Electronic Music, Writing, and Reviews

"Altocumulus" is my artist name for electronic music, ambient, and my writing about experimental music and related subjects.

Thu, 16 Jul, 2009

Ambient Composers 3: Vidna Obmana, Belgian master

Vidna Obmana is the pseudonym of the Belgian ambient master, Dirk Serries. Vidna Obmana, as is stated on his website, means "optical illusion" in Serbo-Croatian, and like Vir Unis pseudonym, allows him to make polymorphous music without his own personal identity getting in the way. Vidna Obmana has been working in the electronic and experimental music field for more than twenty-five years.

Of the ambient composers I've profiled so far, Vidna Obmana, in my opinion, is the darkest and most obscure. His harmonies are almost all dissonant, his characteristic intervals being minor seconds, minor ninths, and other edgy tonal choices. His "signature sound" is, like true ambient, slow, drifting, slowly cycling in long loops, contemplative, quiet, and often deeply melancholy. I tend to think that Vidna Obmana is so grim because he is not an American, and does not partake of the innocence, or the naivete, of any American composer. Hearing his music is like gazing at the grey, misty skyscape of Belgium, a land of near-perpetual rain and fog. When he finds a major chord, it is like a rare ray of sunlight over the Low Country landscape. This style is best heard in albums like THE SURREAL SANCTUARY (2000) and its companion album THE CONTEMPORARY NOCTURNE (also 2000). But these are only recent examples of a musical personality which has been in development for over 20 years.

Obmana is, like Robert Rich, a multi-instrumentalist. He plays not only synthesizers, but electric guitars, percussion, and varieties of a strange Eastern European flute called the fujara which provides not just one note, but a note and its overtones at the same time. It sounds more Southeast Asian than European. Obmana does mostly ambient drift, but he is capable of some compelling and complex electronic rhythms, as in his album CROSSING THE TRAIL (1998). Yet he depends more on harmony and chords to get his meaning across, rather than the special effects and trancing rhythms of other ambient composers.

Ambient music, the offspring of globalized technology, is an international field, and Vidna Obmana, like Steve Roach, has collaborated with other ambient composers from all over the world. It was Steve Roach who really put Vidna Obmana on the ambient map in America, with their ongoing series of collaborative albums. The Roach/Obmana duo released their first set, the 2-CD WELL OF SOULS, in 1995. This big long album contains some very scary, "out there" music, as well as lots of wall-shaking rhythms. They tightened up their structure in the single-CD album CAVERN OF SIRENS (1997), in my opinion the best of their collaborations. Full of unusual percussion and rhythms, this sonically fascinating album uses samples of many different voices, including a Tibetan monk chanting prayers, sirenlike female voices, gravel-voiced growls, and weird singing. Steve Roach himself provides the ecstatic vocals in the glorious, headlong motion of track 4, "The Current Below." Roach would re-work some of the ideas from this particular piece into his LIGHT FANTASTIC two years later. In 1998 they produced a sprawling 3-CD set called ASCENSION OF SHADOWS: Meditations for the Millennium. Their fourth album, INNERZONE (2002), returns to the land of creepiness, with underworld flute playing by Obmana. They released their fifth major collaboration, a record of a live concert called SPIRIT DOME, in 2004.

Obmana continues to be very active in Europe, not only in ambient music but in film, live concerts with other instrumentalists: jazz, rock, pipe organ, and even classical chamber groups. He has also done music for theater, opera, films, art installations, and even an aquarium (SOUNDTRACK FOR THE AQUARIUM, 2001). His voice is not as easy to appreciate as some of the other composers I've mentioned; his European gloom and Belgian surrealism go against our American fondness for clarity, energy, speed, and light. But Vidna Obmana's music is a rewarding experience for those who can appreciate a subtle world of grey tones and slowly shifting clouds.

An update from 2009: Last year Dirk Serries decided to close his "Vidna Obmana" line of work, in order to concentrate on other music and theater projects. He re-organized the Vidna Obmana website and it now has a comprehensive discography of everything he has done under the Obmana name. You can see from this discography that he has produced an amazing amount of work as "Obmana" so the legacy of this endeavor is a major achievement and influence in the world of ambient music.

Posted at 3:01 am | link