|Pulling Punches||Brilliant Trees|
|Red Guitar||Brilliant Trees|
|Brilliant Trees||Brilliant Trees|
|Taking The Veil||Gone To Earth|
|Orpheus||Secrets Of The Beehive|
|Jean The Birdman||The First Day|
|Krishna Blue||Dead Bees On A Cake|
|The Good Son||Blemish|
|Wonderful World||Snow Borne Sorrow|
|Small Metal Gods||Manafon|
|Ghosts (2000 Remix)||Everything And Nothing|
|The Scent Of Magnolia||Everything And Nothing|
|World Citizen - I Won't Be Disappointed||Sleepwalkers|
|A Certain Slant Of Light (for M.K.)||Died In The Wool|
Contributor: David G. Shaw
A housewarming gift of a dwarf juniper tree introduced me to bonsai, an art form that is more discipline than hobby. As part of my ongoing effort to improve my technique, I took a class with a master practitioner. He walked from table to table, observing our efforts to shape our trees to our vision, exclaiming “Less! Less!”. It’s difficult advice to absorb, but the willingness to abandon ornamentation is essential for producing art that is deceptively simple on the surface but yields layers of depth upon further observation.
The trajectory of David Sylvian’s musical career has parallels in bonsai: he began with a prodigious outpouring of ideas, but over time he has made more with less, ultimately producing works that are both spare and beautiful.
Sylvian’s solo career began in the wake of Japan’s breakup, to which one of the contributing factors was his relationship with Yuka Fujii, who, in addition to being Mick Karn’s former girlfriend, had been the band’s photographer. Fujii introduced Sylvian to jazz, art, and philosophy – all of which would become components of his work.
He announced his independence with a quiet throat-clearing. Bamboo Houses/Bamboo Music, recorded with Ryuichi Sakamoto, sounds like Fairlight-driven Tin Drum outtakes, continuing a collaboration that had begun with Sakamoto’s contributions to Taking Islands In Africa. Forbidden Colours added Sylvian’s vocals to the theme from the movie Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, scored by and starring Sakamoto (as well as David Bowie).
In 1984, he released Brilliant Trees, his first full solo recording, featuring a band composed of former Japan mates Steve Jansen (his brother) on percussion and Richard Barbieri on keyboards, along with a who’s who of avant-jazz and experimental music. Sakamoto contributed as well, playing Gil Evans to Sylvian’s Miles Davis. The lead track, Pulling Punches, is a direct descendant of The Art Of Parties, driven by a funky rhythm and horn groove and punctuated by Holger Czukay’s varispeed French horn solo. If the sound itself wasn’t enough to convince the listener that this wasn’t business as usual, the lyrics revealed the theme that would preoccupy Sylvian for most of his career: the search for spiritual peace. “Sheltered lives spent partially breathing / Are gathered together in the new religion / Pulling punches, sleeping on our feet / Pulling punches, I need someone to comfort me.”
Red Guitar lays a foundation of Jansen’s metronomic drums and a harmonic-strewn bass line provided by Karn stand-in Wayne Brathwaite. Over that pulse Sakamoto vamps a chord structure reminiscent of Thelonious Monk’s Well You Needn’t *, all of which support an elegiac Mark Isham trumpet solo. Sylvian fills the lyrics with references to the French authors Fujii had him reading: Cocteau (“a certain difficulty of being”), Radiguet (“the devil in the flesh”), and Sartre (“the iron in my soul”). Despite being musically and lyrically unlike any other pop song, Red Guitar was a top 20 hit. The album eventually reached #4 on the charts.
Brilliant Trees begins with a look backward, but ends with a look forward, at the direction Sylvian would take with successive work. Brilliant Trees, co-written with trumpeter Jon Hassell, fuses an aching melody with the breathy horns and hand percussion that had become a trademark of Hassell’s “fourth world” approach to composition. The song clearly lays out the path into the avant-garde that Sylvian would follow.
