A Certain Slant of Light

A new catalyst for composition

The vocal disc of David Sylvian’s 2011 album Died in the Wool comprises pieces that fall into three categories: variations on tracks from Sylvian’s Manafon album created by Japanese composer Dai Fujikura, Manafon variations led by Punkt festival founders Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, and six compositions appearing here for the first time.

‘A Certain Slant of Light’ is one of the new pieces and marks a fresh creative approach for Sylvian – taking the words of a poet as lyrics and creating a complementary composition around them.

The trigger for this was a commission that Christian Fennesz and Sylvian had received to set to music poetry by the nineteenth century American writer Emily Dickinson. This project most probably related to the Gustav Deutsch film Shirley: Visions of Reality which features another Died in the Wool track based on a Dickinson poem‘I Should Not Dare’ – as well as other music by Fennesz and two Sylvian tracks from Manafon. The movie was released later, in 2013, and brings alive thirteen paintings by the American artist Edward Hopper. Shirley, the protagonist, is first seen aboard a train in a recreation of Hopper’s painting Chair Car, reading a book of Emily Dickinson poems. Edward Hopper is said to have been absorbed by Dickinson’s writings.

Whatever the motivation, it’s easy to see why Emily Dickinson might be someone to whom Sylvian would be drawn – a reclusive figure facing in her work some of the fundamental themes of human existence, and who lived her life in Amherst, Massachusetts, just sixty miles from Sylvian’s then home in New Hampshire. ‘A Certain Slant of Light’ showcases this fascinating new catalyst for composition and has a perfect thematic fit with Sylvian’s compositions of the time. Much of Dickinson’s work dwells on the themes of death and loss, and all of the new tracks on Died in the Wool touch upon thoughts of the end of life and the significance of a life lived.

Elsewhere in Dickinson’s poetry the sound of a church organ is something which is captivating and mysteriously restorative:

‘I’ve heard an Organ talk, sometimes
In a Cathedral Aisle,
And understood no word it said –
Yet held my breath, the while –

And risen up – and gone away,
A more Berdardine Girl –
Yet – know not what was done to me
In that old Chapel Aisle.’

(‘Berdardine’ is probably a reference to a follower of St. Bernard, the founder of the Cistercian order, implying Dickinson had been drawn closer to God by her experience in the church that day.)

In ‘A Certain Slant of Light’ the sacred music heard at a place of worship is used as an image, but this time with negative connotations. The light of the song title does not bring brightness and clarity as might be associated with a shaft of sunlight illuminating a dreary scene, rather it ‘oppresses, like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes’. It brings with it a hurt borne from heaven:

‘An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air’

The poem speaks of internal pain, a ‘Despair’, the cause of which is no physical wound; the pain cannot be described but is so real that even the physical landscape takes notice as dark, silent shadows are cast by the light.

Sylvian’s vocal is front and centre as the track starts and I love his rendition of Dickinson’s words, the vibrato in his voice emphasising the emotion. The musical soundtrack is created by Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, their inventive use of electronics and samples building a sound-collage atmosphere with texture and depth. They create a delicate, poignant pause in the accompaniment after the description of this hurt as being ‘..internal difference/Where the Meanings, are’: in the inner self, where we seek to make sense of our lives.

As the poem ends Bang and Honoré introduce the plaintive trumpet of Arve Henriksen, capturing the mood of Dickinson’s final couplet; as the sun sets on this winter afternoon, its distance from us is as great as that seen ‘On the look of Death’. Henriksen’s sensitive vibrato echoes that of Sylvian’s vocal.

1 September 2011, sat on the floor of the Sørlandets art gallery in Kristiansand with maybe 150 other people, was the first time I heard Arve Henriksen play the trumpet live. It was my first visit to Norway and my first time at the Punkt festival. I was instantly drawn in by the evocative tone and delicacy of Arve’s playing. He seemed to caress the instrument with tender breaths, sometimes half-singing through the trumpet in an impossibly high falsetto soprano. Ghostly, gentle, genuinely beautiful.

I’d been unconsciously aware of Arve’s work previously, in particular appreciating his contributions to the Nine Horses album Snow Borne Sorrow without ever realising that it was he who was playing. I’d also owned a copy of Cartography, his 2008 recording on ECM, since its release, but I’d mainly concentrated on the tracks featuring contributions from David Sylvian and was yet to appreciate fully what is now one of my all-time favourite albums.

Having now seen Arve play live in several different settings, I can picture him performing whenever I hear his distinctive sound – seated, eyes closed, a picture of concentration. I believe he very worthily continues the tradition of trumpet/flugelhorn players who act as a foil to Sylvian’s vocal: Mark Isham, Kenny Wheeler, Jon Hassell, Harry Beckett, Arve Henriksen…

Arve by Alf Solbakken (2)
photography by Alf Solbakken

When I listen to ‘A Certain Slant of Light’ on my playlist, having been immersed in the sample of Arve’s playing used by Jan Bang and Erik Honoré in the final part of the song, I like to follow it with the track ‘Ending Image’ from his 2004 album Chiaroscuro. The album is produced by Jan and Erik and features their sampling and electronics skills as well as the drums and percussion of Audun Kleive who appears on the Henriksen/Sylvian collaborations on Cartography.

When David Sylvian chose a playlist of tracks for iTunes in 2009 he included ‘Blue Silk’ from Chiaroscuro, commenting: ‘it’s hard to believe Arve wasn’t born with the trumpet attached to his lips. It’s rare to find a musician so utterly in tune with his instrument. And then there’s his voice.’


‘Ending Image’ is a short track, the heart-rending playing complementing well ‘A Certain Slant of Light’. It’s a time also to reflect on the dedication by Sylvian of ‘A Certain Slant..’ to M.K. – Mick Karn, his ex-Japan and Rain Tree Crow bandmate and collaborator. A stripped back version of the track accompanied simply by acoustic guitar had appeared as a free download on davidsylvian.com in June 2010 with an invitation to make a donation to the ‘MKA’. Mick had been stricken with cancer and the Mick Karn Appeal was launched by friends to raise money to help fund his return for treatment from Cyprus to London. Tragically, Mick Karn died on 4 January 2011.

‘A Certain Slant of Light’

Jan Bang – samples; Erik Honoré – synthesiser, samples; David Sylvian – vocals

Samples: Arve Henriksen – trumpet, Helge Sten – guitar

Music by David Sylvian, Jan Bang & Erik Honoré. Words by Emily Dickinson. Arranged by Jan Bang & Erik Honoré.

Produced by David Sylvian. From Died in the Wool, Samadhisound, 2011.

Emily Dickinson’s words © copyright The President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Download links: ‘A Certain Slant of Light’ (iTunes); ‘Ending Image’ (iTunes)

Physical media links: Died in the Wool (Amazon); Chiaroscuro (Amazon)

The version of the track posted in support of the Mick Karn Appeal can be downloaded at David Sylvian’s official website here.

Thank you to Alf Solbakken for the use of his image of Arve Henriksen.

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death

Emily Dickinson


3 thoughts on “A Certain Slant of Light”

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