‘I didn’t want the listener to feel comfortable when they heard this record because it wasn’t comfortable to make it. It was profoundly uncomfortable and often disturbing. Although that is the opposite of the way I tend to work, it seemed to be the right approach for this particular project. I know it’s going to alienate a lot of listeners who won’t understand how to approach the work, but I had to be true to the essence of this project and working with Derek enabled me to find another voice with which to deal with these rather difficult emotions.’ (DS, 2003)
David Sylvian’s first experience of Derek Bailey’s music came much earlier. ‘I’ve been listening to Derek’s work since ’84 or ’83. I was really drawn to the sound he produced on the guitar. I’d seen him perform over the years and sort of just tapped in to what he’s been doing on and off.’ The record that first drew Sylvian in was Aida. Released in 1980 on the Incus label – which Bailey founded with Evan Parker amongst others – it captures three live tracks recorded in London and Paris. Derek’s unique guitar sound is much in evidence as spider-like he explores every inch of the fret-board, the sound angular and unmistakeable.
As Sylvian was engulfed in the personal crisis that became the catalyst for perhaps his most extraordinary solo project, Bailey’s music was his companion. ‘When I first heard Derek back in the ’80s I thought, “I’d love to work with this guy,” but it wasn’t until I was contemplating Blemish that this notion became for me a reality. During this gestation period for Blemish, Derek’s was the only music I could listen to and so there formed a bond in my mind between his work and the project I was about to embark on’ (DS, 2011). Bailey’s album Ballads emerged in 2002, the new release finding its way to Sylvian’s ears and dominating his listening. It’s a remarkable recording.
Derek’s playing on Blemish would be my first experience of his work, the three tracks on which he features contributing to the confusion and disorientation I felt on initially hearing the album (see ‘Blemish – Camphor’). So was free improvisation a question of picking up an instrument and just making a random noise with it? It’s what it seemed at first, but even a horribly amateur guitarist like myself could tell that there was more going on than that – in particular through the use of harmonics. Two major factors contributed to me growing to appreciate Bailey’s playing – firstly, forgetting it’s a guitar that’s being played at all, and secondly, listening to Ballads.
We probably all have a concept of what the guitar “should” sound like, and there are many eloquent examples in the Japan/Sylvian back-catalogue – performances by Rob Dean, Bill Nelson, Robert Fripp, Bill Frisell, etc., etc. At first it really got in the way for me to visualise someone with a guitar making the unfamiliar sounds that accompany tracks such as ‘How Little We Need to Be Happy’. Dissonant undertones very often exist in Sylvian’s work, representing the dark so as to emphasise the light. In fact some of my favourite pieces, such as ‘A Brief Conversation Ending in Divorce’, are downright atonal in parts. For this new material it was appropriate that the dissonance stepped right into the foreground. “Forget it’s a guitar, just treat it as a synthesised soundscape,” became my way of thinking.
It was a revelation when later reading Bailey’s book Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music to learn that this line of thought has some grounding in how he developed his musical voice. ‘The analogy with language, often used by improvising musicians in discussing their work, has a certain usefulness in illustrating the development of a common stock of material – a vocabulary – which takes place when a group of musicians improvise together regularly,’ he writes. ‘In the choice and development of material the solo improvisor works in similar ways to the group improvisor. Building a personal vocabulary and working to extend it in both performance and preparation…
‘Beyond the immediate influence of the musicians I was playing with, the bases of my improvising language came from an interest in the music of Schoenberg’s pre-serial, “free” atonal period, the later music of Webern and also certain electronic music composers…Apart from the fact that I liked the stuff, I thought (and still think) that the intervallic manipulation of pitch is less restricting and more productive than other ways of pitch management, and the very clearly differentiated changes of timbre which characterised some early electronic music was the sort of thing which could assist in assembling a language that would literally be disjointed, whose constituents would be unconnected in any casual or grammatical way and so would be more open to manipulation.’
