Snow White in Appalachia

Mining for gold

In 2004, David Sylvian entered Christoph Amann’s studios in Vienna for the initial sessions that would surface on Manafon some five years later. In reality, though, this wasn’t the beginning. The concept was to expand the approach of responding to freely improvised music through his own automatic writing, pioneered with such impact on Blemish. This time around the musical improvisations would not be Sylvian’s own, nor the output of a solo performer as was the case with Derek Bailey, but rather the result of the chemistry between small constellations of artists proficient in the field.

In searching for the right material to be his catalyst, Sylvian gave careful consideration as to who the right musical partners might be. ‘So much of the work is done prior to ever setting foot inside a studio,’ he explained, ‘via research, understanding the background, the aesthetics and flexibility of each musician involved, and selecting who should be in which ensemble with whom. These aren’t random decisions made out of convenience. They’re educated assessments.’

Curating these line-ups was, Sylvian said, ‘the only “control” I could possibly exert prior to starting the process in motion.’ His quest to find the artists with the sensibilities he was looking for involved exploring a wide range of recordings. It was recent collaborator, Christian Fennesz, who helped to identify one particular path and encouraged him to pursue it. Sylvian: ‘The sessions took place in Vienna for a reason. The reason being there were these wonderful musicians residing there. I’d heard Wrapped Islands by Christian and Polwechsel and was really impressed by the restraint displayed in their performances and wanted to tap into that, in some fashion, for my own needs. Christian encouraged me to come to Vienna and go for what it was I had in mind.’

It was also Fennesz who effected introductions to some of Sylvian’s preferred collaborators in Köln earlier the same year. The event was AMPLIFY 2004: addition held across two German cities in May and staged by Jon Abbey whose imprint, Erstwhile Records, had released Wrapped Islands. ‘It had no direct impact in terms of the individuals I was interested in working with,’ Sylvian later clarified, ‘as these were decisions I’d come to, with the exception of the [later] London session, some time in advance of attending the festival. Christian invited me to attend the festival knowing full well my intentions, believing that this physical introduction to some of the key players I was interested in working with would facilitate later negotiations when it came time to put the sessions together, and in that respect attending the festival was very helpful (although I hope it goes without saying that it was an inspiring event to attend)…I was only in attendance on the first night of what I believe was a three day event but I met Keith [Rowe], Otomo [Yoshihide], Toshi [Nakamura], and Sachiko M at that time.’

In linking the individuals up, the project accelerated from theoretical concept to real possibility. When I asked Christian Fennesz about that night in Köln he was typically modest about his involvement. ‘I was just introducing him to all these musicians,’ he remembers. ‘It was a nice evening. Improv musicians can be a little shy, especially when a pop legend comes into the room, but it worked well. They all loved his appreciation for improvised music because it was real and honest. Keith Rowe and David got along very well together.’

AMPLIFY 2004: addition in Köln, where Christian Fennesz (above right) introduced David Sylvian to Keith Rowe (above left) who would join the Vienna sessions for Manafon, as well as Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M and Toshimaru Nakamura (successively below) who would later take part in the Tokyo sessions for the album. All photographs from the event by Yuko Zama.

Sylvian’s memory was that ‘Toshi confessed to being present at the Budokan many years back when I performed with Japan. Otomo had heard Blemish and was openly complimentary about the work I’d done with Derek. For my part I was familiar with large portions of their output going back to Toshi’s work with Tetuzi [Akiyama] Meeting at Off Site, Otomo’s large and varied output with all kinds of ensembles and collaborations, a personal favourite being the Filament series of recordings, and numerous other works, in particular those recorded for/with Günter Müller’s label For 4 Ears and Zorn’s Tzadik, so there was an immediate rapport.’

Sylvian says of Fennesz that ‘in some way you could say he acted as go-between or facilitator.’ It’s likely a reference not only to his role in making introductions that helped to bring the cast together, but also his consistent musical presence in the ensembles for both the Vienna and London sessions for Manafon.

