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David Sylvian: To Blow the Heart Wide Open

Nenad Georgievski By

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Many artists deliberately avoid taking risks, making changes instead opting for the safe, but David Sylvian is not one of them. Across his illustrious career, Sylvian has always sought to take listeners out of their comfort zone. Self-consciousness and introspection permeate every corner of his works. His most riveting songs have explored various topics, including spirituality and soul-searching for the modern world. His songs are evocative and fragile, confronting the listener about the challenges inherent in being human.

In the 1980s David Sylvian rocketed to stardom in space-age garb with his band Japan, which he disbanded at the height of their popularity in 1984. The end of that band actually began the reinvention of an artist who sought to pursue a challenge and more personal vision. Since his debut release, Brilliant Trees, Sylvian has crafted a remarkable career, blending his deep and resonating voice with studio sorcery.

The albums that followed, such as Gone To Earth, Secrets of the Beehive, Plight and Premonition, Flux + Mutability, Rain Tree Crow (the brief reforming of his former band, Japan), The First Day, and Dead Bees on a Cake were nothing short of brilliant.

Simply put, Sylvian finds infinite joy in diversity. His output as a leader and collaborator criss-crosses multiple musical universes, including jazz, pop, soul, world, progressive, electronica, and the avant-garde. The production values and supporting players on his albums are of the highest order: Holger Czukay, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Jon Hassell, Evan Parker (seen below with Sylvian), Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Bill Nelson, Robert Fripp, Mark Isham, Michael Brook, Arve Henriksen and Derek Bailey.

Sylvian's albums occupy a unique place in the relationship between the visual and aural arts. Himself a painter, he knows the impact of artwork on the perception of music. The artworks on his recordings are truly magnificent, with contributions made by Russell Mills, Ian Walton, Anton Corbijn, Yuki Fuji, Charles Lindsay, Shinya Fujiwara, Atsushi Fukui and Ruud van Empel.

For most of his career Sylvian was a Virgin recording artist, until 2000 when he ended the relationship by releasing two brilliant compilations: Everything and Nothing, a vocal compilation, and Camphor, an instrumental one. Both uniquely summed up his career, giving a fine portrait of an artist.

In 2003 Sylvian founded the Samadhisound label, a place where music and art coexist peacefully. Besides his solo works, the label brings various artists to the fore, such as Harold Budd, David Toop, Akira Rabelais, Steve Jansen (Sylvian's brother), Sweet Billy Pilgrim, Thomas Feiner & Anywhen. The first release by this label was Sylvian's all-improvised album Blemish. It was soon followed by a remix album, Good Son vs. Only Daughter, Snow Borne Sorrow by Nine Horses (a collaboration between Sylvian, Steve Jansen and Burnt Friedman), Money for All and Manafon.

Astoundingly, after scattering eighteen studio albums over a span of nearly thirty years, David Sylvian is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. If Sylvian, whose recording career in music stretches back to 1978, had followed in the footsteps of so many of his own contemporaries, we might have written him off more than two decades ago. Sylvian's most recent studio album, Manafon, is without question one of his most challenging ones Manafon is a recording of an all-improvised nature, where a stellar cast of improv musicians were cast. The end result was a recording with strange, unusual textures where the music and the voice collide and intertwine beautifully though they come from two different worlds.

Thirty years into his recording career, David Sylvian is still making music that he wants to make. And, like all great artists, he's making music that only he can make.

All About Jazz: Many years ago you gave up fame and stardom and survived. Although you don't lead the life of a pop star and you keep your private life private, you still sell records in huge quantities. The concerts are usually sold-out. Can you describe your relationship with your audience? You still have quite a few hardcore, loyal fans out there.

David Sylvian: I can only deduct certain truths regarding the audience for my work, in the same way that anyone else closely observing the situation might. There are a number of travelers who have undertaken the long journey from pop stardom to the present with me. You could say we've been maturing together. You might also be willing to admit that, in their listening habits if in nothing else, they enjoy a good challenge. There are other listeners that tend to jump on and off the wagon when it suits them, possibly tuning in for the vocal work and out for the instrumental (or, in some rare instances, vice versa). (There are) still others whose curiosity is piqued by a particular recording. I come face to face with the audience (I won't be presumptuous and call them 'mine') in the arena of the concert venue. In this respect I've almost universally found them to be the most generous, respectful, gracious audience an artist has any reasonable right to expect. More than this I cannot say.

David Sylvian

AAJ: The music you create has a long-lasting beauty, and in a way it reflects a lot about you. What would you like people to take away from your music? What sort of response or feeling do you hope is evoked in your listeners?

DS: I have often said that the desire is to blow the listeners' hearts wide open. By this, I mean I want them to be moved to the point of abandonment. This would be beautiful, an ideal, but it is too much to expect. That the work might resonate in the lives of others is no lesser achievement, and one I might more modestly aspire to.

