Like many fans of Japan, my first exposure to the work of Russell Mills was the cover of their post-split compilation on Virgin Records, Exorcising Ghosts, released late in 1984 after Sylvian’s solo debut Brilliant Trees had hit the record stores. In those pre-CD, pre-download days the artwork was such an integral part of the experience of a new release. A glorious gatefold with carefully crafted typography and art by Mills. I loved how tactile the image seemed, even when reproduced in the gloss of an album sleeve.. ..so expressive, suggestive of something natural and elemental.
Of course, this was the start of many visual contributions from Russell Mills to David Sylvian’s work, including the classic original album cover for Gone to Earth, the intricacies of the Weatherbox, design for the In Praise of Shamans tour brochure and stage set, and their joint art and sound installation Ember Glance: the Permanence of Memory. The latter drew from Mills’ approach to collage with numerous assemblage boxes suspended from the ceiling containing items as diverse as feathers, leaves, animal bone, stones and fabric – all set against characteristic highly textured relief. How fascinating then to learn in the mid-90’s that Russell would be releasing an album and that amongst the contributors was David Sylvian.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Russell Mills in detail about his approach to art and music-making, and to explore the recording of the first Undark album, Undark 3396 (later re-released as Undark One – Strange Familiar), and its track ‘How Safe is Deep?’ featuring Sylvian’s vocal.
‘I’ve always worked with and in collage. I think I’ve always known intuitively why I work in this way, but it’s only relatively recently, maybe about five years ago, that I began to analyse my creative processes, and I think I’ve kind of figured out what I’d really been doing all this time. I had reached a critical point in my life.. ..where I nearly hit bottom. I initially felt helpless and thought my work worthless, pointless… Why am I doing this? I eventually managed to pull myself out of this trough of despair through a prolonged period of pretty brutal self-analysis..
‘I then was able to make sense of what my work has been about since I first started making art. I discovered that there have been a few conceptual threads that have been consistently tying all this work together. What became evident to me was the most important ideas, those central to my thinking and the various ways of making work (visual and sonic) involve contingency and its natural kindred spirit, collage. By contingency I take to mean one action creates a reaction, which creates another, which creates another, ad infinitum.’
The surface of a Mills artwork is often raised, rough and appears to be degrading. This owes much to the principle of action and reaction: ‘I work a lot with chemicals – in a completely unscientific way – mixing volatile substances and applying them to varying surfaces and grounds, to see what happens. The reactions and results are contingent and unpredictable.. ..all of the processes I use are transformative in one way or another. These include burning (destructive, yet creative), accretive (burying, layering) and reductive (erasure). These ways of working involve the use of pre-determined chance, indeterminacy, coincidence.. ..they also require a capacity to risk, and a willingness to surrender control.’
The use of collage has enthralled Mills since he discovered the work of Kurt Schwitters whilst still at school. ‘Used in juxtaposition, sometimes startlingly, sometimes subtly, collage of disparate items can conjure up previously unknown possibilities, can suggest alternative readings, can provoke surprising emotional responses. I do not use such found or old material for its age, its aesthetic or as a nostalgia-trigger. I use it when I feel it has some contextual appropriateness to the ideas I’m exploring. Used in juxtaposition they act as discreet metaphors.. ..For instance when I use copper wires in a piece to connect two areas of a work, one can understand that the copper is a conductor of energy and so is a positive symbol, revitalising, transformative. Similarly, say, with the use of thin slices of mica.. ..a quartz – which in many cultures symbolises frozen sperm, and so is a symbol of potential.’
Far from being ethereal artistic ideas, these concepts of contingency and collage are grounded in reality: ‘Contingency is a constant in our daily lives in which events experienced, and our memories of them, unfold and proceed associatively, digressing, pinballing, fading, slipping, fragmenting, blurring, looping, jolting. We experience a plethora of juxtapositions, of ideas, images and sounds, and yet when we attempt to recall them we unconsciously mediate and edit them to create another, very different narrative. Our lives and memories of our experiences are non-linear: they too are collages. Our consciousness also works contingently, as a kind of ever-changing collage machine.’
