Snow Borne Sorrow by Nine Horses is an album that emerged from a strange origin of creative alchemy. Two projects were underway: collaborations between David Sylvian and Steve Jansen, and between Sylvian and the German composer/programmer Burnt Friedman (initially featuring Jaki Liebezeit). Nine Horses arrived in 2005 but the Jansen/Sylvian collaboration began much earlier, indeed some pieces pre-dated Sylvian’s startling 2003 solo album Blemish. The latter exhibited a quite different approach to the material under development with Jansen, displaying a pared back approach to instrumentation and with improvisation at its heart in both music and lyrics.
Sylvian and Friedman met after a show on the subsequent Fire in the Forest tour and discussed working together. The first fruits were two remixes by Burnt of the tracks ‘Blemish’ and ‘Late Night Shopping’ for the Blemish re-imaginings album, The Good Son vs. The Only Daughter. Eventually the work with each of Jansen and Friedman coalesced to become a single project and a three-partner group was formed, Nine Horses.
‘A History of Holes’ has its genesis in the Friedman collaboration, with Burnt credited for writing the music and Sylvian authoring the lyrics. ‘I sat in the Köln Continental Hotel and finished the lyric to track 4 on the CD-R he had sent to me,’ remembers Sylvian. ‘It was the first piece I’d attempted. It was to eventually become ‘A History of Holes’. I now felt certain the collaboration could work.’
The song has all the hallmarks of the Nine Horses project – meticulously crafted arrangements, an unusual rhythmic structure, haunting musical contributions, and a thought-provoking lyric. The cast of musicians featured is interesting in that it includes a balance of contributors from Friedman’s ensemble and that put together by Sylvian and Jansen. From the Köln-directed end of the project come the global cast of Tim Motzer on electric guitar, Morten Grønvad playing vibraphone and Hayden Chisholm on saxophone. From the samadhisound band come Keith Lowe on bass guitar, Tim Elsenburg of Sweet Billy Pilgrim contributing additional guitar and Theo Travis on flute and saxophone solos.
The woodwind provides organic textures that are a signature of the soundscape throughout the album, often contributing to a cool and somewhat troubling atmosphere. A short video was posted online by samadhisound showing Theo Travis recording his parts at London’s Eden Studios:
I was able to chat with Theo recently about his contribution to Snow Borne Sorrow (see ‘The Banality of Evil’), and this session captured on video by Steve Jansen. ‘For ‘History of Holes’ I played a few solos on alto flute for them to edit and choose from. They were recorded quite quickly, so when David and Steve were happy with enough takes, I suggested I try an additional take using my looping pedals set up to record a layered texture of multiple alto flutes. The engineer sorted that out and I recorded a take like that. I think it was that take that was used and you can hear the layered looping of a lot of flutes on the track.
‘For the tenor saxophone solos I recorded various takes never listening to the previous ones. Just trying a few different approaches. When I heard the finished released album, I was amazed to hear the different takes playing at the same time – and they fitted together remarkably well considering it was not planned like that. A happy accident! The whole last section of the song – about 2 mins 40 secs – is just layered tenor saxes and alto flutes over the beautiful groove and I think it works fantastically well. I love what they did with my recordings on that track. Really wonderful.’
In the studio footage, David’s vocal was playing as Theo performed. ‘If I play a sax or flute solo on a song, then it is normal to have the vocal in when I record. That way I can play around the vocal and hopefully complement it, and keep out of the way of the vocal.’
I find the lyric to the track really striking, thinking of this as a song with a character protagonist, much like ‘The Boy with the Gun’, or later ‘The Rabbit Skinner’. That said, within these character-based songs there will undoubtedly be hard won observations borne out of personal experience.
Asked about ‘A History of Holes’, Sylvian said, ‘There are certainly a lot of autobiographical elements in there. But it was written from a standpoint of somebody with a slightly different mentality than my own. I mean, at the opening of the piece you certainly get the sense that this is somebody that is quite careerist and hard-assed about getting where he wants to be, and I’m not really that kind of person.
