‘Travelling clears your mind, inspires you with new ideas, or at least helps you pinpoint ideas you’ve had for a long time,’ David Sylvian told the NME in August 1984. ‘If you simply isolate yourself in a room in London, for example, you become too insular, you can no longer centre on the point you are trying to make. You can only struggle for so long in an isolated room before it becomes impossible for you to be objective about it. Travelling helps clear that, you begin to see things more clearly.’
During the last throes of life in the band Japan, Sylvian withdrew from his primary creative outlet: composing music and lyrics. ‘In the early part of 1982 I had, for numerous reasons, decided to take a rest from songwriting. This was to be the first break from writing I had had since I started as a child at the age of 12.’ Instead, he turned his artistic expression to drawing, finding time during Japan’s final tour to return to a craft he had enjoyed even before his discovery of music. In time, his sketching would lead to another dalliance with the visual arts, one with which we would become familiar a couple of years later.
‘It was during a visit to Hong Kong, one of the stops towards the end of a lengthy tour, that I first started working with Polaroids. As was my routine throughout the tour, I would return to my hotel after the day’s performance and there I would stay for the remainder of the evening, reading and drawing sketches. On our arrival in Hong Kong we found ourselves with a day free. However, having been there fairly recently and not having particularly enjoyed the place, I decided to spend the day at the hotel, and among other things write some letters and complete some drawings. By evening, having filled all the paper space available with notes and sketches and wishing to continue working on ideas formed while drawing, I turned to the only materials available to me at that time, the Polaroids. This is how it started…’
As a result of this creative diversion the following months were documented in distinctive Polaroid collage, embracing both time spent away from music-making and the genesis of Brilliant Trees. Through the pictures we accompany Sylvian and his partner Yuka Fujii as they visit France, Nepal, India and Japan; locations that lured the songwriter out of his hotel room to experience their sights, sounds and communities.
Just as Sylvian was struck in a profoundly new way by the visual arts during his break from music – particularly by the paintings of Frank Auerbach – so he found a new emotional connection with various destinations on his travels. ‘The first couple of times I went to Kyoto, I didn’t feel anything particularly special about it. People had told me that it was a place I should visit, and that there was a special feeling here, or a special atmosphere, but I was never really aware of it. It wasn’t until I got really tired of Tokyo, and I escaped from Tokyo to Kyoto for a break, that I experienced it in the way that people had said I ought to experience it.
‘Probably because of my age, and mainly because of being brought up in a city, the countryside never really appealed to me…I took it for granted, very much so, and everything seemed to appear more like postcard views. I never really felt… I never felt anything from nature.
‘I could see it, and it’s like the way people say they enjoy a painting but they don’t feel anything from the paintings, I think maybe it was through my drawing I began to have a greater appreciation of other people’s work, and I began to feel things from paintings, from drawings or whatever, which is something that also never happened before. Maybe that opened up the senses to allow me to feel something from nature.’
I remember vividly my own visit to India’s capital city of New Delhi in 2012, and in particular being dropped off at the gates of the Qutab Minar to wander around this ancient site which is steeped in such rich history. Each visit I’ve made to India has contained significant life experiences, and this was certainly one of them. Disconcerted by the unfamiliar environment, I remember feeling an intruder in this extraordinary place and in a culture that was so different from my own. The architecture is breathtaking; this is the tallest brick-built minaret in the world, erected as a monument to celebrate Muslim dominance in the area after the fall of the Hindu king. Its construction commenced in 1198, but the Sanskrit inscriptions on the masonry bear witness to the fact that its fabric dates back much further, quite literally being built from the rubble of Hindu temples.
If I felt out of place in 2012, how much more significant must the disorientation have been for David and Yuka when they visited in January 1984, long before the predominance of mobile telephones and the instantaneous data flows that mean we are always connected to home? I’m sure the sight of a westerner with Polaroids cascading from his camera and gathering at his feet must have caused quite a stir…
‘When I was in India the thing that struck me most was not the poverty but the chaos. Because I’m a very orderly person to be in a place so out of control, not being in a position to control anything myself, frightened me a great deal. I wanted to leave the place virtually as soon as I got there. I couldn’t handle the idea of the chaos. But now having left the place I want to go back there, because it threatened me, my way of existence, just by being there.
‘It threatened the trains of thought I use to cope. I mean, each of us has his own securities. And being a very orderly person comes from being quite insecure. By putting everything in its place you feel far more comfortable. And being in India threatened me, because it took away my armour, if you like, all those things I put on to cope with the world. Therefore it makes it quite rewarding to go back there more than any other place I’ve been because of the destroying effect it had on me.
‘It’s those experiences which give the value to travelling. It’s not to go round the world to see a romantic image you have of a place either confirmed or destroyed, because basically if you’re travelling you’re getting a very privileged view of the world anyway. It’s to see and understand the effect it has on you. It doesn’t so much give you a wider view of the world in general as a wider view of yourself. You end up exploring a different side of yourself, going into a greater depth into a side of your mind that is revealed to you in certain situations that might otherwise remain hidden.’
There can be no doubt that the geographical explorations of this period drew a parallel with an inner searching. The new-found connection with nature inspired the title track of Sylvian’s first album release after the Japan split (see ‘Brilliant Trees‘). Significant encounters with Japan and India were matched in Nepal. ‘The feeling there was so strong and my enjoyment of it was so positive,’ David said soon after returning, ‘I can’t remember why we stopped — maybe it was a temple — but we walked along a hillside and I sat down under these trees and there was an extraordinary view that commanded the whole landscape.’ It was a vista that inspired these beautiful words:
‘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
(For more on this episode, read ‘Like Planets – Nagarkot‘.)