When Mills came to approach making his first album, raw materials were collected from far and wide through his network of musician friends and then selected and worked on in the studio, in a parallel to the substances and found objects selected for his mixed media visual works. ‘When I asked musicians for sounds to use.. ..I offered no directions or prescribed any preferences or restraints: I wanted them to offer whatever they wanted. I wanted to be surprised and I wanted to be forced to work with widely disparate material. It was a deliberate step into the unknown. Thankfully all of those who generously donated sounds completely understood the idea and were totally supportive.
‘I worked with two sound engineers, Tom Smyth and Will Joss, who I’d never met before. I arrived at the studio on day one with my samples in a box, all held on a hotchpotch of formats, cassettes, mini-discs, DATs and ADATs. Not only were there contributions from an array of brilliant musicians, there were also my own recordings including those of weather, rivers in flow, samples of a Swiss choir, various animals and birds, Pygmy singing, heartbeats, blood flow frequencies, damaged cassettes that glitched maniacally, rhythmic experiments made using three bar heaters and stones on wood, stone and metal, demented American preachers, for instance, all sounds that I found interesting and thought might offer potential.. ..I would trawl through these sounds making notes and occasionally we’d pull samples into the sampler thence into the main mixing desk. These were added to, channel by channel, in a very intuitive way.’
Just as the mixing and layering of base elements and chemical substances produces something unique and unexpected, so it is with blending musical inputs. ‘I am interested in texture, both in my visual work and in my soundworks (installations and Undark tracks).. ..I work in layers, conceptually and physically. Ideas are layered and stripped away, other ideas added, and stripped away, and so it goes on, concealing and revealing. The same happens with the actual materials that I use.. ..[through] the use of chemicals and unpredictable processes, previously unimagined textures can emerge. The revealing of the previously unknown is both transformative and stimulating.’
I particularly enjoy ‘Stone’s Eggs’ on Undark 3396 which features Michael Brook, who appeared on Rain Tree Crow and toured with Sylvian/Fripp. Taking this as an example, how was the track constructed as a collage in sound? ‘Michael had provided about 90 short guitar pieces on a cassette.. ..I selected a few that I liked and we sampled them and began building layers of loops, slowing them down and adding various effects to give them more of a sense of space. Then I think we added samples of Bill Laswell’s rubbery bass notes that we weaved, note by note, into patterns. Percussive elements were painstakingly constructed from various rhythmic samples I’d made and heavily treated. Thankfully Tom was a very fast operator of the sampler and had an intuitive sense of rhythm and a knack of pulling notes and hits into odd positions that kept the rhythms moving and changing. Keyboard ‘pads’ were added as floating washes.’
David Sylvian’s involvement was a natural extension of their creative partnership. ‘Over time he’d become a good friend. We shared a great many interests, not just in music, but also in literature, film, art and philosophy: we were on the same wavelength. And of course he’s a great vocalist who genuinely feels music. To ask him to collaborate was an obvious one. Initially I feared he’d turn me down, but gratifyingly he too was up for it.’
The track starts ominously with field recordings of rolling thunder. ‘In the works of sound I prefer those of real life: the organic and the natural; sounds that have a history and that have a sense of time and place, of habitation, of use, and that may have a symbolic or metaphoric potential. I believe that sounds of the actual carry more authenticity and have more resonance, and are more nuanced than the plethora of synthesised equivalents designed to emulate the real.’ An elaborate patchwork of sound follows, with extended high-pitched tones gently oscillating and an undertow of deep murmurs that hint at uncertain, menacing shapes moving though the shadows. ‘I’m interested in creating sound worlds that are ambiguous and as complex as one’s listening in nature can be, that are immersive, granular, and visceral.’
Sylvian’s contribution differed from the other musicians who had provided material for the album, in that the musical bed of the track was laid down and then sent to David for his response. ‘There were no prescribed directions given, except that I really wanted the title to stay, although I did reassure him that his vocals didn’t have to refer to it and he could write whatever lyrics he felt inspired to. Following the spirit of the whole project I wanted him to do whatever he wanted without any prescriptive guides or instructions.’
