Before and Afterlife

Creating other worlds

When Jan Bang heard that Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær had been invited to rework a track for David Sylvian’s instrumental compilation, Camphor, he didn’t hold back in seeking a role in the commission. ‘I said to Nils, “If you are doing a remix of David Sylvian, I need to be on it.” Just like that,’ remembered Bang, laughing, in an interview with John Kelman for the All About Jazz website. ‘Nils and I had been working closely for so many years, and it sort of felt natural.’ (2010)

So why the drive to work with Sylvian? ‘While I was growing up, I was listening more to disco, R&B; that was what I was interested in. And then a change happened, by accident really. I was working in a record store, one that imported 12″ vinyl and mostly from London, so we had the fresh material from dance music from both the UK and the States. And there was this 12″ by David Sylvian, called ‘Red Guitar‘ from Brilliant Trees, and that changed the way I listened to music. I was listening to more American music at the time and this was totally the opposite – a more European aesthetic, more inwards than outwards-looking. With that, I became more curious and found more music that led me to Jon Hassell (who was involved with Brilliant Trees), and Scott Walker, the American singer that was based in Europe.’

The opportunity for involvement in a project with an artist who had so radically impacted his outlook on music was too good to pass up, even if on this occasion it was through remote working rather than a shared studio session. It was, however, the start of a musical relationship that over time would embrace file sharing, in-person studio work and performing together on stage.

Jan Bang. Photograph by Luca Vitali.

That first recording was a delicious reworking of Secret of a Beehive‘s ‘Mother and Child’ with Sylvian’s vocal replaced with a solo line from Molvær and both Bang and Erik Honoré sculpting the mix. As is so often the case, a link with one musician leads to another. Just as Jan had been introduced to Sylvian’s circle of collaborators by Nils Petter, so it was that Jan would play a part in connecting Sylvian with the music of another Norwegian trumpet magician, Arve Henriksen.

‘I had just finished producing Arve Henriksen’s Chiaroscuro (2004) with Erik, and so I said to David, “here’s an album that you’re gonna like.” And he listened to it, and said, “This is, by far, the album of the year.”’ Indeed, the LP would remain a favourite and when Sylvian was invited to curate an iTunes playlist for Apple in 2009 he included a track from the album, ‘Blue Silk’, Henriksen thus accompanying such luminaries as Joni Mitchell, Scott Walker, Robert Wyatt, Bill Evans and Miles Davis. ‘It all comes down to people and things that you hear about,’ reflected Jan, ‘you hear about something interesting, and suddenly it makes a difference.’

The year after Chiaroscuro‘s release came Nine Horses, with Sylvian immediately identifying Henriksen’s unique loose-embouchure laments as perfect for the atmospheres of both ‘Darkest Birds’ and ‘Atom and Cell’. Next, Arve was one of the ensemble for Sylvian’s sound installation commission for the Naoshima Fukutake Art Museum Foundation on the island of Naoshima, later released as When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima in 2007.

Bang and Honoré would again take joint production duties for Arve Henriksen’s debut release on Manfred Eicher’s prestigious ECM label in 2008. This time, though, the recording process would take another path. ‘It was a different approach,’ Bang explained, ‘because Chiaroscuro was based on live recordings with Arve, myself and Audun Kleive as a trio, then we took those tapes back into the studio.’ For the new project, the music would start with aural collages borne from Jan’s sound library and layered using his sampling techniques. ‘We started working on Cartography three years before it came out. What I do is I make tracks; I compose pieces and then I send them to different people. If I think, “OK, this would sound good for Nils Petter,” then I send [it] to him, he plays trumpet on it, sends it back, and I mix it.’

This way of working perfectly suited the artistic direction that Arve was pursuing. ‘Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to find ways of playing that feel right for me and areas of music that interest me enough to keep returning to them. And I’ve been feeling uncomfortable with the idea of ending up playing “improvised jazz”. This album is part of a process of going back to go further. For more than twenty years electronics have been part of what I do, and the collaboration with Jan Bang and Erik Honoré has been inspirational. I like very much their way of bringing together acoustic instruments and electronics, their way of building and combining elements, sometimes from different places and times.’ (2008)

David Sylvian would contribute readings of his own poetry to two tracks on Cartography. The first of these, ‘Before and Afterlife’ had an interesting musical evolution. A version of the track, running at just over two minutes, first appeared on an extraordinary set of five vinyl records under the title Visionaire 53: SOUND. Over a hundred tracks were contributed by musicians such as David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Antony and the Johnsons and many others. Bizarrely, the set – released in December 2007 – came complete with a battery-powered model mini cooper with built-in speaker and stylus. The car was designed to traverse the stationary records whilst playing the contents. It was aptly nicknamed the “vinyl killer”.

