Sunlight Seen Through Towering Trees

‘harmony between you and your environment’

A double album comprising a disc of vocal tracks accompanied by another of instrumental cuts was certainly an unusual proposition for a mid-’80s release from a pop artist with chart potential. Early in the genesis of the follow-up album to Brilliant Trees, Sylvian had toyed with releasing the first three vocal tracks he had written backed with ‘Steel Cathedrals’, or perhaps as part of a package with Words with the Shaman. Ultimately those instrumentals would see standalone release in video and EP form respectively, but when Gone to Earth eventually reached us it was in anything but a conventional format.

‘I was really just going to do a vocal album,’ said Sylvian on his press tour for the release, ‘but as I was writing, these instrumental pieces started coming, and there’s a kind of formula to the writing. And every morning I was getting up and I was writing, you know, maybe two of these, three of these pieces a day. And I ended up with such a large amount of material.’ Sylvian knew he wanted to pursue the recording of these instrumentals alongside the songs that would complete the vocal album, so Virgin were approached with the idea. It’s fair to say that the label was reluctant.

‘Virgin weren’t interested and aren’t interested in my instrumental material. I’m signed as a vocal artist and basically that’s what they want, vocal material. So there is a conflict there and there are compromises made which aren’t to do with the music but are to do with contractual compromises.

‘I was told that I was to record a vocal album and do the instrumental album in my spare time. So in other words every morning and every evening, any spare hour that I had I would work on the instrumental album, and then during the daytime, when the other musicians were around, I would work on the vocal album. So it was really unbalanced in a way. There wasn’t enough time spent on the instrumental album, not as much as I would have liked to have spent on it.

‘It was really, “if you don’t finish the vocal album on budget, if you finish the instrumental album first we’ll be very unhappy,” you know. What they hope is that if I finish the vocal album on budget and the instrumental album isn’t finished, I’d put my own money into it to finish it. That’s basically what they hope. Fortunately it worked out ok.’

An important link between the music on the two instalments was to be found in the instrumentation. ‘The new album is based on guitar,’ Sylvian told Radio DJ David Jensen. ‘It’s my first instrument. Although I’m not a very good guitar player, I still do love the instrument. And I have been working with synthesisers for quite some time, and got a little tired of them. And I really wanted to expand the possibilities of the use of guitar. Most of the pieces are guitar-based on Gone to Earth.’

For the second disc, Sylvian wanted to explore some new horizons. ‘I think the instrumental album is more of an education for me at this point in time. It was really to see what I could do with guitar. Because most guitar music tends to be of a certain nature which doesn’t allow you to relax to listen to it, unless it goes totally the other way and becomes very bland. I wanted to do something quite ambient in nature with guitar.’ The breakthrough came through adopting and adapting technology. ‘It was really a formula kind of composition as they were made up of guitar tape loops. And once I’d struck on the formula I was writing this material every day.’

My first experiences of listening to Gone to Earth were when I was studying at university in London. Whilst the gorgeous vocal compositions of Disc One demanded full attention, Disc Two became music that accompanied the writing of many an academic essay.

Sylvian was asked whether he would object to it being labelled ‘atmospheric music’? ‘Well, it really all depends on how people respond to that…In Japan they say BGM and in the West it’s muzak. I think it’s very different from BGM and muzak as that tries to create a kind of false sense of security, a kind of comforting, cushioning, and I detest it… very condescending. I relate the work I’m doing more to something like Brian Eno has been working on, ambient music, but it’s not quite in the same vein.

‘I call it environmental music. In that I hope, if I’m successful – maybe not with this album, maybe in future projects – it should create a kind of harmony between you and your environment, especially the urban environment. Which really helps the individual to maintain their own state of calm rather that dictating to them or… this condescending approach that muzak has.

‘Music has that property and it’s an area that really hasn’t been explored that much. And I think, as I said, in the urban environment it’s something we definitely need. For instance if you’re in a landscape you can experience certain feelings that co-exist. Feelings of loneliness, sadness, isolation, and at the same time a kind of joy, joy of life, a power and a unity with nature. And that’s something in a way we can miss in the urban environment. I think music can help bring back those emotional experiences. And that’s something I’d like to try to do through music.’

‘Sunlight Seen Through Towering Trees’ captures one such moment of being within the natural environment. I’m sure each of us has a clear image in our mind’s eye prompted by the track title, a memory of a time and place when we were aware of the beauty of the world surrounding us, conscious of our own insignificance whilst dwarfed by the scale of a tree canopy above. ‘With the instrumental music the idea is to give a very visual description of the piece,’ explained Sylvian. ‘Because I think a lot of people don’t understand how to listen to the music, and by giving them a very visual title it immediately puts a picture in their mind and then it’s very easy for them to find the way into the music.’

Images from nature pervade Gone to Earth in both lyrics and track titles. The featured picture for this article is a photograph of Sylvian taken by Alastair Thain which was featured on the artwork for Virgin’s 2003 cd re-issue of the album. There is undoubtedly a direct and significant relationship between this shot and another portrait by Thain which The Guardian featured in an article describing it as his ‘best photograph’: Joseph Beuys and carnation. The artist’s voice appears on the first track of the instrumental instalment of Gone to Earth and it had been Sylvian’s intention for his presence and ideas to have been even more to the fore (see ‘The Healing Place’).