‘Shine upon my hour shadowland
Cold, cold winter hands
Shine upon my hour shadowland’
Sylvian’s lyric reflects a spiritual light – ‘shine upon my hour’, and ‘by God’s grace she sings to me’ – but there is a dark undercurrent encapsulated in the word ‘shadowland’ and expressed in the chill of the recurring line ‘cold, cold winter hands’ and the downright eerie question:
‘And after dark who lays you down?
After dark who lays you down?’
To me, the music resonates to a theme of the spiritual world being embraced, but also being unknown and unknowable. Mills: ‘The music was sent to him and he responded with his enigmatic lyrics, which I agree, perfectly complemented the mood of the music. And his fantastic keening vocals add another layer of feeling that still makes me shudder.’
The track’s title seems apt for Sylvian’s words, questioning just how far it’s safe to go in exploring the mysteries of this spiritual realm. Since the piece was given its name by Russell, what did it mean to him? ‘The title ‘How Safe is Deep?’ came out of several preoccupations of mine at the time. On one level it alludes to the question of the supposed certainty of science, particularly with regard to experts’ pronouncements about the definitive safety of burying nuclear waste at certain depths, which we know is purely speculative and foolhardy. On another level it refers to personal relationships and their frailty.’
In recent years soundworks by Russell Mills and Mike Fearon from past installations have seen release. Issued through Slow Fuse Sound, a label set up especially for the series, in physical format these come as 2-cd sets each with an elegant A5 hardback of images from the original exhibitions. Three editions of Still Moves are available to date.
In situ, the music would have been created using a number of speakers spread throughout the public space, each playing back continuously and at random a different element of the soundscape and thereby creating a unique and ever-changing listening experience for every visitor. This aleatoric approach is another expression of contingency.. ..elements mixed by chance with something new emerging. Russell: ‘Of course the Still Moves installation tracks are not mixes from the actual installations as we were unable to record the installations in process, in real time; it was too problematic to do so. Instead, and as far as we were able, we have tried to emulate the randomness of the mixing in real time.. ..to reproduce as closely as possible the atmosphere of the real time sound mix.’
I like to precede ‘How Safe is Deep?’ with ‘Looming’ from Still Moves one. This piece relates to a multimedia installation by Russell Mills and Ian Walton staged at the Eagle Gallery in London in 1996, the same year that Undark 3396 was released. The project was inspired by ‘ideas informed by (but not about) the landscape of the Cumbrian Lake District’ and included gentian flowers, favourites of Kurt Schwitters. It thereby carried echoes of the ancient history of the land and an artistic heritage that resonates so deeply with Russell Mills. At the time of showing there was no soundtrack to accompany the visuals, this piece being created more recently as the music appropriate for that work.
‘Looming’, ‘How Safe is Deep?’ and ‘Stone’s Eggs’, works in sound borne from the artistic imagination of Russell Mills, bringing to bear underlying concepts which transcend media and are rooted in both the phenomenal world and our everyday lives.
‘How Safe is Deep?’
Russell Mills – bowls, bells, blood flow frequencies, field recordings, hippo-copter, palette knives, piano wires, lion & elephant roarers, flotsam & jetsam & the shed method; Tom Smyth and Will Joss (as miasma) – anchors, undertows & nifty digits throughout; David Sylvian – lyrics, larynx and lumen
Specially created sounds contributed for the album by Michael Brook, Declan Colgan, Hywel Davies, The Edge, Brian Eno, Roger Eno, Robin Guthrie, Bill Laswell and Kevin Shields.
Written by Russell Mills and David Sylvian. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced by Russell Mills. From Undark 3396 by Russell Mills as Undark, t:me, 1996. Re-released as Undark One – Strange Familiar, bella union, 2000.
Lyrics © samadhisound publishing
Download links: ‘Looming’ (bandcamp)
I am very grateful to Russell Mills for sharing so generously for this article and to Clive Maidment of Slow Fuse Sound for connecting us. All quotes are from our 2019 conversation. The Still Moves series is available as book/cd sets and downloads here.
‘I believe that collage is the most important idea of the 20th century. Stealthily as perfume, the collage principle continues to pervade not only our daily routines, but every aspect of our media landscape, from advertisements to literature, radio to film, music to comedy, journalism to poetry and to drama; it even shapes our politics.’ Russell Mills, 2019