‘Without wishing to embarrass you, I think that’s probably the finest piece of music that you have recorded to date.’ David ‘Kid’ Jensen made this comment when interviewing David Sylvian on his UK Radio One show, having just played the title track from Sylvian’s new album. This was in mid-June 1984, two weeks ahead of the album’s release, and was the first time that I – and I’m sure many others – had heard the piece.
All these years later, the song ‘Brilliant Trees’ sounds as fresh to me as it did then; in no way dated, unlike most pop records released in the mid ‘80s. Probably his finest recorded work then, and certainly standing amongst his best to this day. Is there such a thing as a perfect song? If so, then this just might be it.
It captures a significant creative leap from the music of Japan to Sylvian’s solo career. Japan’s final album Tin Drum was a triumph and was what drew me to this music in the first place. There is perhaps a parallel in the creation of a unique sound palette to serve the composition but the colours and techniques exhibited here are so very different. Added to which, the lyrical content is worlds away from the often oblique imagery of Tin Drum. It’s truly a stunning musical evolution – and so mature from an artist still only 26 years of age.
There are two musicians who are most credited with Sylvian on the album Brilliant Trees – Steve Jansen with his unique and sensitive drums/percussion and Holger Czukay as creative catalyst and wild-card. Both play a pivotal role on the title track, but in the first phase of the song the distinctive soundtrack to the vocal is provided by the interplay between the breathy timbre of Jon Hassell’s trumpet and the organ-like keyboards of Ryuichi Sakamoto. Hassell’s contribution was significant enough to warrant a credit as co-writer of the track.
No longer working in a band context, Sylvian needed a new approach to find the right players for the songs: ‘The problem I faced when venturing out alone for the first time was deciding who to work with. My social circle in the world or musicians was not much greater than the members of the band. I dreaded the idea of working with session musicians for whom the material would be all in another day’s work.’
As it turned out, the association that Sylvian did have with the recorded work of favourite artists was enough to unlock a new way of working. ‘The answer came from the compositions themselves. I was working on a home demo of the title track for Brilliant Trees. As I began to elaborate on the arrangement I came up with a sound reminiscent of Jon’s trumpet on a Prophet 5 synthesiser and the connection was made. It occurred to me that if I was able to draw a line between a particular composition of mine and a body of work by another artist, would they not be able to do likewise?
‘I continued to arrange the material for the entire album and as I did certain connections continued to be made between given compositions and a musical “voice”. These voices obviously existed within my own frame of reference. These were musicians whose work I was very familiar with. Once it was obvious to me who these musicians should be, we tracked them down and asked if they’d be willing to give the material a go. They heard nothing in advance of the sessions, most of the participants had never heard of me. It was due to their generosity and sense of adventure that the sessions happened at all. Not one of the musicians invited declined the offer.
‘Once in the studio I found that there were indeed wonderfully intuitive connections made. The pieces evolved, not without some difficulty, but intuitively. Based on the positive results of this experience this process of selection became my modus operandi for years to come. It was the compositions themselves that cried out for certain contributors’ voices. I tried to obey that call.’ (DS, 2004)
Hassell responded positively to Sylvian’s desire to engage and to develop something through active collaboration, rather than merely creating a pastiche of these musical “voices” with technical wizardry. ‘He obviously has digested things that he likes and he’s, I suppose, forthright enough, rather than trying to fake it or mock it up somehow and not give any credit… so along with the recreation of the atmosphere or something that he likes about what each of these people does, he invites the people themselves to do it.’ (1993)
The trumpet sound that Hassell had crafted was uniquely suited to the strong sense of place on the second side of the Brilliant Trees vinyl. Definitely not Western European, but equally distinct from the references to Chinese music so overt on Tin Drum. Encountering the second half of the album was to travel through exotic “other” lands, a potent metaphor for stepping beyond the familiar and embracing new horizons.
From an incredibly rich musical heritage which included studying under Karlheinz Stockhausen and working with minimalist pioneers Terry Riley (appearing on the original recording of ‘In C’) and La Monte Young, Jon Hassell’s epiphany was meeting and playing alongside the Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath. ‘With Pran Nath here was a lens back through the last five centuries into a tradition that was passed down orally which was pure music, a purely devotional form of sound. It was simple, yet the deepest possible illumination, the drawing of a line that reached back into the early history of man. That is the essence of everything I’ve done since, the foundation stone of all my best work.’
