Snow Borne Sorrow by Nine Horses is an album that came 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). Whilst Nine Horses emerged in 2005, the Jansen/Sylvian collaboration began much earlier and some pieces pre-dated Sylvian’s startling solo album Blemish (2003). The latter album exhibited a very different approach to the material being developed with Jansen, adopting a pared back approach to instrumentation and with improvisation at its heart both in 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 of this were two remixes by Friedman of the tracks ‘Blemish’ and ‘Late Night Shopping’ for the Blemish reimaginings album, The Good Son vs. The Only Daughter.
Eventually the work with 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 Friedman 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 [Burnt] had sent to me. 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.’ (DS, 2005)
The piece 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 musicians featuring on the piece are interesting in that they include 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, Morton Grønvad on vibraphone and Hayden Chisholm on saxophone. From the samadhisound band come Keith Lowe on bass guitar, Tim Elsenburg of Sweet Billy Pilgrim on additional guitar and Theo Travis on flute and contributing 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.
I find the lyric to this track really striking. I think 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 no doubt be hard-won observations from personal experience, and Sylvian has acknowledged that whilst the protagonist has ‘a different mentality than my own’ there are ‘autobiographical elements in there’ and ‘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’
As a young person, adulthood looks straightforward; yet as life comes on fast you can be overtaken by events in unanticipated ways and even ‘time for reflection’ is something for the future not the present. Insidiously, then:
‘I’ll grow to resemble
The man I’ve become’
There is a central psychological observation that we create our own stories which we recount to ourselves, stories that somehow make sense of the contradictions between our world-view and the truth of ourselves and our behaviour, often by omitting those facts that don’t fit with our narrative. I love the use of the photography image 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’
‘In a sense we need these stories to tell ourselves, but it’s the level of self-deception that’s dangerous.’ (DS, 2005)
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, probably both.
When I listen to the piece 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 with 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 plays on ‘A History of Holes’ – contributes 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, echoing his contribution to ‘A History of Holes’.
‘A History of Holes’
Hayden Chisholm – saxophone; Burnt Friedman – sequences, programming, editing, toy piano; Morton Grønvad – vibraphone; Tim Elsenburg – additional guitar; Steve Jansen – drums, percussion; Keith Lowe – bass guitar; Tim Motzer – electric guitar; David Sylvian – keyboards, vocals; Theo Travis – flute, saxophone solos
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
‘‘The History of Holes’ refers to.. ..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.’ David Sylvian, 2005