Pollen Path

‘the chaotic nature of life on earth’

Some of the tracks destined for Dead Bees on a Cake had their first origins even before David Sylvian hit the road with Robert Fripp for The Road to Graceland tour, the first date taking place in Tokyo in October 1993 only weeks after David and his wife became parents.

‘I started writing with my wife Ingrid – we were working on material together for some time prior to Ameera our first daughter’s birth. And some of the material I wrote for her she didn’t feel was right for her. So, I took that material and worked it up for myself. Pieces like ‘I Surrender’ started out as pieces for Ingrid, even ‘Pollen Path’.’

The time was now right to move on from a series of collaborative endeavours which had nourished Sylvian’s creativity in the preceding years, but lacked some important facets of a solo project. ‘There are so many compromises made along the way that I tend to find that I’m not 100% with the work. After a period of time it began to wear on me that I wasn’t putting out work that I felt really strongly about. I guess I was getting to a point in time, a state of mind, where there were issues that I wanted to confront in my writing that I felt uncomfortable doing in the context of a collaboration. So, it felt time to return to the solo work. Prior to even the Sylvian/Fripp collaboration I was sort of focusing, beginning to focus on writing again and was really ready to get back by the time the Sylvian/Fripp project came to an end.’

After a further period of composition and pre-production at his home studio, it was time to start recording. ‘I started in earnest in January ’96 in the basement of Ryuichi’s house in New York. We did about three weeks’ work together – not an overly productive three weeks, surprisingly, because in the past working with Ryu, things have gone very smoothly. Normally in three or four days, we’d have enough material together. And this time we got about three days’ work out of three weeks – for some reason it wasn’t gelling.’ Whilst in New York there was also time spent at Right Track studios working on individual performances and some orchestral arrangements. ‘I left dissatisfied generally with the turn of events, and took the material back to Minneapolis, and started re-editing and sampling what I had. I was working on Pro Tools, so I could really play around with the material.’

The next move was a switch of continents. ‘I decided I needed to undertake a second set of sessions to enable me to create/recreate the basics for the majority of the tracks. As I intended to work in the UK and as I have a dislike of traditional recording environments, finding them sterile, geared mainly towards the needs of the engineer/producer, I settled on Real World studios as in this respect it’s something of an exception to the rule. I’d visited the studios a number of times before. In fact drummer auditions for the Sylvian/Fripp tour were held there (see ’20th Century Dreaming – live’). I knew I’d feel at home in what is a very relaxed, creative environment complemented by quality technicians and members of staff that make up the community there. I’d originally planned a stint of two to three weeks but stayed on longer as I worked my way through a series of drummers, bass guitarists, and percussionists looking for suitable players. I finally settled on Ged Lynch and John Giblin for bass and drums respectively.’

Ged Lynch went on to provide the rhythms that underpin a trio of tracks, ‘Thalheim’, ‘Pollen Path’ and ‘Wanderlust’. His first performance on record was providing additional drums and percussion on The Icicle Works’ 1990 album Permanent Damage. Amongst other things, he went on to be a member of the chart-topping outfit Black Grape along with two of the Happy Mondays, a project which led to him developing close ties with the technical team at Real World.

I asked Ged how he came to be involved in Dead Bees on a Cake? ‘I’m afraid I can’t remember who recommended me, but at the time I was practically living at Real World.. ..it was a busy time.’ His knowledge of Sylvian’s catalogue was not extensive when their paths crossed, ‘I was only aware of David’s involvement with Japan and maybe a Ryuichi collaboration, but not so much as a solo artist.’

What memories does he have of the recording itself? ‘I remember bringing my kit into the session as another (fine) musician was packing their gear to leave. There was a sense things hadn’t gone smoothly so I was a little nervous to start… I didn’t know what to expect.’ As far as Ged can recall, the only tracks worked on were the ones where his playing was included on the final release.. ‘..it wasn’t a long session.’

‘We worked one to one (plus engineer). I remember there was an attention to detail in regard to sound and that David was charming and very focused. I don’t recall demos and I think I was working to vocals.. ..I prefer working to vocal because really it’s the whole point for me.’

It’s easy to characterise Dead Bees on a Cake as being bathed in the golden light of a period of intense fulfilment in Sylvian’s life as husband, father and spiritual aspirant. ‘Pollen Path’ is something else altogether. Harsher and more unsettling than the songs that precede it, the track demands the listener’s attention as both the music and the imagery sharply contrast with the previous terrain.

