Hard Won Wisdom – A Converstation With David Sylvian – Part Two

The sound on Manafon is very sparse and brittle and your voice is often the only line of melody with the music being improvised. Is your re-working of this album with Dai Fujikura an attempt to make the work more accessible? Is the accessibility of music to the listener something that is important to you? Or do you believe that it is the responsibility of the listener to work to understand, if the meaning and sensibility of a song is not presented sugar-coated in rich melody, but is hidden deeper? Or is it the responsibility of the singer to satisfy his audience?

It’s the responsibility of the artist to be true to the work whilst at the same time attempting to make it as accessible, as comprehensible, as one can. Depending on the nature of the work there’s sometimes only so much you can do regarding its accessibility. With both Blemish and Manafon I was moving into uncharted waters therefore it wasn’t going to be easy for the general audience to accompany me all the way and I was obviously aware of that fact while the work was being created. To have attempted to have made the material anymore accessible would’ve been to dilute the material’s purpose and potency but, I don’t believe this marks a disrespect for the listening audience, on the contrary, it’s an attempt to offer something of significance. It’s relatively easy to repeat the past, it’s a far harder, more heartfelt effort, to imagine the future.

Working with orchestration, fleshing out the melodic content inherent in the vocal lines, tends to make the compositions more accessible, yes. People tend to have a more immediate access to, and appreciation for, the melodies. But Dai is a fascinatingly original and protean composer, so whilst the work might ultimately be more accessible, it’ll lose none of its original complexity, in fact it seems to take on a richer complexity, to Dai’s credit, that doesn’t hinder the immediacy of the finished piece. We’re working counter to my original intentions for the compositions, in a similar way that my vocal contributions on the original worked counter to the intentions of the improvisations.

How did you go about creating the sound heard on Blemish and Manafon? What were your influences? Blemish seems to have been created on a kind of Miles Davis, improvise and see what happens basis. Was Derek Bailey in particular and his free improvisation crucial to this? And how was the sound developed on Manafon?

I think it was a combination of my wanting to create something with an urgency to it, that would be rapidly completed and left in its natural state, rather than producing something over deliberated and refined. We’d started work on what was to become Snow Borne Sorrow (an album David recorded with his brother Steve Jansen, released in 2005 under the name Nine Horses) and the speed of production was reliably slow and, due to my emotional state, I knew this process wasn’t going to cut it for me at that moment in time. There was this sense of trauma that needed addressing, that wanted out, so we took six weeks away from that project and I started recording Blemish. I couldn’t tell you who or what was crucial in terms of influence outside of the circumstances of my public and private lives. It was part of a personal evolution whose time had come, where things would shift for me in a quietly dramatic way. I knew Derek bore some relation to the material because his was the only music I could listen to leading up to the recording itself. At that time I didn’t know how I was going to approach the work or what it might sound like so it was not a conscious absorbing of his influence or anything obvious of that nature. It was simply an intuited connection. Two thirds of the way into recording Blemish I felt I needed a counterpoint to my own approach to guitar improvisation and Derek was the first to come to mind. No one else was considered.

I felt my response to Derek’s contribution had worked well enough that the desire arose to attempt work, in a similar fashion, with larger ensembles. To be honest, it was a slightly unnerving proposition to enter a given situation with some of the best in their field with nothing concrete to offer but my assurance, guidance and intuition. Mercifully some, if not all, were familiar enough with Blemish to allow them to give me the benefit of the doubt. All were open-minded and generous in their willingness to participate, give of themselves, and in allowing me to do as I wished with the resulting recordings. So, once I had the material in hand, the process of responding to it was remarkably similar to how I’d worked on Blemish, particularly where Derek was concerned, which was a concentrated process of automatic writing and recording executed within a matter of hours. There might’ve been a 12 month delay between the recording of the music and my response to it but it was, nevertheless, what came to mind in the moment I sat with it for the first time, based on what was suggested melodically and where that led me lyrically, although this would also be heavily influenced by the subject matter I knew needed addressing and my state of mind at the time. Essentially, despite the seemingly random nature of the entire enterprise, I had a sense of what it was I was looking for and, over time and through active engagement, worked out how to go about accomplishing my goals.

