David Sylvian’s first musical endeavour after the release of the Rain Tree Crow album was to provide input to a number of tracks for Hector Zazou’s project based around the life and work of French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Contractual issues later led to the bizarre situation where this album, Sahara Blue, was first released in 1992 with two vocal performances by Sylvian – credited mysteriously as Mr. aX – and then reissued that same year with replacement songs featuring Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard of the band Dead Can Dance.
Most commentary on Sylvian’s involvement with Zazou has centred on the withdrawal of his primary input to the project, and consequently until recently I had heard little about the creation of the album. Thankfully the two tracks – ‘Victim of Stars’ and ‘To a Reason’ – are not completely ‘lost’ works, given copies of the first edition exist and can still be tracked down through resellers and online. ‘Victim of Stars’ bears the ever beautiful piano of Ryuichi Sakamoto and has a fascinating lyric penned by Sylvian and directly inspired by Rimbaud’s creative genius. It’s a piece deserving of far greater exposure than it received and well worthy of a place in Sylvian’s catalogue of collaborative work.
The first public incarnation of the project was in a live context courtesy of a commission by La Villette, a group of institutions dedicated to music and located in the Parc de la Villette in Paris. They staged an event celebrating the centenary of Rimbaud’s death and Hector Zazou was programmed to give an extensive performance.
Composer and instrumentalist Renaud-Gabriel Pion was involved throughout the evolution of Sahara Blue. He is credited as Renault Pion – a version of his name invented by Zazou. I asked him about that first performance: ‘The event took place in la Grande Halle de la Villette in the fall of 1991, and I was part of Hector Zazou’s band for this twelve-hour performance. Other musicians in the band were Kent Condon, Christian Lechevretel, the duo Lightwave and Zazou himself. We played instrumental, ambient music on a mix of electronic and acoustic instruments. Playing this kind of ambient, semi-improvised music was something we had been doing with Hector Zazou on various occasions. Musicians would occasionally take pauses one at a time, to rest and drink water, as we had to play through the night. The audience could quietly come in at any time, sit in comfortable chairs, and later leave, as other acts were also taking place in different sections of the Grande Halle.’
Amongst the music played that night were sketches based on pieces from an ep that the performers were working on at the time, Parade Sauvage pour Arthur Rimbaud. The title quotes from the closing lines of Rimbaud’s Parade: ‘J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage’, ‘I alone have the key of this wild circus’. Issued subsequently in October 1991, the cd contains work-in-progress versions of pieces for the Rimbaud project, three of which would be further developed for Sahara Blue with two featuring contributions from David Sylvian. This was a very limited release on the imprint of La Grande Halle-La Villette, and as such is a rarity indeed – it has eluded me although I’m pleased to have heard the contents.
Renaud-Gabriel told me more about Parade Sauvage..: ‘The recording sessions took place in Paris, in Plus Trente and Davout Studios. It was then a work in progress and the ep was a kind of announcement for the forthcoming album. The whole recording project had started with a smaller production, before the record labels Columbia/Crammed became involved. Ryuichi Sakamoto was in France doing promotion for his own album, and took part in the recording. He, Yuka Fujii and David Sylvian were recorded in Davout.’
Like Renaud-Gabriel Pion, Ryuichi Sakamoto first worked with Zazou on his previous project Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses, headlined by the mesmerising traditional voices of the Corsican revivalist band of the same name, with Jon Hassell also in the line-up. Ryuichi happened to be recording in Davout Studios at the same time as Zazou, and on hearing the music agreed to participate. It was Sakamoto who later put Zazou and Sylvian in contact, Zazou being an admirer of Sylvian’s work.
Pion picks up the story regarding the sessions for what became Sahara Blue: ‘Zazou had musicians recording together in a given studio when possible, but it happened often that we worked separately. The band performing in La Villette were the core of musicians working with Zazou around this period, and we were brought back into the studio numerous times to work with or in-between sessions with the guest artists. On this project (and the subsequent ones), I served as a kind of musical assistant as well as arranger and multi-instrumentalist.’
Given this role, Renaud-Gabriel was in the studio for Sylvian’s recording. ‘I remember sitting in Davout studio A alone, during a break, when David Sylvian and Yuka Fujii walked in and introduced themselves. Knowing David Sylvian from listening to Japan, and also the song ‘Forbidden Colours’, it was an emotional moment for me to meet them for the first time.’
Some woodwind parts had already been laid down by Pion: ‘David liked the saxophones he heard, which was for me a valuable indication for the future – you need a mirror, an echo of your propositions sometimes, to move on.
‘It was very interesting to hear him play for himself almost silently on a keyboard during a pause, or hear him record vocal takes, looking for the melody, the line, taking notes and then making his choices. He tried different vocal techniques such as the use of a megaphone which gave a real edge to his very calm, centred voice. David also laid several ambient guitars, using sounds and techniques from his own recordings (I had mentioned the Czukay collaborations earlier). Yuka Fujii recorded some poems in Japanese then, as well.’
Whilst Pion did not perform alongside Sylvian in the studio, he did play with Ryuichi: ‘I recorded a piano and clarinet piece with Sakamoto at one point (we recorded a lot of material some of which did not end up in the final album). I was able to show Ryuichi one of my piano scores – for the song ‘Lines’ – and he gave me his appreciation on it.’
I really enjoy the musical setting for ‘Victim of Stars’. From Sakamoto’s piano opening there is a haunting quality to the arrangement which complements the mystery of Sylvian’s words. Pion’s saxophone provides an impassioned reply to each line of the vocal; it’s a ‘call and response’ with the wind instrumentation reminiscent of the use of trumpet or flugelhorn in Sylvian’s earlier recordings. As the track builds there are high sounds that bring to mind moonlight on water, fast-fingered flurries of piano and rumbling undercurrents of percussion.
Renaud-Gabriel further developed his parts for the song in sessions with Zazou at Jet studios, Belgium. ‘This was a particularly inspiring piece to work and play on, especially having to improvise a kind of counterpoint to David Sylvian’s vocal, while acting as a link between this celestial voice and the musical context. I remember both being very much immersed in the project at that stage, and recording this upon arrival in Brussels. The track is built on a background of ethnic wind instruments and electronics, with a piano improvisation by Sakamoto. It does give you, as you are playing, precisely the impression of floating among crystal stars. Immediately after my solo recording, Christian Lechevretel and I wrote and played together the concluding phrases on trumpet and saxophone.’
The words to most of the tracks on Sahara Blue are translations of the work of Arthur Rimbaud – the only exceptions being a traditional Ethiopian refrain and ‘Victim of Stars’. Rather than quoting Rimbaud’s words directly, Sylvian takes the poet himself as subject matter. Precociously talented, Rimbaud wrote all his poetry between his teenage years and the age of twenty-one, when he left verse behind him. The few words of the chorus are laden with references to Rimbaud’s work and creative impetus:
‘I raised the boat in a sea of sound
Le Bateau Ivre (The Drunken Boat) is one of Rimbaud’s finest poems. Written in 1871 when he was just sixteen years old, the words are spoken by a boat which has been released from the mastery of man to roam the oceans wherever this may lead. The boat’s abandon to the elements mirrors a poet’s surrender to the creative muse:
‘And from then on I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, infused with stars and lactescent,
Devouring the azure verses; where, like a pale elated
Piece of flotsam, a pensive drowned figure sometime sinks;
Where, suddenly dyeing the blueness, delirium
And slow rhythms under the streaking of daylight,
Stronger than alcohol, vaster than our lyres
The bitter redness of love ferments!’
Sylvian seemingly sings as the poet whose imagination gave life to the boat in that seminal poem. The state of being ‘astonished’ and ‘spellbound’ strongly recalls Rimbaud’s proclamations as to how a poet should be: ‘I say one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering and madness. He searches himself.’ These statements came in a letter to his friend Paul Demeny in 1871, around the time of Le Bateau Ivre, setting out his views ‘sur l’avenir de la poésie’, ‘on the future of poetry.’
The title ‘Victim of Stars’ captures both this idea of the poet as a visionary opening up new worlds of reality, and the linked analogy of the boat: ‘je me suis baigné dans le Poème/De la Mer, infusé d’astres..’ ‘I bathed in the Poem/Of the Sea, infused with stars..’
