David Sylvian really knows how to end an album on the perfect note. ‘Brilliant Trees’ captures a faltering faith but the wonder of human love as the summation of his debut release of the same name. Secrets of the Beehive, in its original incarnation, leaves the question ‘is our love strong enough?’ hanging in the air, extending beyond the last notes of ‘Waterfront’ and into our own thoughts. The ‘sunshine above the grey sky’ of ‘A Fire in the Forest‘ calms the atmosphere after the brutal soul-searching of Blemish.
A lot of ground has been covered on Dead Bees on a Cake before it draws to a close… the joy of marriage, first experiences with holy teachers, devotion to the vibrant Hindu gods, finding beauty amid brokenness, exploring Europe and road-trips across the length and breadth of the US, becoming a parent… Then this album too reaches its exquisite conclusion, on this occasion in a pairing of tracks – ‘Praise’ and ‘Darkest Dreaming’. The first features the singing of Indian holy woman Shree Maa, recorded when she stayed with the Sylvian family in Minneapolis. It’s like the sound of true light, shining brightly. And then comes ‘Darkest Dreaming’ which brings back to mind the darker undercurrents that exist in life, but does so in reaching out for the embrace of another.
‘If we make a poem of celebration, it has to include a lot of darkness for it to be real.’ So says the quotation from American poet Robert Hass that adorns the sleeve notes to Dead Bees on a Cake. Sylvian explained: ‘I hope the work reflects an emotional complexity because for me it’s important that the listener comes to the work and finds themselves…regardless of the state of mind they approach the work in. In other words, if I say the album is celebratory in feel, I still believe it’s important to reflect the more shadowy aspects of human nature as well as the positive aspects to paint a full picture.
‘I believe we don’t experience one pure emotion. Its opposite is always present and it’s surrounded by a whole complexity of emotions. For the piece of work to be true, it has to reflect that complexity. The stronger the work, the more complex it is emotionally. It can embrace all emotion.’
We’ll watch the full moon rising
Hold on tight
The sky is breaking’
We are drawn deep into the intimacy of a one-on-one conversation with just two words – ‘Stay tonight.’ A simple phrase, but carrying an underlying sense of dread at the prospect of being left alone… “don’t go”. Someone close is being implored to accompany the song’s protagonist as they grapple with their bleakest fears. There is a counter-point to this intimacy in the image of the moon, dwarfing them against the colossal scale of the universe. It’s the full moon, laden with mythical significance; a positive sign of creation and regeneration, but hinting too at a mysterious power that the heavenly bodies can wield over our lives.
The language is so beautifully straightforward, with no unnecessary embellishment. It’s a sketch which leaves us room as listeners to develop the scene in imagination and make it our own.
‘I don’t ever want to be alone
With all my darkest dreaming
Hold me close
The sky is breaking’
‘Shree Maa’s track is the penultimate track, that’s like a song of pure love, yearning for the divine and appreciation of the divine. The last track throws in some doubt, a sense of isolation, a sense of being alone and wanting what Shree Maa has sung about, wanting that sense of unity, communion, merging with one consciousness if you like. This can sound so “new agey”, there’s no language to describe this stuff. I’m always fishing around for the right words.
‘But it also allows the dark side in, the human side, which is… we feel terribly alone and that there is a yearning for this partner in life – which can be a physical partner or your partnership with God if you like – that over-rides nearly every other emotion that we have; that this sense of solitude is unnatural to us, but we have to go through that and live through it until we can find this place within ourselves where we are both comfortable with who we are, what we are and what we are beyond all of that, and that’s what it intimates.’
There have been many musical contributors to the earlier tracks on ‘Dead Bees..’, indeed on the 2018 double album re-issue the final pairing of songs is preceded by electric-jazz ensemble craziness of ‘All of My Mother’s Names (summers with Amma)’. However, everything is pared back for the denouement. Shree Maa is accompanied only by Sylvian on ‘Praise’. It’s as if everything is drawn into closer focus.
‘I tend to build up layers of guitar in an attempt to add emotional density/intensity to a track as witnessed on ‘Darkest Dreaming’ and ‘Praise’.’ The depth of sound on ‘Darkest Dreaming’ reflects the song’s theme, with shadowy dissonant tones lurking behind the sweeter notes and simple treated guitar lines in the foreground. There is a sense of space in the mix that allows this building up of the component parts. The percussion-less piece has a firm sense of rhythm created through the sequencing of sounds in the middle distance. It affords the song such a captivating feel.
Again, Sylvian works alone on this piece, with one finishing touch. ‘The Gasparyan sample was added to ‘Darkest Dreaming’ after the composition was completed adding tonal contrast and melody.’ The plaintive melody of the duduk is heard as we breathe in the intricacy of the instrumental.
Sylvian gave an insight into his discovery of the Armenian musician in an on-line fan ‘Q&A’ at the time of the album’s release: ‘I adore the work of Djivan Gasparyan. I was first introduced to it in the mid-eighties when Holger [Czukay]’s manager returned from a trip to Armenia bearing an album of Gasparyan’s work as a gift. It has been a constant companion ever since. What I’ve seen and heard of Armenian culture in general interests me greatly.’
Djivan Gasparyan is a maestro of the duduk, an Armenian double-reeded woodwind instrument. Brian Eno is reported to have heard Djivan play on a visit to Russia as far back as 1988. So impressed was Eno with Gasparyan’s work that he arranged for the Armenian’s album I Will Not Be Sad in This World to be released on his own label, describing it as ‘without doubt one of the most beautiful and soulful recordings I have ever heard.’
In 1993, Djivan came to London with two collaborators and recorded his second album for release on the All Saints label, titled Moon Shines at Night. The album’s producer was a close associate of David Sylvian at that time: Michael Brook, who plays (and was original co-producer) on Rain Tree Crow and formed part of The Road to Graceland tour band with Sylvian/Fripp. The album was completed in record time; the musicians simply set up and played. ‘We did it all in three hours. It was quite amazing. We did it at a church in London and it was all to two-track, pretty much a live record.’ (Michael Brook, 1998)
Brook was enchanted by the haunting sound of the duduk: ‘It’s an amazingly expressive instrument. It’s just a little stick of wood with some holes in it and a reed, a very simple instrument. The expressiveness and the nuance that can come across are, I find, extremely involving, very much like a voice…It was that sensuous expressiveness that attracted me to it.’ (MB, 1998)
I adore this album, and would encourage anyone who enjoys the sample on ‘Darkest Dreaming’ to seek it out. I follow Sylvian’s song on my playlist with the tracks ‘They Took My Love Away’ and ‘Mother of Mine’. Each has just the traditional drone accompaniment to the duduk lead. The simplicity of the arrangements and the purity of tone in the playing give the pieces such vulnerability and emotion. ‘Mother of Mine’ opens with the instantly recognisable solo sampled for ‘Darkest Dreaming’ and progresses to Gasparyan’s vocal which is equally as graceful.
When Djivan speaks about his craft, there’s a resonance with Sylvian’s embrace of both darkness and light: ‘People say there is a deeply restorative power in my music. My music is about solitude and loneliness, about suffering and celebration. When the real music sounds from my soul, the music of understanding, I feel joy and fulfilment.’ (DG, 2014)
‘Darkest Dreaming’, like ‘I Surrender’, started out life as a piece that Sylvian wrote for his wife Ingrid Chavez, which he later adopted for himself. Why did he select it as the closing track on Dead Bees on a Cake? ‘I hope it sets up a sense of yearning… You know when I listen to music sometimes, when that piece of music ends it leaves me in a state where I’m reflective and it helps me to see certain aspects. Like communing with nature. We don’t have so much nature around us anymore. We walk outside, we’re surrounded by traffic, most of us, and we don’t get to just be quiet in nature, which I think was obviously a very natural state for us to be in and that would cause us to be more reflective. Well, we don’t really have that. Something like music can serve that function, so that when a piece of music finishes you can feel like you’ve just climbed down from a mountain and just had this liberating experience that incorporated both sadness, happiness and all the conflicting emotions that we’re capable of – and actually being comfortable with them all.’
Subsequently, Sylvian used an instrumental version of the track as the music played when the lights went up following performances on his Everything and Nothing tour. It was a fitting end to the evening as I climbed the stairs in the stalls and departed (what will always be known to me as) the Hammersmith Odeon. I wish that version could be released one day too. Exquisite music with which to close.
David Sylvian – guitars, keyboards and samples
Contains a sample from the recording ‘Mother of Mine’ by Djivan Gasparyan.
Music by David Sylvian and Djivan Gasparyan. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced by David Sylvian. From Dead Bees on a Cake, Virgin, 1999.
lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
All quotes in this article are from David Sylvian in 1999, unless otherwise indicated. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
‘I go along with Tarkovsky when he said that you sometimes have to focus on the shadow to emphasise the light, and that’s an approach I’ve taken throughout my work.’ David Sylvian, 1999