From 30 November to 2 December 2016 a symposium entitled On the Edge was staged in Oslo, Norway. Whilst David Sylvian was not present at the event, his influence on the proceedings was significant. The programme was created by Ivar Grydeland, a musician who works in the field of improvisation and a member of the groups Huntsville and Dans les Abres, the latter’s eponymous debut album having been released on the ECM label in 2008.
At the time of the symposium, Grydeland had recently completed an artistic research fellowship project at The Norwegian Academy of Music entitled Ensemble and Ensemble of Me – What I Think About When I Think About Improvisation. Grydeland was intrigued by David Sylvian’s use and direction of performances by improvising musicians as the core material for vocal tracks on both Blemish and Manafon, as well as his own experiences contributing to a recording session for Sylvian late in 2015, and so decided to devote the event to the theme of On the Edge – Improvisers on music and methods. Sylvian himself contributed from afar to the performances on 1 December in the capacity of a curator, selecting a group of musicians to improvise together at the Nasjonal Jazzscene venue – the line-up comprising Keith Rowe, David Toop, Rhodri Davies, Rie Nakajima and Phil Durrant.
Prior to this performance a talk was given by author and music journalist Rob Young on the evolution of Sylvian’s music over the decades and in particular his gravitation towards improvisation as a defining element in his work. As the hour-long presentation came to a close, Young invited the musician Jan Bang to the stage, who has collaborated with Sylvian stretching back to a remix of ‘Mother and Child’ for the Camphor instrumental retrospective album and then further work on The Good Son vs The Only Daughter, Died in the Wool, Uncommon Deities and the wonderful one-off song ‘Do You Know Me Now?’.
Jan gives an overview of his work with Sylvian, and then shares the story of how Playing the Schoolhouse came to be recorded. ‘He came to my studio last year, and he was there in Kristiansand for three months. And we worked a lot together. And in one of the breaks I invited him to go on an island outside of Kristiansand, just to do something completely different.’ The location in question was one of the three islands that make up Ny-Hellesund, situated to the south-west of Kristiansand. It was historically an outport providing customs, landing and pilot services to sea-faring crews ahead of them reaching the mainland. Today it is permanent home to a community of little more than twenty people.
The visit demanded a journey by boat, just as the Norwegian winter was on the cusp of spring. ‘I came to his hotel,’ Jan continues, ‘and I brought the Norwegian typical gear for a January/February boat trip. Which is Gore-Tex shoes and you know, a big jacket and things like that. And he had one look at it and he said, “Well, I’d rather go down as a gentleman!” And I thought that was so beautiful.
‘Anyway… so we spent a huge amount of time trying to create material, but this thing was done just by bringing some recorders into an old house, an old school house. First of all I was trying to just record – I was thinking of different samples, you know – hitting things. But he was into doing a performance of the objects in that house. And then I understood that we are actually playing this old school house.
‘And it was really interesting, just to see that ok, these are the instruments, you know, whatever you can find in this house. If it’s an old radio, or old maps or whatever, and just to use that. And within three days the record was done.’
The approach taken by Sylvian and Bang in spontaneously creating a performance from the material before them has some parallels with the hallmark component of the Punkt festival which is hosted annually by Bang and long-term creative partner Erik Honoré in Kristiansand, and where Sylvian performed in both 2011 and 2013. An integral part of the Punkt experience is the ‘live remix’, whereby a stage performance by one set of musicians is followed immediately by a remix undertaken by another line-up, using live samples gathered from the first show as raw material for the second, often supplemented with their own instruments (see ‘Saffron Laudanum’).
Young asked whether Sylvian had ever been tempted to participate in a Punkt remix? ‘He has never taken part in any of the live remixes,’ said Bang. ‘We did some live work with Arve [Henriksen] when we did a release concert for Cartography…But I guess his world is in the editing process, and in the controlled environment where he can control his own vocal performances and capture that on tape. And also by adding his own guitar playing or programming and stuff. He is not really that much into playing live. Maybe that will change, but…I think that if we could lure him out for one of the live remixes, I think he would love it.’
The first hint of the new release came in a news update from Mark Wastell in July 2015 outlining the artists behind future discs to be put out on his own Confront Recordings label in the coming six months. At the time I had no knowledge of Confront and therefore no context in which to place the music. What we did know from Sylvian’s facebook page was that the forthcoming publication of his long-awaited book of lyrics and poetry would be the final act of samadhisound, then to be wound down as a label to coincide with the retirement of the singer’s career-long manager and mentor, Richard Chadwick. So, new Sylvian solo music was coming on a label other than his own for the first time in well over a decade. What could we expect?
