Of Music and Silence

September 2007 / The World is Everything tour brochure

Where to locate the music of David Sylvian? His journey from the centre of planet pop to the margins of the avant-garde is certainly one of the most unusual in contemporary music. Today he occupies an exalted position in what he describes as that “wonderfully vague area where the avant-garde crosses over with electronic music and the outer fringes of jazz”.

In other words, he occupies a space that is entirely his own, just as his journey has been entirely his own, in its courage, singularity and continuous seeking after truth and innovation, both in the music, with its restless experimentation and search for new forms, and in the life as revealed through the music. Sylvian once told me that he was “not there” in the music of Japan, that he had revealed little or nothing of himself in those early songs, with the possible exception of the stark and confessional ‘Ghosts’, with its sparse, minimalist electronics and exploration of the aesthetics of emptiness – of the precise nuance, the interval, the pause. In retrospect, the young Sylvian was in hiding – especially from himself. And the music of the band called Japan he fronted with such inscrutable reserve in the late Seventies and early Eighties was ultimately a music of surfaces and stylised effects, a music of evasion.

The early solo career, beginning with Brilliant Trees in 1984 and extending through to Gone to Earth (1986) and Secrets of the Beehive (1987), was anything but evasive; the best songs of this period of high creativity are anguished expressions of interiority, worked on and recorded in collaboration with an ever-changing ensemble of musicians and composers.

After Secrets there would be a long wait before another solo album, 1999’s Dead Bees on a Cake. The intervening period had seen Sylvian working closely with Robert Fripp, and, briefly, with his former confreres in Japan (together they released an album in 1991 under the name Rain Tree Crow). Dead Bees is his most serene album. Sylvian is revealed as a contented husband and father, increasingly at ease in the world and enraptured by mystical Hinduism and ritual worship: seeking at once to know and heighten the self he sings also of wanting to be liberated from its primary emotions and desires. It is, perhaps, his least challenging album, precisely because it is, in so many ways, his happiest and least self-interrogative.

There was certainly nothing about it that could have prepared you for what came next – the astonishing Blemish (2003), which even at a distance of four years has lost none of its capacity for aesthetic surprise. Blemish is the product of an artist on the very edge of dissolution, for whom everything seems to be breaking apart. If Dead Bees was a music of spiritual rapture and celebration, Blemish is its very opposite, a music of existential crisis, in which the old established forms no longer seem adequate. Listening to the album you understand how Sylvian no longer wishes to be articulate in the language of pop music. The syntax and vocabulary are too familiar, the formulations too tired.

Blemish was recorded in just six weeks at his home studio in New Hampshire and released on his own label, Samadhisound. It is raw, fragmented, and lyrically desolate, and served as my reconnection with his music. It was obvious that here was a musician under great pressure, struggling to invent his own idiom, working fast, trying to break free as he stumbled in the dark with only the fragile light of a candle to guide him.

Improbably, Blemish – Sylvian’s experiment in “improvisation and automatic writing,” as he called it – succeeded in introducing him to a whole new audience, as well as serving as a kind of personal liberation. It was as if the act of aesthetic rupture freed him to begin again, and now, in this new phase of creativity, his writing became more overtly political as he grappled with the complexities of our new world order in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington DC of 11 September 2001, their antecedents and consequences.

Towards the end of 2003, he released a pop song, but it was no ordinary pop song: ‘World Citizen’ is a protest against the American-led invasion of Iraq, at once jaunty and bitingly sardonic. This was followed in 2005 by Snow Borne Sorrow, a suite of nine songs, interconnecting the personal and the political, and released under the name of Nine Horses (the other “band” members are his brother and long-time collaborator Steve Jansen, and the German electronic experimentalist Burnt Friedman). Like Blemish, the tone is confessional, but this time, because of the sweetness of the melodies, even those tracks which are sorrowful or about the end of a love affair, such as ‘The Day the Earth Stole Heaven’, are curiously uplifting. The album is also an experiment in forms: electronica, gospel, jazz, pop. It is, I think, his most consistently engaging, accessible, and affecting album since Gone to Earth.

A dedicated reader, Sylvian has long been inspired by poetry, literature and philosophy, as well painting and film. In an early work such as Brilliant Trees these influences were explicitly signposted. Nowadays the influences, whether literary, religious or philosophical, are much more deeply embedded in the work; they are an expression of a complete sensibility, and the effect is both subtle and complex.

All art, said the Victorian critic Walter Pater, aspires to the condition of music. But what of a music that aspires to the condition of silence? What of a music whose purpose is not to divert or entertain but to transport the listener beyond the noise of the world and the mere flux of appearances and on into consideration of a higher reality?

Music is the most abstract of all art forms because it is about and represents nothing; it is only created and experienced as music. There is nothing before or after the creation of the music; there is only silence. Yet at its best, and when heard with understanding, it can be expressive of so many different moods and states of being.

What is David Sylvian’s music most expressive of? That, I would guess, depends on the listener. According to the New York Times his voice, so evocative is it of yearning and melancholy, “is like the sound of introspection itself”. For my part, it’s impossible to listen to the best of Gone to Earth or Blemish or Snow Borne Sorrow without feeling emotionally challenged and, above all, moved, not least moved by the struggles of being that are enacted in the very form and content of so many of the songs themselves.