1988. Home with the vinyl in my hand. Plight & Premonition. First play. A quiet start – turn it up. Then jump out of my skin, startled by that vibrating, loud percussive alarm! Senses heightened now, like exploring unfamiliar territory, unsure of what will be discovered.. ..dark, with occasional glimpses of light.. ‘the spiralling of winter ghosts’ indeed.
Many times along the way a new release from David Sylvian has resulted in initial bewilderment. Exactly what is this music and where did it come from? Such was the experience on that day back in ’88. This time a collaboration with Holger Czukay of Can, following on from the contributions Holger had made to Brilliant Trees, Words with the Shaman and Steel Cathedrals. Recorded much earlier – long before any sessions for Secrets of the Beehive – but only now reaching the ears of the public.
‘Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion’ (attributed to Jack Kerouac). Those words could have been written for these artists.
At the time of its release I was still most used to listening to music in five minute parcels, architected with form and progression, and a beat or a vocal to capture the attention. ‘Plight’ is something else entirely. It takes you to another place, a place that you can experience through sound. One of the amazing things about the piece for me is that it is constructed with many sounds that are unique and other-worldly, yet they also seem organic and conjure an authentic sense of location.
We hear deep drones, single piano notes, tape hiss, distant voices, notes that build and ebb away. At one point a breathy flute melody appears like a firefly dancing in the half-light. There are bells, a crescendo of strings, then a train makes its way across the landscape rattling in its tracks. I can remember thinking, ‘nothing really happens,’ but on repeated listens I was captivated by what does happen.
Gazing at the beautiful cover photograph by Yuka Fujii only heightened the mysterious sense of place, with discarded cloth caught in fallen wood – an untold back-story captured in that image.
The serendipity of the creation of the album is a joy. Sylvian went to Köln to record a vocal for Holger’s album Rome Remains Rome, reputedly for the track ‘Music in the Air’. Following a restaurant visit on arrival, Holger and David go to Holger’s home studio with DJ Karl Lippegaus and end up staying up all night recording. The following two nights are spent pursuing the ideas that surface, and the intended vocal project is never completed.
Speaking very soon after these first sessions, Sylvian says, ‘the general idea was not to perform as such, it was to do as little as possible. To generate music with as little, as minimum performance, as possible so it’s almost like it generates itself, so the finished result is very organic. It was very strange.’ He was clearly inspired in Holger’s abandoned-cinema studio, designed to trigger creation and free from the ticking clock and climbing bill of a commercial set up. ‘As Holger always says, he has built the studio for the artists and not for the engineer. So it works to your advantage. You just sit down and plug into something, and there’s instruments everywhere. And while you make a loop here with the guitar, you go over to the harmonium and you start playing, and you end up with this whole cycle of sounds going on. And you can’t pinpoint what they are, which is interesting. And Holger was also using short wave. Do you know, something very special came out. I felt something very special when I left.’ (DS, 1986)
Czukay’s use of short wave radio and dictaphone introduce ‘found’ voices and musical snippets to the piece, adding to the sense of a foreign but very real environment. These techniques date from some of his earliest creative experiments following his time under the tutelage of Karlheinz Stockhausen. ‘A shortwave radio is just basically an unpredictable synthesiser. You don’t know what it’s going to bring from one moment to the next. It surprises you all the time and you have to react spontaneously.’ (Holger Czukay, 2009)
Sylvian has described ‘Plight’ as more Holger’s track, given that Holger worked on it for some months after recording, as opposed to ‘Premonition’ which is more his own and stands much closer to the first recorded take. Both pieces though have their roots firmly in improvisation. Sylvian’s solo career is marked by a continual desire to embrace improvisation as an approach to creating music, whether it be a solo within a song structure or an extended instrumental. Plight & Premonition is a milestone album in this exploration.
Listening to the piece now the bewilderment is gone but it retains all of its potency; familiarity takes away none of the mystery. And the beginning still has the power to startle me!
Whilst some of Holger’s solo work veers into the zany, there are truly lovely pieces to be discovered. On my playlist I follow ‘Plight’ with ‘Träum Mal Wieder’ from the album Der Osten ist Rot, released by Virgin in 1984. Where the Sylvian & Czukay instrumental is beatless, ‘Träum Mal Wieder’ has an odd industrial rhythm, like the turning of a printing press or a mechanical loom. Around this are layers of found voices and Holger’s distinctive guitar work. Repeated listens reveal more and more nuances, and the short-wave voices become familiar friends. ‘Träum Mal Wieder’ features Jaki Liebezeit who is credited on Der Osten ist Rot with playing drums, harmonium, trumpet, piano and organ. Jaki also appears on Plight & Premonition.
‘Träum mal wieder’ translates from German as ‘dream again’. The world lost a special talent when Holger passed away in 2017. Keep dreaming, Holger.. ..keep dreaming.
‘Plight (the spiralling of winter ghosts)’
Holger Czukay – radio, organ, sampled piano, orchestral and environmental treatments; Jaki Liebezeit – infra-sound; Karl Lippegaus – radio tuning; David Sylvian – piano, prepared piano, harmonium, vibes, synthesisers, guitar
Mixed and processed by Holger Czukay
Produced by Holger Czukay. From Plight and Premonition, Venture, 1988
Recorded at Can Studios, Köln, West Germany 1986-7
Download links: ‘Träum Mal Wieder’ (iTunes)
Physical media links: ‘Träum Mal Wieder’ (as part of the Cinema box-set) (Amazon)
During the writing of this blog the re-release of David Sylvian’s 2002 remix of Plight & Premonition was announced on Grönland Records, together with the later collaboration Flux & Mutability. To be issued on digital download, vinyl and cd (iTunes) (Amazon – cd) (burningshed – vinyl) (burningshed – cd)
‘That piece was about an eight minute piece of music which he [Holger] worked on for about six months: editing, on and off. And I think he transformed it completely because the original piece doesn’t have the.. ..potency of the piece that he produced out of it. It has a very strong atmosphere.’ David Sylvian, 1989