‘I remember ‘Pollen Path’ well,’ says Ged. ‘David asked me to play on it without hearing it first. He wanted me to react to what I heard rather than have a plan or preconceived idea. I learnt an important lesson about capturing a performance… It was one take. I think it really is “alive”, as if it’s crawling out of the speakers and means you harm.. (smiling) ..I was lucky to be involved with it.’

Ged Lynch 2 600
Ged Lynch in action around the time of the ‘Dead Bees on a Cake’ sessions at Real World. Photograph by York Tillyer.

The piece has a radically shifting feel, with the attack of the first section making way for a calmer but no less menacing denouement. ‘My drum part was very simple but a really dark aggressive pocket, which was pretty much my “thing” back then. Dynamically it had just two gears if you will, quite earthbound. We used the glass room at Real World which lends itself to a heavy sounding drum kit.’

Ged’s association with Peter Gabriel’s studio grew further in the period that followed, with him featuring on Gabriel’s millennium project OVO and extensively on the Up album. He shares Sylvian’s admiration for the positive environment provided there for musicians: ‘Real World is a great place to get inside the bubble you create for yourself and be left alone.’

Some three years passed between that shared session and the release of Dead Bees on a Cake. It must have been an uneasy wait, not knowing whether what he came up with would make it onto the final cut? ‘I’ve always been ok with the reality of being a part of a creative process… sometimes your contribution is just what an artist is “hearing” and sometimes not. You hope that your parts make it, of course, but as long as you brought your best work… it’s all good. I loved the process and the album… it’s a very fond memory.’

Marc Ribot’s guitar work from the Right Track sessions also made it, Sylvian clarifying in an interview, ‘I’m playing all the electric guitar and Marc Ribot is playing the acoustic slide guitar.’ Interviewer: So you are playing the edgy, noisy guitar?, ‘Yes.’

Curiously, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s work on ‘Pollen Path’ is limited to his credit for ‘insects’, quite possibly being the circling sounds that can be heard as the very last lines are sung. Much more prominent are the strange harmonies of an element of the arrangement that had been incorporated from the beginning, Sylvian confirming that, ‘the Cage prepared piano sample formed part of the initial soundscape that was to become ‘Pollen Path’.’

Sylvian and Sakamoto had previously incorporated a sample of John Cage’s Mureau on the song ‘Heartbeat (Tanai Kaiki II)’. This time the extract used is from an earlier work, ‘Sonata V’ from the hugely influential Sonatas and Interludes. Various items placed on and between the strings of the piano mute and distort the notes, so incorporating the sample adds to a disconcerting atmosphere. This particular recording was rich in significance for Sylvian’s composition, of which more later. For those not familiar with it, the brief excerpt below will identify the sounds that Sylvian weaved into his musical backdrop for ‘Pollen Path’.

The song title again brings us to the world of bees, a recurring image linking the previous solo masterpiece Secrets of the Beehive and its follow-up eleven years later, Dead Bees on a Cake. When asked about this track in interviews at the time, Sylvian was fond of repeating a mantra, ‘beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty to the left of me, beauty to the right of me, beauty above, beauty below.’ This may sound like something drawn from the teachings of his guru or Shree Maa, but in fact he explained that it ‘came from a Joseph Campbell talk – he was referring to an American Indian tribe that followed the pollen path.’

Campbell was an American professor of literature who worked extensively in the area of comparative mythologies and religions. He was fascinated by the commonalities to be found between the belief systems and rituals of peoples from across the world. Joseph Campbell’s mainstream exposure came through a US television series, The Power of Myth, in which he engaged in conversation with presenter Bill Moyers covering questions of life and faith.

The series was first broadcast in 1988, the year after Campbell’s death. He recounts there, ‘The Navaho have that wonderful image of what they call the pollen path. Pollen is the life source, the pollen path is the path to the centre. The Navaho say, “Oh, beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty to the right of me, beauty to the left of me, beauty above me, beauty below me, I’m on the pollen path..”

‘..So the little cosmos of one’s own life and the macrocosm of the world’s life are in some way to be coordinated.’

Campbell used an illustration of the Navaho’s sand painting of the pollen path (shown below) in lectures and for his book The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, describing its significance and use. ‘In the Navaho sand painting the bounded area is equivalent to the interior of a temple, an Earthly Paradise, where all forms are to be experienced.. ..as the manifestations of powers supporting the visible world and which, though not recognised in practical living, are everywhere immediately at hand and of one’s own nature.’

Navaho sand painting of the pollen path. (Note that what Campbell describes as blue in the descriptions below appears as more of a grey in this reproduction.)

The markings shown here would be drawn out on the floor of a native dwelling, and an individual guided through the various stages as part of an extensive ceremony of spiritual blessing. Campbell deciphers the depiction, starting at the bottom right of the painting: ‘Footprints of white cornmeal mark the path of the initiate throughout.. ..they approach along a road that is of the two symbolic colours of the male and female powers, fire and water, sunlight and cloud, which at the place of the Spirit Bringers abruptly blend to one golden yellow of the colour of pollen. There are no footprints on this part of the path. To be assumed is a threshold of passage of the mind as it turns from secular anxieties, identifications and expectations..’

As the individual passes through the central area their footprints trace up a cornstalk, a vibrant symbol of life in Navaho legend. The curved lines to the right of the stalk represent a rainbow and the jagged lines to the left are lightning. ‘The black zigzag line of the lightning flash is single, whereas in the rainbow, where the male power has been tempered to the female power, the male is red and the female blue. Red is the colour of danger, war, sorcery, but also of their safeguards; for it is the colour, as well, of blood, flesh and nourishing meat. Blue is the colour associated by the Navaho with the fructifying power of the earth, with water and with sky. Combined as here in a rainbow, the two are known as “The Sunray” and said to stand for “light rays emerging from a cloud when the sun is behind it…”‘

Once the initiate has encountered the spirits in this “chamber” they emerge at the top of the picture. ‘Beyond the exit gate, returning to the world, the path is to be no longer red and blue, but of the one colour of pollen.’

How much the lyrics of Sylvian’s song relate specifically to the Navaho legend is open for our interpretation. On the promotional interview cd that was issued with Dead Bees.., Sylvian again recites the mantra and says only, ‘The ‘Pollen Path’ is… a tribe of American Indians had this notion of the pollen path.. The lyrics are very hard to pin down on this song and that’s the only key I could give to you.’

I’ve always been struck by the contrast between the repeated identification of ‘beauty’ in the mantra and the unsettling imagery of Sylvian’s lyric.

In an interview conducted in 1999 by Carl Craig, but left unpublished until years later, we come closest to the song’s significance.

CC: The title ‘Pollen Path’ you mentioned was a reference to a Joseph Campbell lecture about American Indian spirituality. To me that seems to refer to the beauty of nature, the aliveness of everything around you.

DS: Yeah. Absolutely, and again with the teachers I have been with, they are able to experience that as being palpably real. Just seeing the divinity in all things. So the beauty exists, it is… it’s not subjective. It is something we have to grow into understanding, to become more and more conscious of, to be able to understand the beauty of the world. We are too selective in what we perceive to be beautiful and not so beautiful. And just being around these people that don’t think that way, that don’t see the world that way is quite liberating, quite intense.

CC: And so is the edginess of that song the frightened child inside that doesn’t want to deal with this kind of awareness?

DS: Yeah, it’s the chaotic nature of life on earth in so many of its aspects. Both the personal and the worldly, I mean, the world is a pretty chaotic and frightening place. And its acknowledging that, and at the same time crying out, yearning for this recognition, being recognised by the divine, if you like. That you could be graced by the presence of divinity.

CC: So in the second half of the tune, where you are more quiet, is that a shrinking away from that reality?

DS: No, I think it is coming to the same conclusions with a quieter state of mind, in periods of reflection. It is not the most optimistic piece on the album, it’s a piece that embraces a lot of doubt and questioning. But it’s basically asking the same question, you know.

CC: So these songs are little mystery plays even, because in ‘Pollen Path’ when you ask for the Mother’s name you are answered by silence.

DS: Uh huh, yeah. Again there are many ways to interpret that and I’d like to leave that open.