The Visionaire 53 version of the track features Sylvian’s speaking voice, processed to produce an unnerving stuttering effect and accompanied by keening phrases from Arve Henriksen’s trumpet and a single two-note-repetition sample. Henriksen’s emotive playing is empathetic to the desolation conveyed in the words. The trumpet lines heard here were drawn by Sylvian from the same source recordings as When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima.

The Visionaire 53 set, with “vinyl killer” mini cooper

The cut was then developed further for Cartography. ‘The first part of this piece is really David’s production: then Jan Bang began adding material,’ Arve remembers. Bang’s contribution was true to his working method for the project and had in fact first been destined for another artist entirely. ‘‘Before and Afterlife’… that was originally intended for Jan Garbarek,’ says Bang, ‘because I did a show with him at the opening of the National Library in Oslo and it was kind of a big thing; it was also broadcast on a big screen outside the library. But Jan wanted to do a piece from Dis, or one of his other older albums, and so we did that instead. And so I thought, “This might be something good for Arve.”’

Arve Henriksen, ECM publicity photograph.

A mournful solo from Henriksen is added at the start of the expanded setting and then, as Sylvian’s reading completes, the sound world widens as the treated samples from Jan Bang’s armoury build: surges and rumbles, the ominous to-and-fro bassline, a rhythm like a stuttering heartbeat, all interweaved with strings from Norwegian composer Helge Sunde.

Sylvian’s words are a chronicle of his years living in the United States with Ingrid Chavez following their marriage in the early ’90s. After setting up home in Minneapolis, they moved with their young family way out to the West Coast. The catalyst was Indian holy woman Shree Maa who stayed with the family in Minneapolis for a brief period. That experience was so significant that David, Ingrid and family decided to relocate so as to be close to Shree Maa’s ashram in Napa.

‘We started in the suburbs of smaller cities
And as we followed the nomadic call
Our nobler instincts led us further from
Society’s centre, westward, to a cabin hoisted
Aloft on faulty foundations far above the Napa Valley
Where the rain soaked earth shifted beneath us and trees caught
Like kindling smoke clouds ripening
A vintner’s sun’

These lines paint a vivid picture of wine country where cycles of sun and rain nurture the harvest to fruition. The ‘cabin’ was where Sylvian put the finishes touches to Dead Bees on a Cake: ‘In 1997 I moved to California with Ingrid and family, setting up camp in a small wood cabin in the Napa hills near San Francisco. There I finished up the overdubs and worked on the vocals. We mixed at my engineer Dave Kent’s studio, Synergy, located in Napa.’ (DS, 1999)

‘But part of us refused to follow
Material distractions beckoned, rallied
Snagged, we’d return to the cities on day trips and long weekends
Self-aversion, anonymity found only in
The midst of bricks and mortar, the
Hustle of strangers
We were worldly people after all’

There’s an evident tension, with neither the tranquillity of the countryside nor the sensory overload of city life fully satisfying.

‘But the haze of the rural, the agents of pollination,
Clung to us, sparked like hayseed halos in the western sunlight
No one let on they’d noticed
But we saw, we knew

     I watched my parents as they stood in a crowded Euston station
     Up fresh from the country, suitcases at their sides
     Waiting on my arrival, illuminated
     In an otherwise sea of grey
     Not of this world’

I’ve often dwelt on this word-sketch of such a low key event, where we are transported in the space of a line from the brightness of California to a dreary London railway station. It strikes me as an alternative depiction of a similar reality. The tension between the urban and the rural, the not-quite-belonging. ‘Not of this world’.

Then we are back with David and Ingrid and their move across the entire continent from the West Coast sunshine to the mountains and harsh winters of New Hampshire. A relocation that must have seemed perfect with the property providing space for both family life and creativity, but where things were to fall apart rather than flourish.

‘We were tempted back repeatedly
Until the lure of the cosmopolitan
Lay beyond reach
We moved east, into the forests and mountains
Where life’s desires tore us apart
How cruel to find oneself alone at that altitude

Finally, description is supplanted by questioning:

At what point did the fear of numbers set in
And the recognition of internal isolation place us outside of belonging?
But then wasn’t that always the case, weren’t we simply
Allowed to forget?
On Temple Mountain I threw down a rope that others might follow
No one came.

‘Temple Mountain’ refers to the small village of Temple, NH, where the family had settled. The sense of solitude in the last line is stark. ‘There were times when I felt painfully alone,’ Sylvian confided in a 2005 interview. ‘I have no community of friends in this part of the country. Every friendship I have outside of my children is long distance. So if I’m here for any length of time, the sense of isolation can be overwhelming and really overbearing. At other times, when I’ve been travelling and been away for a while and spend time with people, returning here can seem like a real retreat in the positive sense of the word.’

Sylvian’s contribution to Henriksen’s album actually extended beyond those tracks where we hear his voice. Jan Bang: ‘I am totally aware of David’s lyrical ability, and I’ve never worked with words – when I was working with Erik, writing songs, he was always the lyricist. When we did Cartography, David contributed spoken word – reading his poems on two tracks – and so it felt natural to ask him to write song titles. So we asked him and he wrote them for Cartography.’

