If I Leave No Trace – Empty Handed

‘visceral and compelling’

Early on the Twinkle³ album featuring David Sylvian and Kazuko Hohki, Upon This Fleeting Dream, a torrent of fizzing electronic sound tears from one speaker to another, followed by what seems to be the crackle of a spark leaping between contacts. Synthetic beeps and the fragments of a beat escape from a swirling mix. Soaking in the sounds that accompany Sylvian and Hohki’s readings of ancient Japanese poetry, it’s evident there is something distinctive happening in how synthesisers are deployed.

With the notable exception of the micro-tones of the ‘Pop Song’ single and its b-side ‘A Brief Conversation Ending in Divorce’, synthesised sound in Sylvian’s own work most often summons what could be suitably described as an organic atmosphere. Its creation may be artificial but the effect is to place the listener in an imprecise but nevertheless authentic setting. The approach for Upon This Fleeting Dream, it seems to me, is rather to embrace electronic sound for its uniqueness and to revel in all its possibilities.

Eager to explore the ideas and practice that lie behind this, I recently enjoyed an extended conversation with David Ross who, along with Clive Bell and Richard Scott, makes up the trio that is Twinkle³. David confirms my supposition with an anecdote. ‘Around 2010 I purchased a basic standalone oscillator [one, he tells me, with heterodyning quad-nand circuitry], basic but very rich with harmonics. It was a home-made device from an amateur builder selling on eBay and was only about £50. I couldn’t believe the sound of this thing when I put it through my monitors for the first time. There was no “air” or space in the speakers for anything other than sound. It had an immediacy to it that was visceral and compelling.

‘It seemed to have a physical presence like someone was in the room with me. This was very much something that existed in its own right and had its own life, and I knew then I had to explore it further. You mention that on David Sylvian’s albums electronics are often used to create atmosphere, suggest mood and space. The sound of this raw oscillator struck me in a quite different way, it was not suggestive of anything but itself, which I found liberating.’

Both Richard Scott and David Ross are credited with playing modular synths for Upon This Fleeting Dream. As a listener rather than a musician, this area of musical practice is something of a mystery to me. I was keen to understand more from David about his fascination for working with such a set up. ‘Audio has an analogue expressed as voltage – the phenomenon that allows music to travel from your hi-fi amplifier to the speakers along a cable as an electrical signal, ultimately manifesting as audio,’ he told me. ‘It’s some kind of miracle! Unless I’m mistaken, the final path that sound travels on its way to the brain is also an electrical one, not an audio path. There is some kind of intimate connection between voltage, sound, and our perception of it, a potential that can be explored best, in my opinion, in the area of voltage-controlled electronics.

‘As the values of audio and voltage are interchangeable, voltage can be utilised as a medium of control or tool for composing with sound. Modular synthesis allows an individual to determine how they would like to go about that themselves. There is a basic architecture that developed from modular synthesis to create keyboard instruments like the Mini-Moog and later polyphonic instruments, able to generate scaled pitches and varied timbres, combining waveforms of different shapes then filtering and enveloping them. The direction and stages through which signals travel are generally hardwired by design in these instruments.

‘But aside from the keyboard as a format, there are any number of other ways to approach making and controlling sound. The theremin, one of the earliest electronic instruments, requires no tactile reference but can be played with great expressivity. There is no fixed architecture in modular synthesis. Achieving any musical task usually requires utilising a number of functions/modules/utilities in concert. Importantly, in modular, you can break all operations down into their most basic stages and create the order, interaction and behaviour you desire from the ground up. Accomplishing specific musical tasks in modular can be satisfying – but not nearly as much as when something exciting happens that you hadn’t anticipated. The desire to pursue this medium is, for me, about the joy I sometimes experience in those moments.’

