Wednesday, February 18, 2015
David Sylvian - there's a light that enters houses with no other house in sight (Samadhi Sound)
So, some history or lack thereof. Apart from knowing of the general existence of a band called Japan, I was unaware of Sylvian's work prior to the release of "Blemish" (with Derek Bailey), of which I think I only heard a bit here and there and then his excellent contribution on one track from Christian Fennesz' "Venice". For obvious reasons, I was curious about "Manafon" and it became the first occasion for me to hear his music in any depth, as atypical as it may have been in his oeuvre. I wasn't completely sold on it, only finding a compelling mix in a couple of the tracks, otherwise considering Sylvian's vocals to be a bit "sewn on" and all too incongruous with the sampled improvisations (though, arguably, that was a point).
Here, it's an entirely different type of construction, although utilizing some of the same or similar elements. It's one track, running some 64 minutes, centered around the poetry of Franz Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winner (with whom I was also unfamiliar). Wright's is also the voice of the album, reading extracts from his "Kindertotenwald", which Sylvian weaves through music that seems largely of his own design, though with substantial assistance from Fennesz and incorporating a goodly amount of piano work from John Tilbury as well as extracts from previously recorded improvisations by Otomo Yoshihide and Toshi Nakamura. Wright was gravely ill with what was thought to be, at the time of the recording, terminal cancer (though he's since made something of a recovery). I don't know of his previous reading manner and can only imagine how his illness affected what we hear on the release at hand, a general tone and attack that I think most listeners would quickly connect with that of Tom Waits.
Generally speaking, Sylvian constructs a kind of web that, while lush, is perhaps less so than I'd have expected (in fitting with Wright's texts), balancing resonant electronics and piano with thinner, scratchier, less comfortable noises. A piano is pretty much constant. Sometimes it's clear that Tilbury is at the keys, elsewhere it's not so obvious. The drift is amorphous and, while making references to rock tonalities, only occasional allows small kernels of rhythmic activity to develop; they don't last long. Several times along the way, there are odd editing effects, as though the sound has been finely sliced then reassembled, just slightly off from the original--interesting effect. A couple of times, string sections purloined from who-knows-where emerge from the darkness. The music itself is enjoyable enough if not terribly exciting listen (those more partial to Sylvian's more pop offerings will nonetheless find it tough sledding, in all probability); one's attention is drawn more toward Wright's words. As said, his voice betrays clear evidence of a roughly-lived life, 60 years of drugs and drinking, retaining its rich, deep aspect but splintering around the edges, calm to the point of disaffectedness. Wright's words are grim, stark and "unpoetic", far more noir than impressionistic (although the music is, largely, just that), regaling the listener with harsh, short scenes from emergency rooms, alleys and the dark psychic byways of the addicted and the diseased. Reading up a bit on critical response to Wright, I have the impression that while mostly positive, there are detractors that read some of his work as excessively self-pitying, the old glorying in the gutter route. I get a bit of that sense myself, perhaps enhanced by the length of the work. Not that it's unrelenting--that would be fine--more that it's not, that it's more unspooling from the same source whose import we've received and understood after the first few iterations. The deadpan recitation of banal, awful events wears a bit thin. When he reads, towards the end, "We have misnamed death life and life death", it's hardly as stunning an observation as he seems to think.
That said, the text is by no means ineffective on the whole, does create a palpable, dreary world. While still sitting somewhat apart form the music, it's better integrated than the voices on "Manafon" and one gets a glimpse of further possibilities in this area. As before, I'd much, much rather have heard a live recording. Tilbury's done such extraordinary work with Beckett that this would seem a natural enough fit. As is, if you've enjoyed Sylvian's recent work along these lines, no reason you won't derive much satisfaction from this one as well.