic instruments like fujara´s, flutes, percussive tools and didgeridoo´s.

I know that in the studio and at the concerts you use mainly the hardware - meaning the classic synthesizers, ethnic instruments, percussion, and so on... What is your take on the current things available in the area of music software - VST instruments and the like?

Right, but a few years I got to switch over from ADAT recording to Pro-Tools on PC, and I must admit that it truly opened the door of possibilities for me in terms of shaping the pieces.I still use Pro-Tools pretty much as a regular multi-track recorder, but one with a lot of options. I also have been investing my time more in mastering software so that from now on I can make my own red book CD´s. It surely eliminates a lot of hours in the mastering studio, and it saves me quite some money. But outside of this, I haven´t explored that much of the software realm as I do want to keep the performance of my music outside the computer and use the software just to refine and record the performances.

The name Vidna Obmana comes from Serbo-Croatian, the fujara which you often play originates in Slovakia... Do you have any personal relations to this corner of Europe?

Well, you might think so but in fact this is all pure coincidence. Naturally I spent a lot of my youth in the former Yugoslavia together with my parents during the summer and this way I got familiar with the language (hence my pseudonym) but there´s no link between my pseudonym and why I got so obsessed by the fujara.

You have never been attracted to film music? For many musicians of your type this direction can sometimes be an artistic peak of sorts...

I´m a fanatic film buff but unfortunately, I never had the possibility yet to have my music scored for film. This part has been progressing very slowly but more recently I've come in touch with a very talented and young American director who has asked me to compose the soundtrack for his short movies 'Home' and ´Other People´. The understanding with Tony is quite good, and we both feel it's the dialogue between his images, storytelling and the music of vidnaObmana is a strong one. Hopefully many projects will follow and Tony is currently gaining a lot of praise in the short movie industry so who knows what might follow. On the other side, my webmaster Patrick Ceuppens has been producing a fantastic series of videoclips surrounding my Dante trilogy for the forthcoming DVD release. This is something totally different but the result is so brilliant that I´m really proud of being part of it, and having Patrick with his expertise producing the clips. For those who are interested, the first clip ´skin Strip´ is downloadable at our website .

Even though on the scene where you are active you have gained high respectability, we are still talking about the independent scene. Can one make a living though your musical activities?

Nope, at least I can´t so. I have my daily job to attend to in order to pay the bills. While it sometimes is frustrating it also liberates because it grants me complete creative freedom.This is something I absolutely don´t want to lose because music is part of my life and limiting my creative expression would only work counter-productively.

What new elements do you foresee for your upcoming performances as you step into your third decade on the scene?

Well, for a lot of people it will come as a surprise, but I do plan to put vidnaObmana creatively on pause after the release of ´Legacy´, the third installment in my Dante trilogy. The reason is that, first: I am really, really satisfied with what I achieved on ´Tremor´, ´Spore´ and the new ´Legacy´´ , that I feel it´s necessary to give these 3 albums more time to breathe and grow. So on November 13th I´ll do a special concert in Antwerp (Belgium) celebrating the release of ´Legacy´ and the completion of the trilogy. This concert will be filmed and recorded for a DVD release in 2005 or 2006 in the light of the Dante trilogy. It´s a definite statement which gives me the opportunity to postpone any new creative recordings under the vidnaObmana name and focus on different projects and archiving the older vidnaObmana material. Don´t know really how long this will take, but some time is required to digest everything and come out of the sabbath period with fresh energy and inspiration.
But one of the other projects I´m involved in is a collaborative project with Steven Wilson (from Porcupine Tree and Bass Communion), called ´Continuum´. We hope to have our first CD out at the end of the year. The rest is still in recording and production phase.


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