Back to Amann studios and those initial steps into the unknown… ‘That first session ran for seven and a half days. There was a lot of exploratory work done during that time. Many beautiful improvisations were captured but, as I was looking for something specific, something I wasn’t able to verbally communicate to the musicians involved, I had to gently nudge or cajole, make hints and suggestions, bring individuals into and out of the studio so as to change the internal chemistry of the ensemble, until I finally heard what it was I was looking for. This happened on the seventh day of the sessions, the last full day of work. The ensemble at that point in time was a quartet consisting of Werner Dafeldecker on double bass, Michael Moser on cello, Christian Fennesz on guitar and laptop and Keith Rowe on guitar. I’ve described this and the resulting work as a form of modern chamber music.’

Michael Moser, David Sylvian, Werner Dafeldecker and Keith Rowe at Amann studios, Vienna, 2004. Photographer unknown.

The experience that Christian had of working with Messrs Dafeldecker, Mosel, and Stangl must have helped the process during a period of days that didn’t quite produce the elusive outcome that Sylvian was seeking. ‘I have known all the Polwechsel people for a long time,’ Christian told me. ‘Back in the late 90´s, I was more techno/electronic and they were new music/improv. But the Vienna scene was small, you would just meet them in a pub and have a nice chat. After I had made Endless Summer they asked me for this rather adventurous collaboration [Wrapped Islands] and I agreed to do it. Without regrets. It was a pleasure.’

One of the musicians involved in the sessions whose work didn’t ultimately appear on Manafon was French guitarist Noël Akchoté. ‘It seems that through a mutual Japanese friend, David had heard on its release a solo album (Alike Joseph, Rectangle, Rec-AN),’ Akchoté recalled, ‘where I play without ever touching the strings of the instrument (a 1962 Duo-Sonic Fender guitar and a Princeton, Fender amp).’ This led to some discussions about possible collaboration at the time that Blemish was created, but things didn’t progress immediately, ‘I don’t remember why but it was not done.’

The sounds on Alike Joseph have some affinity with Sylvian’s own electronic and guitar abstractions on Blemish, perhaps even a reference point for that approach. For the next project, they did link up. ‘We spent a few days in the studio in Vienna together,’ says the guitarist, ‘where he directed me solo first, then in various combinations with Keith Rowe and Christian Fennesz.’ Christian remembers these days of hunting for the right sounds. ‘I think David was about to find a way, an entire concept, and of course not all of the recordings were used for the album. Maybe they will be used in the future? Who knows. I remember the sessions with Noël very well. I thought they were brilliant.’

Sylvian is evidently an admirer of Akchoté’s work, floating the idea of a release on his own label. ‘He wanted to mix the master tapes of Alike Joseph to republish it on Samadhisound,’ the guitarist said. It never came to be. As far as the sessions recorded together in Vienna were concerned, Sylvian decided that ‘they didn’t suit the overall tone of Manafon – like many others for that matter. But I love Noël – the musician and the man – and would love to work with him again.’

Noël Akchoté captured on the control room monitor in Vienna, 2004, photograph by David Sylvian (from Jazz magazine, 2009)

Brian Olewnick’s recent biography of Keith Rowe mistakenly states that Rowe’s ‘contributions were recorded earlier; then sampled and assembled by Sylvian with those from other improvising musicians.’ Having met Sylvian at AMPLIFY, Rowe’s introduction into the group of improvisers was key to the dynamic that was created between them and to the ultimate outcome. Christian is clear that Rowe’s presence delivered something way beyond a solo performance then edited into the mix: ‘He had a great impact. Keith was essential. Apart from the fact that he is a legend and an amazing musician, he has the ability to calm everybody down. It’s almost esoteric, without being esoteric. Keith is one of the greatest persons I have ever met in my life.’

By the time he left Vienna, Sylvian knew this could work. The experience was to discover something ‘utterly new to you, but it’s also confirmation of what you had intuited,’ as he expressed it to Rowe when the album was complete. ‘In those early sessions in Vienna in 2004, working toward Manafon, we struck that particular kind of gold. I felt a sense of recognition and radical possibility. My musical journey led me to that location accompanied by a team of experts in the field, you among them. An emotional excavation and a musical exploration in conjunction produced Manafon, this odd genre-defying hybrid, a fairly unlikely meeting of two or more of music’s diverse tributaries. The reference point for me was the work I’d recently done with Derek Bailey for Blemish. The working method I’d stumbled upon while recording that album had proved itself more than up to the job of integrating original improv performances with lyrics and vocals. Expanding upon that one-on-one relationship with Derek to embrace larger improvising ensembles filled me with trepidation, but everyone involved couldn’t have been more gracious.’