Are you ever worried that an album like Manafon is simply too dense, two impenetrable for your audience? Do you ever think ‘well maybe I’ve gone too far with this one, maybe I should offer something more conventional out of fear of being alienating?’

I simply do whatever it is I’m driven to at the time of creating a work. My desire is to communicate not alienate but I can’t pander to the taste of one particular audience or a particular faction of that audience. This would only end in the failure of both the artistic and commercial merits of the material.
If an audience thinks I’ve gone too far and refuse to believe in what I’m producing as relevant or worth the effort, I’ll not attempt to persuade them otherwise, but I’ll continue to give everything of myself to the material regardless until I have to shut down the computer, put the guitar in the case for the last time and start looking at the want ads in the local paper. I’ve not divorced myself from more accessible work, as I hope the compilation indicates, and there’s no reason to believe that later solo works will move increasingly left of field. But I do choose to follow the path in which my instincts lead me. I have to trust in them as there’s nothing else I can rely on.

Spirituality and religion are obviously extremely important to you, if you follow the path of your music you have written about Buddhism, Christianity and you have considered the work of  R.S Thomas on Manafon. What would you say is the bigger force in your life, music or spirituality? Or are the two intertwined?

Being, with a capital ‘B’ is the biggest force in life. Learning how to simply “Be” in the world. Music is born out of that experience, spirituality underlines or defines it either by its presence or absence.

You are pretty rare in the music sphere as man who has both chart success to his name and some albums of extremely creative, innovative, experimental music. What was the hardest to write and record, a song like Ghosts or a song like Emily Dickinson? And do you feel that you could not have written and recorded one without the other?

There has to be a starting point and in a way Ghosts represents that for me. There’s a chronology, an irregular linearity if that’s an acceptable oxymoron, in that one idea gives birth to another. There are instances of exception where a kind of personal ‘evolutionary’ leap takes place but otherwise you’re able to find signs of the present indicated in the immediate past. Neither Ghosts nor Emily Dickinson were problematic for me as composer. The most marked difference between the two is that with Ghosts the concept for the electronic arrangement came after the act of composition, whereas with Emily Dickinson I’d put all the pieces of the puzzle together prior to writing the lyric and melody.

I have read a few interviews with you and the subject has turned to the Internet and how you often communicate with people only via the net, you’ve mentioned people who you have collaborated with musically but have never actually sat in a room with for example. You have said “I’m fascinated by that: How organic a piece of music can sound and feel even though these musicians were never in the same space at the same time.” Is this still the case? Music lends itself to collective experience, how does that separation lend itself to creativity? And do you think that relying on the Internet for communication could allow us to be lulled into a comfort zone that we could become a little too used to?

On the latter issue, sure, it can be a potential problem especially for young people who believe they’ve a social life whereas, in reality, they’re completely isolated and protected from revealing anything of themselves they might find unpalatable or, the reverse, they let their inner demons out in a safe environment with no consequences or any significance. But most adults have lives that bring them into full engagement with the world at large and the personas and personalities with which to carry them through. The same can’t be said for younger people. School and college gets them out into the world but the ego isn’t fully formed, the sense of self, personal identity, isn’t fixed, is still very malleable and the social pressures intense, unforgiving, often openly hostile. But maybe you’re suggesting that the isolation could lead to an artistic comfort zone? Which seems to have worked in the reverse in my case as, whatever else I’m doing, I’m not making myself comfortable.

Regarding communications in general, sometimes the only options available are a phone call or an email. Working long distance with people in different time zones results in email being the preferred means of communication. It’s all about the music in the end not the social interaction. You speak, you engage, through the body of work. That is so much more intimate than many people I’ve spoken with seem to imagine.

