In January 2018, David Sylvian contacted Jon Abbey and Yuko Zama in New York to gauge their interest in releasing some music by the Berlin-based musicians Biliana Voutchkova and Michael Thieke. Jon’s Erstwhile Records is home to recordings by some of the foremost innovators and improvisers in the contemporary scene with his wife Yuko involved in production and taking a lead in design. The label’s output had been one of the resources that Sylvian had explored whilst preparing for the Manafon project, and the AMPLIFY 2004: addition festival in Germany – co-curated by Abbey and Keith Rowe – was where he met some of the musicians who would feature on that record for the very first time (see ‘Snow White in Appalachia‘).
Sylvian had designed a cover featuring his own photographs for violinist Voutchkova and clarinetist Thieke’s release the previous year, As Found, where the pair were accompanied by the electro-acoustic sound-layering of Roy Carroll. The new proposal was quite a different proposition, being a three-disc set of live concerts from Voutchkova & Thieke’s Blurred Music project, where pre-recorded material mingles with live improvisations which respond to the specific moods and environments encountered on the day of performance.
Yuko was enthusiastic about the music but Jon wasn’t so convinced that Erstwhile was the right home for this particular aesthetic. ‘I loved the recordings and hoped that we could put it out on [sub-label] ErstClass,’ Yuko recalled. ‘I did not want to give up the idea of putting it out from our label, since I thought that this is the music that has a timeless value to me. So I tried to persuade Jon into the release idea over a week-long discussion, then finally Jon got an idea and suggested I start my own label, to put it out on my label if I truly believe that this is such great music.’
The day after Sylvian’s release proposal had arrived, Zama attended a recital at Daniel Goode’s Loft in New York’s West Village given by the French pianist and composer Melaine Dalibert. After performing works by Peter Garland and Michael Vincent Waller on the grand piano in this intimate venue, Melaine played two of his own compositions, including ‘Musique pour le lever du jour’ (‘Music for daybreak’) which Yuko found particularly striking. She wrote in her blog the following day: ‘Dalibert delivered complex layers of direct tones, overtones and prolonged reverberation using sustained pedals, to create incredibly rich sonorities. Despite that there were numerous sounds blending together, there was no hint of cloudiness – the clarity was striking.’
Sylvian’s correspondence and the Dalibert recital the following day proved to be the catalyst for the creation of Yuko Zama’s own imprint, to be christened “elsewhere”. ‘When Jon and I were talking about launching my own label after I discovered Blurred Music, Melaine contacted me and said that he was looking for a label to release the piece that I loved at the concert. So it was just a lucky coincidence to discover two recordings of music that I loved so much in the same week when I was considering starting my own label. So those two projects were brought to me in that way with perfect timing.’
By June 2018, elsewhere music was announcing the release of its debut recordings, Blurred Music by Biliana Voutchkova & Michael Thieke and Musique pour le lever du jour by Melaine Dalibert. Both sported covers featuring artwork by David Sylvian and he was credited as co-producer on the first disc. It was evident from the release statement that Sylvian’s involvement had extended a lot further than providing the original release idea. Thanks were expressed to a number of key figures, including ‘David Sylvian, for his beautiful artworks on the covers and constant support/artistic input as a co-producer, whose keen eyes for design, great ears for music, honest words and deep heart for record production were enormously encouraging.’
From their brief first meeting in Köln in 2004, when Yuko had initially ‘assumed him to be a recording engineer who was there to record the festival, since he had such a humble, polite attitude for everyone,’ Sylvian was now a trusted mentor to the fledgling enterprise, happy to share his own experience as label owner and producer. His advice on the final mixes was particularly valuable: ‘he has a great ear for sound engineering too.’ Yuko was hopeful that his involvement could be retained as the label developed. ‘I cannot thank him enough for his immense support when I was struggling with my first job as a producer to make these two releases as perfect as possible. Although he may not be credited as a co-producer officially again, he is an important part of my label as an adviser on various aspects of production for future releases also.