Joseph Beuys and carnation, photograph copyright Alastair Thain, 1985

Alistair Thain: ‘Beuys was installing a show, Plight, at the Anthony d’Offay gallery in London…I wanted to use a flower to reference his deep connection to the natural world…He was also really into symbolic meanings and the carnation has lots of associations going back to Greek and Roman times: to love, compassion, and occasionally death…I love the fragility you can see in his face. He died shortly after, in January 1986, and here he is close to death. But that human spark, that charisma that characterised him, was intact…Beuys was an astonishingly powerful presence…You could sense profound authenticity behind the power of his ideas. It didn’t feel contrived or narcissistic…What has stayed with me ever since was his interest in issues that are so important today: healing, inclusiveness, respect for the natural world, the idea of universal love’ (2018). (For more on Beuys’ installation and the Sylvian & Czukay piece of the same name, see ‘Plight’).

There are multiple guitar lines on Sunlight Seen Through Towering Trees, some of resounding purity and others heavily processed, including a contribution by Bill Nelson who, along with Robert Fripp, made up the principal guitarists for the project. Sylvian professed an admiration for Nelson’s own instrumental work, notably the set Trial by Intimacy (The Book of Splendours) which had been released in 1985, the year before Gone to Earth, on Nelson’s own Cocteau Records label. ‘I think that’s the best work he does. The instrumental work from the home studio is excellent. He released a boxed set of records called Trial by Intimacy, I think it was four records. It was excellent material.’

One interviewer enquired as to whether Bill’s releases were the inspiration for Sylvian’s dabbling in the medium of short instrumental pieces? ‘I don’t think so,’ he responded, ‘because it’s something I’ve really been working towards for a long time. I mean even in Japan we always thought one day Japan was going to do an instrumental album but we split up before it was ever done. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do…I started writing the vocal album and during the same period this material started coming about…So it was all written around the same period. It just really happened, I didn’t really plan it. But instrumental albums or instrumental music is an area I’m very interested in.’

Indeed, the absence of his voice was part of the potency. ‘I’m very interested in instrumental music at the moment, because of the power of it. You’re putting over a different sense of mood. Taking away a voice, a guideline for the people, I think it’s easier for them to lose themselves in the piece rather than be guided by what the vocalist is saying and following my particular emotions.’

Sylvian regarded his approach to creating the music as being instinctive rather than cerebral. ‘I hate the idea that my music could be labelled intellectual or whatever. I’m definitely not an intellectual…I think that an intellectual approach to music is a negative one…To write music you really have to be receptive, open, and I think if you’re working from the mind you’re very closed. So I would say I was an instinctive writer in that I try to remain open minded.

‘If we believe as I do that music comes through you and not from you, then you really have to just say you have to remain a good receptor to whatever is coming through you. That has got nothing to do with the intellect. I’d say the intellect robs you of the beauty of inspiration. Because we are talking about things, if you say spiritual or whatever, people interpret these things in different ways. And obviously I think about these things a great deal. It’s not as if I approach the work mindlessly really with a kind of vacant mind waiting for inspiration.

‘I try to concentrate my mind onto one area and then wait for inspiration to come from that point if you like. It’s almost a form of meditation if you like. So, yes there’s a lot of thought that goes into it before and after, but the point of inspiration must be as pure as possible. I mean an ideal, obviously you don’t always live up to that, there are contrived compositions, but it’s an ideal you try to stick to.’

Whilst some of the pieces on the instrumental album develop during their short duration, Sylvian was conscious that others simply capture a specific moment and its accompanying mood. ‘Some of the tracks are very static, they don’t progress, they start and they just continue and finish, I mean there’s no progression in the composition, and that can be quite frustrating if you listen to it intensely, I find it frustrating. Because it was really composed to be used as environmental music…Something like ‘Camp Fire: Coyote Country’ is very static, it doesn’t progress, maybe ‘Sunlight Seen Through Towering Trees’, they don’t progress and I think they’re frustrating for the listener if they listen to them intensely. So I think it’s up to the individual, find out how they want to use it.’ Perhaps the benefit of a ‘static’ composition is that it holds the listener in that single instant, to savour and reflect.

The release came in the wake of the classic early ’80s ambient albums from Brian Eno and also at a time when the New Age music of Wyndham Hill and similar labels was taking hold as a genre, albeit Sylvian considered the latter to be ‘wallpaper music: it has no depth and I think it’s a misuse of environmental music.’

The audience was getting to grips with what this ambient music could be. ‘I think that many people don’t know how to listen to it, or how to use it is really the question,’ mused Sylvian. ‘How to educate an audience into understanding how to use this music? I think it’s going to be a very slow process. But if you take the New Age music in America, that’s already got a big market now. And sure the music isn’t really what we are talking about, it’s not creative in that sense, not really what we call ambient or environmental music. But it’s created an audience, created a market.