Knowing that Sylvian named the pieces is a lovely insight. More conceptual than his visual titles for the second disc of Gone to Earth, they nevertheless encapsulate the soul of these instrumentals. There’s also a familiar phrase used for a piece that I pair with ‘Before and Afterlife’ on my playlist. ‘Recording Angel’ reminds me of the phrase ‘recording angels and the poets of the night’ from ‘I Surrender’, and an unreleased song which dates from the time in Minneapolis when David and Ingrid together created Little Girls with 99 Lives. Here’s an excerpt from that lyric:

‘I’ve seen these things
And I’m writing them down
Between the spit and the spree
I’m writing it down

Recording angels
Recording angels
‘Cause I believe in these things
I believe in these things
Recording Angels

Among the stones
And the long black grass
They whisper sleep
But I can almost hear them
They say, “promise…”
And I fall
“Promise us you’ll let them know”

It just might be that the vocals on the Cartography track, which include Henriksen’s falsetto and a sample of the acapella voices of Trio Mediaeval, brought to mind those whispering angels.

The instrumental demonstrates perfectly how Bang creates an embroidery of sound from different times and locations, manipulating the inputs so that the source is sometimes transformed beyond recognition – and yet the outcome is something authentic and living, not at all artificial. ‘I created the whole instrumental from the start,’ Bang explains, ‘and then I invited Arve to play trumpet on it. It was built from a recording by an American composer named Hovhaness. I used a fragment from one of his recordings, but I used it in different pitches to create a kind of net of different strings. I used it for the bass, a couple of octaves down – just filtering the top out of it – so you have the basic song. I think I worked with the track for a couple of days, and then we did a live session with Trio Mediaeval at four o’clock in the morning at a place called The End of the World. It’s on the east coast of Norway, and during the sound check at 3 o’clock they sang this ‘Oi me Lasso,’ an old mediaeval song that’s also on one of their albums.

‘So I recorded it on my dictaphone and just tried to find a place for it within ‘Recording Angel’, and I think that all these different elements together resulted in something that I never grow tired of; I think it will stick with me as one of my favourites from my own repertoire.’

Employing the dictaphone brings us full circle back to the influence of Brilliant Trees. ‘That’s a trick I took from Holger Czukay, who used to work with David Sylvian,’ Bang admits. ‘I remembered how David used to say that the dictaphone recordings that Holger brought to the table were more powerful than any power chord in the world, because they had a distinct sound that created other worlds. It creates a lot of tension, despite being a crappy sound and not necessarily at high levels. You don’t have to play it loud, but still, it creates all these emotional things.’

‘Before and Afterlife’ (Visionaire 53 version)

Arve Henriksen – trumpet; David Sylvian – voice

Written and recorded by David Sylvian.

From Visionaire 53: SOUND, Visionaire Publishing, 2007

‘Before and Afterlife’ (Cartography version)

Jan Bang – samples, beats, programming; Arve Henriksen – trumpet; Helge Sunde – string arrangement and programming; David Sylvian – voice, samples, programming

Words by David Sylvian. Music by David Sylvian/Arve Henriksen/Jan Bang.

Produced by Jan Bang and Erik Honoré. From Cartography by Arve Henriksen, ECM, 2008

Part One: recorded by David Sylvian at samadhisound
Trumpet recorded at Etage by Reidar Skår
Additional trumpet recorded at Punkt Studio by Erik Honoré
Part two: recorded by Jan Bang at Punkt Studio
Trumpet recorded by Erik Honoré

Words © copyright David Sylvian

‘Recording Angels’ © copyright Samadhisound

Download links: ‘Before and Afterlife’ (iTunes) ‘Recording Angel’ (iTunes)

Physical media links: Cartography (Amazon – cd) (Amazon – vinyl reissue)

The Visionaire 53: SOUND vinyl set is still available direct from the label here.

This article draws upon John Kelman’s extensive interview with Jan Bang for All About Jazz in 2010. Thank you to John for his generous permission to quote from it for this piece. Read John’s original here.

Full sources and acknowledgements for artist quotes in this article can be found here.

‘As a “samplist” I collect sounds that may become useful in other situations. It´s much like collecting sand shells without knowing how to use them – just keeping them because of their pure beauty.’ Jan Bang, 2010 

Read about other David Sylvian poetry/spoken word pieces:

The Church Bells Strike
The God of Silence
There is No Love

6 thoughts on “Before and Afterlife”

  1. It was actually Rune Kristofferson of Rune Grammofon that introduced Sylvian to Arve’s work. He sent him an album by Supersilent and told him to listen to a specific track that highlighted Arve’s evocative playing. Rune rarely gets the credit he deserves so I just wanted to correct that point.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the wonderful work you are doing.It helps me to understand and appreciate the music of my favorite musicians even more.

    Liked by 1 person

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