‘But then I took somebody with that frame of mind and melded it with my own concerns and reflections about childhood…’ The protagonist, he says, was ‘fighting their way to the top in rather a cold-hearted manner to, in a sense, compensate for what had happened to them on the way up – as a child, or whatever.’
‘I’m making a fortune
I swore to enjoy
These things I promised myself
When I was a boy‘
The lines include what Sylvian describes as, ‘a few home truths about my upbringing’:
‘When I was a boy
And I made mistakes
I was humiliated
‘Til I knew my place’
There is keen awareness in the observation that when we are young, we see the future clearly through principled eyes:
‘When I was a boy
I saw through their lies
I swore I wouldn’t become
The thing I despised’
But as life unfolds:
‘..events overtake you
While you set your sights
On bigger game
On greater heights’
Growing up, adulthood appears straightforward; yet life comes at us fast and ‘time for reflection’ is something for the future not the present. Insidiously, then:
‘I’ll grow to resemble
The man I’ve become’
At the core of the piece is a psychological observation about the internal dialogue that goes on within all of our heads. ‘What interests me is this notion of how we recall things rather selectively from our past. That we tend to tell ourselves stories about ourselves in which we are the leading player, the narrator of the story: and sometimes, or very frequently, we act outside of the script.
‘You know, some things just don’t fit in with the story we tell ourselves, and when there reaches a point of crisis that story no longer holds water. And we often need help to re-evaluate where we are in our lives, and how we can adjust to this new twist in the plot, if you will. But for the most part we manage to carry on rather successfully telling ourselves the same story, and managing to turn a blind eye to those actions that we perform that fall outside of our own moral values, let’s say.
‘And so it’s that… ‘A History of Holes’ refers to that; it’s this kind of wilful amnesia that we embrace. It enables us to go on, to go forward, to not over-analyse what we do and why we have done that, and enables us to continue this fiction that is the story of our lives.’
I love the photography image used to describe the way we can “photoshop” our own reality to make sense of it:
‘God bless amnesia
And the things I’ve suppressed
I can reframe the image
I can discard the rest
A history of holes
Where the pieces won’t fit
With the story you told yourself
And your place in it’
There is a vivid pen picture of the song’s leading man preparing for a day of living the lie:
‘So put on a brave face
Straighten that tie
And speak like you mean it
Give truth to the lie’
“Unsettling” is a description that could be used to describe many of the tracks on Snow Borne Sorrow and here it is underlined by the use of the constant refrain:
‘And I fear that it isn’t enough’
..referring perhaps to the life lived, perhaps to the stories recounted, most probably to the delicate equilibrium that exists between them.
We tread a fine line and when the inconsistencies become too great the outcome can be personal crisis. ‘In the world of analysis it’s said that patients come to them when the personal narrative of their lives no longer holds up under current conditions. Most of the time we’re able to forget or compartmentalise aspects of our lives or personality that don’t fit the narrative (something I addressed on ‘A History of Holes’, Nine Horses), but occasionally we’re unable to re-write that central narrative, unable to make sense of our own lives. We unravel, come undone, lose ourselves, so we seek help.’ (DS, 2010)
Professional analysis was something of which Sylvian had personal experience, embracing it during a dark period between the release of Secrets of the Beehive (1987) and the Rain Tree Crow project. He told Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker in 1991, ‘I’ve been going through quite a negative time, intense… a lot of things came up about my past which I found very difficult to deal with. So I went into analysis for a while and I found it really interesting to get to grips analytically with what was going on, especially as it was totally against my nature. My primary instincts are spiritual but I think it’s a mistake to jump straight into that area because spiritual awareness is such a nebulous thing that if the mind is discoloured by experiences in this life, it’s so powerful it can conjure up anything you think you need to believe in. It’s quite dangerous in that respect.
‘So going into analysis was a kind of clearing out process and it helped me to understand myself a tremendous amount. It’s ongoing, it never ends. It’s never, “Well, I’ve done it now, I understand.” The more you know, the more there is to know. I found my childhood was all about desensitising myself to deal with my environment…’
By the time the Nine Horses project was being finalised, Sylvian was coping with the breakdown of his marriage. Now, though, he seemed better equipped to deal with life’s challenges, his salvation not being in psychoanalysis but in the foundations of spiritual truth and discipline that now ran deep.