Gone To Earth, released in 1986, reveals another pattern in Sylvian’s musical explorations: keep Jansen’s percussion pulse, but shake things up with new guitarists and horn players. Taking The Veil is driven by a stutter-step beat and Robert Fripp’s interlocking cross-picked guitar lines, a trademark of his late-period King Crimson ensembles. Sylvian’s vocal references Max Ernst once again (the collage novel Rêve D’une Petite Fille Qui Voulut Entrer Au Carmel – A Little Girl Dreams Of Taking The Veil), while introducing a more confident, languid vocal delivery.
A year had barely elapsed before the release of Secrets Of The Beehive, a collection of slow, lush ballads, of which Orpheus (see above clip) is the standout. Propelled by an insistent 6/4 guitar strum and Sakamoto’s piano, it’s the prime example of Sylvian’s new approach to his vocal delivery in a lower, more intimate register. He’s also not afraid to allow the song to breathe, inserting an 18-second pause before another Isham trumpet solo.
After Beehive, Sylvian embarked on a world tour, In Prasie of Shamans, which encompassed his work to date. I had the pleasure of seeing him in New York, a show I can still recall.
And then there was silence. Sylvian would remain busy, releasing previously recorded ambient works (see below) and collaborating on film soundtracks, but twelve years would pass before he released his next record. He reunited Japan [see Toppermost #481] for the Rain Tree Crow project, effectively acting as producer, shaping live improvisations into finished compositions – an approach he would use from that point on.
He met Ingrid Chavez, a protégé of Prince (she’s the voice on Lovesexy), and eventually moved to Minneapolis, where they were married. During this period, Robert Fripp approached Sylvian about being the vocalist for King Crimson. He declined, but recorded The Next Day with Fripp, which sounds suspiciously like a King Crimson record, with Sylvian arguably claiming the title as the best King Crimson vocalist. Jean The Birdman is as funky as Fripp gets, his choppy riffs carried by a Trey Gunn/Jerry Marotta rhythm section. It’s clear from his singing style that Sylvian had already begun to move away from rock.
Chavez became Sylvian’s next spiritual counselor, introducing him to Zen Buddhism and convincing him to relocate to California to be closer to their guru. Finally, in 1999, he released Dead Bees On A Cake (the death of the Beehive period?), which continued his established ballad style but included more improvisatory components. Krishna Blue layers his spiritual lyrics – including Chavez’s trademark speak-singing – over tabla and guitar (Talvin Singh and Bill Frisell, respectively) while also including samples of Indian flute and chanting. Elsewhere on the record he sings over Marc Ribot guitar improvisations – previews of his new compositional methods.
Finally free of his contract with Virgin Records, Sylvian and family relocated to the woods of New Hampshire, where he established his Samadhi Sound recording studio and record label. He commenced a new writing regimen to match his new circumstances: improvisations on acoustic guitar were followed by first-take melodies and lyrics, adhering to the principle of “first thought, best thought, right thought”. Minimal additional accompaniment was added in the studio, usually additional vocal tracks and synthesizer drones. The Good Son breaks from that formula, co-written by avant-garde guitar legend Derek Bailey, who sent an hour of music he had created for Sylvian to use. Bailey’s spiky, atonal lines are knit together by Sylvian’s bitter lyrics and melody. The songs on Blemish dispel with the common fallacy that Sylvian’s work progressed from emotional to intellectual. In reality, as his music became more intellectual it also exposed more raw emotions.
Jansen returned to his brother’s orbit with the idea for a group project, Nine Horses, consisting of Sylvian, Jansen, and electronic artist Burnt Friedman. This trio, augmented by studio guests (most notably the ubiquitous Sakamoto on piano), recorded Snow Borne Sorrow. The opening track, Wonderful World, lopes along in a jazzy 9/8 tempo driven by Jansen’s brush work. Sylvian glides through the tune with short couplets that reveal themselves as being about 9/11: “It’s a wonderful world / As the buildings fall down / And you quicken your step / ’til your feet leave the ground.”
