Collaborations outside the context of a David Sylvian project have been a regular occurrence over the years and have produced some beautiful pieces. Working under conditions established by other musicians has at times brought out unknown or less developed aspects of Sylvian’s craft, and some of these recordings have given indications of his artistic direction in both music and lyrics – a glimpse of the path ahead.
Damage – the aural record of Sylvian/Fripp’s 1993 The Road to Graceland tour – was released in 1994 and there would not be another core Sylvian project until 1999’s Dead Bees on a Cake. The contributions that Sylvian made to the projects of others during the intervening years were gratefully received as signs of his continuing creativity and helped to bridge what seemed at the time an interminable hiatus in his own output.
The album Marco Polo by Nicola Alesini and Pier Luigi Andreoni was released in 1995 on the Italian Materiali Sonori label. Sylvian had enjoyed significant popularity in Italy during his solo career to date. Nicola told me how his involvement came about: ‘I met David at the Time Zones festival in Bari in the early 1990’s. That’s a very fine festival! I asked David then if he would be interested in collaborating with me. Later I sent him my three tracks..’
Whilst the project was initiated through a meeting, the recording itself was achieved by exchanging tapes. Nicola explains, ‘I sent David the tracks with some arrangements, but without the saxophone. The sax was added to the songs after the voice.’ Sylvian’s vocals were recorded at his then home studio, Atma Studios, on the top floor of his and Ingrid’s house in Minneapolis, and engineered by Dave Kent who was to become David’s trusted go-to engineer during this period and into the samadhisound years.
The Marco Polo project was inspired by the travels of the thirteenth century Italian merchant and explorer. His writings in The Book of the Marvels of the World describe to an unaware European readership the great sights and wealth of Asia, in particular the wonders of China. This sense of adventure and of encountering the unknown provides the core theme and metaphor of the album, with many tracks named after key locations visited by Marco Polo, such as Quinsai, Yangchow and Sumatra. Alesini: ‘We improvised music thinking about this oriental landscape. The Marco Polo albums were the fruit of these improvisations.’
Lyrically, the Fripp collaboration had started to hint at the depth of religious experience encountered by Sylvian in his first meetings with the teachers who would become central to him – most notably on ‘Darshan’. ‘Come Morning’ is the opening track of the Marco Polo album, and straight away the theme is the divine:
‘God is in the silences
Between the rhythm’s rise and falling
The starring of the skies of blue
The promise of tomorrow’s calling’
The implication is that the journey we embark on through Marco Polo is not just a physical expedition, encountering exotic places through the eyes of one of their earliest visitors, but there is also a core spiritual aspect to the journey. The lyrics are firmly in the present tense and we are looking forward: not just peering over our shoulder at a distant past, but seeking out ‘the promise of tomorrow’s calling’.
The song is an invocation; amongst the rhythms of music and life, and under the canopy of blue skies that turn to heavens full of stars, there is the presence of God and the promise of a call on our life.. ..‘Hey, ho, come morning’ – bring on the morning, bring on that calling.
‘There is always a spiritual aspect within my music. The specific invocation to God on ‘Come Morning’ was David’s choice through his lyrics,’ explains Alesini.
The lyrics on The First Day may have started to demonstrate the influence of a new-found fascination in religion, but the music itself was yet to incorporate eastern or ethnic elements to complement the theme. In Marco Polo there is a context to start this as the music seeks to portray something of the expedition of great explorer. On ‘Come Morning’ the evocative drum programming and percussion contributed by Alesini and Andreoni brings to life the rhythm referenced in the words. They each also contribute keyboards alongside Roger Eno on synthesiser, their sounds adding to the feeling of ancient places far away. I’m pretty sure that this is the one and only time that Sylvian’s vocals are accompanied by bouzuki (more commonly spelt bouzouki), Arturo Stalteri’s finger-picked arpeggios contributing to the sense of the exotic.
Alesini: ‘We sent rough mixes of the accompaniment to David and he provided his opinion on what we had done. The idea to use bouzouki came from the producer and Arturo himself. That was a very good idea!’
The musical lead is taken throughout the album by Nicola Alesini’s woodwind – saxophone and clarinet. The instruments intermingle with the musical environments like the western traveller experiencing the cities and cultures of Asia. Never showy, I really enjoy Alesini’s flourishes of organic, reedy sound on ‘Come Morning’.
David Sylvian would return to the track for his retrospective Everything and Nothing collection in 2000. I’d forgotten just how much his remix for that album changed the musical accompaniment – Pier Luigi Andreoni’s piano at the opening is removed, as is Roger Eno’s synthesiser and the heavy reverb on the vocal, and the whole mix is simplified with the bouzouki much more to the fore. The changes give the piece a very different rhythmic feel. It’s well worth owning both the original and the later remix.
As part of creating my Vista playlist I rediscovered pieces on Marco Polo and its later follow up Marco Polo II (1998), some of which I probably hadn’t played for more than a decade. Once again I’d been listening to the tracks featuring David Sylvian and neglected the complete albums. I precede ‘Come Morning’ with ‘Valley of Pamir (2nd Day)’ from Marco Polo II. This track features some beautiful piano from Harold Budd, keyboards from Richard Barbieri and percussion and loops by Steve Jansen (‘Very fine musicians!’ – Alesini.) I’ve been tuning in more closely to Richard’s synthesiser sounds – not least through his excellent recent releases – and they are identifiable here, particularly in the opening segment of the song. And of course nobody captures a sense of place through rhythm like Steve Jansen. The percussion grows in intensity as it joined by a driving bass, and then ebbs away at the end.
I follow ‘Come Morning’ with a track from the first album, ‘Buchara’. Here Alesini uses tapes to introduce unfamiliar voices from a city previously unknown to Europe:
‘At the city’s centre
there was a second fortress on a high peak.
Persians, Hindus, Tartars,
Jews in their black robes,
Chinese crowded the city.
It was a great market.
The city of Buchara was the most beautiful in Persia.’
from Sklovskij, ‘Marco Polo’, as quoted in the album’s booklet
Nicola Alesini – clarinet, soprano sax, keyboards, drum programming; Pier Luigi Andreoni – piano, keyboards, percussion; Roger Eno – synthesiser; Arturo Stalteri – bouzuki; David Sylvian – vocals
Music by Nicola Alesini & David Sylvian. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Project & Production by Giampiero Bigazzi. From Marco Polo, Materiali Sonori, 1994
David Sylvian recorded at Atma Studios, Minneapolis, Minnesota, engineered by Dave Kent
Lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
Thank you to Nicola Alesini for contributing to this blog.
‘[Collaborations] usually come to me.. ..usually I’m entirely alone and I respond to the work that’s sent to me, and so it’s like a break from whatever it is that I’m working on at that period in time, or it’s an extension of it in some form or another.’ David Sylvian, 2010