The Ink in the Well

‘years with a genius for living’

At the end of the behind the scenes video that takes us ‘fly-on-the-wall’ into the sessions for Brilliant Trees in Berlin, a relaxed David Sylvian leans against the studio wall enjoying a snack of ice cream – the only food he could find in the café next door to the studio suitable for his newly adopted vegetarian diet. He confides to Yuka Fujii, who is behind the camera, ‘I should have just under an album’s worth of material when I get back to London. But I think I will use some of it as a separate single, because it doesn’t sit together as one album. So I will get back to London and I will write some more, and go into the studio and try to finish that.’

Looking back with the perspective of more than 35 years, Sylvian recalled, ‘I came away from Berlin with an incomplete album and proceeded to write a few remaining pieces to complement the best of what I had. ‘The Ink in the Well’, ‘Nostalgia’ and ‘Backwaters’ were added, ‘Blue of Noon’, an alternate version of ‘Forbidden Colours’ [see here], and a new track composed with Ryuichi were, with the exception of the latter, to find a home elsewhere’ (2021). We can only wonder whatever became of that co-written piece with Sakamoto-san…

‘The Ink in the Well’, Sylvian revealed, ‘was the last track recorded for the album. It was probably the easiest track to do.’ With the exception of Steve Jansen, the musicians lined up to record the song were new to the sessions having not participated at Hansa. The first, beautiful, hand-plucked notes come from the double bass of Danny Thompson, doyen of the stand up instrument, anchoring the rhythm alongside an acoustic guitar. Sylvian himself then overlays a buoyant keyboard line, the first of two distinctive lead synthesiser parts he performs for the song.

The singer was familiar with Danny Thompson’s recorded work with singer-songwriters John Martyn and Nick Drake, often citing the latter as a significant influence. ‘Drake and Martyn have both been part of my musical regime for decades…I often felt a deep relationship with Drake’, said Sylvian. (2009)

‘A lot of people ask about Nick Drake after gigs,’ Danny Thompson commented, ‘usually people [who are] like him – very sensitive, withdrawn, tortured souls….When I’ve been suicidal, thinking, “What is this all about, sitting on this silly rock, plummeting through space?” I’ve understood him.’

Thompson’s tender playing on Drake’s ‘Saturday Sun’, the closing track from 1969’s Five Leaves Left, showcases his style – not a single unnecessary note, nothing showy; finding the core of the piece and heightening its emotion. ‘I love the physical thing of holding a double bass and searching for the right note, to me it’s almost an animal thing'(1989). In the early ’80s Thompson recorded with Kate Bush, his distinctive sound a structural ingredient for ‘Pull out the Pin’ from The Dreaming, before the invitation came to contribute to Sylvian’s debut solo album.

‘I was in the control room and they were recording the drums,’ he remembered. ‘I heard this young drummer, Steve. I said to them in the studio, “Wow, that’s fantastic, to hear a young drummer play brushes so well.” They said, “That’s his brother.” Good thing I did not say, “What a crap drummer.” But he is a very musical drummer.’

Danny also claims responsibility for introducing Sylvian to Kenny Wheeler, although Sylvian has said he always had him in mind for the album. The flugelhorn impresario would provide a musical foil to Sylvian’s vocal for many songs in his canon. Thompson: ‘They said, “We fancy a trumpet on that song, do you know anybody?” I said, “I know just the man” and I brought Kenny Wheeler. He had not done that kind of music. He phoned me and asked, “What do I have to do?” and I said, “You’ll hear it, just play. That’s what I did.” What he played was just fantastic.’

‘I tried to create an atmosphere in the studio where musicians would feel they would want to contribute something to what I’m doing,’ said Sylvian, ‘rather than just come in and do their session work and go home again. And I think there’s one ability I have and that is to create an atmosphere in the studio, and to make people relaxed and make them want to be involved in a way, I think. And I know how to mix ingredients, different kinds of people from different areas and put them together…

‘I think improvised performance is the most valuable. So all I do is construct a loose framework for the improvisation to take place in and I hope that comes over, the feeling…a unity. Very few of the musicians worked together, they all came at separate times but just felt something, an affinity with what was going on, with my music, with my compositions and what they could hear already on the tracks by the other musicians. There was an affinity that runs through myself and those other musicians. And the reason I chose them is because I liked the music I’d heard most of them composing on their own, and I felt there must be an affinity with my aesthetic sense if you like and theirs. And it’s just working out where it lies.’

Completing the line-up was Phil Palmer who performs all the guitar on the song, taking Sylvian’s own playing and arrangement as the basis for his contribution. Phil told me how the track was developed: ”The Ink in the Well’ – drums and bass were there. It sounds like a 12-string, maybe with some tuning tricks for the harmonic sections. The “flamenco” hits during the tune happened by accident and Steve Nye liked them so we popped them in a few places to act as an event.’

