The first time this listener was introduced to the playing of Clive Bell was as part of Richard Barbieri and Steve Jansen’s short-lived dalliance with overt pop for their 1987 album as The Dolphin Brothers – Catch the Fall. Here Bell adds such exotic sounds as those of the khene and Thai flute to the title track and the seductive ‘Love That You Need’. These traditional wind instruments bring a sense of unspecified Eastern location to the songs, their authentic sounds being reminiscent of those that Barbieri and David Sylvian had worked so meticulously to muster from their analogue synthesisers for Japan’s China-influenced pinnacle, Tin Drum.
‘I think Richard Barbieri and Steve Jansen saw me play on the South Bank and got in touch,’ Clive told me, that first collaboration being repeated for a couple of tracks on JBK’s _ism at the end of the following decade, including a favourite track of mine: ‘Found in a Shell of Murmurs’. By then, Bell had released a fine album of solos entitled simply Shakuhachi, the pieces deeply rooted in the natural environment in which they were created – for instance, a rendition of the traditional folk song ‘Komoro Bushi’ in which the protagonist describes the smoke rising ominously from a neighbouring volcano.
‘It all starts with the sound,’ says Bell of the attraction of mastering these unfamiliar instruments, his fascination unexpectedly sparked by discovering Toru Takemitsu’s November Steps in a friend’s record collection. ‘I was a flute player originally, and bowled over by the sound of the Japanese flute (shakuhachi). Later I was seduced by the Thai mouth organ (khene) and the closely related pi saw free reed flute. I knew I must learn to play these instruments, though I quickly became fascinated by the context and society in which those musics function.’
In the mid-1970s he headed to Japan to study the shakuhachi in Tokyo with Kōhachiro Miyata, a master in the field. The sleeve-notes of Clive’s album Shakuhachi carefully describe the instrument as ‘a Japanese bamboo flute, vertically held, with five finger holes. At the top, the player blows against a crescent-shaped notch. The unique design, incorporating heavy bamboo, a wide open mouthpiece and large finger holes, results in a powerful instrument with a surprising range of dynamics, and tone colours. In the hands of a master, the transition from velvet whisper to icy gusts of wind, makes the shakuhachi a fascinating instrument. The “shaku” is a unit of measurement in Japan. “Hachi” means eight; “shakuhachi” means “1.8 shaku”…which is the standard length of the flute.’ It is notoriously difficult to play, requiring neck movement from the musician that takes years to perfect. Since his first trip East, Clive has travelled extensively in Japan, Thailand, Laos and Bali, researching music and meeting practitioners of these local wind instruments whose histories span the centuries.
Witnessing a performance, as some readers will have done when Clive opened the programme at Cafe OTO in London for the premiere of Yuka Fujii’s cine-film Like Planets [unreel] in 2019, is to experience not only the evocative woody sound-bursts conjured by the player, but also to witness the physical effort that goes in to summoning them.
Clive Bell’s latest release is as part of a collective that juxtaposes his playing with much more contemporary sounds. ‘Twinkle³ is a longstanding project between old friends,’ he says, ‘we believe that electronics and the traditional wind instruments complement each other nicely. Richard Scott and David Ross are both pioneers in modular synthesis, employing complex electronic instruments and techniques that I barely begin to understand. I’m the traditional analogue guy huffing into pieces of bamboo. Though of course my improvising is influenced by electronic music also – we all copy what we hear.
‘In my experience, flutes and electronics are likely to work well together. The physical effort involved in playing the woodwind instrument presses up against the non-physicality of the electronic sound. Earlier on, I had a similar project with Peter Cusack (Bird Jumps into Wood).’
The first album released by Twinkle³ was 2009’s Let’s Make a Solar System. Together with the subsequent Debris in Lower Earth Orbit (2015) and Minor Planets (2020), they form a trilogy inspired by the wonders of the universe. ‘Those titles sit nicely with the music,’ says Bell, ‘and they encourage the listener to let their mind slip free of the earth’s gravity.’
Clive had previously contributed to David Sylvian’s long-form piece When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima which proved the perfect sound environment for his craft, designed as it was to complement the sights and merge with the sounds of the Japanese island. And Sylvian was to have a critical hand in Twinkle³’s second release. ‘Debris in Lower Earth Orbit was almost finished and we ran it past David Sylvian for advice,’ he explains. ‘David suggested that Sidsel Endresen’s voice might improve it, and we were excited that she accepted the project.’
