UK music magazine The Wire runs a regular feature whereby a series of tracks is played to a guest who is challenged to identify both artist and music, with the ensuing conversation a launch-pad for discussion of artistic trends, innovation and influences. In June 2003, it was the turn of David Sylvian to encounter the ‘Invisible Jukebox’. Included in the music presented to Sylvian was a track with which he was familiar. ‘Is it Christian [Fennesz]?’ he asked. ‘It’s the title track from Endless Summer,’ came the confirmation of his inquisitor.
‘I love that. It’s so beautiful,’ declared Sylvian. ‘That’s the track that turned me onto his work. He sent me that originally to see if I was interested in doing something together. He said he was writing a new album and asked if I would contribute vocals to it. I said, “Sure, if you’re willing to contribute something to mine.”
‘What I liked about his work is that there’s a melodicism to it. It wasn’t all sample manipulation. lt really had a heart to it somewhere. I was talking to Ryuichi about two years ago and he said, “Do you still listen to music?” I said, “Well, I still tend to buy a lot of music and I listen to a fair amount of it. But I’m not touched by it. I’m not moved by it.” He said, “Yeah, that’s right. It’s just a process of education. It’s a means of finding out what is now possible with this or that technology. You’re no longer listening to music. You’re doing research.” And what I liked about Christian’s work is that there it all was: modern technology, but in the service of the heart. I always come back to the heart.
‘There is a spirit to the work that allows it to rise above others in this genre that are equally fascinating: I think of Oval and Pan Sonic. But I’m often left a little bit cold. Even in Fennesz’s noisiest work, it often seems as though there is a beautiful melody trying to surface.’
Around the same time Fennesz himself described to David Toop the instinctive response he strives to elicit through his creations. ‘For me it is important to have some kind of “history” within my music, something that makes people, and myself too, remember things that they normally wouldn’t expect from this kind of music…To say it in a simple way: I like to hide things and like to distort simplicity. What I’m trying to perceive is this feeling I get when I discover something in a film that reminds me of a feeling and an atmosphere I once had, some kind of déjà vu. Photos and paintings can do this as well – some hidden atmosphere that turns out to be very simple once you discover it.’ (2004)
When I spoke to Christian Fennesz recently, he told me how he approached David Sylvian in the hope of working together. ‘I have been a long time fan since the release of Brilliant Trees which I bought right after it was released. I actually discovered Japan only later. I asked my label to get in touch with David’s management to ask him to participate on my album Venice. David then got back to me and said he’d be happy to do that, if I do something for the album he is working on. That was Blemish.’
Christian’s request couldn’t have been better timed. ‘Carrying the notion for the album around with me for almost a year, there were certain connections I was making with other bodies of work,’ said Sylvian of Blemish. ‘I was listening to a lot of the digital cut-up electronic music and feeling that was certainly a taste, a sonic territory that I would like to tap into for my album, but I hadn’t made a commitment to a particular artist. Christian sent me some of his work – I was unfamiliar with it up until that point…As soon as I heard it, I knew that that was the connection I was looking for…So, I was immediately drawn to his work and welcomed the chance to work with him.’
‘It’s perhaps becoming something of a cliché to say this in relation to Christian’s work, but part of its drawing power, its strength and accessibility, comes from the human warmth or presence that permeates and gives substance to the extensively processed audio. I don’t feel that this is due only to his instrument of choice – the guitar. In the way that human form remains present in, say, a De Kooning, facilitating access to abstraction – in Hinduism, God, in whichever form it is revered, ultimately gives way to the formless – empathy and emotional pull, so Christian’s work appears to have its roots in the human condition. It doesn’t shy away from the emotional and emotive. That is to say, it is not a uniquely cerebral experience, as might arguably be the case among some of his contemporaries. It’s possibly in this respect that we share a common aesthetic, as his work mirrors some of my own concerns, going back as far as the arrangement for the track ‘Ghosts’…
‘I feel as though I’ve been rehearsing for just such a collaboration these past twenty odd years. We appear on some levels at least to be speaking the same language.’
I remember ‘A Fire in the Forest’ being the first track I heard from Blemish, it having been premiered on a national radio station from which a recording was hastily snatched. I was then away from home with family and occasionally had opportunity to take myself off alone and listen to the song on headphones. The swathes of static-laden sound instantly struck a chord with me as did the imagery of the lyric. In retrospect, it made the shock of hearing the complete album all the more abrupt (see ‘Blemish-Camphor’).
Sylvian was aware from the outset that the song he shared with Christian Fennesz stood apart. ‘Funny enough, the track that I sent him, ‘A Fire in The Forest’, sat so far out of context with the rest of the album; it was overly melodic and overly sentimental. It was a lullaby for neurotics, and it needed to be made a little bit stranger, more disturbing, to balance out the sweetness of the melody and the simplicity of the lyric. So I sent it to Christian precisely because I wanted him to screw with it [laughter].’
‘It was a very simple piece and I felt it was very whimsical, very emotional, very sad piece of music, but I wanted so much more to be suggested in the arrangement of the music. I thought this would be an ideal start to a collaboration with Christian. So I sent him the track and said, “Do with the track what you will. Try and find the emotional heart of it. You can deconstruct it all you like.”‘
The collaboration was undertaken completely through remote file sharing, with the setting in which Christian’s contribution was devised particularly memorable: ‘I wrote the arrangement on a night train, The Orient Express, on the way from Paris to Vienna,’ he told me.