Wastell filled in some of the gaps for us, explaining: ‘Confront is a small bespoke label that specialise in small run editions. David has been a long time admirer of what we do and the way we do it – and a loyal customer too – as well as a contemporary of a number of the artists on our roster. I asked David to write a “single” for the label and he presented me with the fifteen-minute Playing the Schoolhouse.’
‘Mark’s approach to running his label is one I admire,’ confirmed Sylvian. ‘Along with numerous other labels I could mention, this is a one man operation and a labour of love. He brings to light work which might otherwise never be heard. Others do the same and, in my opinion, deserve support.’
Wastell created the imprint in the mid-’90s. ‘Originally, I established Confront Recordings purely as a platform for releasing my own music,’ he explained in an extensive 2015 interview with Andrea Dellapiana. ‘That was the initial idea. It was 1995 and I’d begun playing concerts and making contacts on the local and London scene. One of my earliest associations was with a percussionist and violinist called Nick Smith. He was very encouraging to me and forever enthusiastic…Out of this relationship came the debut release on Confront, Collision Duo Refraction in 1996, an edition of 50 cassettes. It received a couple of reviews in the underground press and I began selling copies at gigs and through mail order. As my connections in the music grew so did the label.
‘The early releases reflect the projects in which I was involved at the time and friendships of the period. All were London centric, the international reach of the label coming a little later, in line with the development of my own career as a musician…
‘Between 2001 and 2010 I used to own a record shop and mail order service in London [Sound 323] and we used to stock samadhisound direct from David and his management, doing especially well with Blemish when that was first released and eventually Derek Bailey’s The Blemish Sessions. David used to order records from our selection too.’ There was even some informal exploration of Confront taking on all of the distribution for samadhisound. ‘This relationship continued on and off until I eventually closed the business. I continued to run Confront Recordings but my release schedule slowed down considerably until 2013/14 when I resurrected the label with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
‘In Spring 2015 David got in touch and our relationship has accelerated since…David and I had been messaging one another on a number of different subjects, the origin of which had been an order he had placed for various new releases from Confront Recordings. Leading into this period, I’d begun thinking about a sub-series on the label, focusing on shorter pieces. The original intention was to release them on 3″ CDs mounted on heavy weight, printed board sleeves. It was the simple combination of time and place that I happened to ask David to participate. I work purely on intuition: if it feels right, then it must be worth pursuing. As with every release on Confront, the artist is at complete liberty to submit whatever material they feel appropriate. I make no demands or changes, just the initial offer. With …Schoolhouse, David created a piece that’s completely true to his current impulses and totally in line with label philosophy.
‘Try as I might, I couldn’t get the right feel for the design of the original proposal for the sleeve. I also got a bit of negative feedback from my distributors about 3″ CDs, people being unable to play them on computers. So I reverted to the DVD metal tin with postcard format which had proved successful for a couple of other limited edition releases.’
Over the years, Mark’s label has consistently released what he describes as ‘adventurous music’, created by artists who might challenge our very concept of what music is, exploring whether there is in fact a distinction between music and sound – and if so, what defines it? Output included performances at the Sound 323 shop by Keith Rowe and Derek Bailey, and subsequently recordings from the Japanese onkyo scene. The label’s name is deliberate, the releases confronting the listener with something new, music from the boundaries of innovation.
Sylvian fans, surprised at the news and intrigued as to what to expect, deluged the label with orders – causing the initial run of cds to disappear in a flash and inadvertently stoking the market for re-sale as fans eagerly sought to secure their copy. Wastell: ‘It did sell out very quickly! I must admit, I was completely unprepared for that. Originally it was going to be just 200 copies! I’m glad we upped it to 300…but in hindsight, it should have been double that at least. That’s my only regret, leaving so many people unsatisfied and ultimately fuelling the eBay market, selling at unreasonable prices. I was ignorant to the demand of this particular release and was measuring it by normal standards for a release on Confront, whereby two or three hundred would be appropriate for a first edition…I’d like to add that regards the original edition, David graciously donated half of the copies that were due to him for personal use, back to Confront, to help fulfil the demand.’
Sylvian reacted to the public response as a second edition was hurriedly planned. ‘It’s wonderful that so many have shown an interest in this piece that lies so far from the songwriting most seem to hunger for. I’m grateful for that.’
