‘If we’re interested in improvisation, then that suggests that we’re not quite sure what music is. We’ve got some idea but we’d like to find out. So every time we play, “what music is” is open to a certain freedom of discovery, open to question. The possibility of being surprised by oneself or by the situation – that is what we hope for.’ These are the thoughts of Evan Parker, eminent free improvising saxophone player since the 1960s, decades during which he practically reinvented the playing technique of his instrument and in so doing created a new language of sound.
‘For me, the great thing about music is that it’s an art that unfolds in time,’ he continues. ‘The notion of form and something that unfolds in time – those two notions don’t fit together…It’s much more to do with biology, say, than architecture. That’s the thing with music. It should be refreshing itself all the time, not repeating. The idea that it repeats and that you play the same piece note for note and that, somehow, you have a formula for a perfect composition – this doesn’t interest me at all. I’m interested in a new version of that piece. Doing it and seeing where the new stuff is and where it’s going.’
Three years after the first sessions in Vienna for the album that would become Manafon (see ‘Snow White in Appalachia‘), and having in the meantime recorded with so-called onkyo musicians in Japan, David Sylvian held one final studio recording session in London. Evan Parker was key amongst the participants, having provided something of the spark that had ignited the singer’s passion for the guiding principle of his next project: to be ‘an album for which I wasn’t going to compose the music myself directly; I was going to instruct other musicians as to which direction to move in.’
Sylvian had encountered many of the artists who would contribute at an event staged by Jon Abbey’s Erstwhile label in Germany in 2004. But there were others on his list of suitable participants who weren’t present. Parker was among them and Sylvian’s approach was straightforward. ‘In the case of Evan, it’s very simple: I’m quite close to someone who works for ECM in the United States, and I asked him for his email address,’ he said. ‘What’s happened since the collapse of the major label is that you have a global collection of musicians that interact with one another without contractual obligations to either management or labels – or very limited ones. So I don’t have to go through Evan Parker’s manager to talk to Evan, and that’s very liberating.’
By now Sylvian knew more clearly the nature of the music that would be compatible with his project, formulated through his own musings as the concept was coming together in his mind and then through trial and error in the eight days of the Vienna sessions. ‘It sounded to me like a modern chamber music of sorts. Something very intimate and revealing, if you like. Every sound under the microscope. I knew that’s what I was looking for but I didn’t know how to pull it from the musicians. And I didn’t know specifically what I was looking for: I knew what the work had to have in terms of basic elements for me to be able to respond to it. I mean, initially it needed to have room for my voice to manoeuvre and it had to have enough cues or changes within the improvisation that allowed me to see that there was the ability for me to move melodically through the piece.’
‘As far as the musicians that constituted the London sessions; it was incorrectly reported in The Wire feature that I’d worked with the line-up of Evan Parker’s electro-acoustic ensemble which would’ve been as pointless to my needs as it was financially restrictive should it have been strategically possible. As it happened, I contacted Evan and sent him the work I’d done to date on the Vienna sessions so he knew what it was I was aiming for in the most general of senses. We talked about his work with the electro-acoustic ensemble, which was certainly a reference point, but also his work with the Evan Parker Octet as Crossing the River remains a personal favourite of mine and the scale of that recording had more in common with what I was aiming to achieve with Evan. The members of the electro-acoustic ensemble that were present at the session, aside from Evan himself, were Philipp Wachsmann (who doesn’t appear on the final recordings) and Joel Ryan. The remainder of the ensemble consisted of John Tilbury, Christian Fennesz, and Marcio Mattos.’
Crossing the River was recorded in May 2005 and released on Parker’s own psi records imprint. The ensemble is an octet, but only three of the eight pieces feature all of the players, the others being smaller configurations from within the overall group, from duo to quintet. It was most likely here that Sylvian heard something that afforded potential for a vocal.
Individual line-ups are not listed on the release, but to these ears ‘Trio 1’ bears Parker’s distinctive saxophone alongside John Russell’s guitar and the bass of John Edwards. ‘Trio 3’ has more space, this time the woodwind dancing with the guitar and bowed strings. ‘The music here was freely improvised,’ states the sleeve note. ‘The approach is characterised by close listening and point to point interaction. Ideally the demands of the group on the individual and the expectations of the individual of the group are in a reciprocal relationship… and I suppose that is also a socio-political idea.’
Back to Parker’s interview, conducted in 2004 with Bertrand Denzler and Jean-Luc Guionnet as part of extensive research for their book The Practice of Musical Improvisation. ‘The first sound, of course, is important. And in a group situation, who makes that first sound is very important. What can that first sound be? It can be anything of course. We’re interested in the chance, the arbitrary, almost, because we feel confident that we can make sense of anything. And that’s what we try to do. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s a bit sticky – or you put your foot down and there’s no solid ground there. You thought: “At least we can make this step and we’ll know where we are,” but – no! The foot goes into a hole, puddle, mud – that wasn’t a good idea. Those first decisions are almost a religious moment because they set such a train of events in motion – even if it goes wrong a little bit at the beginning it can still come right later. But it’s much better if you get the understanding from the beginning. You could say it’s like a serve in tennis or something: a nice return and we have a rally. That’s obviously a great way to start. But if I serve an ace, and then another ace, it’s not great tennis to watch – even if it’s great for the guy serving aces. But I don’t plan my first sound hours in advance…
‘Your mental process, especially in a group situation, sometimes runs in sync with the other players and sometimes it runs out of sync. So you have the idea that this and this will fit really well, but if somebody else is moving in a different direction, you can’t count on what they’re doing anymore so suddenly you’re in a new situation. There are, of course, chance elements in improvised music but it’s not in the way John Cage works with chance. We also work with intuition and telepathy, something like telepathy, and look for an understanding which is different from celebrating the notion of the arbitrary nature of chance.’
‘I didn’t go into this project blind or ill informed,’ explained Sylvian. ‘In fact an important part of the entire process for me was deciding who was to be a part of any given ensemble, understanding that chemistry, as it allowed me to anticipate, within reason, the field in which we’d be working. That’s half the work done right there.’
One of the fascinations of hearing these musicians is to experience them performing in line-ups with different constellations of players and instruments. Sylvian’s London session, undertaken in a single day, comprised individuals who were mostly familiar with one another, with Fennesz being the wild-card. ‘I like to modify my language in accordance with who I’m playing with,’ explains Parker. ‘Of course, it should sound like me. But in a situation with a pianist playing a certain kind of recognisable harmonic structure, that’s one situation; in a situation with somebody playing percussion – no fixed reference – that’s another. I like to be able to, in a way, find the middle way in the languages – my language, your language – where we can speak. We have to find a place in the middle. And if you’re not happy to move, then I have to come more towards you. Another mix of personalities can also produce interesting possibilities – but my approach is always to ask where these two fields of music overlap, where the common ground is.’
Crackling static from Christian Fennesz sets the scene for ‘Emily Dickinson’, his being a unifying presence across Manafon. Here his sounds combine with Joel Ryan’s signal processing and Sylvian electronics to transport me to a large barren room, an unwelcoming environment. ‘Every sound under the microscope’ indeed. The vocal becomes the focus, the protagonist’s story centre-stage.
‘It’s a matter of paring down,’ said Sylvian. ‘You just try to keep the arrangement of the piece sparse and not decorous. There’s a freedom or liberation in the eradication of any recognisable form.’ Of the musicians, he added, ‘They are pulling back, holding back, not developing melodic lines, ignoring tonality, sonority, and I’m fleshing it out to add a melodic vocal line.’
As the vocal ends, Parker’s saxophone enters accompanied by strikes from deep within John Tilbury’s piano. As the solo continues, the atmospherics return along with an ominous multi-tracked chorus of Sylvian ‘ahhhs’. ‘I love Evan Parker’s solo on the coda of ‘Emily Dickinson’’, professed Sylvian, when asked for his favourite Manafon moments.
Parker: ‘Very often we talk about left brain and right brain – some of it is left brain, some of it is right brain. I know with solo playing, for example, that, in order to do certain things, I have to get myself into right brain dominance before things really start to happen. This really means that I’m not making decisions in that sense about anything, I’m simply there and something is happening. And I’m sort of in control and sort of not in control. It’s like the feedback between what’s happening and what I’m trying to make happen.’
It’s often assumed that every element of what a free improviser plays is created unprompted in the moment. Of course, there is spontaneous invention, but the present cannot be divorced from the past, whether that be previous performance or the anticipation of a gig or session. ‘I believe in the in the idea of the moment, the preciousness of the moment, the Zen kind of being; these are great things,’ says Evan. ‘But there’s also memory and anticipation and these are great things as well – and we have to work with all of that.’
‘She was no longer a user
Don’t think she realised we knew that
Not one to make a fuss
Why this and not something else
Wasn’t it obvious?’
Emily Dickinson, the famously reclusive American poet, is a significant reference point on an album where one of the main themes is the nature of the creative imagination. Especially so given that Dickinson’s work was not published in her own lifetime, a fact that raises the question of how important the existence or appreciation of an audience is to an artist. How does it impact the work and their compulsion to express themselves?