As for the making of the actual music; if you’ve engaged with other musicians in a live setting frequently enough then, as in all things, you’ve gained enough experience to know how things work. There’s no right or wrong way of going about this. There is your intuition, the nature of the work at hand, and the limitations and the opportunities you’re presented with. You make the most of these. If you’re 18, working a day job and by night making music on a sampler with a HD recorder, you know what your limitations are and you pull out all the stops to make something that satisfies you and that has every chance of being as relevant, as groundbreaking, as that multi platinum band recording in a room together in the Bahamas. If working in partnership, you choose your collaborators with careful precision and half the work is done for you whether you’re recording together live or sending files across the internet. When I send a composition to Jan Bang or Arve Henriksen in Norway I know, without doubt, they will give 100% of themselves to producing what is asked of them and I hope they feel they can rely on me to do the same. Most musicians will give you multiple takes with which to work so the element of creative choice remains. Editing, placement, treatments and processing are a creative part of the work too. You might love a particular phrase as played but if you wish to change one note in the scale, you’re able to do this. I’ve recorded live in the studio with Arve and we’ve exchanged files on numerous occasions. I have no preference where the results are concerned only the nature of the work dictates which route has to be taken. Sometimes, file exchanges aren’t going to cut it, you have to be present, you have to give clear indication and guidance to a group of musicians who’ll be recording together because there’s something imperative about the nature, the essence of the work, that demands it. If working on more traditional material it’s imperative that certain elements be recorded in person. If you’re working with drums and bass for example, getting the feel of the track for something pre-composed, you’re not going to leave that to chance and interpretation, that’s going to be a booked session.

Let’s also not forget that, for the past three decades or so, in the world of popular music, there’s rarely been a group of musicians in a room together performing live. More often, with the possible exception of the basic rhythm track, the music was created one on one; producer, artist, and guest musician, the results of which were often radically edited and refined. Nothing wrong with this approach either in my opinion.

The short answer would be anything goes. It simply depends on what your needs, priorities and limitations are for any given project. In the traditional sense music lends itself to communal activity but there’s plenty of material of that nature out there. Music also lends itself to the solitary, the introspective, the cerebral and the emotional. You might choose to watch a movie in the presence of others in a cinema because that was once considered a communal experience and many still prefer that experience over a solitary one, but increasingly we seem to choose to watch a movie in a home setting, in HD, or on our laptops. We forego the communal aspect for something more intimate. It really depends on the material and the individual. There are many variations at work here, many choices we’re capable of making both as creators and consumers. As far as musicians go I would say that this development has been revolutionary, liberating. It’s made possible that which would otherwise be impossible. If you know what you’re doing, it won’t necessarily be clear to the listening public how the work was created. The question shouldn’t even arise. They should just be engaged, immersed in the results.

Are you starting to feel the kind of resolution that comes with getting older. Perhaps a better question would be did you ever feel mentally young? Did you ever feel at ease as a young man? Have you settled more into your skin with age?

Ingmar Bergman said “I myself never felt young, only immature.” There’s something in that sentence that resonates. I didn’t feel at ease when young, but then I don’t feel at ease now for entirely different reasons. I am surer of myself. I know what I’ve got to offer. Wisdom is hard won.

Does anything inspire you about the state of music in the 21st century?

Yes, plenty. So many individuals producing good work. Some of it is rightly acknowledged and highly appreciated, from Arcade Fire to Radiohead, but most artists that I enjoy listening to repeatedly, couldn’t get arrested.

Will you ever perform live again and did you feel comfortable with the experience when you did?

I have felt comfortable onstage, yes. Live performance has never been a priority of mine but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a valuable education on many levels and rewarding. I don’t attend live shows myself, or at least, very rarely. If I’m in a city and a friend is performing I’ll likely see them. If there’s a comparatively rare opportunity to see a performer whom I’ve long admired, who’s either semi retired or no longer tours that often, I might take it in but more often than not, I won’t. Most of my greatest musical experiences, outside of creating it, tend to be in relation to recorded work. But there have been notable exceptions.

And finally, I’ve read that someone like Bob Dylan will only ever record music after 2am in the morning. As a writer and musician what is more convivial to creativity? A summer’s day or a dark winter’s night?

A bright winter’s day.

My thanks to David Sylvian for agreeing to this interview and offering such insightful, elegant and inspiring answers. Picture 1 – Samadhisound, Pictures 6,7,8,10,12 – David Sylvian.com

24 thoughts on “Hard Won Wisdom – A Converstation With David Sylvian – Part Two”

  1. Excellent interview Mr Leeming. Your well informed line of questioning elicited some very interesting answers. The inquiries into Sylvian’s concern for commercial accessibility were quite pertinent. Thanks so very much.