‘I compartmentalised my life at some point, saying, there’s this and there’s that and then there’s spiritual life. To me, now, it’s all become spiritual life,’ Sylvian told Marcus Boon in autumn 2004 during an interview for Ascent magazine. ‘Compartmentalising seems to be borne out of what one perceives to be the good and bad in one’s self, the different faces we show to ourselves, and ultimately the need to tell a story about who we are that excludes activities that don’t quite fit in with the story, which we may enact occasionally and then bury when they’re no longer necessary. There’s no part I’ll allow myself to push to one side and say, “well, that’s my dirty little secret and I keep that over there.” No, it’s all a part of my spiritual life. That’s a tremendous recognition. Years and years of analysis couldn’t have brought me to this point in time, to bring all of these separate elements together and embrace them as one.
‘To me the notion of telling a story about who one is, while it facilitates a sense of mental well-being and coherence to one’s life journey, is basically a lie. It’s so well edited that it can’t possibly embrace who we really are, and of course who we really are is beyond all of that. So I’ve tried to let go of the notion of the story. In fact, now that there are all these different component parts of who I am, there is no conceivable story that can hold it. There are moments that shine with clarity and beauty, and then there are these darker elements that are extremely dark. What am I going to do with them? All I can say is that that’s divine too, and I now have to bring them in and embrace them as who I am, and they’re part of me until whenever, until the next stage.’ (DS, 2004)
When I listen to the song as part of my playlist, I like to precede it with the bizarrely-titled ‘Broken Wind Repair Kit’ by Burnt Friedman and Jaki Liebezeit. This instrumental is from the duo’s album Secret Rhythms 2 which was released in 2005, the same year as Snow Borne Sorrow. The two albums had a shared birth in many ways, with the track ‘Sikkerhed’ being a version of the music for ‘The Day the Earth Stole Heaven’ and each including a version of the track ‘The Librarian’. The key difference between the albums is the presence of Jaki Liebezeit on drums on Secret Rhythms 2, whereas Steve Jansen took these duties for Nine Horses. ‘Broken Wind Repair Kit’ includes contributions from Joseph Suchy (electric guitar) and Daniel Schroeter (bass) who appear elsewhere on Snow Borne Sorrow, and Hayden Chisholm – who features on ‘A History of Holes’ – plays clarinet. It’s a piece that is created from the same palette as parts of Snow Borne Sorrow.
I follow ‘A History of Holes’ with ‘Played Out’ by Steve Jansen from The Occurrence of Slope (2008). Whilst it doesn’t have the same rhythmic characteristics as the Nine Horses material, it’s a good reminder that Steve brings much more than his (excellent) drums to this project. His sound design is captivating. ‘Played Out’ also features Theo Travis on solo sax, calling to mind that session for ‘A History of Holes’.
‘A History of Holes’
Hayden Chisholm – saxophone; Burnt Friedman – sequencers, programming, editing, toy piano; Morten Grønvad – vibraphone; Tim Elsenburg – additional guitar; Steve Jansen – drums, percussion; Keith Lowe – bass guitar; Tim Motzer – electric guitar; David Sylvian – keyboards, vocals; Theo Travis – alto flutes, tenor saxophones
Music by Burnt Friedman. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced and arranged by David Sylvian & Burnt Friedman. From Snow Borne Sorrow by Nine Horses, Samadhisound, 2005
lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
Thank you to Theo Travis for providing his insights into the recording of the track. Quotes by David Sylvian are all from interviews in 2005 unless indicated. Full sources and acknowledgments can be found here. This article was originally published in May 2018 and subsequently revised and expanded in October 2020.
The featured image is ‘Hudson River Drawing’ by Wes Mills (1995), as featured on the Snow Borne Sorrow artwork.
‘We are constantly telling ourselves a new story about ourselves. We create these scenarios and we omit a lot of the negative information about ourselves and the way we act to enable ourselves to move forward: that we remain the hero of our own scenario. I find that quite a fascinating approach…In a sense we need these stories to tell ourselves, but it’s the level of self-deception that’s dangerous.’ David Sylvian, 2005