It’s 2011 and audience members at the Agder Theatre, Kristiansand, Norway rush from the main auditorium to a dark basement room where plain benches are set out to accommodate as many people as possible in this smaller space. In dim light the deep shimmering drone of the music begins. David Sylvian’s distinctive reading voice declares:
in the layers between
crushed in time
what they left behind
can be read on an arrowhead’
The concert just completed in the theatre above was Sylvian’s one and only live performance of Plight & Premonition, his classic ambient collaboration with Holger Czukay. What the audience witness now is a live remix of that material, overlaid with pre-recorded words drawn from Nils Christian Moe-Repstad’s poem ‘I Swallowed Earth for This’. The musician creating a new piece from sound samples gathered live during the Plight & Premonition concert is Stephan Mathieu.
This is the Punkt festival and its programme that year describes Stephan as ‘a composer and performer of electroacoustic music, currently presenting his work as installations involving obsolete and historical media such as mechanical gramophones, shortwave receivers, 16mm projectors and analogue computers, as well as Renaissance instruments.’ The equipment spread before Stephan that night bore witness to this description, as he deftly combined inputs from the main concert with the spoken word and his own aural creations. Electric blue light pierces the darkness from ebows placed on the strings of what looks like an antique harp. Sounds develop slowly and engender the sensation of moving through outer space; everything is in slow motion but we just might be travelling at several hundred miles an hour. Sylvian again:
‘a compression of
a true material
expanded at its brightest point
on a petal’
Punkt’s live remix format could have been designed for Stephan Mathieu given that his creative method is centred on the processing of sound in real time. In earlier work the inputs for his digital processes were recordings of acoustic instruments being played, but over time he incorporated new sound sources into his set-up – a short-wave radio, then historic acoustic instruments which literally bring a resonance of the past, supplemented by some of the earliest audio recordings played on contemporary sound reproduction equipment.
I asked Stephan to explain the development in his sound processing techniques over time, leading up to what was experienced that night in Norway. This firstly led back to a method he described as ‘a live convolution process.’ Please explain more! ‘Convolution in a nutshell means you have two signals, a trigger and an impulse that will sonically melt with each other to create an output containing certain properties of the initial material. A common application for convolution in audio is a way of creating reverberation – you’ll record the reverb of a specific space, say a chapel, and then apply it to a solo violin recorded in a studio. When done right, the violin will sound as if it was recorded in the chapel. I had used this process extensively while working on my 2004 album The Sad Mac where I had recorded various early music players and then blended those individual voices with each other, resulting in melted spaces and frequency bands which fascinated me on several levels.’
The project that followed – Radioland (released in 2005) – was ground-breaking for all that came after it. ‘Back then I had decided not to compose material anymore by mixing edited sounds into one piece and fine tuning it until it sounds right for me. Instead I became interested in autarchic [self-governing] systems that I would feed with selected material, adjust a handful of parameters like time and pitch, let the system run by itself and later on select the interesting parts from the recording, which usually was about an hour long.’
So, in the absence of instrumental performances as the starting point for his music, what was the raw material now? ‘I started using short- and mid-wave radio as an input, basically by having the radio run for some minutes into the buffers of my software and then adding the real-time signal as an impulse during the performance, where I mainly focused on shaping the emerging sound with the EQ section of the mixing board. The results were completely unpredictable as one can imagine, sometimes a harsh block of noise, sometimes a quiet, abstract landscape.’
It seems inconceivable that such an approach could lead to music of sensitivity and beauty, but if you seek out Radioland you can experience the ‘quiet, abstract landscape’ that Stephan describes.
To complete the picture, an element was needed to allow more control over harmony. ‘The radio became the foundation for a collection of instruments and also mechanical-acoustic gramophones and 78s from the first quarter of the 20th century…One combination is radio and a 19th century table top zither which I would play with 8 ebows – small electromagnets that will set a string in permanent vibration. This allowed for more control over the processed output with the harmonic aspect of the stringed instrument. The zither is an 1896 Columbia Phonoharp, an instrument I became interested in since one of my favourite musicians from the 1920s, the street gospel preacher Washington Phillips, played the same model. I bought it from a US eBay seller for 17 USD and it is still in its original condition and sounds simply wonderful.
‘For the Punkt rework of Plight and Premonition I used the harp, radio and the live performance of the group which I had recorded from a feed of the main mixer and used as an input for my set-up fifteen minutes after the performance upstairs had ended.’
These unique approaches produce music with sustained streams of textural sound which gently transform in character; tangible and full of subtle nuance.
David Sylvian had long been an admirer of Stephan Mathieu’s work, but it was hearing the twenty-plus minute piece from Punkt that persuaded him that he had found the partner for the next project. The vision was an iOS app to present Sylvian’s photographs, which to this point had periodically been uploaded to galleries on his official website. The pictures were intended to be accompanied by short passages of music randomly shuffled so as to provide, in Sylvian’s words, ‘an infinite number of possible listening experiences. We felt this approach, with its variety and subtlety, greater complemented the act of exploring the accompanying images on screen’ (2012). The musical raw material for re-interpretation was to be drawn from his 2003 album Blemish.
News first broke of a new album from Stephan Mathieu and David Sylvian when Wandermüde was listed for future release by online retailers. All we knew was the title and release date. I remember being a bit underwhelmed later when hearing that the project was derived from Blemish. Not because I don’t like that album – on the contrary, my early struggles with it were long behind me and I now loved every idiosyncratic glitch. However, it was around nine years since that album’s release, we’d already had a remix project, The Good Son vs The Only Daughter, and with Manafon and Died in the Wool already released it felt like this could be an unnecessary glance backwards.
I needn’t have been concerned. Wandermüde soon became a favourite and comfortably ranks among my favourite instrumental music. As with 2005’s The Good Son vs The Only Daughter, Sylvian’s involvement was the provision of the original sound files and the prompting of a collaborator to remodel them – the intention this time being the soundtrack to the planned photography app. Mathieu’s approach to the task was different to the remixes on The Good Son vs The Only Daughter, where the starkness of the originals was sometimes set aside to accommodate additional instrumentation, so making the songs more lush and expansive. He set about a reinterpretation of the masters staying true to his distinctive sound processing ideas. ‘My work with computers is always live,’ Stephan explained at the time. ‘I’m feeding selected material into a software process and recording the output, which I either take “as is”, or discard completely. I don’t multi-track, edit or re-arrange, I’m interested in self-evolving sound with all its rough and sometimes faulty qualities. I never use effects like artificial reverb in my music, so what you hear is rather a piling up of spaces that surround the individual inputs used for my processes.
‘With David’s recordings I melted them with my instruments, recorded several takes and picked the best ones. While I first processed the recordings quite heavily, it took me a while to notice that I come to better results when David’s performance shines through much more clearly.’ (2012)
‘Saffron Laudanum’ is a great example of why I enjoy this album so much. From the very beginning it’s clear that sounds are drawn from the song ‘The Only Daughter’, as a characteristic distorted motif from that track starts us out. On the original song the music provides the context for Sylvian’s vocal which is high in the mix and necessarily dominant. Here, the electronic sounds and processed guitar merge with the extended notes which Mathieu coaxes from the ebows in his set up, perhaps vibrating the strings of that same Phonoharp. The background accompaniment from Blemish is now in the foreground; what was the supporting act takes centre stage and we can immerse ourselves in it.
The effect is to change the characteristic of the music fundamentally. More than being an instrumental version of ‘The Only Daughter’, ‘Saffron Laudanum’ is like a cousin of Plight & Premonition, with familiar musical phrases drifting in the distance as the carefully manipulated sound-waves carry us through a compelling eight minute instrumental. I adored the Sylvian/Czukay albums in the ’80s, and getting to know Wandermüde was like discovering the next instalment. Wonderful.