  2. What a generous person David is with his answers. I’ve noticed him in interviews before, he takes on board what he is being asked and thinks very carefully before he replies. The result is a very open, honest and crystal clear response. Very refreshing.
    Thank you David & Robert. x

  3. Thanks to Mr. Leeming for making the interview available. Good stuff.

    I for one am very curious to hear the sounds that Mr. Sylvian will resonate with in the coming years. These times are causing quite a creative stir for the more sensitive individuals out there.

  4. Nice interview and you asked him things about Blemish and Manafon I wanted to hear. I have loved David’s music (vocals and ambient music) for years. He is one of very, very few artists I buy IMMEDIATELY the music is out without even having a preview. No more, I am afraid. Those last 2 albums just did not cut the mustard. They were for me unlistenable. Very poor. David seemed to be on destruct.In a bad space. These 2 albums were in no way progressive, in fact decidedly regressive. I will listen carefully to the new one. I pray for a return to form for one of the world’s greatest artists who so much lights my life.

  5. Like others, my failure to connect with David’s current work frustrates me, but I know this is my failing if anyone’s, not his. He has always done what he wants to do – a rare and irreproachable quality – and is at his best within each sphere he enters because of it. Would we seriously want him to be anything other than himself, even if it is at our own expense?
    That said, some may consider he’s becoming a bit of a musical Steppenwolf, and (to borrow from that text) it’s a slender path to tread between “not for everyone” and “for madmen only”.
    ‘A Certain Slant of Light’, the song he recorded recently for free download, is certainly a shift from Manafon and a resurfacing from the deep in terms of accessibility. Selfishly, I hope this signals his complex communication is evolving to use a simpler language. But on balance, I hope he just continues to do whatever is in his heart.

  6. Just to give some balance to the forum, I’d say that this decade’s output, including oh, say 80% of Blemish and Manafon are a blessing. I was quite disappointed with some of Dead Bees – some great individual songs and melodies, but I felt Dave was treading water somewhat. These more recent works feel so much more intimate and ‘real’. Again, aside from the odd atonal line that jars a bit too much, I really like the new song ‘Five Lines’ and can’t wait for the remix album. Great interview – an insight as always.

  7. Blemish is still an album that is played repeatedly on my ipod as I go about my day and has single handedly influenced my own musical projects over the last couple of years too. I love its originality, its sparseness..it seems to have a healing,life restoring quality to it for me even though it is about very dark matter. Manafon is equally beautiful but is taking time to digest a bit more as it has even more space within it and less music. I for one hope David doesn’t stray to far from this stlye of work as it has enriched my life no end. Thanks for the interview.

  8. Excellent interview..to be honest i’ve not paid enough attention to David’s output over the last 10 years,mainly because I was disappointed with the “dead bees” album..i’m really enjoying the Sleepwalkers album..it’s the best stuff he’s done since “secrets of the beehive”/”pop song”..totally understand that he wants to explore all sorts of musical avenues but personally I think he’s at his best when he’s at his most melodic.

  9. Would David S. ever do any acting? Why not?
    It would be the extreme yin to his hermetic yang
    Now that he got the pin up b.s. out of the way,
    think of the interesting parts…

  10. I haven’t heard David since Japan. “Ghosts” is one of my all time favourites and wy impression of him is fixed from this time. Morrisey with out Marr. Sting without the Police. Please make something that needs no defence.

  11. Silvyan is a musical genious.Once in a generation a musician like him appears. So, he cold make his music like he feels… If we,is fans from far way in time,have problems to understend this two last albuns it is , in fact, hour problem. Lets only hope different times could came and different musical directions will appears in Davis live.

  12. Dear David
    Cheer up man ! .. I’d have asked you .. what makes you laugh ? Are you a synic ? Do you ever think to yourself .. wow a 30 year career and so much still to do .. isn’t my life wonderful !
    You’ve travelled from glam rock to art-house percussive deconstructive skeleton dischord .. and .. we’re still loving it .. ! We GET IT ! .. following the growth and maturing of a true artist is truly what we need .. more challenges that aren’t meant to be instant .. (and ‘instant’ music lasts shortest).. so we listen again and we recognise something .. and again and there’s more and suddenly it all creates its’ own ‘sense’ ..

    I enjoyed the interview .. Keep doing what you do best .. but share a laugh with us now and then eh!

