The Uncommon Deities audio-visual installation heralded the start of David Sylvian’s creative input to the 2011 Punkt Festival in Kristiansand, Norway, where he was artist in residence. Invited by Punkt founders Erik Honoré and Jan Bang, Sylvian’s initial intention had been to re-stage an audio installation that he had provided for the Bienal De Canarias on Gran Canaria two years earlier. However, he saw the opportunity to bring together various creative threads to concoct a truly immersive experience for the first night of the festival.
‘It occurred to me that, rather than recreate the audio installation as was, why not expand upon the concept of the work by inviting [Atsushi] Fukui to be a part of the piece, adding a much-desired visual element, and invite performers to participate in the installation, be they writers, poets, musicians…’ (DS, 2012). The stimulus for the visual element came from a poem that Sylvian had written entitled ‘Uncommon Deities’; this was inspired by Atsushi Fukui’s art and had been written for an exhibition of the latter’s work which ultimately did not take place. A limited edition hand-printed broadside was produced in 2010, for which the Japanese artist provided a central illustration of the fusion of the male and female form into one body, which he titled ‘The Botanist’. This, Sylvian explained in the Punkt brochure, represents ‘the universality of human experience, the undying spirit…self-contained, self-sustaining, a buddhist non-duality…the coming together of the male and female energies as referenced in much of the world’s ancient literature.’ (2011)
Inspired by the title ‘Uncommon Deities’, the poets Paal-Helge Haugen and Nils Christian Moe-Repstad responded with original writing which Sylvian then recorded in English translation so that both Norwegian and English language versions could be incorporated in the opening night’s interactive performance. Erik Honoré told me how he and Jan Bang were drawn to them as collaborators: ‘We’ve known the two poets for a long time, being born and raised in the same town, Kristiansand. To put it simply, they are masters from two generations, both nationally and, increasingly, internationally renowned for their writing. The main reason for involving Paal and Nils Christian in the ‘Uncommon Deities’ project was of course their literary talents, and styles. Haugen provided short poetic stories elaborating on the idea of uncommon deities, of gods in many variations, while Moe-Repstad distilled the idea into his own very special language.’
On arrival at the Sørlandets Arts Museum, I purchased one of the slim volumes of the poetry which comprised Haugen’s vignettes of imagined ‘lesser gods’ interweaved with Repstad’s elemental piece entitled ‘I Swallowed Earth for This’.
We entered the gallery space to be surrounded by the vibrant paintings of Atsushi Fukui depicting a blend of the natural landscape and a fantasy world, many featuring the hermaphrodite image. Facing us was a huge illuminated representation of ‘The Botanist’ recreated on the wall of the museum. Sylvian’s installation music was played in surround sound, accompanied by successive improvised contributions from John Tilbury, Arve Henriksen and Evan Parker, interspersed with readings in Norwegian from the two poets and Sylvian’s recorded spoken word renditions in English translation. Subsequently, Sidsel Endresen contributed other-worldly vocals and Philip Jeck summoned up an orchestra from his two carrycase-turntables. It was indeed an immersive experience and one which made a huge impression on me. (This was my first time hearing Arve Henriksen playing live, as recalled in the post ‘A Certain Slant of Light’).
I asked Erik about his memories of that night: ‘To me it was a very special evening, as I found both the musical and visual/conceptual part of the project very rewarding. The strong impressions from that evening were what triggered me to try putting together the Uncommon Deities album. Initially I just meant it to be a “memento” consisting of excerpts from that evening, but it evolved into something more. Being a “host” also means worrying that logistical and technical aspects are working, so I remember being 50% in music absorption mode, and 50% artistic director. But it definitely was one of those one-in-a-lifetime evenings.’
One aspect of Punkt that I loved was the fact that no divide exists between audience and artist. When each player had given their performance they became part of the audience, intently listening to the next participant. There was a strong sense that each was present as much to witness the creativity of their fellow artists as to perform themselves. We were seated on the (somewhat hard) floor of the gallery that night, Jan Bang just in front of me, and Honoré was there ‘hoping that David wasn’t interrupted in his work (he was in the sound booth with the engineer all evening, but no-one seemed to notice).’ At the end of the evening Sylvian himself mixed quietly with audience members and performers alike.
The album Uncommon Deities takes Sylvian’s readings and sets them against a musical backdrop, with some elements drawn from Kristiansand that evening. ‘The God of Silence’ is a typically whimsical miniature portraying one of Paal-Helge Halgen’s imagined deities:
‘At the first beginnings he occurred through a random combination of light, air and total absence of sound. This is why he yearns for the womb of silence. In his ears a silent world is a beautiful world…He would like to distil each of our utterances into perfect silence…When he grows tired of the living, he turns to the dead. They know all about silence. They listen to it. The god of silence is a patient god, He has patience enough to wait until we all become fossils.’
Despite being at the festival, it took me some time to make a connection with the album. I think it’s because I’m usually looking to David Sylvian’s contribution to find the emotional heart of a piece. After a while, I stopped giving most of my attention to the spoken word, instead listening intently to what was happening sonically in the tracks. I found this really opened the album up for me, and that in fact this was where the emotional essence was to be found. It was a revelation!
