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.

Samadhi Sound


Anonymous said...

Not sure where to start so I'll simply state the obvious: manafon wasn't 'sampled' improv. Boston based pulitzer prize winner, franz wright, has been struggling with terminal cancer for sometime. he was, as has been noted elsewhere, necessarily heavily medicated during the recording session. the recordings had to be condensed so as to remove extensive pauses etc. John T, last I heard, refuses to travel to the US. This would've made a live recording an unlikely proposition. The work was originally conceived as a basis for live performance by sylvian fennesz mathieu and was refined by DS, at a later date, for release.
A little research goes a long way as would the lack of a superciliousness of tone in a review of this kind. joseph b.

Brian Olewnick said...

Hi Joseph--As far as I'm aware, the tracks on "Manafon" were in fact constructed from improvisations by the musicians involved, which were recorded at various times and places and reassembled for the recording. For example, at the time of the recording (2009), Rowe and Tilbury hadn't performed together since the last break-up of AMM in 2004 but they were "together" on a track or two there. I'd call that "sampled", although perhaps our definitions differ. Tilbury has rescinded his US ban, having taught and performed last year at the New England Conservatory of Music in June. Whether a session would have been possible at that time or another, I've no idea. I was simply stating my general preference for live, real-time recordings rather than processed ones. As to superciliousness of tone, apologies if it came across that way.

Anonymous said...

hi brian - thanks for the response. manafon is, according to interviews, comprised of completely improvised performances with occasional overdubs (including vocals of course), which include JT's presence on one or two tracks. John T. was present on the tracks featuring the Evan Parker line up. I guess it's a matter of how purist one is inclined to be when speaking of improv performances in general. I don't believe the term 'sampled' applies in any case (I'm not sure how much it matters in the scheme of things when speaking of sylvian's work as he's not making any claims regarding improv per se, in fact he's said he's purposefully undermining the process, nevertheless, it must've been an important part of the discipline involved when composing, to be working within well defined parameters with a series of 'givens'). Point taken regarding JT and the US. Wasn't aware of the change of heart. Regarding the current recording Wright was 'archived' prior to becoming part of any composition as such. Was then incorporated into the work for the live trio which resulted in this recording. JT was a late addition. I do understand and share your preference for live recordings but it does not appear to have been an option due to the circumstances in which this piece came about and Wright's fragile state of being. I'm not certain that DS shares this preference (especially if one takes his background into account). His priorities do appear to lie elsewhere. thanks again. Joe

Brian Olewnick said...

Thanks for the clarifications, Joe. I didn't mean to suggest, given Wright's condition, that a live performance *should* have been undertaken, of course. It might not have stuck in my craw as much were musicians like Tilbury (and to some extent, Toshi and Otomo, though they've done their share of more produced or post-produced recordings) not involved. There have been plenty of things in that area I have no problem with, it's likely just the incorporation of free improv in a situation where some of the parties aren't reacting in real-time. As you said, this may well be beside the point to Sylvian, I don't know. (I was actually surprised to receive this for review; the only previous one I'd gotten from Samadhi--I picked up 'Manafon' on my own--was Toshi's, which I think he sent himself and which, incidentally I also found over-processed). I kind of wish, given his apparent appreciation of this area, that Sylvian would simply sit in as just another member of an improvising ensemble. Maybe one day. Or simply release, say, a solo Tilbury improvisational (or repertoire, for that matter) recording.

Richard Pinnell said...

If Sylvian has said that he was deliberately setting out to undermine the process of improvisation, then he achieved this very well on Manofon. "Sampled" may not be quite the right word to use, as it suggests smaller grabs of sound, but that record is certainly a collage of different parts of recording sessions made at different times and in different cities. Its an assemblage- a patchwork of pieces put together to form a backdrop for Sylvian's vocals.

The problem with it, as Brian and I I think agree, is that it is too polished, too refined, too polite. A backdrop has been created from a foreground. To my ears, as Sylvian took the sounds from the improvisers and laid them out to create new compositions he sucked any energy from the sessions, watering down any immediacy that could have been there.

As Brian has said, there are many great examples of music put together in post production from sections of improvisations. It can work, but to my ears at least, it doesn't work on Manofon. Putting vocals of that kind over the top of semi-improvised music doesn't make any sense to me at the best of times, but even before that point, the flatness of the collages make the record pretty lifeless in the first place.

Jon Abbey said...

and also Sylvian's vocals are mixed much too high (on Manafon, haven't heard the Wright one).

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to see manafon discussed here in this fashion. The album itself doesn't belong in the free improv camp, it's not the raison d'être of the work. It's a means to an end. It's the work of a singer/songwriter (I'm sure Sylvian wouldn't like that description but for want of something more appropriate) who's attempted to push the envelope when it comes to the creative impulse concerning the basics of the songwriting process. It a difficult album to place. It tends to alienate lovers of pure improv, those that enjoy his more lushly arranged pop standards, and therefore it has yet, in my humble, been appreciated in an appropriate context because there's currently no such subtable pigeon hole for a work of this kind. i've seen Jon leave comments on sites lamenting the fact he can't hear his artists loud enough in the mix (According to an interview in a Japanese mag Jon did request to rework the material so there's got to be something going for it even if Jon feels it wasn't entirely successful). If it was a Rowe album, I'd agree. But there's plenty of interviews out there that describe the process and what it was he was attempting to achieve with the album. Whether he pulled it off is a matter of opinion but there's been a desire on the part of the 'community' to push it aside, which they've every right to do, but based on inappropriate grounds (ok, in my opinion). Dan Wabble-on's review epitomized the the total incomprehension of the material and its goals. He was all at sea writing about an album that had no place on his site to begin with. But his description of the songwriting process was some of the poorest writing I'd seen anywhere for some time and his decision to label those that might enjoy the work as elitist (Did he really use that term on his site? I think I'm recalling this correctly) was just daft and an attempt to put Sylvian and his audience in their place. In other words, to completely annihilate and erase the work so as to deny it a place in any future debate as 'relevant', completely damning it outside of the context for which it was designed. As for the comments regarding the work of the musicians involved (which include Sylvian himself) and how poorly he might've served them; Honestly, how do we make this assumption? We're used to hearing such musicians engage on an even playing field which this most certainly was not, nor was it intended to be. Again, we're making critiques using the wrong criteria. This isn't an all out attempt to defend the work but if this community, to which I like to think I belong, were less inclined to see the value of a work through a specific lens maybe, maybe, something insightful might actually come out of the conversation. If there's total disinterest in the artist and his work in general maybe we should give it a wider birth rather than condemn it out of hand just because we know and love the musicians involved? chris b.

Brian Olewnick said...

Hi Chris--thanks for your thoughtful comments. I actually agree with most of them, including the response from listeners, like myself, who don't have so much in common with Sylvian's mode of operation. I actually was rather excited at the prospect of Manafon. As I said, my knowledge of his work prior to that (apart from knowing his name) was limited to his contributions to the Fennesz recording and, I think, having heard a track or two from "Blemish", which I subsequently picked up. he may well have accomplished pretty much what he set out to do or maybe was relatively pleased with it as a first foray into this area, I don't know. I think the reservations I have were more on the (of course, subjective) basis: is this an avenue worth pursuing? I get a sense of an imbalanced field here but, on the other hand, it's his gig and the musicians agreed, so...maybe I'll come back to it in a few years with fresh ears and think differently. You're probably correct, though, that "we" feel some desire to "protect" the music of the musicians we love from being used in ways we might deem inappropriate and get overly offended when we think that happens. In the end, I can only say, "Does this work for me or not?" and offer my opinion; it could change.