Sidsel will be familiar to fans of Uncommon Deities, where Sylvian reads poems written by the Norwegian poets Paal-Helge Haugen and Nils Christian Moe-Repstad (who very sadly passed away in September 2022). Jan Bang and Erik Honoré construct finely detailed sound collages over which the words float, and several tracks include Endresen’s striking wordless vocal improvisations. Clive Bell: ‘Sidsel’s improvising is concise and specific. Somehow she sounds like she’s singing an old, half-remembered song, even though she’s making it up as she goes along. That’s an enviable talent.’
Sylvian’s lengthy sleeve-notes for Twinkle³’s second album describe the impact the music had upon him as he listened to the final mix on a car journey driving from East to West across the United States. ‘I needed something to shift the focus from ultimate destination and self-imposed time limitations. I plugged the iPhone into the car stereo and selected Debris in Lower Earth Orbit, an album I’d only previously heard in an unfinished state prior to the contributions of the incomparable Sidsel. As the first digital buzz of static and the strains of wind instruments, whose cultural heritage belonged to another continent entirely, filled the vehicle, as Sidsel sang with a soulful melodiousness, an ancient lament for lost souls like myself, hungry ghosts, and those found in remote gas stations, featureless structures illuminated white against a reddening sky, kids high on whatever it is kids get high on these days, attending cash registers with a doped-up, unjudgmental, friendliness, the otherworldliness of the landscape was returned to me. No longer blind nor indifferent to the ancient rock formations, the bulky mass, the scale, the striations of stone, gradations of colour changing by degrees animated by the irrepressible sun.’
Early in October 2022 a new Twinkle³ album was released digitally with the vinyl due to drop at the end of the month. For this project, Upon This Fleeting Dream, there are two featured guests – David Sylvian and Kazuko Hohki – and the theme has moved away from the awe-inspiring vastness of the cosmos. Clive Bell explains, ‘The concept for …Fleeting Dream was to base the whole thing on Japanese poems, specifically a selection from the Yoel Hoffmann collection titled Japanese Death Poems. All the poems are very short, giving them weight but leaving plenty of room for the music around them.’
Hoffman writes in the preface to his collection, ‘The consciousness of death is in most cultures very much a part of life. This is perhaps nowhere more true than in Japan, where the approach of death has given rise to a centuries-old tradition of writing a “death poem”. Hundreds of such poems, many with a commentary describing the poet and the circumstances of his or her death, have been gathered from Japanese sources and translated here into English, the great majority of them for the first time. As poems, they share the beauty of a poetry that has already gained the admiration of the West; as death poems, they reflect important aspects of a culture that is still largely unfamiliar to many Western readers.’
The context for many of the poems – known as jisei – is a belief that the spirit takes time to travel on to the next place, and that the arrangements around one’s death can affect the smoothness of that transition. Religious perspectives include seeing death as part of a process of purification and atonement, or an essential component of the Buddhist path to enlightenment. And very different cultural attitudes towards suicide are important. Verses are written in a society where there is honour in a lover’s suicide, or a fighting-man’s self-inflicted end at the defeat of his lord.
The poems themselves are created with an extreme economy of means, their form strictly determined by the number of syllables permitted. Many are tanka – five-line poems comprising (in the original language) a 5-7-5 syllable pattern for the opening three lines followed by a 7-7 closing. Some are haiku, which drop the final two lines/fourteen syllables. Just as the natural environment was at the core of the traditional folk songs in the shakuhachi canon, so these poems are adorned with images bearing witness to the unrelenting rhythm of withering and regeneration driven by the seasons in the world around us. Some of the writers are Zen Monks, some established poets, others jilted lovers, those condemned to death, samurai warriors…
The selection of poems chosen from Hoffman’s collection for the Twinkle³ project are spoken by David Sylvian when presented in English translation and by Kazuko Hohki in the original Japanese. Kazuko is vocalist and founder member of Frank Chickens, the Japanese band who have been on the scene in the UK from the early eighties and with whom Clive Bell has enjoyed a long association.