The mention of Webern recalls Bailey’s admission in the late 1960s that he had copied recordings of Webern’s music borrowed from his local library ‘onto a single reel of tape and played it almost daily.’ In an obituary of the guitarist printed in The Wire and replicated on the samadhisound website, David Toop observes that, ‘Hearing Webern’s Variations for Piano, Op 27, the tension of its intervals and silences, is like a pre-echo of Bailey solo recordings…’ (2006). When I first heard this piece I couldn’t believe the parallels between the sounds of Anton Webern and those of Derek Bailey – it’s when it finally dawned on me how intentional Bailey is in finding the particular notes and chords that he voices, reflecting the influence of the unusual and sometimes jarring intervals evident in the Austrian composer’s work. Try it for yourself – here is the Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini performing Variations for Piano in Paris in 2002, and rather endearingly towards the end giving voice to some of the notes that he plays!
In Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music Bailey refers to ‘a popular misconception about improvisation: that it is a totally instantaneous event completely lacking in foresight or preparation.’ Having crafted his own individualistic language that was grounded in concept and practice – embracing not only particular chords but also specific techniques for striking and muting the strings – he could benefit from a flexible syntax enabling him to respond to any given situation for improvisation. Even Derek’s experience as a player in more traditional settings, such as music halls or TV show bands, wasn’t as irrelevant as it might seem to his free improv approach. ‘Working musicians, those found earning a living in night clubs, recording studios, dance halls and any other place where music has a functional role, spend very little time, as I remember it, discussing “improvising language”, but anyone lacking the ability to invent something, to add something, to improve something would quickly prove to be in the wrong business. In that world, improvisation is a fact of life.’
Bailey draws a distinction between ‘idiomatic’ and ‘non-idiomatic’ improvisation. ‘Idiomatic improvisation, much the most widely used, is mainly concerned with the expression of an idiom – such as jazz, flamenco or baroque – and takes its identity and motivation from that idiom.’ We can identify with examples of this such as the solos that players in a jazz line-up might play, each taking a turn within the context of a jazz standard and sequenced in quite a structured way within the performance, however free the soloing. ‘Non-idiomatic improvisation has other concerns and is mostly found in so-called “free” improvisation and, while it can be highly stylised, is not usually tied to representing an idiomatic identity.’ His own playing very much fell into the non-idiomatic category… and that is what makes Ballads such a surprising album. Here, the pioneering free-improviser takes as the basis for each piece a ballad from a catalogue of greats including ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Georgia on my Mind’. What?!?
Marc Ribot, the guitarist who contributed so prodigiously to Dead Bees on a Cake, provides sleeve notes that attempt to explain what’s going on. ‘Bailey interweaves minutes of improvising with jazz standards in a single continuous performance. The standards are beautiful. The improvising parameters draw on the vocabulary of free improv and are far wider than those normally employed in jazz…even for people who do a lot of improvising it’s difficult to improvise freely once the idea of structure has been introduced…Derek Bailey’s mastery is evident in his ability to resist this temptation and let the song be what it is whilst letting the improvisation go where it goes. The beautiful paradox is that this doesn’t sever the relation of song to improvisation, but creates deeper, less predictable relations.’ (2002)
Sylvian agreed with Ribot. ‘I love this record, it’s beautiful, so beautiful…it wasn’t until I heard this album at this moment in my life that I felt, “There it is. That’s the opportunity that I was looking for back in 1990 with Keith [Tippett].” I could finally see a way in.’
Only a small fragment of these earlier sessions with pianist Tippett and percussionist Mark Sanders ever saw release. This time Sylvian was more confident of success. Initially he concentrated on creating and responding to his own ‘drone-based and open-ended’ starting points. ‘I kept this up for a few weeks, but then felt I needed a counterpoint to my own improvisations. I’d had Derek in the back of my mind at the outset of the project, so I gave him a call to see if he’d be interested in making a contribution that I might similarly respond to. He bemusedly questioned whether he was really the right person to do this. I said, “I’m looking for someone to present me with a challenge as a writer/vocalist.” “In that case, I’m your man,” he said. And so it started…He sent me about an hour’s worth of solo material. I listened through once and singled out three pieces with which I thought I had a ghost of a chance.’ (DS, 2010)
Derek’s improvisations proved appropriate to the articulation of a deeply confused state of mind; they ‘determined everything, everywhere I went melodically and emotionally. I had a notebook of fragments. Once I had selected a track that I felt held certain possibilities for me as a vocalist, I’d respond with an opening line, intuitively, and then I’d run with that. Then I’d grab snippets from the notebook and respond with those fragments, and flesh out the lyric within the first or second listen to the piece, improvising melody based on what I was hearing. There are wonderful switches in dynamics in Derek’s work, which isn’t always true of my work. It was just a matter of finding my way into the piece, in the emotional heart of the music.’