Subsequently for my Vista playlist I sequenced the album’s tracks alongside music from the contributors. Exploring their recordings I found many poignant, touching pieces. Now, when the spoken word tracks come along I can enjoy the readings from the context of the music.
The sound landscape that Erik and Jan created for ‘The God of Silence’ is beautifully drawn. The percussive start is reminiscent of a grandfather clock echoing in a silent room, yet disconcertingly it employs a three-beat pattern rather than ‘tick-tocking’. The samples of strings and electronics provide a calm and subtly layered undercurrent from which Arve Henriksen’s trumpet rises – again through samples played by Jan Bang. All the while Erik’s synth bass broods beneath.
I’m fascinated as to how the musicians envision the right aural environment and bring such disparate sounds together to realise it. Erik: ‘It happens in at least three ways. Either we start on a track creating a foundation that, for instance, Arve responds to, or we start with samples from him or other musicians and work around it “remix/collage” style – or we meet all three in a room and improvise. Most of the Uncommon Deities album is based on the second method: it is very much a “collage album”. And then all these elements are assembled in the studio.’
Do Erik and Jan have distinct roles in the process? ‘Both of us work with both improvisation (the live sampling approach) and studio techniques like programming and playing keyboards, etc. And our roles vary from project to project, depending on who has the “primary vision” or starts out the project. This is also true for individual tracks. On a general level, Jan is perhaps more “rhythmically” focussed, while I am a “longer lines” person. But that’s a bit unfair. If you check out Jan’s solo albums, for instance …And Poppies from Kandahar on samadhisound, you’ll hear what I’ve known since I started working with him at 18 years of age: he is the most musical person I have ever met, across all requirements for making good music.’
Since the very start of Punkt, a unique and central concept has been ‘live remix’. Practically speaking, this means the audience hears a live performance, and then immediately – either in an adjoining room or sometimes in the same room – a ‘live remix’ is performed by another group of musicians. This is based on ‘extremely quick decisions – we start out with blank hard-discs and perform a remix based on samples from the preceding concert immediately after it is over.’ So to what extent is the music on Uncommon Deities created on the same basis as a ‘live remix’? Is it improvised or composed? ‘Interesting question, because it brings up the distinction between improvisation and composition. Short answer: it is all improvised, either at the Punkt Festival or in the studio – and then it is assembled and edited down to the finest detail in the studio. And isn’t that “composition” – doesn’t all or most compositional work start with improvising?’
On my playlist I precede ‘The God of Silence’ with ‘Surge’ from Erik Honoré’s 2017 album ‘Unrest’. There are many elements that make up this instrumental: strings, snatches of woodwind, distorted electronic sound, a repeated piano phrase, percussive elements which drift in an out. Yet, as on many of the recordings by the Uncommon Deities contributors, all of these come together to create something that has a rich emotional content – and that’s what really draws me in. So what is the key to creating a piece that moves the listener and is more than just an interesting collection of sounds? Erik explains, ‘I think that has to do with listening, listening, listening – for those elements that provide you with an emotional (or conceptually relevant, or preferably both) content. Whether it is listening to notes you sing, or play on a synthesiser, or sounds you create with electronic filters, or samples from a variety of sources – it is all the same: when you make the right choices, it works.’
‘The God of Silence’ features samples of Arve Henriksen’s trumpet playing, and I follow it with ‘The Sacristan’ from Arve’s 2013 release Places of Worship. The album was produced Jan and Erik, who share the musician credits with Arve on this track. The more I listen to Arve’s music the more individual his musical voice is to me.
‘Arve is a singer, both when he sings and when he plays the trumpet,’ says Erik. ‘I’ve had the privilege of sitting one metre away in a concert situation, or when he does a first take in the tiny Punkt Studio in Kristiansand, a first take that often ends up on the finished album. He is the kind of musician who has distilled vast theoretical knowledge and thousands of hours of rehearsal and performing into “song”. I think it is because he always wants to communicate, he is definitely not the “inwards” type of musician. I’ve learned a lot from him – and Jan – in that way.’
Uncommon Deities – a different prospect to many Sylvian releases with his contribution being spoken word, but one that has further opened up to me a realm of music first discovered at Punkt 2011.
‘The God of Silence’
Arve Henriksen – trumpet samples, performed by Jan Bang.
Music by Jan Bang, Erik Honoré and Arve Henriksen. Text by Paal-Helge Haugen.
Produced by Erik Honoré, from Uncommon Deities by Jan Bang & Erik Honoré, featuring David Sylvian, Sidsel Endresen & Arve Henriksen, samadhisound, 2012.
Recorded and mixed by Jan Bang and Erik Honoré at Punkt Studio, Kristiansand.
David Sylvian voice recorded by David Sylvian at samadhisound.
Text © Paal-Helge Haugen
Many thanks to Erik Honoré for his generous contribution to this post. Full sources and acknowledgments can be found here. Thanks also to Alf Solbakken for the use of his image from Punkt 2011.
‘Jan and Erik have produced a piece of real beauty. I couldn’t ask for better collaborators.’ David Sylvian, 2012