Poverty and hunger are recurring themes in Rimbaud’s poetry and in his piece Les Effarés (The Frightened Ones) a vivid picture is painted of what are sometimes translated as waifs and strays peering into a bakery:
‘Black in the snow and fog,
By the large vent-grating which is lighted up,
Their behinds in a circle,
On their knees, five children, – poverty!
Watch the Baker making
Heavy golden bread.
They see the strong white arm kneading
The gray dough, and sticking it
Into a bright hole:
They listen to the good bread cook.’
Surely Sylvian’s reference to the ‘hungry heart in the house of bread’ recalls such a scene?
The inventiveness of the lyric shows how invested David Sylvian was in the project. Despite the contention regarding their release, I’m glad we were able to hear these vocal tracks as well as his more incidental performances which remain on the second edition of the album. Hector Zazou said at the time, ‘the only problem was with David Sylvian who finally didn’t like at all his voice, so here we had a serious problem especially with the record company, with Virgin. This is very complicated…it went very far. I mean they were close to stop the record.’ (1992) Negotiations were ongoing at the time of the initial release, hence the adoption of the Mr. X pseudonym on the track credits.
Intriguingly, in 2012 Sylvian adopted A Victim of Stars as the name for a retrospective collection of his solo work then spanning thirty years, implicitly making a connection between Rimbaud’s transcendent creative impulse and his own. ‘I actually handed out a number of different titles and that was the one that was chosen. For me, it works on a number of different levels. I’m not a fatalist by any means, but I think there is a certain aspect of predestination to some degree…there are life lessons laid out before you, almost like hurdles that have to be overcome to allow you to move forward. In that sense we are all a victim of stars.’ He reflected favourably on the collaboration: ‘it was the title of a track I wrote with the late Hector Zazou. I always liked the piece, though it was pulled from distribution by Virgin.’ (DS, 2012)
I like to precede ‘Victim of Stars’ with Ryuichi Sakamoto’s solo piano piece ‘jd011’ from his score for the 2002 documentary film about the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. It has the same spirit as his improvisation for ‘Victim of Stars’ and flows neatly into the track. ‘Harar et les Gallas’ follows, a track from Sahara Blue recalling Rimbaud’s time in Abyssinia where, having abandoned life as a poet, he was a merchant trading in goods as diverse as coffee and firearms. The track features beautiful work from Ryuichi and Renaud-Gabriel, and captures the exotic surroundings with a traditional vocal from Ketema Mekonn, one of the Azmari musicians who came from Ethiopia to France for the celebrations surrounding the 100th anniversary of Rimbaud’s death.
‘Victim of Stars’
Christian Lechevretel – trumpets; Christoph Harbonnier and Christian Wittman (as Lightwave) – keyboards; Renault Pion – saxophones; Ryuichi Sakamoto – piano; Steve Shehan – percussion; Hector Zazou – claviers; Mr. X – vocals. Brass arrangements by Renault Pion and Christian Lechevretel.
David Sylvian appears as Mr. X
Music by Hector Zazou, David Sylvian and Lightwave. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced and arranged by Hector Zazou, from Sahara Blue (first edition), Crammed Discs, 1992
Lyrics © samadhisound publishing
English translations of Rimbaud’s work are from Rimbaud, Complete Works, Selected Letters, translated by Wallace Fowlie, The University of Chicago Press, 2005, © The University of Chicago
Grateful thanks to Renaud-Gabriel Pion for sharing his recollections for this article. Full sources and acknowledgments can be found here.
Thanks also go to The Rimbaud & Verlaine Foundation for putting me in touch with Rimbaud expert and biographer, Professor Seth Whidden of The Queen’s College, Oxford, and to Prof. Whidden for reviewing my observations on Rimbaud’s influence on Sylvian’s lyric and offering perspectives for consideration.
‘I learned watching David Sylvian work in the studio on keyboards and voice, guitars and electronics, tapes. Studio techniques used by creative musicians, inherited from the 1970’s and 1980’s, and still valid to me today as a mindset. Although technology has obviously evolved, it seems crucial to keep the option of turning away from the computer, which induces a logic and reflexes in the work that have deeply influenced musicians and songwriters – not always for the best.’ Renaud-Gabriel Pion, 2019