‘As for the actual artwork, David kindly offered me some of his early digital colour drawings for the first two covers and for later releases, which I loved instantly. David has a keen eye for art, and I found a genuine beauty with a sense of cloudless innocence in his choice of colours and compositions, which were exactly what I was hoping to have for my elsewhere cover design.’
Three years on from those first releases, Melaine Dalibert now has four albums of his own compositions in the elsewhere catalogue with a deepening involvement from Sylvian as the sequence developed. Zama is clearly not alone in her appreciation for the work of the classical pianist who trained at the Paris and Rennes conservatories and is now himself a tutor at Rennes.
Recently I was able to catch up with Melaine to explore this series. Musique pour le lever du jour is unlike any piano music I had encountered previously. Single piano notes are played in sequences that subtly mutate as the piece develops. The use of sustain means that the notes come together as their resonance mingles, creating harmonies of gently decaying sound. The album consists of a single composition which lasts for just over an hour. At first, I found it a challenge to quieten my mind to engage with the music in this age of check-the-smartphone-every-two-minutes data bombardment. Increasingly I discovered that it was possible to relax into the sound and savour these slowly morphing patterns.
The title perfectly sums up the experience. Minute by minute the sun’s movement above the horizon is imperceptible, yet in the space of an hour the landscape has been transformed from the gloom into brightness. So it is that this music unfolds at its own pace with the transformation perhaps being in the mind of the listener. Whilst the image of daybreak is very specific, it’s more the awareness of that moment which the composer was seeking to animate. ‘This piece doesn’t have a descriptive starting point,’ Melaine explains, ‘it rather alludes to a moment conducive to introspection, to wonder, and more symbolically perhaps echoes the feeling of rebirth that inhabited me at the time of its writing.’
At the heart of Melaine’s craft is the practice of using algorithms in his compositional approach. I was fascinated to find out more about this and what inspired him to adopt it? ‘I started to use algorithms in my compositions around 2010,’ he explains. ‘At the time I was dissatisfied with my writing technique, I was struggling to develop my ideas in long forms. Using algorithms allowed me to bypass an absolutely subjective vision of musical writing. A rational and programmatic method, close to the precepts of the “concrete art” movement among visual artists, gave me the pleasure of music that was at the same time controlled in its overall trajectory and surprising in its details.’
For me, the word ‘algorithmic’ conjures up images of computer code and has a cold and clinical feel, yet in my experience the music does have a rich emotional pull. ‘It is true that the term algorithm is almost always associated with computers: yet algorithms have existed since the beginnings of humanity and boil down to a series of operations in order to solve a problem. For my part, I do not use a machine when I compose. I am satisfied with paper and a pencil, my systems based on fairly simple fractal formulas don’t cause complex calculations!’
Melaine uses the expression ‘space-time block’ to describe how his pieces develop and time can be manipulated within them. ‘It is a somewhat abstract expression borrowed from the vocabulary of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze: in short, each artistic discipline has its tools of expression. If you listen to Musique pour le lever du jour analytically, you will notice that it is a succession of melodic formulae of a few notes, groups of 1 to 12 notes. The longer the formula, the longer its resonance time. This gives rise to this impression of construction in “space-time blocks”.’
The parallel with visual art is a fascinating one, not least because the artworks that became his reference points were appreciated by the pianist not primarily because of an intellectual appeal, but on account of the feelings they provoked. ‘The work of Véra Molnar was a real revelation for me. I discovered it when I wondered a lot about the essential questions of the development of a work, the place of the subjective in writing. I was amazed to see how an art with systematic foundations, at the same time reduced to very minimalist principles, could be a source of deep emotions. I must cite the works that captivated me at this time: her Hommage à Monet and Lettres de ma mère in particular. Obviously, there is no recipe for transposing visual concerns into musical concerns: I would rather speak of connivance or “état d’esprit” which lead us to use certain mathematical procedures in our respective works, by chance. The artificial often implemented in research of micro-variations, permutational games.’
‘I would be the first to recognise that emotion is the goal sought in art, and the works to which I return are those which provoked an emotion in me, at the first hearing. But this emotion can have very different aspects; I think that the mechanism that leads to a specific emotion is a complex phenomenon that escapes the artist’s control: it is a matter of the present moment, of cultural heritage and of the listener’s state of mind. What concerns me in the first place is to bring out the music that occupies my mind, as sincerely as possible, as directly as possible. If it touches some listeners, I’m delighted!
For the album that followed, Cheminant, Melaine employs algorithmic writing but this time the pieces are shorter, showcasing the diverse possibilities of the method. ‘In reality, many of my algorithmic compositions can develop infinitely in duration since they are based on recurrent patterns. The performer can feel free to start or stop it at any time. On this album, two pieces echo those of the past, by their duration and their very stretched tempo: ‘Music in an Octave’ and ‘Cheminant’. Nevertheless, I decided to reduce them in their development, and to combine them with shorter and above all more rhythmically dense pieces. I feel like I am moving forward in my writing, seeking out new problems out of personal necessity. Each new piece poses a writing problem and offers its solution. I don’t find any point in repeating myself, even though we are often dealing with a variation of the problem rather than an upheaval of the writing approach.’
The opening track, ‘Music in an Octave’, is dedicated to David Sylvian. ‘It was Yuko Zama who introduced me to David’s work when we were working on the production of Musique pour le lever du jour. I knew his name of course, but I hadn’t immersed myself in his work yet. I was immediately overwhelmed by his voice, his aura, the colour of his music which is a unique balance between writing, timbre and improvisation.
‘This particular algorithmic composition consists of a series of chords of five sounds, which progressively evolve within the restricted perimeter of an octave. The harmonic colours, compact and warm, quite close to jazz voicings, are for me like a score that could accompany an infinity of possible melodies, in a register and a mood close to David’s voice which we can allow ourselves to imagine between these chords.’
Yuko felt Sylvian’s cover image was the perfect accompaniment for Cheminant. ‘The spacious layout with the clean, bright, warm colours of Sylvian’s artwork seemed to echo perfectly with the woody warmth and the cloudless innocence of Dalibert’s music.’
Suprisingly for the following year’s release on elsewhere, Infinite Ascent, Melaine set aside the approach that had helped him to find his individual voice as a composer. In the release notes he said, ‘I wouldn’t have thought it two years ago, but I started to step aside from my algorithmic systems to write very intuitive music, kind of pop-songs. It is surely a transient phase, but it seems to me to be necessary so as not to lock myself into certain procedures.’ This was undoubtedly my most oft-played album of 2020, including the gorgeously crafted track ‘Horizon’ which embraces melodic beauty and a yearning restraint in tempo from which passages of bass notes bubble up. ‘Algorithmic composition is for me a way of expressing formal concerns that I pose in music,’ Melaine told me. ‘When I started writing the album Infinite Ascent, I felt the need, not to say the necessity, to give freedom to music from a more intuitive source, to give shape to melodies, refrains that occupy my mind relentlessly. I also find it very sad to be locked into one way of producing music.’
David Sylvian heard the resulting pieces whilst the project was in production, with profound effect. ‘On listening to the album for the first time I felt what I’d describe, for want of better terminology, a “cosmic expansiveness”. Vibrational waves traversing the universe, a lone satellite, released from earth’s gravitational pull, spinning infinitely into the bright darkness. I ascribed to it a somewhat solitary migration. Not despite, but because of this, I found it a profoundly moving listening experience.’ (2020)
He provided the title for the album, borne from this first-listening experience. ‘This all happened through Yuko, once again. She was the one who introduced David to the album, and she who gave me his impressions, which obviously touched me. He suggested a series of titles inspired by the music, often in the descriptive field of the cosmic universe.’
Emboldened by the connection Sylvian had felt with his work, Dalibert approached him to contribute sonically to his next production. He was keen to experiment further with the sounds that exist between the notes in his compositions, passages that are as integral to his music as the notes themselves. ‘The phenomenon of resonance is very important in my work. First for the sound, which is then stripped of the attack and becomes an “aura”. I think of the image of the runner, who as time goes by is almost always weightless. Resonance is sound that flies. This very special moment activates in the attentive listener another way of perceiving music, no longer as a narration but a pure vibratory phenomenon.
‘The six tracks that make up the album Night Blossoms are again all algorithmic in nature. The two pieces ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’ are complementary in the sense that they come out of the same matrix (which in a certain way refers to the work Ode to the West Wind by Véra Molnar) of which only certain notes are expressed: the black keys of the piano for ‘Yin’, and the white keys for ‘Yang’.
‘I longed to hear an electronic counterpoint to the resonances of these twin pieces to give them a different colour from my previous compositions. David’s work, whose first propositions immediately convinced me, gives a lot of relief to these pieces which would otherwise remain somewhat frozen in their pentatonic mode.’
Sylvian’s treatments create distorted reflections of the melodic lines, blooming within a subtle electronic wash across the pieces. His ‘sound work’ has a relationship to the notes akin to the pure resonance employed in earlier pieces, but here it’s as if a chemical reaction in sound takes place between each phrase. ‘An electronic veil of great beauty’ was how the composer expressed the impact. Between the ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’ is the longer piece, ‘Sisters’. ‘I just wanted to give a little distance between these two very contemplative pieces,’ says Melaine, ‘to have them follow one another would have weakened them, I guess.’ For ‘Yang’, the electronics become percussive in certain moments of response.
Again, it was Sylvian who gave the album its title. Melaine: ‘The process that generates these compositions can give the impression, when listening to them, that the music unfolds organically, like the leaves or petals of a plant. So I find this title particularly well articulated, in accord with the mysterious and stifled nature of the night evoked by the muted timbre of the instrument.’
I’m not sure that I would have encountered Melaine Dalibert’s music were it not for David Sylvian’s connection with the elsewhere label. One of the great joys of following David’s journey over the years is that it has led me to discover some wonderful artists and travel paths that would otherwise have been left untrod. The series of four releases (to date) are worthy of exploration not only for David’s sleeve art and his musical involvement on Night Blossoms, but because Dalibert’s minimalist expressions have the ability to truly captivate the attention and calm the mind.
Meanwhile, Melaine has been exploring the Sylvian back-catalogue. ‘What strikes me when I listen to David’s music is his particular colour which is the inimitable mark of singular artists. I admire his ability to make writing coexist with very free, improvised lines. His music works like a complex ecosystem, elements can sometimes seem disparate, but are interdependent and in perfect harmony. And what to say about his voice! I discovered his music with the album Blemish then Manafon, and very quickly went in search of all the others. I’m French and I have a gastronomic approach to music: I couldn’t eat the same dish every day, and it’s the diversity that makes me happy: it’s impossible to say which of his albums I prefer; each is necessary in its own way and will meet a need according to my mood.’
‘Yin’ – ‘Yang’
Melaine Dalibert – piano; David Sylvian – sound contribution
Compositions by Melaine Dalibert
From Night Blossoms by Melaine Dalibert, elsewhere, 2021
Physical media: The elsewhere releases mentioned in this article are as follows, all with covers featuring artwork by David Sylvian:
Blurred Music – Biliana Voutchkova & Michael Thieke (bandcamp) (elsewhere)
Musique pour le lever du jour – Melaine Dalibert (bandcamp) (elsewhere)
Cheminant – Melaine Dalibert (bandcamp) (elsewhere)
Infinite Ascent – Melaine Dalibert (bandcamp) (elsewhere)
Night Blossoms – Melaine Dalibert (bandcamp) (elsewhere)
The featured image is Sylvian’s cover for Night Blossoms
Many thanks to Melaine Dalibert for his contributions to this article. All quotes from Yuko Zama are from 2018/19. Full sources and acknowledgements can be found here.
‘I love music which contains a true beauty which may stand the test of time, created for the sake of the music, not for the sake of experimental novelty…We are living in such a messed-up world, but I try to focus on the fragments of beauty that are still left somewhere in the world or people’s minds, rather than focusing on the ugly parts easily seen everywhere.’ Yuko Zama, 2018