Sylvian titled some of the tracks on Wandermüde, responding to Mathieu’s creations. This piece takes its name from the tincture of opium – laudanum – that was used in nineteenth century medicine to relieve pain and to induce sleep. Famously, Samuel Taylor Coleridge used the drug and his poem ‘Kubla Khan (Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment)’ is said to have been influenced by its effects. The alcohol and opium concoction was sometimes supplemented with additional ingredients to enhance its effectiveness, including saffron. The title is apt, the continuous and layered sound bringing calm and perhaps numbing the pain from which the original music was borne.
Stephan Mathieu and David Sylvian were to work together again later in 2013 as part of the trio The Kilowatt Hour with Christian Fennesz. These live dates premiered a work-in-progress version of the composition that later became There’s a light that enters houses with no other house in sight. During or post that tour the relationship between Mathieu and Sylvian seemed to cool and Mathieu did not contribute to the recording of There’s a light… An unfortunate consequence of this is that neither artist now actively promotes Wandermüde, indeed it no longer appears on Sylvian’s official website discography. Whatever the circumstances, it would be a great shame if this music gradually slips from view as it stands up for me as wonderfully creative.
There are many gems to be discovered in Stephan Mathieu’s solo catalogue and on my playlist I follow ‘Saffron Laudanum’ with ‘Kepler-11’ from 2013’s The Falling Rocket. ‘The album is largely based on material I recorded with radio and a Farfisa organ while working with my friend Robert Hampson on the album Ablation by MAIN for Editions Mego (2013).’ Here Stephan turns his attention to exploring the outer reaches of the universe in sound, with each track named after a star. ‘Back then I was researching astronomy and by coincidence came across James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s nocturne painting The Falling Rocket, which actually shows fireworks against a London night sky…There are several of my albums that started out with a title. The Falling Rocket to me is very much about the micro- and macrocosm, as in Ray and Charles Eames’ short film Powers of Ten, or what The Beach Boys track ‘Let’s Go Away For a While’ means to me.’
The instrumentals are generally ten minutes in length and ‘Kepler-11’ would make the ideal soundtrack to those awe-inspiring images splashed with colour and light that are captured by unmanned space-telescopes sent to explore the places at the farthest reaches of human knowledge. Again, everything we hear is performed in real time and develops in an understated and intriguing way. This music can capture both epic scale and the tiniest detail.
Whilst Mathieu created ‘eighty pieces of one minute duration, each that would have played back at random while cross-fading with each other,’ the intended app for Sylvian’s photography never saw the light of day. Much later a tumblr site entitled the opposite of order was launched, although this was subsequently taken down leaving only the galleries on davidsylvian.com before the emergence of Sylvian’s instagram channel. The app may never have been realised, but it was at least the catalyst for this beautifully crafted album.
Stephan Mathieu – ebowed virginals, farfisa organ, radio, fender twin; David Sylvian – guitars, synthesisers, samples, ampeg
Music by Stephan Mathieu and David Sylvian
Produced by David Sylvian and Stephan Mathieu. From Wandermüde by Stephan Mathieu and David Sylvian, samadhisound, 2013.
The full reading of ‘I Swallowed Earth for This’ as used at Punkt 2011 was released on Uncommon Deities by Jan Bang & Erik Honoré, featuring David Sylvian (2012)
Charles and Ray Eames’ short film ‘Powers of Ten’ can be viewed here
Thank you to Stephan Mathieu for contributing to this article, all quotes are from our 2019 conversation unless otherwise stated. Thanks too to Dirk Tholenaar for permission to use his photograph of Stephan performing at Punkt in 2011.
Sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here
‘I’ve lived with Stephan’s work for many years. After hearing his remix at Punkt I decided he’d be the right person to ask to rework the Blemish material. I’d originally planned on doing it myself but once Stephan had planted his signature ambience in my mind it seemed the better option to have him take a look at the files.’ David Sylvian, 2012