My personal interpretation is that the first half of the song, propelled aggressively forward by Ged Lynch’s playing, picks up on Campbell’s theme of native religions, moving from the American Indian traditions of the track’s title to the Sámi shamanism of which Campbell has also written:

‘Welcome me father
On the north shores of Lapland
Welcome me father
Who knows no name’

The gods of these tribal religions are depicted as either father or mother and are unfamiliar, unnamed (in sharp contrast to the many names bestowed on the divine mother in Hindu tradition and celebrated in the track ‘All of My Mother’s Names’). The natural world and the world of ritual spirituality are at the same time intimidating and attractive – ‘my body is aching for want of a flame’ – and there is deep confusion in life – ‘this whole mess is frightening’. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty the protagonist declares a determination to follow the pollen path which interprets all experience as beauty.

The calmer second section questions the structures that modern society has placed around human existence, dominated by the clock and the drive to acquire personal wealth and possessions:

‘We’ve drunk from this wellspring
Too long, too long
Dividing the hours
To measure the time

We’ve lived with this heartache 
Too long, too long
Numbering what’s yours, what’s mine’

There seems to be a rejection of some of the basic principles of modern living, and a call to reconnect with the truths to be found in the mythology and rites of what might condescendingly be considered more primitive societies.

Cage Sonatas and interludes decca 600

I accompany ‘Pollen Path’ with John Cage’s ‘Sonata V’ performed by a later collaborator, John Tilbury. There are reasons why this piece was associated with Sylvian’s song from its early stages. Given the singer’s pre-occupations at the time, he will have been well aware that the Sonatas and Interludes were composed by Cage in the 1940s when he was drawn to Indian philosophy and the writings of the art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Cage’s cycle seeks to express what are known as the eight permanent emotions of the rasa Indian tradition.

And the catalyst for Cage’s interest in Eastern aesthetics? It was the influence of his close friend, Joseph Campbell. Cage and his wife even lived with the Campbells for a few months in the early ’40s, at a time when Campbell was writing about the Navaho. Cage himself gave a lecture in 1949 at the Artists’ Club in New York entitled ‘Indian Sand Painting, or The Picture That Is Valid for One Day’.

When Dead Bees on a Cake was released ‘Pollen Path’ was far from my favourite track, but over time I’ve grown to really appreciate the dark weave of the music and the mystery in the lyrics. There is so much packed into its less than four-minute duration. ‘Pollen Path’ brings to Dead Bees.. some of the same disruptive energy that the title track brought to Gone to Earth.

‘Pollen Path’

Ged Lynch – drums; Marc Ribot – acoustic and slide guitar; Ryuichi Sakamoto – insects; David Sylvian – guitars, keyboards and samples

Contains samples from John Cage’s ‘Sonata V’ from Sonatas and Interludes, Edition Peter’s No. 6755, © 1960 by Henmar Press Inc., New York. Licensed on behalf of the publishers by Peter’s Edition Ltd, London. Licensed courtesy of Etcetera Record Company B.V.

Music and lyrics by David Sylvian

Produced by David Sylvian. From Dead Bees on a Cake, Virgin, 1999.

Lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing

The featured image is a detail from sleeve of the 2018 vinyl re-release of Dead Bees on a Cake, photography by Anton Corbijn.

Thank you to Ged Lynch for his contribution to this article and for permission to use the photograph of him performing. Quotes from David Sylvian are from interviews in 1998/99. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.

Download links: ‘Pollen Park’ (iTunes); ‘Sonata V’ (iTunes)

Physical media links: Dead Bees on a Cake (burningshed) (Amazon); Sonatas and Interludes (Amazon)

An extended vinyl version of Dead Bees on a Cake was released in 2018 (burningshed) (Amazon)

‘In the Blessing Ceremony of the Navaho the psychosomatic spiritual initiation is accomplished by means of identification, ritually induced, of the patient or initiate with the mythological adventure of the Pollen Path in its threshold crossings into and through a sacred space and out into the world transformed.’ Joseph Campbell, 1986

8 thoughts on “Pollen Path”

  1. Total agreement with preceding comments. After what you have written I must reconsider my appreciation for this track, whose words and hidden concepts (along with and thanks to your as usual immersive analysis) make it so present in CoViD-19 times …

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was in two minds about Pollen Path when I first heard it. I really enjoyed the section that samples Cage’s Sonata but was disturbed by the aggression of the rest of the song. However it grew on me within two months of buying the album, so much so that when I decided to halve the album Dead Bees on a Cake because I thought it was way too long, I sequenced a number of songs along the pace of Secrets of The Beehive and called it The Pollen Path. The song has remained one of my favourites by DS ever since.

    Liked by 1 person

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