When the cd arrived, we could hear the different artefacts in the school-room as Sylvian and Bang handled and manipulated them. The sound of metal on timber. Heavy furniture dragged across wooden floors. Abrasion gives way to a shower of water. Hands feel the texture of surfaces. There is birdsong. The schoolroom clock tick-tocks never-endingly. We feel the width of the space through repeated bang and echo. A radio signal transports a distorted voice from elsewhere into the room. An incongruous electronic beep interrupts. Erik Honoré describes the piece as follows: ‘No melody, no voice, no lyrics, no clear structure. Only the sound of interiors, of the wood in the walls and floors, the quiet buzz in the rooms, the rattling from a map of the land of the Bible.’
Sylvian’s penchant for editing not only brings these sounds together, but interlaces previous recordings by Toshimaru Nakamura, Otomo Yoshihide and Dai Fujikura. Nakamura’s no-input mixing board hisses to enhance the sense of ambience. The crackle of stylus on vinyl from Yoshihide’s turntable and the snatches of strings from a Fujikura composition have the effect of ‘distressing’ the sound, bringing to mind not only what was present in that room on the day of recording but also the history within those walls.
There is no doubt that for some of Sylvian’s fans the abstraction took …Schoolhouse too far from conventional forms of music and made it difficult to derive enjoyment as a listener. Sylvian, however, saw an evolutionary thread through his instrumental work, starting back in the ’80s with his first such collaboration with Holger Czukay (see ‘Plight’). When Plight & Premonition was re-released in 2018, Sylvian described When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima – his long-form piece for visitors to the island of Naoshima that was designed to be heard alongside the sounds of the town of Honmura – and Playing the Schoolhouse as ‘direct descendants of what was unearthed over a period of two nights, animated by a primal spirit, in a converted cinema on the outskirts of Köln, over thirty odd years ago.’
Mark Wastell: ‘Environment and atmosphere are two key elements that I often find myself looking for. Be that in a live concert, studio or location recording. I’m keen on recordings that have been influenced by the surrounding in which the sounds were made. The activity of the performers that has been nurtured by the feeling within the space. I’m not interested in the “recording” itself, the clean, digitised process. I’m seeking the end result only, the landscape captured by the process, be that lo-fi or something more refined. I’m privileged in that the musicians I’m associated with, and that are featured on the label, are of such high calibre and display modes of operation that are extremely well developed. Their sensitivity to time within space is way beyond normal boundaries. It’s their important work you hear. Confront is just a conduit that helps bring it to your attention.
‘The piece reflects what I generally mean about “working intuitively”, reflecting “time and place”, the here and now of artistic endeavour. David and Jan utilise the space and the materials within. Other less obvious contributions should be taken into account, their mood on the day, friendship, shared experiences, individual thought processes, the air between each other and objects, the atmosphere within the building, the weather outside…all feeding the end result.
‘My view is that it shouldn’t be viewed or listened to as a finished article, absorb it more as a feeling or fleeting emotion, a movement or passing, a mood. Just have it touch you as you move through it.’
The second edition was issued a few months after the first with more than triple the original run at 1,000 copies. As I write this article physical copies are once again exchanging hands online for many multiples of the original price despite the subsequent download release through Confront’s bandcamp page.
What of the work that Bang and Sylvian produced in Kristiansand during the studio sessions, of which …Schoolhouse represents a mere side project over a couple of days? Bang was understandably coy when asked about this on stage at On the Edge, conscious of the confidentiality of Sylvian’s artistic plans. ‘He keeps his cards close to himself. But he’s been working on different sessions, so one session was in my studio and he’s done a few other sessions, so I suppose he’s gathering material. And so it’s all very promising.’
Over five years later, that promise remains as yet unfulfilled. As for Confront Recordings, ‘I guess the label is here to stay,’ said Mark Wastell. ‘Hopefully, as the name suggests, still confronting people’s expectations of music and sound.’
‘Playing the Schoolhouse’
Jan Bang – found objects, dictaphone; David Sylvian – found objects, samples, additional field recordings
Composed and produced by David Sylvian. Released on Confront Recordings, 2015.
Based on an improvisation by Jan Bang and David Sylvian in the old schoolhouse on Ny-Hellesund, Norway, March 2015
All artist quotes are from interviews in 2015/16 unless otherwise indicated. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
The featured image appeared on the davidsylvian.com official announcement of Playing the Schoolhouse.
Download link: Playing the Schoolhouse (bandcamp)
‘‘…Schoolhouse’ was created due to a particular set of circumstances. It’s somehow related to ‘…Naoshima’ in terms of composition if not in genesis…Schoolhouse was a real place – old schoolroom – in which we used the room as instrument. Additional samples taken in the attic were added.’ David Sylvian, 2021