‘He was struggling with it for a while,’ Sylvian remembered. ‘I think he fell in love with the song and had trouble deconstructing it. He finally sent it back and said, “Well, it’s still a lullaby for neurotics, but I hope you like what I’ve done.” And I did.’
Any difficulties encountered by Fennesz can’t have been too significant since Sylvian has stated elsewhere that the song was developed in the same ‘enormously fast’ mode as the rest of the album. ‘Within a week of his receiving it he was finished and he’d sent it back.’ (2005)
‘He basically kept the structure of the piece intact but his electronic arrangement is a really beautiful piece of music and really set the stage for the emotional complexity of the lyric and the vocal performance.’
The Blemish track was finished well ahead of the piece for Venice that had originally prompted Fennesz to connect with the singer. That song, ‘Transit’ (about which more another time) was recorded in 2003 and released in April the following year. Only after both tracks were complete did the artists first meet, following the Paris show of Sylvian’s tour that bore the name of their first recorded work together.
After the exhortation to ‘Cry all your tears/The sorrows that threaten to overwhelm you’ in the preceding track, ‘A Fire in the Forest’ lifts off from the determination to start over hinted at in the final words of ‘How Little We Need to Be Happy’ – ‘let’s rise up again’.
I guess we all know that feeling of taking off under drab skies from an airport somewhere, only to emerge above the clouds shortly afterwards into a world of eye-flinching brightness which casts the top of the clouds in a completely different light to their bleakness below.
‘There is always sunshine
Above the grey sky
I will try to find it
Yes, I will try’
It’s an image grounded in the certainty that this more favourable environment exists, its warmth only shrouded by temporal weather systems that will pass. There’s an evident determination to seek out that higher plane rather than be defeated by the vicissitudes of life, even if it may seem out of reach in the difficulties of the moment. ‘It’s more like a longing, a yearning, a hope, rather than a clear indication that everything’s resolved satisfactorily.’ (DS, 2005)
From that vast panorama viewed when travelling above the purest white clouds whilst bathed in golden sunshine, we are switched to an inner terrain where thoughts are self-generated beyond the control of conscious direction.
‘My mind has been wandering
I hardly noticed
It’s running on its own steam
I let it go’
The mind races through memories that represent the very foundations of identity, bringing into the open things that are usually concealed way below the surface.
‘Oh here comes my childhood
A penny for your secrets
It’s standing in the window
Not out here where it belongs’
Sylvian’s following image is again from nature, the vast destructiveness of a forest fire representative of a force that is all-powerful and all-consuming. That which has been nurtured and has prevailed for decades is being brought low. What appeared to be strong is open to destruction. A fundamental change in the order of things. It’s all the more potent given Sylvian’s home at the time was situated within a mountainous forest in New Hampshire, USA: his own environment was in peril.
‘There’s a fire in the forest
It’s taking down some trees
When things are overwhelming
I let them be’
Little can be done when faced with a threat of such enormity. But there remains a desire for company and that communion with another which can have a soothing power even in the midst of such trauma.
‘I would like to see you
It’s lovely to see you
Come and take me somewhere
Come take me out’
As the final lines are sung and Sylvian can say ‘I know that I will find it’, Christian’s arrangement responds with a sweet chime of affirmation.
‘There is always sunshine
Far above the grey sky
I know that I will find it
Yes, I will try’
It’s a song that captures both the helpless feeling of a personal crisis which suddenly reorders existence, and the hope that is based on the sure knowledge of brighter horizons. It’s been a solace to me when the foundations of my own life have been rocked and is a lyric I’ve shared with others going through the toughest of times. It’s the perfect way to close Sylvian’s album forged from relationship breakdown and the hurt and confusion that entailed.
Christian Fennesz: ‘‘A Fire in the Forest’ was at least for me a happy ending of an otherwise quite harsh album. Please don’t get me wrong, I love the harsh sounds of Blemish. Especially Derek Bailey`s guitar work and David´s almost naked vocals. It was an amazing step into the unknown.’
‘Grey Scale’ from Fennesz’s album Black Sea (released in 2008 on Touch) provides a fitting prelude to ‘A Fire in the Forest’ on my playlist. Christian’s guitar-work glides through highly manipulated sounds which struggle into bloom through the layering of processes to which they’ve been subjected. After the collaboration from Blemish follows ‘Endless Summer’. An almost recognisable melody from the past floats on the mottled surface of the sound as Christian captures sun-lit memories of days gone by, recreated in the present through the haze of the intervening years.
‘A Fire in the Forest’
Christian Fennesz – electronics and arrangement; David Sylvian – all other instruments, vocal
Music and lyrics by David Sylvian
Produced by David Sylvian. From Blemish by David Sylvian, samadhisound, 2003.
Recorded at samadhisound studio Feb/March 2003
Lyrics © samadhisound publishing
All quotes from David Sylvian are from interviews in 2003/4 unless otherwise indicated. Full sources and acknowledgments for this article can be found here.
The featured image is the cover of Trophies 3, the third volume of David Sylvian’s lyrics which also served as the tour brochure for the A Fire in the Forest tour, 2003-4. Artwork by Atsushi Fukui.
‘When working on Blemish I wanted to work with someone exploring the latest in virtual filtering systems but I’d failed to find a musician that echoed my own aesthetic. Whilst recording the album Christian Fennesz got in touch with me regarding some work he wanted my involvement in and so, in a roundabout way, I found who I was looking for. Christian worked on a pivotal track on Blemish, ‘A Fire in The Forest’.’ David Sylvian, 2010