Mark Isham has described how Sylvian’s musical ideas even for the more conventional songs on Brilliant Trees were highly unusual (see ‘Red Guitar‘). Experienced session man Palmer confirms the observation. ‘Once David had explained the odd chord shapes, Steve [Nye] and I were left to build the part together. He encouraged me to keep the part free and spontaneous. I think we succeeded there. Some of David’s chords are invented and almost dissonant which in turn gave David the ability to create a fascinating vocal melody away from the “norm”, sometimes major against minor which broke new ground musically.’ (2021)

Photograph from the single cover, copyright Yuka Fujii

‘The Ink in the Well’ was the second single released from Brilliant Trees, hitting the shops in mid-August 1984, three weeks after the album itself. The cover continues the hand-written mantra which draws the listener close to the work’s creator. The photograph featured there, taken by Yuka Fujii, shows a bearded Sylvian eschewing the perfect foundation and make-up of the photo-calls for Japan’s final Sons of Pioneers tour. Behind him is the poster for a Picasso exhibition held at the Grand Palais in Paris from Oct 1979 to Jan 1980.

Picasso’s influence extended much further than the single’s cover. ‘The lyrics are based on the picture by Picasso, ‘Guernica’,’ Sylvian explained. It’s a colossal canvas – over eleven feet tall and twenty-five feet across – painted in 1937 after the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by German and Italian air forces at the behest of Franco’s Nationalist movement. Its figures, both human and animal, convey the extreme horror and suffering inflicted on innocents in this most bloody episode from the Spanish Civil War.

‘Guernica’ by Picasso, 1937, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid

The anti-war sentiment of the composition is undoubted, ‘I am expressing my horror of the military caste which is now plundering Spain into an ocean of misery and death,’ said the artist on one occasion. Many have offered interpretations of specific elements within the scene, but Picasso said of the painting, ‘…this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse…if you give meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.’

The inspiration that Sylvian gained from the canvas seemed in tune with the artist’s thinking. ‘I’ve always been influenced by visual things and recently it’s been paintings – Picasso was probably top of the list. ‘The Ink in the Well’ is not based on the painting itself though, it’s based on the feelings I get from the painting.’

In the opening stanza, Picasso himself is in Sylvian’s scene, the artist presented in the act of creation. The ‘lights of the ashes’ that ‘smoulder through hills and vales’ awake our senses through the visual imagery and even the smells evoked. We are taken to the moments immediately following such a momentous event, the embers still glowing. In a scene of devastation, to paint might seem futile, but the vital importance of the power of the creative imagination in the face of the worst of life seems to be a core theme of the song.

Much later in his career, in the context of Manafon‘s ‘The Rabbit Skinner’, Sylvian would speak of the rabbit as a symbol of the creative spirit and here it conveys something of vitality unleased. Just as in ‘Red Guitar’, Sylvian peppers his lyric with literary touchstones; Le sang d’un poète is a 1930s film directed by Jean Cocteau, and L’âge de raison a novel by Jean-Paul Sartre set in Paris in the days when Cocteau directed his film and Picasso painted ‘Guernica’.

Sylvian: ‘You are inspired all the time, I think, by different things and you build this up within you. It’s like the filling up of a bottle if you like, and once it gets to the top you just need one small thing to spark it off, open the whole thing up and it will all come pouring out in a picture, in a song or whatever.’

As had been the case with the first single release, ‘Red Guitar’, there was a promotional video for the ‘Ink in the Well’ and once again it was photographer Anton Corbijn who directed. The finished piece reflected Sylvian’s view on the medium. ‘I think the promo is generally a bad thing. I think that if you’ve written a piece of music, it’s finished and composed, recorded, everything, just as a piece of music, then it should stand up on its own. It doesn’t need the visuals. And the visuals tend to detract from the music itself because you are supplying the listener with a fixed image when they should have the freedom to make the piece of music a very personal thing. And you take that away from them with giving them such an image on a video.’

The approach in the pair of videos made with Corbijn was to create ‘a series of photographic images that didn’t make sense actually going from one to the other, but just images so that the people watching the video could make up their own minds as to what it’s about.’ The intent was to open up the range of possibilities prompted by the music, rather than to narrow them down in the confines of a ‘storyline’.

Shot on location at Beachy Head in Southern England, a cliff so high and steep that it is infamous as a location for suicides, we see Sylvian wandering near the precipice and looking out to sea. There are references back to the imagery of ‘Red Guitar’, firstly with the reclining figure of the artist, a pose from which he arises a number of times as if from slumber, ultimately being subverted in the final scene when the figure falls over as if in the wind and is found to be no more than a life-size two-dimensional image on board.

The singer enters a mysterious wooden seaside cabin, firstly in daylight where he sees an elderly woman in bed, who is later supplanted by a younger woman when he returns by night. Sheet music is scattered on the floor and pinned to the walls, upon which also sit simple sketches of the sun and a human figure, along with a trumpet that has been flattened so as to destroy its expression. In a second nod to ‘Red Guitar’, the child who stars in that video is present, mysteriously holding a white cat.

To add to the stimuli, the video is interspersed with text credited to music journalist Paul Morley, hand-written by Sylvian in the style du jour. ‘There is always something to be done/Even if it is sitting still and willing it to happen,’ reads the first statement. Morley had been a fierce critic of Japan but relented in their final years. In 1983 he became one of the founders of ZTT Records with Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair, and would go on to be instrumental in the intriguing link-up between David Sylvian and the band Propaganda as part of the sessions for their iconic 1985 LP A Secret Wish.

Morley may have penned some of the words that appear in the video, but others were certainly compiled from the pantheon of poets from the nineteenth century:

‘…If man could see
The perils and diseases that he elbows
Each day he walks a mile, which catch at him,
Which fall behind and graze him as he passes,
Then would he know that life’s a single pilgrim
Fighting unarmed among a thousand soldiers.’

Thomas Lovell Beddoes, from Death’s Jest Book, 1850

‘O daughters of dreams and of stories
That life is not wearied of yet,
Faustine, Fragoletta, Dolores,
Félise and Yolande and Juliette,
Shall I find you not still, shall I miss you,
When sleep, that is true or that seems,
Comes back to me hopeless to kiss you,
O daughters of dreams?’

Algernon Charles Swinburne, from ‘Dedication’, 1865

‘I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, and that no man ever can,
Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart upon me and sting me,
Because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.’

Walt Whitman, from ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’, 1860

Sleep and, by implication, the inspiration of our deeper consciousness comes over as a consistent theme in the video for ‘The Ink in the Well’, with the giant representation of a bird under which Sylvian slumbers representative of such flights of fancy. The final text sums it up…

Once again, the quote is borrowed:

‘But to my conscious soul I now can say –
“I recognise thy glory”: in such strength
Of usurpation, when the light of sense
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,
There harbours, whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being’s heart and home…’

William Wordsworth, from ‘The Prelude’; Book VI, 1850

Just as Sylvian’s appreciation of art and his own reading had inspired him, so it was with cinema. He took elements of what he saw from favourite directors into his work with Anton Corbijn and hoped to work more in the field. ‘I definitely would like at some point to direct a short film. I get experience sometimes working through the videos to equip me with the knowledge of how to go about directing films and so on…I haven’t really got an interest in video, I am only interested in film. Particular directors such as Tarkovsky and Cocteau that have been influential in the videos I’ve been doing and would be influential in the kind of thing I would do. I mean a short film like say Blood of a Poet by Cocteau I would like to do something of an equivalent film suitable to this time.’

Additional promotional material extended to a t-shirt with a line-portrait in the style of Picasso/Cocteau, presumably depicting the Spanish artist. Head on hand, arched above his head are words from the lyric, ‘Picasso is painting the flames from the houses’.

Virgin did an exquisite job on the packaging of the single. Both the 7″ and 12″ were in limited edition fold-out sleeves, the 7″creating a cross shape with lyrics on the top and bottom panel and Corbyn’s portrait of the recumbent Sylvian across the centre: every inch the artist.

‘The Ink in the Well’

Steve Jansen – drums; Phil Palmer – guitar; David Sylvian – vocals, keyboards; Danny Thompson – double bass; Kenny Wheeler – flugelhorn

Music and lyrics by David Sylvian

Produced by David Sylvian and Steve Nye. From Brilliant Trees, Virgin, 1984

Recorded in London and Berlin, 1983/1984

Lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing

Download links: ‘The Ink in the Well’ (Apple)

Physical media links: Brilliant Trees (Amazon)

Quotes from David Sylvian are from interviews conducted in 1984 unless otherwise indicated. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.

The full 40-minute film of the Hansa sessions referred to in the opening paragraph can be seen on the samadhisound Vimeo channel here.

‘A good piece of music or any work of art is something with which you have an affinity and to which you’ll always return. I think it’s bad to derive art from art but if you mix it with your emotions, you feel an affinity with the artist’s frame of mind and you take it and use it to your own advantage.’ David Sylvian, 1984


One thought on “The Ink in the Well”

  1. What an enlightenment about Sylvian’s astounding attitude for improvisation throughout his career.
    Thank you, David: few moments in company of your essays give me ceaseless improvements in my understanding why the music of this guy has always been and remains so attractive to me.

    Liked by 1 person

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