In a rare interview Sylvian described his new working process: “Selfishly you could say I was looking for that space within to work as a vocalist. But there had been this paring down going on in my work for years, but which was highlighted on something like Blemish. Suddenly I managed to find a form, or forms, that worked for me in that respect. That didn’t need embellishment … the whole process of writing the material changed radically from the way I’d written in the past, basing it around improvisation as I did. So Manafon kind of grows out of the processes that were discovered personally for me on Blemish. And it immediately suggested where I should go …” **
Small Metal Gods, the opening track on Manafon, is representative of Sylvian’s approach. Working with electronic musicians from Vienna and Tokyo, he shaped their contributions into an intimate chamber piece full of static and plucked strings. Having pared down the music, his lyrics announce a departure from the gurus on whom had had depended for so long: “Small metal gods / Cheap souvenirs / You’ve abandoned me for sure / I’m dumping you, my childish things / I’m evening up the score.”
From Brilliant Trees to the woods of New England, Sylvian’s journey was a chronicle of doing more and more with less and less. Apart from some ambient instrumentals for art installations, he has been silent since 2009. He has been rumored to have returned to London. We can only hope that the change of environment will reinvigorate his creative process. Whatever he choses to create, I’ll be willing to listen.
When he separated from Virgin, Sylvian agreed to curate two compilation albums, a move that would allow him to present his work in the best possible light. Always the perfectionist, he also took the opportunity to remix and rework tracks to match his original vision for them. (He frequently complained that his records were incomplete works, the result of record label pressure.) These compilations are well worth seeking out. Everything And Nothing contains The Scent Of Magnolia, which was left off Dead Bees On A Cake. The real prize here is his 2000 version of Ghosts, the now-classic ballad from his Japan days. He remixed the backing tracks into a more compact piece, then added new vocals that are much more emotionally resonant than the naive original.
Camphor is the new title track from the second compilation, featuring only instrumental tracks. World Citizen – I Won’t Be Disappointed is a collaboration with Sakamoto that appears on Sleepwalkers, a collection of post-Virgin vocal projects. Died In The Wool, a set of variations on the Manafon tracks, contains A Certain Slant Of Light (for M.K.), his elegy for his former Japan mate Mick Karn.
This barely scratches the surface of Sylvian’s one-off projects and instrumental work. Plight & Premonition and Flux + Mutability are ambient works he recorded with Holger Czukay after the Brilliant Trees sessions. Alchemy: An Index Of Possibilities, and disc two of Gone To Earth both contain breathtakingly beautiful instrumental works. And if you peek into some dark corners of the net, you’ll find Promise, Promised, and Promises, three compilations that collect obscure singles and remixes.
* Thanks to Marcello Carlin of Then Play Long for calling this to my attention. His superior analysis of Red Guitar can be found here.
** The Wire, September 2009 (Issue 307)
Brilliant Trees (1984)
Alchemy: An Index Of Possibilities (1985)
Gone To Earth (1986)
Secrets Of The Beehive (1987)
Dead Bees On A Cake (1999)
When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima (2007)
Died In The Wool: Manafon Variations (2011)
There’s A Light That Enters Houses With No Other House In Sight (2014)
Bamboo Houses (Single) with Ryuichi Sakamoto (1982)
Forbidden Colours (Single/EP) with Ryuichi Sakamoto (1983)
Plight & Premonition with Holger Czukay (1988)
Flux + Mutability with Holger Czukay (1989)
Ember Glance: The Permanence Of Memory with Russell Mills (1991)
The First Day with Robert Fripp (1993)
Damage with Robert Fripp (1994)
World Citizen (EP) with Ryuichi Sakamoto (2003)
Snow Borne Sorrow Nine Horses – with Steve Jansen and Burnt Friedman (2005)
Money For All (EP) Nine Horses (2007)
Uncommon Deities with Jan Bang, Erik Honoré, Arve Henriksen and Sidsel Endresen (2012)
Wandermüde with Stephan Mathieu (2013)
Approaching Silence (1999)
Everything And Nothing (2000)
A Victim of Stars 1982–2012 (2012)
David G. Shaw used to write about music a lot. Then he started cooking and blogging about cooking. Now it seems he’s writing about music again.