‘And in England now there are a couple of companies that are thinking of starting up these special labels for instrumental music, Virgin being one of them. And hopefully they will allow more scope for a more creative form of music to come out of that, rather than stick to the formula that the Americans have stuck to with New Age. So, there’s hope. I mean I look upon the whole thing as being optimistic. I think there’s a chance that they could start financing interesting instrumental projects in future. Because I know a lot of friends that are…interested in making instrumental music that are on the breadline and are given these pathetic budgets to work with and so consequently you end up with substandard productions on the albums, which again makes people wary of buying these things, so it’s a vicious circle.’ 

Once recording was completed, there was still a discussion to be had with Virgin. ‘When the album was finished, they wanted to split the two. They wanted to release them separately, which I though was silly. I mean first of all if you look at it from a totally commercial point of view, you are only going to reach a limited amount of audience with the instrumental music, so why not create your market by releasing them together and therefore the people that are interested in the vocal music will buy the double album and eventually listen to the instrumental album, and maybe buy my next instrumental work if they like it. So that’s just from a commercial standpoint it would make sense, and that’s how I persuaded them.’

Sylvian did understand that the listening experiences for each disc were different. ‘The vocal album is more emotionally involving than the instrumental album,’ was how he put it. ‘The instrumental album is…really to be played in the background, if you like, it’s not really to be listened to intensely. Whereas the vocal album is meant to be listened to intensely, or at least it could be rewarding for the listener if they decided to listen to it in that way. So I can understand, the vocal album is more important for me, but I feel very close to the instrumental album as well. It just all depends how you like to listen to music. If you like to be very involved with music, the vocal album is important, if you just want music for background for environment then the instrumental album will be.’

Whilst the two discs were distinct, their creator was passionate in his belief that they belonged together. ‘Although they were very different in a way in context, in content, I thought in some way they had some form of continuity which ran throughout, even though you listen to them very differently I think. These is a sense of continuity throughout, and they belong together. I didn’t want to separate them.’

Bill Nelson’s Trial by Intimacy set may not have been a direct inspiration for Sylvian’s work but there are some jewels contained within the extensive track-listing. Among these is ‘Sentimental’ from the disc entitled Chamber of Dreams (Music from the Invisibility Exhibition), where Bill’s reflective guitar-work is again centre-stage. Nelson spoke of the creative impulse behind the recordings in similar terms to Sylvian. ‘Intuition, spontaneity and the high disregard for error correction were the only rules adhered to during the recording process…Each piece of music was dealt with as an infant deals with building blocks and instinct was always given presence over reason.’ (1985)

‘Sunlight Seen Through Towering Trees’

Bill Nelson – solo guitar; David Sylvian – all other instruments

Music by David Sylvian

Produced by David Sylvian and Steve Nye, from Gone to Earth, Virgin, 1986

Recorded in London and Oxfordshire 1985-6

All artist quotes in this article are from 1986 unless otherwise indicated. Full sources and acknowledgments for this article can be found here.

Download links: ‘Sunlight Seen Through Towering Trees’ (Apple); ‘Sentimental’ (Apple)

Physical media links: Gone to Earth (burningshed – cd) (Amazon – cd) (Amazon – vinyl re-issue)

‘The instrumentals on Gone to Earth are environmental music that shouldn’t really be listened to intensely. When I’ve listened to it that way I’ve become uncomfortable with it. It works best in a room where a conversation’s going on, or somebody’s working, where the concentration’s divided. The instrumentals are becoming more and more important to me.’ David Sylvian, 1986

3 thoughts on “Sunlight Seen Through Towering Trees”

  1. Pieces of my lifetime hang upon this album: I believe that Gone to Earth is probably my most listened record and it incredibly stands the test of time.

    I wasn’t aware at all of these DS’s indications or impressions about the different way to approach the two parts of his masterpiece – hence, once more, thank you David for putting together this essay with your unrivaled mastery – but I must say that DS’s words completely fit with my candid perception of the album.

    I would even say that, rather than being a “filler” or an autonomous set of music, the instrumentals are instead the perfect follow-up to the sang disc, whose huge intensity, pathos and climax somehow needed a way to relax (like a resolving chord).

    Not being able to afford the sought-after Weatherbox boxset, I always regretted that four of the instrumentals were missing from the single disc version of the CD – SSTTT among them – and I was delighted when the remastered version appeared, twenty years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing these thoughts, oldgondolier. You are so right about how disc two acts as a ‘follow-up’ to the LP of songs, ‘like a resolving chord’ is a wonderful way to express that.

      20 years since the cd re-release already… This music has been a source of inspiration and delight throughout my adult life.


  2. Maybe instead of complaining about his record company he should have been thankful that Virgin indulged him for so long. None of his solo albums were big sellers, compared to Japan, yet Virgin kept him on the label until 2002 with the Camphor release. I don’t know any other label that would put out such a self-indulgent release as the Ember Glance box set. And look what happened when Sylvian started his own label, it eventually “went into freefall” according to his brother Steve Jansen, because Sylvian thought his diminishing audience would follow him down any avant garde rabbit holes he whimsically jumped into.


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