The title of the song is a play on words of the sort that Sylvian has adopted from time to time where two very different, but perhaps not incompatible, readings are possible. Does it imply that we need very little in our lives to make us happy, just the simple act of human love? Or rather that happiness is not something that is essential for us at all? Or perhaps even both?
The ambiguity of the song-title is reflected in the musical content. Bailey’s spiky playing and the disharmony in both the guitar and the sung lines capture the context of turbulent life experience. Yet despite the tumult in accompaniment and vocal delivery there is hope, such as in the exhortation:
‘Throw back the sheets
Shake off the sleep and complete me
As I complete you
There’s a universe of disappointment to be lost’
As we’ve seen before, stars are an often used metaphor in Sylvian’s lyrics for hope and the benevolent impact of the spiritual dimension of life:
‘And the lights won’t go out
The stars refuse to dim’
The spiritual practice that had become so rooted in the singer’s life was something he clung onto at the time of these recording sessions, confiding that he found the strength to delve deep into negative emotions through the discipline of that daily devotion.
Some have said that they only “got” Blemish because it touched a nerve, recalling the raw pain of a relationship breakdown in their own lives. Having lived through such an experience I can identify with that. There is something here that brings to mind those gut-wrenching emotions and experiences; not least the peculiarity that some aspects of life carry on regardless, whilst simultaneously the foundations of normality are crumbling around you.
‘And everything goes on but not as before’
Of course the most heart-breaking aspect of break-up is that of innocent young lives caught up in a crisis that is none of their own making. It’s not appropriate to speculate whether this is what the lyric refers to in part, it could be a complete misreading or indeed a projection. It’s truly a dichotomy that these words are in the public domain but are borne out of events that are intensely private and should remain so. One thing is for sure, they carry the bitter taste of authenticity.
‘And you my girl, did I forget to sing?
You, brimming with life and joy
‘What have they done to you?
Come here let me hold you
Cry all your tears
The sorrows that threaten to overwhelm you’
Not for the first time on Blemish, Sylvian’s lyrics read like snatches of conversation or the thought-processing of a frantic mind.
The final line hints back to the hope – whether of reconciliation given the act of love is all that it takes to bring happiness, or whether of life in a new context – and the album sequencing is so apt as we are set up for the beauties of ‘A Fire in the Forest’:
‘Let’s rise up again’
I like to accompany ‘How Little..’ with two tracks from Ballads, preceding it with ‘Body and Soul’ (the 1930’s song with music by Johnny Green which in recent years was performed as a duet by Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse) and following it with ‘Laura’, David Raskin’s theme from the film of the same name. ‘Laura’ was one of the first Bailey tracks to really “land” with me; it’s great hearing Derek Bailey’s improvised lines conversing with the original melody – all articulated in his own ‘language’.
‘How Little We Need to Be Happy’
Derek Bailey – guitars; David Sylvian – all other instruments, vocal
Music by Derek Bailey and David Sylvian. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced by David Sylvian. From Blemish by David Sylvian, samadhisound, 2003.
Recorded at samadhisound studio feb/march 2003
Lyrics © samadhisound publishing
The featured image is a still from video footage of Derek Bailey performing at Mark Wastell’s Sound 323 record store in London, 2002. Video by David Reid and used by permission of Mark Wastell.
Unless otherwise indicated, all David Sylvian quotes are from interviews in 2003, supporting the release of Blemish. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
‘Blemish had a lot to do with loss, it was a sense of being lost, of trying to find one’s way, a sense of dislocation, and that was present for me in Derek’s work. So to marry the two, to marry the fragmentation that is very much a part of Derek’s styling with the way that I perform, which is a far more fluid kind of performance, I thought would be an interesting contrast and it would help underline the dislocated sets of emotion in the song itself.’ David Sylvian, 2003