AAJ: The artwork on your album covers has been like an art gallery exhibition with works by Russell Mills, Anton Corbijn and Yuka Fuji. Being a painter (and photographer) yourself, do you think cover art adds anything to the music when it's released?

DS: The artwork might resonate, enter into dialogue with the music, elucidate possibly? If nothing else, it can allude to the contents therein.

AAJ: Can you describe the philosophical intersection where art and music meet for you?

DS: I don't think it is a case of one intersection, but many. Simply put, in the realm of the heart, or possibly wherever it pushes up against a truth of sorts.

AAJ: Can you contrast the creative catharsis of the finished aural product to when you finish a piece of visual art?

DS: I only feel eloquent enough in my work in music to achieve what might be called a state of catharsis. The visual work (such as it is) doesn't function on a comparable level.

AAJ: Do you believe the evolution of digital music downloads is substantially impacting the perceived importance of album artwork?

DS: Yes, of course. But this will change and evolve in ways that will prove interesting and satisfying. I fully expect the visual component to become more elaborate, more an integral element of the entire experience. Once the physical product is all but obsolete, we will see dramatic developments in this area. The digital download also does away with the notion of format. As composers, we are now at liberty to offer up work that isn't defined by medium, from a piece that lasts literally seconds to one that may run for hours if not indefinitely.

AAJ: Could you describe the genesis of the new record, Manafon, and the creative process?

David Sylvian—The Good Son vs. The Only DaughterDS: I continued with the approach that I developed on the album Blemish, which involved improvisational performances accompanied by a process of automatic writing. I expanded this approach by embracing the input of larger ensembles recorded live in studios in Europe and Japan. At the outset, I wasn't sure if, or how, this was going to work in practice. But after the first sessions, which were recorded in Vienna in '04, and which resulted in a number of the pieces you'll find on Manafon, I knew I had unearthed an exchange which could yield fascinating results. That first session ran for seven and a half days. There was a lot of exploratory work done during that time.

Many beautiful improvisations were captured but, as I was looking for something specific, something I wasn't able to verbally communicate to the musicians involved, I had to gently nudge or cajole, make hints and suggestions, bring individuals into and out of the studio so as to change the internal chemistry of the ensemble, until I finally heard what it was I was looking for. This happened on the seventh day of the sessions, the last full day of work. The ensemble at that point in time was a quartet consisting of Werner Dafeldecker on double bass, Michael Moser on cello, Christian Fennesz on guitar and laptop, and Keith Rowe on guitar. I've described this and the resulting work as a form of modern chamber music.

Once I knew the process worked, I gave myself less time to produce results on subsequent sessions. The Tokyo session in '06 was a one-day affair, as was the London session of '07. I would work on the writing and recording of the lyric and vocal melody at a later point in time, sometimes as much as a year after the initial recordings were made. This gave the writing sessions back their spontaneity and freshness, as it was like hearing the work for the first time (I'd made an initial selection of which tracks would work for me around the time the original recordings were made).

David Sylvian

I'd play back a given improvisation and start the writing process. After a matter of hours the lyric would be complete, composed simultaneously with the melody, which locked into precise queues heard within the improvisation. I would record the vocal on the spot, meaning there was little time for revision. This is what I mean by a process of automatic writing. It was a matter of adhering to the process or the discipline and running with it until it felt complete. There's rapidity about the process which feels urgent, decisive, and emotionally linked to the spirit of the original improv.

AAJ: What significance does the word Manafon have?

DS: I came across the word in relation to the life and work of R.S. Thomas. It's the name of a village in Wales, the location of Thomas' first parish and the place where he wrote his first three volumes of poetry. Over time, the word became for me a metaphor for the poetic imagination, the creative mind or wellspring, hence the cover art of the CD depicting an implausible idyll, if you will. A place where the intuitive mind taps into the stream of the unconscious.

AAJ: What prompted you to incorporate free improv music again after working with Nine Horses on Snow Borne Sorrow and its sister album, Money for All?

DS: I started work on what was to become Snow Borne Sorrow prior to starting work on Blemish. Once Blemish and its accompanying tour were completed, Steve and I continued to work on the songs we'd written, and I started writing a separate set of songs with Burnt Friedman, whom I'd met on the 'Blemish' tour. So, over time, as has been documented elsewhere, Nine Horses came into being born out of these twin projects. Somewhere in the midst of that work I'd already recorded the first of the sessions for Manafon. So I had two separate streams of my work co-existing for long periods of time. It's not a matter of jettisoning one in favor of the other. I didn't see any conflict in my pursuing both avenues simultaneously. The goals we collectively set for Nine Horses differ from those I've been pursuing in my own work. I intend to continue to embrace this kind of diversity in my activities.

About David Sylvian
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