The exhibition of Sylvian’s Polaroids in Tokyo during October 1984 coincided with a commission for a documentary concerning the artist, his methods and beliefs. In truth it was early days for such a project – he was aged just 26 at the time – but the film Preparations for a Journey gives a glimpse of an individual finding his feet and for whom certain fundamentals were falling into place. Directed with Yasuyuki Yamaguchi and released in Japan in February 1985, we first catch sight of Sylvian wandering along a pathway between immense trees – most likely Kyoto’s bamboo forest – accompanied by the twisting synthesisers of an early version of the instrumental title track. As the piece draws to a close, Sylvian’s earnest voice breaks in as narrator: ‘Over the past three years I’ve seen major changes in myself, and I now feel about ready to commit myself to certain basic philosophies that may see me through my entire life.’
The track had been recorded quickly with Seigen Ono in Japan at the end of 1984, during the same sessions that spawned the early version of ‘Steel Cathedrals’ known as ‘Showing the Wound (A Will to Health)’. It captures Sylvian’s continuing musical explorations in this time of musical and personal revelation, which would continue with the recording of Words with the Shaman the following year.
After the completion of the documentary, Sylvian had the master tapes of ‘Preparations for a Journey’ and ‘Showing the Wound (A Will to Health)’ sent to London so he could develop the musical ideas further. The copies received left something to be desired, and as a result a vinyl release was ruled out in favour of a cassette which carried the following disclaimer: ‘The sound quality of these recordings have suffered a little due to the exceptional circumstances under which they were produced, subsequently there is an excessive amount of tape hiss on some of the quieter pieces.’
The version of ‘Preparations for a Journey’ included on the limited edition cassette Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities remains an entirely solo creation. Now the chatter and laughter of a community in the bustling heart of some distant village preludes the warbling synths: an extension of sound sampling ideas used by Japan on Tin Drum and evidence of the influence of Holger Czukay’s recordings and his personal contribution to Brilliant Trees. A rhythm slowly emerges into the foreground, ethnic drums and jangling percussion accompanied by enthusiastic whistles, then slowly gives way to street hubbub. They say a story should excite all of our senses and this final version of track certainly takes us to another place on Earth, far from our western culture, arousing a response like the first visit to a new and yet unexplored location. It sounds more African than Asian, so maybe this is an imaginary journey sculpted in sound rather than a literal memory, but the sense of adventure is real. The piece brings to life Sylvian’s musings on the value of travel. What can we discover that takes us beyond the constraints of our own limited experience, what can we learn from the wisdom, history and traditions of another culture, and what can this teach us about ourselves?
Alongside Sylvian’s original compositions on the Japanese documentary are some wonderful traditional acapella pieces, and I love to accompany ‘Preparations for a Journey’ with one of these: ‘Kalimankou Denkou (The Evening Gathering)’. In the film the piece sits perfectly alongside footage of Polaroid collages taken during the singer’s travels both in the East and the West. ‘I’ve taken many pictures of well-known architecture and landscapes,’ Sylvian narrates, ‘in the hope of showing them in an alternative, or rather, clearer perspective than seen previously.’
The tight harmonies, trills and swelling voices are drawn from a 1975 album Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices). This compilation of modern arrangements of Bulgarian folk songs was the result of years of research by Swiss musicologist Marcel Cellier. His sleeve notes emphasise how the nature of this music is intrinsically linked with the history of a nation: ‘In its thousand year history Bulgarian song bears the scars of an extremely difficult evolution, marked by five nightmarish centuries of Ottoman domination. This is how the art of the voice, the only free expression of the Bulgarian people, acquired its colour and vivid evocation.’
Intriguingly, the year after Sylvian’s documentary was made public, this obscure album was re-released on the much-respected 4-AD imprint. Ivo Watts-Russell, the label owner, explained how this came about: ‘I was first introduced to Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares by Peter Murphy [of Bauhaus and Dalis Car] last summer. After a fair amount of back tracking and detective work I was able to discover the source of this music and commence discussions to arrange a release in Britain…Never before have I been so intensely subjugated by the human voice. The language may well be alien, but the sentiment and emotion…or unmitigated vocal technique are to be universally relished.’
Cover design was by 23 Envelope – elegant typography from the late Vaughan Oliver and an intriguing photograph taken by Nigel Grierson. Both names would soon become closely associated with Sylvian’s own work. ‘I thought the shoe looked like something from another time,’ Grierson recalls, ‘much like the record sounds like something from another time.’ (2020)
It’s a wonderful recording and an exemplar of how rich the reward can be for seeking out the unfamiliar with open ears and mind.
‘Preparations for a Journey’ captures Sylvian at a pivotal moment. There’s a confidence in his musical direction, founded perhaps in a positive critical response to his debut album. Such a young man has much more territory cover, but he carries an assurance that he’s equipped for the exploration that lies ahead.
‘Preparations for a Journey’
David Sylvian – all instruments
Music by David Sylvian
Produced by David Sylvian, from Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities, Virgin, 1985
Recorded in Tokyo, 1984
All David Sylvian quotes are from interviews in 1984/5, unless otherwise indicated. Full sources and acknowledgments for this article can be found here.
‘The experience is the journey, not the arriving because, in the psychological and spiritual sense, there is no arriving. It’s a constant process of understanding.’ David Sylvian, 1991