Looking back on the sessions and how they were approached, Fennesz says ‘David´s role was more that of an artistic director or producer, I would say. Maybe these were “guided improvisations”? I remember it was some hard days of work. I basically played all the time at all the sessions.’ I wondered whether tensions were unconsciously rising as the days at Amann studios ticked by, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case. ‘In my memory it wasn´t really stressful,’ he says. And having used Vienna for the explorations, later sessions were confined to single days with each ensemble. ‘Maybe at the time of the London sessions David already had a clearer picture of how he wanted the record to sound.

‘I enjoyed playing with the full ensemble. I love to play with other musicians, in a way like a jazz player does that. My solo albums are a different thing though – this is composed music, even if based on improv studio experiments. In a way similar to David´s latest productions.’

Christoph Amann in the control room for the Manafon sessions, Vienna 2004, photograph by David Sylvian.

The music for ‘Snow White in Appalachia’ comes from that quartet settled upon during the seventh day in Vienna – Dafeldecker and Moser of Polwechsel, with Fennesz and Keith Rowe. Sylvian’s opening lines give an immediate impression that ‘Snow White’ might be the female protagonist of the third-party lyric, a vague nod to the fairy-tale character but all together more menacing:

‘Half life
She moves in a half life

As we digest those words and their implication, the understated melody of an electronic drone from Fennesz enters the sound stage, providing a unifying presence throughout the remainder of the song as it weaves around in the space left by the other instruments.

Inspired by his collaboration with Masakatsu Takagi in the lead up to Manafon, Sylvian had settled on a means of expression that allowed him to speak indirectly about difficult subject matter (see ‘Exit/Delete‘). Quickly we are questioning whether the ‘Snow White’ of the song-title might in fact describe the bleak cold of the snow-trapped winters in America’s mountainous east? Or is there a reference to the slang term for cocaine, especially given the mention of drugs elsewhere in the song? Maybe there is room for all these thoughts to be true.

‘And there’s snow on the mattress
Blown in from the doorway
It would take pack mules and provisions
To get out alive’

The listener is undoubtedly led to a certain time and events, the geographical allusion drawing us close to New Hampshire, where the Appalachian mountain trail passes to the north of Sylvian’s then home. A place where relationships had shattered irreparably.

There were concerts and car crashes
There were kids she’d attended
And discreet indiscretions
For which she’d once made amends

It feels like we are witnessing the specific detail of a gut-wrenching moment of crisis, a parting of the ways forever etched into the consciousness of those involved.

‘And there’s ice on the windshield
And the wipers are wasted’

‘As soon as the sun rose
The keys were in the ignition
Following the tyre tracks
Of the truck sanding the road’

Interspersed in this section are clutches of piano notes that were overlaid later and I had always assumed to be performed by John Tilbury, but it is Sylvian himself who is credited with keyboards on this track.

The human isolation induced by being ‘abandoned’ somewhere so remote is heightened by an insistence that God does not exist. There is no divine love to be brought to bear. Yet, paradoxically, the absence of the divine brings ‘comfort’:

And there is no maker
Just inexhaustible indifference
And there’s comfort in that
So you feel unafraid

‘I’m not afraid of complete annihilation,’ Sylvian said when questioned about these lines. ‘I don’t have a problem with this life being all there is, that things come to a full stop at the end of a lifetime. In fact, I find it quite comforting to think along those lines. I find it a beautiful thought that life can go on, but there’s no knowledge of what that life will consist of. Does the suffering of this life also go on into the next, as well as the joys?’

In the closing stanza of the piece, every aspect of song comes together perfectly. Amidst the radio silence of dead communication lines, both human and divine, the music animates the ‘static’ of the lyric. And as everything gently dissipates, Sylvian’s doleful baritone delivers the parting words with an almost incongruous beauty.