Despite the song’s title, Sylvian explained that ‘the song isn’t about Emily Dickinson, it’s about a young girl that appears to have overcome an addiction of some kind, but she’s withdrawn into herself and in doing so she has started to romanticise her predicament by comparing her life to that of Emily Dickinson, which it bears no resemblance to at all.’
‘She made such a hash of it
You can’t help but notice
A near absence of tenderness
And who wants to live like that?‘
‘It’s a romantic notion, but there is the danger of being driven even more into the isolation – to the point of self-destruction. The theme of the song is probably the inability of many young people, and even older people of course, to produce real social contact. The internet and other technologies make them believe they are experiencing a much more social life than they actually are. In truth, these people feel a lack of physical and emotional tenderness.’
‘And friends turned their backs on her
She, no longer a user
And she wanted to stay home
With a box full of postcards
And no place to send them
Live like Emily Dickinson
Without so much as a kiss
Or the comfort of strangers
Withdrawing into herself
But why this and not something else?‘
The lines ‘she wanted to stay home/with a box full of postcards/and no place to send them’ reveal with simple imagery the folly of such an existence.
‘I would say the necessity and desire for love is an important underlying theme for me. This issue lies at the heart of a piece such as ‘Emily Dickinson’. It’s a fact of life that not everyone experiences unconditional love, finds themselves or others un-loveable, aren’t willing to give, to sacrifice for the sake of love. Some simply cut themselves off from it. Withdraw. Yes, the theme of love or its absence is a constant preoccupation. To paraphrase the artist Agnes Martin, art is a celebration of the beauty in life or a protest against its absence.’
‘Small Metal Gods‘ is the only first-person narrative amongst Manafon‘s lyrics. Other songs engage us with actual people, such as R.S. Thomas in the title track, or imaginary characters. Sylvian admitted his method was ‘telling stories about supposedly other characters, but so often you’re basically talking about your own self, or facets of your own self mixed with fictional elements.’
He was asked about his own reclusive lifestyle, living in Temple, New Hampshire, after the end of his marriage, the property now divided between the parties. ‘I’ve grown accustomed to my isolation,’ he said. ‘It gets increasingly difficult to contemplate breaking with it.’
‘Was your sojourn in the woods of New England in any way inspired by Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson?’ enquired one interviewer. ‘In many ways I sought out a contemplative life, something in the way of a spiritual aspirant, though it’d be equally true to say that this was simply where I found myself after taking numerous forks in the road in the journey of my life. However, there’s always been something of the renunciate in me that yearned for retreat. I imagine it found me long before I knew I was ready, was foisted upon me and, as a result, I walked a long, inarticulate path wearing a partial blindfold that hindered progress but which I’ve since removed. Now that inarticulacy is giving way to something other, a fluency perhaps, and the difficulties of a solitary life, such as they are, are greatly diminished.’ (2011)
Musically, it was noted that a line could be drawn between ‘Emily Dickinson’ and an attempt twenty-five years earlier to deconstruct the form of a pop song.
‘There has to be a starting point and, in a way, ‘Ghosts‘ represents that for me. There’s a chronology, an irregular linearity if that’s an acceptable oxymoron, in that one idea gives birth to another. There are instances of exception where a kind of personal “evolutionary” leap takes place but otherwise you’re able to find signs of the present indicated in the immediate past. Neither ‘Ghosts’ nor ‘Emily Dickinson’ were problematic for me as composer. The most marked difference between the two is that with ‘Ghosts’ the concept for the electronic arrangement came after the act of composition, whereas with ‘Emily Dickinson’ I’d put all the pieces of the puzzle together prior to writing the lyric and melody.’
Music by Christian Fennesz, Evan Parker, David Sylvian, John Tilbury. 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: ‘Emily Dickinson’ (Apple)
All quotes by David Sylvian are from interviews in 2009-10 unless indicated. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here. Thank you to Marta Roia for her translation of an Italian radio interview.
The Practice of Musical Improvisation – Dialogues with Contemporary Musical Improvisers, by Bertrand Denzler & Jean-Luc Guionnet, can be purchased here.
The featured image shows David Sylvian and Evan Parker during the London sessions for Manafon, as published in the book accompanying the deluxe edition of the album. Photograph copyright Yuka Fujii.
‘An investigation into what isolation means, how unbearable loneliness can be and how we can respond to it or succumb.’ David Sylvian on ‘Emily Dickinson’, 2009