Alongside musical performances and live remixes at the Punkt festival there is a seminar programme embracing a wide range of topics related to creativity and innovation in the art of sound. For the fifteenth festival in 2019 the seminar curator was musician, musicologist and writer David Toop. ‘The theme of the Punkt seminars this year is Voices of Memory: sounding, listening and the sense of who we are,’ he wrote in the festival programme. ‘Memory is vital to music, if only because sound is always running away from us, slipping into the air like a ghost. To understand form, relationships, the developing shape of a musical piece depends on keeping a memory alongside our immediate sense of what is happening…There are many facets to musical memory, ranging from personal and cultural identity, to archival and technological memory, to the different memories involved in notation or improvisation, to the way we constantly rewrite our memory of music in relation to our changing selves.’
The very room in which the seminars took place was rich with the resonance of an artistic mind from the past, the setting being a gallery in the Sørlandet Art Museum displaying the works of Polish artist Ryszard Warsinski. We were surrounded by his outlines of the human form, some surreal and others merely suggested – including one work where thick cracked paint sat so heavily on the canvas that it looked like it might disintegrate should anyone accidentally brush against it as we were seated.
The first contribution to the programme was Yuka Fujii’s Like Planets [unreel]; a film presentation based on her photography volume of the same name published in 2018, the first volume in what is intended to be a set of three. There was the briefest of introductions from David Toop before the showing. Yuka was present but there would be neither on-stage interview between creator and host nor ‘question and answer’ session with the audience. So the piece stood alone and its relationship with the seminar theme was left for each viewer to surmise.
Those who have seen the book will be familiar with the visual content. In Yuka’s words Like Planets ‘primarily contains portraits of David in one form or another and these are coupled with seemingly simple images, sometimes symbolic, often impressionistic, that evoke a stillness of time and place. The frequent pauses made, the long drawn out emptiness of days that, in retrospect, reflect the seeming timelessness of the journey’ (2018). The film reproduces each plate from the published volume, arranged in the same five chapters and with one photograph gently melting into another. ‘I’ve frequently created film based around still images, slowly dissolving from one image to the next. I’ve always found this simple technique very moving and engaging especially when accompanied by the appropriate soundtrack…The book stands alone as a work in itself for the individual to explore in their own time. The film works on another level. A shared experience which takes place within a given time frame hopefully drawing the audience into the world created by both sound and vision.’ (YF, 2019)
For me, the experience was quite different to browsing the book. I don’t think I’ve ever taken in the whole collection in one sitting, preferring to enjoy a few photographs at a time. On screen the scale of the images is captivating and you are held in the experience for the immersive thirty-two minute duration. The poetry quotations printed in the book can be easily skated over; in the film these build up phrase by phrase – and the impact is to make them all the more powerful.
In these borrowed words I’m struck by the first connection with the theme of memory. Like Planets documents the travels of Yuka and her then partner David Sylvian over a period across the 1980s. Whilst it’s only ever Sylvian who appears in the shots, it’s very evidently an odyssey made by two people. In Yuka’s framing and capturing of these moments her influence is as clear as that of her companion. Together they visit such varied locations as the US, France, Nepal and Turkey, and the intensely personal nature of what is both a physical and emotional journey hits home through the poetry.
‘Because I love
There is an invisible way across the sky,
Birds travel by that way, the sun and moon
And all the stars travel that path at night.
Because I love
There is a river flowing all night long.’
from ‘Amo Ergo Sum’ by Kathleen Raine
‘My songs are like bees; they follow through the air
some fragrant trace – some memory – of you,
to hum around your shyness, eager for its hidden store’
from ‘My songs are like bees’ by Rabindranath Tagore
In a very real sense these pictures are the private recollections of time shared by two people. David Sylvian was asked online whether he had a favourite picture or an unforgettable memory relating to any one of them. He replied with these touching words, ‘In case you’ve not seen or experienced the book or film …[unreel], it’s a love poem. Lives lived, living still. Two souls that are forever intertwined. It’s not a matter of vanity or of a single memory, it’s a visual evocation of love. It’s neither grand nor humble. It’s true. As, for example, the songs ‘Brilliant Trees’ and ‘Damage’ were true regarding the same subject from my perspective.’ (2019)
Wider than the intimacy of a couple’s relationship, for those who listened intently to Sylvian’s masterful trilogy of ’80s solo albums, Brilliant Trees, Gone to Earth and Secrets of the Beehive, there is an inextricable link between these photographs and the music that made such a profound impression on us back then – and still does today. Some are familiar, like the Parc de Saint-Cloud portrait of Sylvian featured on the sleeve of Brilliant Trees, or the dramatic Chamonix-Mont-Blanc shot that later adorned the A Victim of Stars compilation. A couple of scenes we have seen through Sylvian’s eyes in his Perspectives series of Polaroid collages, employing a very different photographic technique. The expanded insight of Like Planets draws us closer to the time and experiences which spawned music that has soundtracked many of our lives over decades.
We see the inspiration for the ‘fields of green’, ‘mountains high and wide’ that are ‘made of stone’, the ‘waves against the rocks’ and ‘open fields’... lyrics we know so well and have come to relate to our own lives as we adopted them for ourselves. We are taken to ‘old grey churches’, to temples and to mosques, reflecting a spiritual exploration that is chronicled across those records.
It was a period of profound change for Sylvian. ‘He no longer wished to be in the distorting existential glare of the spotlight and consequently set out on a personal journey of the interior, in search of what he believed to be the source of creative life; being the light derived from within. He’d often refer to it as the inexhaustible well of inspiration. You could quite reasonably argue that this was the first break he’d been afforded in adult life, an opportunity to reflect on where he’d come from and what truly mattered to him most, freely questioning his own moral and ethical dilemmas without the many external pressures to which he’d previously been subjected.’ (YF, 2018)
One particularly impactful event is brought to life. As Yuka once recounted: ‘We went to the place called Nagarkot in Nepal. It took a long time to get there from Kathmandu city via the mountain road which seemed very dangerous particularly with the antique, rather shabby taxi in which we were being transported. We reached the top of the mountain where we could see the Himalayas. The driver told us we couldn’t stay long as we have to return before it got dark (otherwise no guarantees for our safety)…The view of the Himalayas was breathtaking’ (1999). The memory of this visit inspired Sylvian’s first published poem in his book Trophies and seemed to encapsulate a moment of ‘stillness of time and place.’
Beyond all doubt there is a place
Vast rivers, tall mountains
Some old and forgotten
Some making their way for the very first time
Across the mischievous ripples of the yawning deep
I stand quietly on a hill top (Nagarkot)
Waiting for stillness
That I too may make the journey
That long and perilous journey
Hard nails, oak wood
And a heavy heart
Looking back nearly twenty years later Sylvian recalled, ‘The poem was written in response to a trip to India and, more importantly, Nepal, back in ’84. Seeds were sown that gave me a philosophical grounding of sorts and a renewed sense of spiritual well being.’ (2003)
This writing fits so well alongside the songs of Brilliant Trees. I love the wordplay of ‘Beyond all doubt there is a place’, conveying that there is no question that such a location exists, but also that it can only be reached when the visitor banishes their doubts. The ‘Hard nails, oak wood’ could equally refer to the instruments of crucifixion as to the construction of the tiny vessels which carry their occupants on a journey that might be an allegory of life itself – including, perhaps, the crossing to an after-life. There’s an economy in the language that amplifies both the depiction of the scene and the sentiment.
The music accompanying Like Planets [unreel] was created by Mark Wastell who, along with harp player Rhodri Davies, was then one of Sylvian’s most recent collaborators on There is No Love. The soundtrack commission has drawn out an aspect of Mark’s music that I haven’t encountered in his other recordings. The sensibility and attentive listening underpinning his live improvisational work is much in evidence, only here he built up his parts over successive recording sessions at Studio 3 in London. The approach frees him to employ a range and depth of instrumentation to suit the visuals, creating a dynamic progression through the duration of the film. The piece opens with whispering chimes, giving way to the accordion-like tones of the shruti box and a piano melody that is as enchanting as it is simple. Finger cymbals, Nepalese singing bowls and Indian temple bells summon memories of far-off places to enliven the still images. Mark also returns to what was once his primary instrument – the cello – alongside string samples from Biliana Voutchkova’s debut violin recording, Modus of Raw.
The contemporary soundtrack links Yuka’s images of the past with the here and now, as does the contribution of David Sylvian who provides samples and field recordings to embellish Mark’s acoustic ambient creation. Nepal is evoked through ritual chanting, and Tarkovsky-like there is the sound of running water matched to the image of a pool and recalling the ‘river flowing’ of the opening quotation from Kathleen Raine. As if to emphasise his living presence there are prominent sharp inhalations of breath that cut across the sound environment.
The centrepiece chapter is titled ‘Brilliant Trees’ and here especially the photographs are accompanied by fragments of poetry read by a voice that is processed and cut up so as to be barely recognisable as David Sylvian. A scene is described where ‘trees joyfully sway’, and in that instant the past meets the present.
I’m glad that David Sylvian plays a part, however abstract his contribution. Without this the production may have felt too much like a eulogy for a lost past, but in combining contemporary elements with prior remembrances the piece is given a sense of vitality, and perhaps there is even a hint of promise for the future.
Like Planets [unreel] is powerful in bringing together the ‘Voices of Memory’ of two travellers with the collective memory of those absorbed by the music that flowed from these experiences. Emotions and scenes communicated in much-loved songs are brought to life giving us fresh perspectives. It’s most certainly a piece with relevance to David Toop’s theme about how memory and music intersect.
Sat in the departure lounge at Kristiansand I read a post online from Biliana Voutchkova sharing that her much-loved violin has gone missing on a train journey in Germany, presumed to be stolen. No doubt this is the same instrument played on Modus of Raw and featured in Yuka’s film. Biliana’s anguish at the loss is palpable, not being rooted in any inherent worth of the instrument, but in a shared history and the deep connection of making music with it for thirty years.
Music. Memories. Essential aspects of who we are.
‘Like Planets [unreel]’
A film by Yuka Fujii
Osmosis UK, 2019
Photography and cine-photo by Yuka Fujii
with creative input from Chris Bigg and Nigel Grierson
Soundtrack by Mark Wastell
Mark Wastell – chimes, double bass, shruti box, Bösendorfer grand piano, Indian Temple bells, upright piano, Nepalese singing bowls, piano frame, finger cymbals and cello; David Sylvian – field recordings and poetry fragments.
Additional violin samples from the album Modus of Raw by Biliana Voutchkova. Invaluable input and suggestions from Yuka Fujii and Rupert Clervaux.
Premiered at Punkt festival, Kristiansand, Norway on 6 September 2019. The UK premiere was held at Cafe OTO, London on 3 October 2019 (more here)
Download links: Like Planets [unreel] soundtrack (bandcamp)
Yuka Fujii’s book Like Planets was published by Osmosis UK, 2018. An exhibition of pictures from the book was held at POCKO gallery in London, 3 October to 1 November 2019 (more here)
‘Nagarkot’ © David Sylvian
Sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
‘Like Planets documents a period in time, between the early to late 1980s, in which David changed, rather rapidly, from well documented glamorous pop star to retiring spiritual aspirant…He and I were frequently like planets revolving around one another and, in some sense, this gravitational pull continues to this day.’ Yuka Fujii, 2018