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David Sylvian: To Blow the Heart Wide Open

Nenad Georgievski By

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AAJ: The deluxe edition of Manafon features a documentary titled Amplified Gesture. It features interviews with people that took part in the making of the new album on the subject of improvisation. Could you talk more about it?

DS: Having completed Manafon, having spent time with some remarkable individuals who'd chosen to pursue, so to speak, the lesser trodden musical path, I thought it might be interesting, possibly important, to document these musicians in conversation speaking of their backgrounds, the relation they have with their respective instruments, what led them from one musical path to another until they found themselves working in an area which became known as free improv. An introduction to the philosophies behind the work, to the individuals behind the music. I wasn't aware of anything comparable having been attempted, which struck me as a rather large omission. Positively neglectful, in terms of the paucity of resource material available on this subject, these subjects. I thought of it as a primer, an introduction, an invitation to delve deeper into the volumes these practitioners have produced over decades of dedication.

David Sylvian—BlemishAAJ: Describe the overall approach you took to putting Blemish together. If the key elements to the previous record, Dead Bees On A Cake, were love, devotion and spiritual intoxication, it seems that (as stated in other interviews) the theme subjects are elements that disturb you.

DS: Disillusionment, conflict, isolation, betrayal, even going so far as hatred...you know, the whole trip!

AAJ: Please describe the conceptual contrasts between Blemish and your other solo releases.

David Sylvian / NaoshimaDS: The greatest and most significant contrast might be the approach to the writing and recording of the material. This, in effect, was a simultaneous act, a series of improvisations performed over a very short space of time, which included the writing of the lyric and its performance before the ink was dry. All very much in and of the moment. Add to this the fact that I was literally, completely alone throughout the entire six-week session, and I think you might begin to comprehend the difference behind the creation of this work when compared with previous projects. Then there was the open-ended form many of the compositions ultimately took. Structurally these are very loose, never amounting to more than two chord changes per composition. Essentially (they are) drone based pieces, which allowed me to work as lyricist and vocalist in a relatively unconstrained fashion.

AAJ: How would you describe the types of stories your records tell? How comfortable are you when you have to start from your own experience and expose it?

DS: The latter lies at the heart of what I do. I no longer question the need for it. I do, however, occasionally feel uncomfortable when talking to media about the content of any given album because it is so innately personal. For someone who exposes so much of himself in his work—we're talking nervous system rather than simply standing naked—I feel I'm allowed to throw a cloak around my daily life to protect it as much as I'm able.

I don't know how to answer the former part of the question. Either I can't be that objective about what it is I do, or there's not a simple answer to that question. I'd have to go through the songbook page by page to describe the difference of approach between one set of songs and another.

AAJ: The Good Son consists of material from Blemish remixed, reshaped by other people. In the past you were unwilling to let other people reshape any of your songs (as it is usually done these days). Also, there is the Darshan (Sylvian with Robert Fripp) single reconstruction by FSOL from years ago, which was both great and unusual. What is your opinion on today's culture, where everything is reinterpreted, reshaped and recycled? What is your opinion on the remix issue?

DS: In general, it doesn't interest me. As you say, Virgin commissioned a few remixes of my material and I was never remotely interested in the results, with the one exception of the Wagon Christ remix of 'Godman' by Luke Vibert, which was a personal choice.

I don't want to get into the history of the remix, which was largely used as a marketing tool by major labels in attempt to give an act cross-genre appeal, but as most practitioners will tell you, it was a commissioned job which used to pay ludicrously well. Maybe it still does for the few. I've never purchased a remix album because I've generally believed that the artist's intentions were clear in the original work, and that anything thereafter was at best secondary and subject to the needs of the commercial market, at worst exploitative. I guess, in that respect, Blemish is something of an anomaly for me.

AAJ: What was the aim of the remix album?

DS: I felt that the majority of the Blemish material was infinitely malleable and wanted to see what other artists, whom I respected, would make of it. It was a means of testing the water for possible future collaborators, such as Burnt Friedman, who did a couple of remixes for me before we started writing material together for what was to become Snow Borne Sorrow. There are some extraordinary artists that really do have an inspired take on work that's presented to them for remixing. When the remit isn't 'try and make this more appealing to a wider audience,' the potential for creative results is raised considerably. Ryoji Ikeda has done a couple of remixes for me, and his take on 'The Only Daughter' was simply remarkable.

AAJ: How did you choose the pool of artists that took part in reshaping that material?

DS: I was already in communication with all of them for one reason or another. All potential candidates for collaborative work.

David SylvianAAJ: The single World Citizen expressed your views and attitude to current world politics. Is there a political component to your music?

DS: All music is potentially political in my eyes, as to effectively act as catalyst to change in the heart or mind of an individual is a political act. Sometimes current affairs are addressed directly; at others, less so. I'm not overly fond of the use of popular song as soapbox. I tend to think that it undermines the innate power that music has to dig deep into the subconscious.

AAJ: You have been involved with many exhibitions of audio-visual "installations" or sound art, like Ember Glance and When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima. What attracted you to work in this area? Could you talk about the Naoshima work?

DS: Installation work was another arena in which to explore established interests under specific guidelines which could/should prove challenging, potentially resulting in the kind of solutions which help develop this area of work in new and interesting directions.

I was commissioned by the Benesse Foundation to produce a work for the Standards 2 festival within minutes of my landing on the island. This allowed me to explore the landscape with the possible commission in mind. The remit stated that, on reaching the Foundation's offices, the public would be handed an iPod with which to explore the surrounding villages, museums, and 'arthouses' whilst absorbing the audio accompaniment. In effect, it was to be a work that tied these contrasting elements together in some fashion. I attempted to create a work that increased the awareness of other dimensions of reality whilst complimenting, contrasting, and extending the one physically at hand. A multiple exposure, a layering, mapping reference points both real and imagined. The 'loud weather' referred to in the title was in reference to the emotional life of the island, complimented by its spiritual ancestry and its influence on everyday life. There's repeated reference to labor, creative endeavor, an affirmation of life or its possible futility. Then there are the associative landscapes (e.g., Monet's early 20th century French landscape housed beneath the Naoshima soil) that pull in a wider web of connections from around the world, alluding to a greater wealth of resources and cultural exchange. Through it all blows the winds of pollination, cleansing, eradicating, alive with the voices of generations... The intention was that the audio be played at low levels so that the sounds of the environment merged with the recorded elements.

AAJ: Dead Bees On A Cake is an incredibly diverse record. Was it a challenge to make its myriad of various influences fit together?

DS: At the time I felt these compositions belonged together. They dealt with similar issues, were created in the same spirit over the same period. There was no shortage of material and, in the end, the decision as to which pieces should be included in the album appeared obvious to me. Sequencing the album didn't prove an issue, either.

AAJ: Your interest in Eastern culture is well established and evident. Elements of Eastern spirituality are also present in your work. How closely do you identify with those traditions? Also, eastern music—especially from India— seems to be one of the most important influences on you. Which aspect of this music is the most fascinating to you?

DS: Aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism are part of my discipline/practice, so inevitably the answer has to be that I identify with these traditions in a fundamental way. I appear to have grown into them over time, though; they weren't always an entirely comfortable fit but have become more so. I can't say that Eastern music has a particular hold on me. I've been exposed to a considerable amount of Indian devotional music for the past nine years or so, and that has been absorbed and digested over time. I have enjoyed the living spirit of devotional music (in other words, hearing it performed live rather than recorded) and have been incredibly moved by it. However, it would be wrong to say that I'm drawn to this, or any music emanating from the East, more so than any other.

AAJ: How important is spirituality to you and your music?

DS: It can't fail to be anything other than fundamentally important in life, and therefore work.

David SylvianAAJ: You are heralded for your collaborative work as much as for your solo work. You worked with premier avant/jazz musicians (Czukay, Fripp, Hassell, Ribot, Sakamoto, etc.) Does working with these gifted musicians grant you a confidence that you can challenge or transcend your own capacity and ability as a composer/arranger?

DS: A challenge is a good thing and something I often request of my collaborators. Ultimately, as a composer you're simply trying to do the work justice, nothing more. I have been fortunate, as you say, to work with talented musicians, but I tend to regard the composition as the benefactor. I'm trying to bring it alive, to give it substance.

AAJ: Your work with Holger Czukay has produced some of the most interesting ambient albums. Was there a concept behind these two albums?
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