‘We thought David’s voice would be ideal, to give gravity to the short poems,’ explains Clive. ‘My first idea was for him to read them in Japanese, but he talked me out of that. Then I thought Kazuko could read the same poems in Japanese. It’s interesting to hear the original language – it’s quite musical – and Kazuko has completely her own style of reading, quite playful.’
The words spoken by Sylvian on ‘Throughout the Frosty Night’ are as recorded by nineteenth century samurai scholar Matsu’ura Seizan in his Kasshi Yawa (Tales told at night: anecdotes on shogun and daimyo of the Edo period). There he tells the story of the death of a poet named Hasegawa Shume (c. 1700) who wrote before dying:
‘Throughout the frosty night
I lay awake. When morning bells
rang out, my heart grew clear –
upon this fleeting dream-world
dawn is waking.’
Hoffman’s commentary tells us more: ‘”When he had spoken these words,” says the scholar, his breathing grew shallow. Those pressing around him urged, “Call Buddha’s name”.’ This was the traditional act of those on the verge of the death who sought a peaceful transition to the Pure Land in the West, the Buddhist Paradise. ‘But Shume, rather than praying, merely repeated aloud, “Thanks, thanks.” Then he covered himself and told them not to take away the blanket until a certain hour. At the specified time, they drew back the cover and found him dead.’
It’s an example of a death poem where the writer seemed able to determine the time of their own passing, perhaps even to bring about their own demise by the power of their own will.
The condensed form of the Japanese poetry, even in translation, gives the pure essence, from which our imagination can leap to picture the fine details of the scene. ‘Dawn is waking‘, the literal break of a new day, or perhaps an awakening from the fleeting illusion of earthly life to a new reality.
The jostling of bells accompanies Clive Bell’s high-pitched woodwind as the track begins, to be superseded by the rasp of an electronic signal itself disrupted by seemingly random interference that subtly implies a rhythm. In some moments the accompaniment falls away completely behind Sylvian’s recitation. Drones follow the breath of the flute, a deep frequency modulating upwards as Kazuko Hohki’s Japanese rendition commences. The pacing of her words embodies the playfulness in delivery that Clive Bell described.
shimoyo no kane ni
ukiyo no yume no
akegata no sora’
Describing the evolution of the project, Bell says, ‘The whole thing was based on trust and good intentions. It was all put together quite quickly – elements just fell into place without struggle. David Sylvian gave us a free hand – some encouragement and a couple of comments, but the whole thing was straightforward and simply done.’
Upon This Fleeting Dream is an intriguing and welcome addition to the spoken word pieces that Sylvian has previously delivered, including Uncommon Deities, his own poems for Arve Henriksen’s Cartography, There is No Love with Rhodri Davies and Mark Wastell, and readings from Arseny Tarkovsky for Ryuichi Sakamoto as part of the Concert for Japan and his wonderful async album. Here the tone and timbre of Clive Bell’s playing lead us East to the birthplace of the writing, offset by the synthetic sound sweeps and swirls produced by the digital wizardry of David Ross and Richard Scott.
The album portrays another world in this world, and I’ve enjoyed accompanying ‘Throughout the Frosty Night’ with ‘Graveyard Orbit’ from Debris in Lower Earth Orbit, Sidsel Endresen’s voice reaching into the beyond whilst bringing the incomprehensible comfort of an angel.
‘Throughout the Frosty Night’
Clive Bell – shakuhachi flute, pi saw and khene mouth organ; David Ross – droscillator, modular synths, various wind and string instruments; Richard Scott – sampler, modular synths and analogue electronics; Kazuko Hohki – readings (in Japanese); David Sylvian – readings (in English), field recordings.
Produced by David Ross and Richard Scott. From Upon This Fleeting Dream by Twinkle³ featuring David Sylvian & Kazuko Hohki, Cortizona, 2022.
Verses from Japanese Death Poems: compiled by Yoel Hoffman, published by Tuttle Publishing, © copyright Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Co., Inc., 1986
The above cover image features cover photography by David Sylvian.
All artist quotes in this article are from the author’s conversation with Clive Bell, 2022.
The book Japanese Death Poems can be purchased here (Amazon)
‘Death poems seem to reflect, more than anything else, the spiritual legacy of the Japanese.’ Yoel Hoffman, Introduction to Japanese Death Poems, 1986