And the radio falls silent
But for short bursts of static
And she sleeps in a house
That once too had a name

Melodically it was a song that Sylvian declared his fondness for amongst the Manafon track-list.

‘I was sure Manafon would confuse his fans at first,’ Christian Fennesz told me. ‘Blemish already confused them. David took the risk to step into another dimension. At this time, this was more than brave. Of course, they all wanted another Secrets… or Brilliant Trees, but if a composer/musician wants to grow, she/he has to take the difficult road and explore new territories. I have the same problem, everybody wants to hear another Endless Summer from me. How can I ever do that? And I did it already!’

Wrapped Islands inner sleeve. The album was also recorded in Vienna at Amann studios. Burkhard Stangl appears elsewhere on Manafon, whilst John Butcher played later on Died in the Wool.

‘Framing 4’ from Wrapped Islands by Fennesz & Polwechsel is another track in which Christian’s craftmanship provides a unifying presence, working in concert with the input of others. In an interesting parallel, this album marked a change in Polwechsel’s musical approach. Erstwhile’s Jon Abbey explained, ‘I wasn’t at the recording sessions for Wrapped Islands, but what I asked for was an improvised record (all of the other Polwechsel records are composed), and for roughly equal input from all five musicians (the other Polwechsel records are Dafeldecker/Moser led, and everyone else is basically a sideman), and that’s what it is, I believe’ (2009). It’s easy to see why Sylvian considered the album ‘another significant piece of the puzzle’ as he worked toward what would become Manafon.

‘Snow White in Appalachia’

Werner Dafeldecker – acoustic bass; Christian Fennesz – laptop, guitar; Michael Moser – cello; Keith Rowe – guitar; David Sylvian – vocals, keyboards

Music by Werner Dafeldecker, Christian Fennesz, Michael Moser, Keith Rowe, David Sylvian. Lyrics by David Sylvian.

Produced, engineered, edited and mixed by David Sylvian at samadhisound, 2008. From Manafon by David Sylvian, samadhisound, 2009.

Original sessions recorded between 2004-2007.

Lyrics © samadhisound publishing

Download links: ‘Snow White in Appalachia’ (iTunes); ‘Framing 4’ (bandcamp)

Physical media: Manafon (Amazon)

My sincere thanks to Christian Fennesz for his input to this article, please check out his bandcamp page. All quotes by David Sylvian are from interviews in 2009 & 2010. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.

The featured image is Christian Fennesz taken during the Vienna sessions for Manafon. This image and that of Christoph Amann were taken by David Sylvian, as featured on My thanks to Yuko Zama for permission to include her photographs of AMPLIFY 2004: addition.

The first five releases of Erstwhile Records’ ErstLive series were all recorded at the AMPLIFY 2004: addition events in Köln and Berlin, with live sets including Manafon collaborators such as ErstLive 004 Christian Fennesz/Sachiko M/Otomo Yoshihide/Peter Rehberg (more details here), and ErstLive 005 Keith Rowe/Sachiko M/Toshimaru Nakamura/Otomo Yoshihide (details here). The latter is a triple cd set from the musicians’ four-hour set.

On the day this article was due for publication, I awoke to the tragic news of the untimely death of Peter Rehberg. As one of the principals of the Mego label, Peter was instrumental in the creation of Christian Fennesz’s classic album Endless Summer, and as noted above he appeared with Christian, Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide at the festival in Köln in 2004. This article is humbly dedicated to his memory. RIP.

‘Christian is a very generous person, a very generous musician. He opened the door to that world for me and encouraged me to come in and give it a try. Polwechsel he had worked with before, and with Keith Rowe he had a very good relationship. So it was great to have him there as a friend, someone who could encourage me to take the step.’ David Sylvian, 2009

More about Manafon:

Small Metal Gods

2 thoughts on “Snow White in Appalachia”

  1. This track blew me away when i first heard it, it does the same to this very day. My own thoughts are the engineering of the piece, the space, timing, drone appropriate and wonderful filament in parts are the reasons why i gravitate to it, much like ‘Backwaters’, ‘Gone to earth’ , ‘Plight’, ‘Godman’ etc… I wish i could be able to articulate more but alas my intelligence aint as much as the as the above piece written so reverentially and respectfully evaluated.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: