David Sylvian

by Keith Rowe


Photo by Donald Milne.

Collaboration and dialogue have been an important part of singer-songwriter David Sylvian’s 30-plus-year journey to the outer limits of popular song. From his earliest days as a post-glam pinup pop star in the group Japan, he has specialized in existentially intimate songs and a quiet but determined individualism. At the same time, in the words of Japan’s 1981 signature song “Ghosts,” this solitude has regularly been interrupted by ghosts that blow “wilder than the wind.” Perhaps these ghosts are collaborators. If so, they have included composer-pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto on Brilliant Trees (1984), Secrets of the Beehive (1987), and his surprising post-9/11 protest single “World Citizen” (2003); guitarist Robert Fripp on The First Day (1993); and, more recently, guitarist/improvisers Derek Bailey and Christian Fennesz on the remarkable Blemish (2003). The metaphor of haunting has been pushed further on 2009’s Manafon, in which Sylvian assembled a who’s who of contemporary improvisers in Tokyo, Vienna, and London, including Fennesz, Otomo Yoshihide, Evan Parker, John Tilbury, and guitarist Keith Rowe. Sylvian recorded a series of improvisations, later transforming them in his studio into the bases of a series of gloomy songs, his own voice and lyrics interrupting and shaping abstract, minimal rhizomes of sound and vice versa.

As Sylvian’s music has become progressively unmoored from conventional instrumentation and the usual building blocks of popular song such as drumbeats, melodies, and riffs, his lyrics have also grown darker and more gritty. The warm songs of 1999’s Dead Bees on a Cake, lit up by religious devotion, gave way to Blemish’s vignettes describing the pitfalls and struggles of spiritual growth, which are redeemed by the lovely concluding ballad, “A Fire in the Forest.” Manafon has no such redeeming moment. The title refers to a village in Wales where the poet R. S. Thomas lived in the latter part of his life, and the songs present fragmentary meditations on this caustic, hermetic figure and his refusal of most of the appendages of modern life—perhaps resonating with Sylvian’s own New England life, reclusive yet haunted via digital technologies.

Rowe, who interviewed Sylvian via email, was a founding member of the pioneering British improvising collective AMM, which has, at various times in its 40-plus-year existence, included Cornelius Cardew, Eddie Prevost, and Manafon contributors Tilbury and Parker. Rowe has performed a Cagean transformation of the guitar, subjecting it to tabletop experimentation as part of an assemblage of pedals and everyday objects, opening up, like Sylvian does, new worlds of sound.

—Marcus Boon

Keith Rowe I wonder about the vision leading to Manafon, an utterly unusual piece of work. In the back of my mind is that widely reported conversation between Morton Feldman and Phillip Guston in which Guston claims that he “does not finish a painting, but abandons it”; the point of abandonment occurring precisely “at the moment when it might become a painting.” Guston desired to make rather than to make something. With Manafon, was the impulse similar?

David Sylvian I’ll offer the analogy of archeology. Let’s say that after decades of work you find yourself standing in a sunken pit facing a partially concealed doorway. The journey to reach this spot has been one of personal evolution and obsession. When you started out you had no idea this location existed. Over time, knowledge and potential deepen. Many issues you struggled with earlier on in life you now respond to intuitively. This intuitive expansion, a self seated squarely in the heart of the greater self, lays the groundwork for what must be done. You come to trust in its wisdom even when it appears to lead you to points on a precipice. It beckons; you follow. Not blindly—although what is intuited is preverbal, the way forward is conveyed via a resonant network of signs and signals that you’re equipped to interpret.

You find yourself before a door. You’ll have to overcome numerous obstacles as best you can until you’re standing in the heart of the space it opens onto. Once there, illuminated, the space is invigoratingly alive, tangible. It’s utterly new to you, but it’s also confirmation of what you had intuited: it’s got a perceptible “thereness” about it.

In those early sessions in Vienna in 2004, working toward Manafon, we struck that particular kind of gold. I felt a sense of recognition and radical possibility. My musical journey led me to that location accompanied by a team of experts in the field, you among them. An emotional excavation and a musical exploration in conjunction produced Manafon, this odd genre-defying hybrid, a fairly unlikely meeting of two or more of music’s diverse tributaries. The reference point for me was the work I’d recently done with Derek Bailey for Blemish. The working method I’d stumbled upon while recording that album had proved itself more than up to the job of integrating original improv performances with lyrics and vocals. Expanding upon that one-on-one relationship with Derek to embrace larger improvising ensembles filled me with trepidation, but everyone involved couldn’t have been more gracious. An important part of the process was knowing the backgrounds of everyone involved, understanding the aesthetic at work, anticipating the chemistry of a particular constellation. This was the only “control” I could possibly exert prior to starting the process in motion.

As for the Feldman/Guston quote, yes, the process is the important part of the journey, the making. But there’s always a sense that it’s a movement toward something, not necessarily to the finished work, but onward. What happened with Manafon was that the work abandoned me. As I was writing and developing the material, the spirit holding all these disparate elements together just left me. I sat stunned for a moment and then realized: It’s over; this is as far as it goes.

KR Your analogy of the pit and the door resonates for me. Being in the pit would be like attempting to comprehend the situation during a live performance. The door . . . never too sure about its construction. At times it seems made of 200 or more layers; other times it appears as if there are 200-plus separate doors to be passed through. And, now and again, it’s a kaleidoscope of apertures to be negotiated all at the same time. Each one is an aspect of art or life that I should have considered before attempting to pass through, but there is no possibility of circumnavigation. I’ve started a list of these concerns: affection, degrees of opacity, absorption, disclosure and withdrawal, illusions, the nonself, a phrase’s architecture, the architecture of silence, harsh chimeras, anxiety, etc.

One aspect of negotiating these doors is the knowledge that you’re not alone. There seems to be a terra-cotta army of people around me. For instance, over my right shoulder is my old painting tutor Ben Hartley, on the other side is Cornelius Cardew, Gustav Mahler, Henry Purcell, Mark Rothko, Henri Poincaré, John Tilbury . . .

DS Outside of the historical figures from the recent or distant past, I envy this notion of teachers and mentors. I felt their absence, particularly in my early years, when I was likely in most need of them. I stepped from a world of teenage self-absorption into an exploitative commercial world. It was my own doing, of course, and it’s the nature of that particular game, but there were no authority figures who didn’t have a vested interest in a particular outcome, who weren’t busy persuading me that I, in fact, desired the same outcome. Since I left Japan I’ve befriended peers with whom I felt it possible to absorb a fair amount via osmosis. Some artists in whatever fields have an awful familiarity about them—it’s like entering an asylum and looking into the eyes of the residents acknowledging that they too have seen what you’ve seen. By standing on the periphery by design or circumstance, we’re better equipped to see through the conformities of the societies to which we belong.

Although I’ve embraced a ghostlike community that aligns me with the work of artists of the past, it’s healthy to reenact the process of separation at crucial periods to avoid stagnation or over-reliance. “Killing the father”—I’ve been on something of a patricidal killing spree for the best part of the last decade.

KR Back to how new the situation leading to Manafon was for you. I would think that you would have needed to develop the necessary experiential hooks on which to hang the new experience. What in your past allowed you to recognize the significance of this new situation?

DS Since the early ’80s I’ve been interested in deconstructing the familiar forms of popular song, in retaining the structure but removing the pillars of support. My work continually returns to this question: how much of the framework can you remove while still being able to identify what is, after all, a familiar form?

Around 2001 or 2002, I parted ways with Virgin Records after a long-term relationship that had lasted some 21 years. A classical subsidiary of a major label that wanted to expand their horizons took an interest in me. Someone there suggested that I take a look at the classical songbook, and see if there wasn’t a project that I might like to pursue. I did a little research, but there wasn’t enough out there that offered an interesting formal challenge or that hadn’t already been widely covered in one form or another. This got me thinking about alternate forms for popular song. Would it have to be structurally more of the same? I began a process of breaking things down, of embracing improvisation as a means of getting around my own limited ability to imagine new forms.

With Blemish I started each day in the studio with a very simple improvisation on guitar. Once recorded, I’d listen back and use cues from the improv—the dynamic and so on—to dictate the structure of the piece. I’d write lyrics and melody on the spot, and would follow that up with the recording of the vocal itself. Then I’d add a series of first takes, either on guitar or keyboards—with a little editing, everything fell into place quickly. I might have been skirting the issue of form, as the works themselves were often drone based and open-ended, but it was a place for me to start. I kept this up for a few weeks, but then felt I needed a counterpoint to my own improvisations. I’d had Derek Bailey in the back of my mind at the outset of the project, so I gave him a call to see if he’d be interested in making a contribution that I might respond to similarly. He bemusedly questioned whether he was the right person to do this. I said, “I’m looking for someone to present me with a challenge as a writer/vocalist.” “In that case, I’m your man,” he said. And so it started.

He sent me about an hour’s worth of solo material. I listened through once and singled out three pieces with which I thought I had a ghost of a chance and then approached them much as I did my own material. I wrote as I listened, a process of automatic writing, if you will. Once the lyrics were in place, lined up melodically with precise moments in Derek’s performance, I recorded on the spot.

In a sense, I’d been steadily working my way toward Manafon since I was a young man listening to Stockhausen and dabbling in deconstructing the pop song. Having said that, I don’t think we only develop as artists practicing in our chosen fields. For me that meant an exploration of intuitive states via meditation and other related disciplines which, the more I witnessed free-improv players at work, appeared to be crucially important to enable a being there in the moment, a sustained alertness and receptivity.

KR Does this process have a knock-on effect on those who’ve followed your music over the years? They find themselves in Manafon. Many may recognize its significance, while others—perhaps those without a mobility of attitude—find themselves at the door.

DS Without doubt. As lovers of popular music we have a consistent desire to relive that “shock of the new” experience we first had when young, but with a reluctance to embrace the shock element the second time around. There’s that analogy of the man who is walking home late one evening when he looks up to unexpectedly find a bright full moon in the sky. He resolves to come back the following evening to repeat the experience, but, of course, he can’t because now he has expectations and the immediacy of the moment is lost. This is the dilemma for many listeners.

KR About those mentors who make up that terra-cotta army: they are utterly terrifying! For me they constitute a huge set of restrictions, emanating perhaps from a painting tutor screaming, “Rowe, only Caravaggio can paint Caravaggios!” I took this to mean I do not have permission to paint other people’s painting, in profound contrast with how it is in music, where we do have permission to play other people’s music.

DS I thought the army was there mainly to embolden and inspire . . . With art there is the problem of the empty canvas, which appears to have a particular silence that music has no hope of competing with: the artist’s first mark seems to carry the weight of the past in a manner that is immediately apparent. The same with writing, of course.

In a sense, limitations in music are being circumnavigated by the range of sound embraced now as part of a musician’s palette; it has increased fantastically over the last century or so, but, still, the issue is substance and the reconfiguration of the language itself. With all that’s at our disposal it shocks me that we don’t hear more of what was once unimaginable. I’m not referring to the novelty of the new, but to something profoundly new that’s capable of conveying a possibly transformative experience.

KR For me that would be the Cage/Tudor Variations II recording of 1961. When I first heard this in the mid- to late-’60s the shock, its significance, and its confirmation of what we were doing with AMM combined to make it one of the recordings I regard most highly.

About the lack of an exact equivalent in music to the empty canvas: in the mid-’60s I regarded the electric guitar as an empty white canvas, an object to stare at and imagine, What can I do with this thing? It helped to look at Cubist images of guitars and wonder how they would sound. My dissertation was on George Braque’s guitars. The sense of liberation that emerged from detaching my grip on the instrument and abandoning its conventional technique was extraordinary. I directly applied the processes of the visual arts to this electric instrument: Pollock’s when laying the guitar flat on its back and interacting with its surface; Duchamp’s by using found objects such as knives, face fans, and cocktail mixers to play it; Rauschenberg’s when integrating a radio. Regarding playing as painting offered, almost immediately, a new language for the instrument.

DS I know you’ve found yourself face-to-face with artists who have stolen directly from your palette, so to speak. It must be a difficult scenario to have to rise above. Yet you found your voice long ago and it continues to mature with a confidence and a liberty to directly address the past. I’m thinking of your recent releases on Erstwhile, such as ErstLive 007. Isn’t this the difference between appropriation and an intuitive alignment, engagement, or confrontation, with the past?

KR I guess I’m firmly rooted in the past. I think we absorb and move on from the past rather than reject it. AMM was inspired by jazz, we learned its essential lessons and then moved on to create a more relevant activity for us given our time and condition. But there are others whom we engaged with as well: from Wagner we learned how to extend and stretch the material, from Mahler how to merge it, and from Rothko the process of oblique translation (from Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library to the Seagram works).

And yes, hearing myself played back by someone else who has appropriated my language is like looking in a mirror and realizing that somehow the nose is not quite right, the eyes are wrong, oh, and that hair! Strange, but I don’t mind. You’re right; such a language comes from a personal evolution and can’t be short-circuited without a loss somewhere along the line.

DS You’ve said that back in those early days of AMM, you came to realize that you weren’t black jazz musicians from Chicago, and therefore, although as listeners their idiom obviously spoke to you, you had to invent a language entirely your own. You set about finding frameworks and strategies that allowed you to develop forms true to your own backgrounds. We’ve been through some radical changes in technological developments since and we are able to, and encouraged to, pull from a variety of sources that have less to do with geographical location than with aesthetic alignment. We’re drawing our own cultural maps and possibly relocating to more suitable climates. Of course, we bring the baggage of who we are with us. Maybe what is gained by this rootless wandering (I tend to think of my generation as being the first to really do away with the notion of musical roots) is apparent, but, what, if anything, is lost in this development?

KR Your generation was the first to do away with musical roots? I’m not sure about this; I suspect this is a condition that many have felt throughout history. What’s important here maybe is not the issue of roots, but the possibility that no matter how radical we might think our new work is, everything will, at some point, be absorbed into the mainstream. The improvisation from last week, in the fullness of history, can be placed right next to a Haydn string quartet! Scary thought, and a possible explanation for the overwhelming sense of failure many of us experience.

DS I should’ve prefaced that line by saying “the first generation of pop musicians,” although your point still stands. We experienced the melting pot of the ’60s as kids, and as I’m sure you remember, we had to wade through every known form of popular music, from the ballads of previous generations, novelty hits, comedy turns, the brief history of rock and roll, Tin Pan Alley pop, reggae, soul, and so on, to hear the tracks that excited us at varying stages of our development. It was quite an education.

The inevitability of absorption into the mainstream doesn’t disturb me. To be this molecule that reproduces over time and feeds into the cultural body is in some sense inevitable. I continue to describe myself as a pop musician because it’s the least limiting of all definitions. Despite the fact that pop has started to recycle its past at an alarming rate, it is constantly redefining itself and could potentially embrace or absorb all manner of forms and ideas. In this respect Manafon is a pop album. You could replace my voice with voices of the past and it would take a small step into an alternate future. Imagine Sinatra or Hartmann singing these songs! It takes just the smallest of leaps.

KR A short while after hearing Manafon for the first time I had a strong need and desire to place your voice, not in any sense to fix it, but to just get a grip of where it resides for me. There’s a very fluid triangulation somewhere between Bryn Terfel’s rendering of Handel’s “Ombra Mai Fu,” Esther Phillips’s “And I Love Him,” and “Adieu, Sweet Lovely Nancy” by the Copper Family of Rottingdean.

What particularly strikes me is how you combine two different worlds from the spectrum of music, which is difficult: I recall reading how the great George Cziffra found performing Chopin and Liszt in the same program difficult, since for him Chopin is the poet who speaks and Liszt is the great orator. The poet and the orator, a possible response to your voice in Manafon.

DS I attempted to fuse two worlds. I say two but there are probably more at work. It’s difficult to define what that difference is between writing lyrics and writing poetry. Between the lines of a poem there’s an entire universe, and between the lines of a lyric there’s silence. Because the poem is complete in and of itself, performing the work with musical accompaniment, no matter how sensitive it might be, is redundant: decorative wallpaper on which to hang a Rothko! I attempted to create work that had the power of poetry, but which was designed by and born out of the musical environment sustaining it. The audio accompaniment supplies the “universe,” there’s ample room for both it and the lyrics to play crucial roles in the total composition. An absence of redundant emphasis and echoes—that was the goal anyway. The models were spoken word, chamber music, and chamber theater. You have a central narrator conveying the narrative, but, because of the intimate and possibly spare nature of the presentation, every aspect of the stage design and direction, so to speak, enhances the nuance expressed by the central voice.

That’s before even beginning to tackle the melodic content of the compositions themselves, which reference folk, jazz, pop, musical theater, and much more. This was the luxury of working with material that suggested much, but which remained open, mercurial. Melodically, I responded naturally, moving fluidly from one reference to another in the original improvisations as I heard them. Lyrically, I used language in a rather prosaic, everyday manner where appropriate, and switched to a more refined vocabulary that could’ve sounded terribly precious outside of this context. The environment was forgiving, embracing everything I threw at it.

The subject of my voice is difficult for me to get into; it’s far too subjective. I can only comment on the technical aspect of trying to address the mode or degree of performance in just about every other line written: Should this line be spoken as much as sung? Should it be playful, internalized, self-pitying, dismissive, or sung simply, beautifully?

KR Matisse, Haydn, Picasso, Elliott Carter, Leonardo, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage, to name but a few, are artists whose work had exceptional consistency, and who managed to remain creative throughout their lives. Other than Derek Bailey, it’s difficult to think of any of all those young, radical guitar players hanging around London in the ’60s who retained their adventurous investigations beyond their early thirties. Making challenging work, to me anyhow, does not appear to be what their lives have been about, whereas Manafon is a real challenge.

DS Thank you. I’m not sure I can claim consistency, but then again, life is anything but consistent. Horses for courses. We’re talking comfort zones, priorities, and lifestyles, aren’t we? A challenge embodies the risk of failure; it’s possible that many artists don’t want to risk losing face. It’s necessary to dare to be risible to some degree. This comes easier to youth in its naivety and bravado than to older generations, perhaps?

Then again, I doubt anyone would wish for an exclusive diet of the challengingly new, as there’s plenty of great work out there to be absorbed. We don’t tend to have enough of an approach to popular music that does to form what extended technique does for the evolution of the instruments themselves. How many generations has it taken for a man who came at the guitar from such a unique perspective as yours, referencing aerial bombardment, modern art, and the cubist guitars of George Braque to wind up contributing to the possible evolution of popular song?

KR Gosh! I’ve struggled throughout my entire life to find anything of interest within pop music. I’d need in haste to draw a distinction between pop and popular music—in the latter there is a reasonable amount I listen to (Mercedes Sosa, John Lee Hooker, Ali Farka Touré, Abed Azrié, Astor Piazzolla, Junior Brown), but the shelves are almost bare in the pop cupboard, with the possible exceptions of The Beach Boys’s “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on my Shoulder),” and the aforementioned Esther Phillips.

DS I meant evolution in popular song in the broadest sense, or in some alternate universe. Pop embraces so many influences and possible offshoots: John Lee Hooker as absorbed into the body of Tom Waits, Ali Farka Touré into Paul Simon, which, in turn, feeds the hunger of younger generations digesting the influences further, such as Vampire Weekend does.

KR My inability to locate any significance in 98 percent of popular culture seems like an affliction. I’m never sure how this suchness was arrived at. What I do know is that having my nose so close to my own canvas, monitoring each and every move, unrelentingly severe, results in a hardboiled stance that has survived without a caring public.

DS We come back to process. I’ve allowed myself to be sidetracked frequently in life and work. For the most part, something positive has arisen in one form or another, but as I get older, I’m less inclined to enter into partnerships that deviate from a certain course I’ve set for myself. Sound is seductive, though. Sometimes you’re seduced before you’ve had time to put up a decent resistance. Given the option, I’m not sure I’d have it any other way.

Yet you don’t use all the tools in the box just because they’re at hand. Using your discrimination, you take from the world whatever resonates and bring it to the table in an effort to bolster your own interior world, no? I need less input from a cultural perspective. Physical isolation is beneficial in this respect. Are you somewhat culturally isolated in your home in France?

KR Isolation? Here in the vineyards of Western France, yes, totally, but I don’t mind that. I recall Cardew talking about avoiding being a big fish in a small pond… here, culturally, it’s no fish in a small, very small pond. And the future? What might this hold for you?

DS A reordering is in the cards. I’ve been working on and off with contemporary classical composer Dai Fujikura, who’s reworking elements of Manafon, further confusing its genealogy. We’ve also written some material unassociated with this project and are looking to see how we might build upon it. Again, uncharted territory for me. To counter this I’ve been sitting with an old semiacoustic Gibson enjoying the simplicity of writing miniatures. If there are goals in mind they’re not fully formed. A temporary lapse into silence has been necessary so as to hear what comes next.

 

Keith Rowe is an English free-improvisation tabletop guitarist and painter. Considered the godfather of electroacoustic improvisation, he is a founding member of AMM in the mid-’60s and M.I.M.E.O. Many of his recent recordings have been released by Erstwhile Records.

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Experimental music
Deconstruction
Pop music
BOMB 111
Spring 2010
The cover of BOMB 111
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