So profound was the impact of this encounter that Hassell and La Monte Young travelled to Dehra Dun in India in the early ’70s to study with Pran Nath, immersing themselves in the ancient traditions of raga and learning at the feet of the spiritual teachers there. Hassell developed the concept of translating the musicality and phrasing of the Kirana singing style to his western instrument. ‘I was totally immersed in playing raga on the trumpet. I wanted the physical dexterity to be able to come into a room and be able to do something that nobody else in the world could do. My aim was to make a music that was vertically integrated in such a way that at any cross-sectional moment you were not able to pick a single element out as being from a particular country or genre of music.’ (1991)
Adding harmoniser and delay effects produced the unmistakeable whispering tones that were first heard on early ’80s albums with Brian Eno. ‘When I started studying with Pran Nath I realised that the basic art of raga is, as he says, the music between the notes. That’s to call attention to the fact that if you have a grid and each one of the lines on the grid is a pitch level, the art is drawing precisely a beautiful curve between one level and another level. It’s like calligraphy.
‘Trumpet’s a lonely instrument. It’s one voice. When I realised I could have a replica of the trumpet playing with me, then it was as though instead of drawing the curves with one pencil I could hold a handful of pencils and draw the curves. In trying to make these curves in raga, a very breathy, vocal-type sound resulted. Basically, it’s playing the mouthpiece, not the trumpet. I blow it like a conch shell – that’s the most primitive, fundamental aspect of what I do. This is the only instrument other than the voice that works this way.’ (JH, 1995)
When in 2021 David Sylvian shared a video of the sessions for Brilliant Trees at Hansa studios in Berlin, all of this was brought to life as we could see with our own eyes Hassell and Sylvian working on the arrangement for the title track. Jacketed and sat cross-legged on the floor, Jon talks about his technique as the pair sound one another out as to what he could bring to the song. ‘I’ve left a lot of Jon’s conversation in as it’s of interest,’ wrote Sylvian. ‘In one section he’s explaining the nature of raga and how he came to it by working with renowned Indian singer/teacher Pandit Pran Nath. He was also intimating that, as ‘Brilliant Trees’ asked that he play in the western tradition, “steps” as he describes it, he didn’t see how his performance could be incorporated into the title track. I persevered. He returned to his hotel room that evening to work on it and, overnight, came up with something so beautiful and complimentary to the piece, that moved away from raga (outside of the coda), and gave us one of the rare, if not unique recordings, of Jon playing in the western tradition.’
Hassell begins his performance using only the mouthpiece of the trumpet, before taking up the instrument itself. Towards the end of the clip we see Sylvian, producer Steve Nye and Hassell in the control room experimenting with Jon’s harmoniser treatments whilst simultaneously struggling with the technical shortcomings of the basement studio at Hansa.
The behind-the-scenes footage filmed by Yuka Fujii also captured another essential element within the alchemy that formed this piece. Before Hassell joined the session, we see Holger Czukay working with his IBM dictaphone as an intrigued Sylvian and Richard Barbieri look on. Holger works both with instrumental samples and recorded voices alongside the rhythms and harmonies of the emerging track.
Also shown is a little of an episode described later by Sylvian: ‘I loved the playfulness he brought into the studio. A sense of “anything goes”… at one point he was strumming his guitar and we could not get a clean sound on that guitar in the studio. So in the end I had him sitting outside the studio in a courtyard at a desk with a chair and a guitar on the table as he strummed with cables leading back into the studio. It was a very hot day and all the office workers had brought their desks out and were sitting in that courtyard. So he was sitting among these secretaries doing their work and he was having a great laugh. Between strums, he’d lean over to one of the ladies and say, “They’re paying me a lot of money to do this, you know!” He was so much fun to be with.’ (DS, 2009)
As the vocal on ‘Brilliant Trees’ finishes, so Steve Jansen’s percussion enters. I find it fascinating how the varied percussive elements are placed around and off the beat, creating a mesmerising atmosphere in the final extended phase of the song. It’s an instrumental section that hints towards the ethnic environment conveyed in the subsequent Words with the Shaman EP. Holger Czukay’s influence comes to the fore as monk-like voices bring the track to a close. Steve Jansen also posted a short piece of video in memory of Holger on his sleepyard blog, giving his own angle of Holger contributing guitar to the closing instrumental section.
From the moment he starts to sing, we know that Sylvian is revealing his emotions more candidly than ever before:
‘When you come to me
I’ll question myself again
Is this grip on life still my own?
When every step I take
Leads me so far away
Every thought should bring me closer home
And there you stand
Making my life possible’
‘Lyrically, I could say it’s a self-portrait but I know that would put so many people off. They think it’s based on ego rather than the value of discovering yourself. Actually, the lyrics are so personal that I really would feel embarrassed playing a couple of the songs in front of people. Even in the studio I felt a bit uncomfortable and that was with the people who played on it.’ (DS, 1984)
I love the way the sentiment of the lines:
‘Raise my hands up to heaven,
But only you could know’
is echoed in the imagery of:
‘Reaching up like a flower
Leading my life back to the soil’
We haven’t heard poetry like this in the singer’s previous work.
Sylvian has said that the song title references the feeling you get when standing on the crest of a hill and looking out on nature around you, awe-struck by the sheer enormity and beauty of it. ‘It’s hard to pinpoint but you feel an affinity with the environment that you’re in, you’re able to exist within it without yearning to be back in the city or with people. I wouldn’t know one tree from another…it’s just feeling something which is indescribable – a total peace within.’ (DS, 1984).
To me, whilst ‘the soil’ is in one sense a “dust to dust” image of mortality, it also references the bounty and the wonder of the natural world. This is undoubtedly a song tinged with loss, of a divorce from the surety of faith, but at the same time it’s at the core of the album’s theme of ‘a celebration of life and nature’ (DS, 1984). Belief may be giving way to questioning, but there is such joy and hope in human love:
‘My whole world stands in front of me
By the look in your eyes
By the look in your eyes…
…Every hope I hold lies in my arms’
Sylvian would later associate the song with a spiritual concept that he was yet to discover when he penned the lyric. ‘When I wrote Brilliant Trees I was becoming more and more interested in the spiritual life. I hadn’t come across the Kabbalah and the Tree of Life, but I was on the brink of discovering it. When I did I found that’s what ‘Brilliant Trees’ related to, but I had no concept of that at the time. I’ve found it happens quite a lot, even when I first started writing. I think you anticipate your next stage of changing.’ (1986)
Perhaps the Jewish mystical symbolism of the Tree of Life helped to make sense of how earthly experience of love, creativity and the natural world can itself be an expression of the Creator. Sylvian would certainly later reflect, ‘The narrator of Brilliant Trees ultimately finds redemption in human love, which for him is linked to the divine.’ (2004)
When I listen to the track as part of my Vista playlist, I follow it with the track ‘Empire III’ from Jon Hassell’s 1983 album Aka/Darbari/Java – Magic Realism. Hassell was fascinated that modern recording techniques allowed him to play over and alongside recordings of traditional music from all around the world, creating a new ‘magic realism’. ‘Like the video technique of “keying in” where any background may be electronically inserted or deleted independently of foreground, the ability to bring the actual sound of musics of various epochs and geographical origins all together in the same compositional frame marks a unique point in history.’ (JH, 1983)
The drums on the track somehow echo the off-beat percussion in the second phase of ‘Brilliant Trees’ and the piece creates a kind of extended outro to the track and to the album.
‘Brilliant Trees’ is an exemplar of Sylvian’s instinct for identifying the perfect collaborators for his compositions, melding their contributions together to produce something that becomes recognisably his own. It is music and lyrics in perfect harmony. A favourite piece for me, forever.
Music by David Sylvian & Jon Hassell. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced by David Sylvian and Steve Nye. From Brilliant Trees, Virgin, 1984
Recorded in London and Berlin, 1983/1984
Lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
Physical media links: Brilliant Trees (Amazon)
The featured image is a detail from the Brilliant Trees sleeve photography by Yuka Fujii
Sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here. The full 40-minute film of the Hansa sessions can be seen on the samadhisound Vimeo channel here. Thank you to Steve Jansen for sharing the video clip of Holger Czukay.
This article was originally published in June 2018, then subsequently revised and expanded in both May 2020 and September 2022.
‘Maybe I wasn’t equipped to write about myself directly before. Even ‘Ghosts’ was an outside observation. You don’t feel the person singing the song is experiencing those feelings. ‘Brilliant Trees’, the song, is obviously something genuine.’ David Sylvian, 1984