    Keep ‘Being’ David.
    p.s the thought of you looking up the ‘want ads’ in the local paper made me laugh ..ta.

  13. An extraordinary interview, very brave and yet at times strangely incomprehensible and obsolete. I guess that I am lucky when it comes to Davids compositions because I genuinely like all of his solo and collaborative work over the past twenty five years or so, and in my isolated weird pop existence find tracks like ‘The Only Daughter’ (‘Blemish’) and ‘Emily Dickinson’ (‘Manafon’) just as accessible as ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Darkest Dreaming’.
    Of course I am aware that ‘Blemish’/’Manafon’ are a departure of sorts and Blemish in particular is the bravest DS album to date. A dark abstract album with balls to match Sw’s ‘TILT’. I’m just not sure whether his ambient work with Holger Czukay or his acoustic pop i.e ‘Orpheus’/”The Day The Earth Stole Heaven’ are his departures, because in my simple mind ‘Brilliant Trees’/’RTC’ through to ‘Manafon’ just feels like a spiritual evolution to me. Finally I found the latest compilation album ‘Sleepwalkers’ extremely refreshing.
    Karl Hainer

  14. There seem to be two camps of thought: those that appreciate David’s more recent work (e.g., Blemish, Manafont) and those who prefer the work before these projects. I am firmly in the latter. I am a fan for many years and I must say that I miss the beauty of the music presented in the Everything and Nothing catalog–Sylvian at his best. Since I am expressing my opinion as a seasoned fan, I must share that I still listen to Rain,Tree, Crow with great enthusiasm–just throwing this out there–how about a Japan reunion or at least a new CD with Sylvian, Barbieri, Jansen, and Karn. I know many of us would love to see it happen!

  15. David seems intent on, perhaps, thinking of his musical legacy, and so decides to make difficult un-songs to make his life’s output seem a little more varied and worthy. I feel these recent music offerings will die with him, and, rather awkwardly for him, it will be the lyrics and melodies of his accessible work that will remain in the future. In music, like art and architecture, there are humanistic qualities that remain the same down through the centuries. A beautiful painting is applauded now and 800 years previously, as it has common themes of worth. I cannot see these themes displayed recently:I have tried!

  16. As much as i admire Mr sylvian i cant quite connect with some of his recent work. But still remain a huge fan of this guy.

  17. you my man son of plasterer have provided joy and pain your insight miraculous, a gift of heaven i have a song son of commonwealth it needs your voice to be heard by those whom have true ears.

  18. Very interesting interview. As a long term listener and as an introvert myself I can understand a lot of where he’s coming from. That quote from Ingmar Bergman is particularly resonant.

    I do wish though, that whoever had wrote the announcement of Micks death on the home page had capitalised his name. Capitals for his wife and Chelsea .. so why not Mick Karn. I do hope that wasn’t intentional.

  19. Lovely man. David has produced some of the finest music that I have heard in the last 30 years. Great voice and lyrics, with awesome musicianship and musical collaberations are the key ingredients. I would buy a David cd as soon as it came out, without even checking it out, so sure was I of me enjoying his work. Sadly this has changed for me with the last 2 albums, which I do not feel like making the effort to get into. Unaccessible? Unlistenable? Love you , David and it is your life to do what you want with, but I won’t buy any more of the atonal stuff.

  20. I’ve owned Blemish since it first appeared, and the same for Manafon. In both cases, I found them unlistenable until not too long ago. Interestingly, I started to understand Blemish at a time where my own marriage was going through a bumpy episode; to cut through the frustration, I found it inspiring to think about the sense and nonsense of relationships from a somewhat abstract and detached point of view. In my view, this is what underlies Blemish; Manafon takes this approach further to other realms of human existence.

    Those two albums I have learned to appreciate as a theoretical analysis of human emotion and motivation; similar to how a mathematician perhaps would dissect the mechanisms underlying what makes the human soul work. After listening intensely to his more recent work, I have to say that now, it has now become “standard” to me, and I am getting quickly bored with more melodic and accessible music. David Sylvian’s tastes and character have evolved, and following his development requires a lot more than a passive appreciation of music. His path has forced himself, and is forcing the attentive listener, to leave behind comfort zone and much baggage.

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