Talking to David about his personal evolution as a musician, the experience that generated the first spark was one which will have been shared with many readers of this site. ‘I saw Japan in Hammersmith on their farewell tour, I think I was just 14 years old at the time. It was a moment that has always stayed with me. At that age I had no idea to pursue music beyond being a fan, collecting records and going to see bands. By the next year I found myself drumming on a top hat with a pair of chopsticks and then progressed to a very basic drumkit. I had been interested in painting and design and went to art college from school, but by the time I was half-way into the course, I was only interested in one thing: music! Seeing Japan and also an early Simple Minds gig at the Lyceum (with Kenny Hyslop on drums) had set me on a different path.’

Synthesisers were not where Ross started in his music making but his earlier experiences informed how he approached electronic sound once it had captured his imagination. ‘My background is as a right-handed self-taught drummer, who without knowing any better, set the drums up like a left-hander – it’s how I still play today. I started playing off-the-cuff music for fun with my old friend Matt Deighton (now a notable folk singer songwriter), around the age of 15. An ability to listen and improvise was my only musical skill and I gradually started to become more aware and interested in it. I started listening to jazz, Indian classical music, free jazz and then discovered free music. I went to as many gigs as I could afford, to see heroes like drummer Roger Turner, saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey, and also witnessed a golden era of legendary Indian musicians still visiting the UK in the ’80s/’90s.

‘I made a switch from acoustic drums to electronics when I joined improvising quartet Grutronic led by Richard Scott. I had met Richard in the late ’80s in London. He was running an improvisation workshop in Stratford which I attended on a whim and because I could afford it. We struck up a friendship and started playing music together. Richard was playing soprano sax at the time. We both loved Ornette Coleman, Bismillah Khan, King Sunny Ade and Stockhausen. We formed a band with a bass player, Pool Trio, and did a couple of UK tours. Essentially our improvisations were based on melodic and rhythmic ideas. I also met Clive Bell at this time as Richard invited him to perform solo on our Pool tour and also sit in with the trio for a set.

‘Grutronic, that next group with Richard, had a different approach to improvising altogether. It was a much more abstract music than Pool, influenced by the ideas of John Stevens and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s “molecular” approach to collective playing. These ideas, as I understood them, offered a way to construct group music out of tiny interactions, where rhythms, longer lines and musical forms started to appear out of the collective sound and exchanges of energy. Richard abandoned the saxophone altogether to pursue these ideas with customised electronics – lots of new performance-oriented electronic instruments and processors started appearing around this time – and encouraged me to find my own solutions. Initially I started processing the acoustic things I was playing before eventually developing an entirely electronic sample-based set-up to meet the needs of this lightning-fast and highly unpredictable music.

‘We made a couple albums for Evan Parker’s PSI label, one of which is a performance in Bratislava with Evan himself which I am still rather proud of, entitled Together in Zero Space – in my opinion it’s completely nuts and very beautiful!’

Evan Parker had by this time contributed to David Sylvian’s Manafon, an album based upon small ensemble improvisations (see ‘Emily Dickinson‘). It’s a musical discipline that is very important to David Ross. ‘Improvising was initially a means of just having fun but soon become a way of generating and writing material. In time it would become an end in itself. Improvisation opened up the whole subject of music for me as it seemed fundamental to all human musical endeavour regardless of time or place. I felt a connection to anybody who had ever been in that situation. Importantly I didn’t have the feeling I was doing something strange or solitary/internal, the very opposite, it was all about listening and responding and a feeling of entering a new world where there was a collective consciousness and not just my own.

‘I began drawing on my experience as a workshop leader of creative music sessions with learning-disabled adults. I experimented with assembling combinations of different instruments that produced a coherent/attractive collective sound in order to achieve some sense of sonic order for the ensemble, without compromising individual freedom of expression. I tried bringing this idea to the music I was developing with Clive Bell in a duo that began shortly after the Pool Trio had ended, by attempting to play lots of different instruments within the same set-up to improvise a sort of orchestration, rather than producing a single line.

‘I experimented with a range of pitched/tonal and overtone instruments, becoming particularly interested in the most rudimentary forms – the Jew’s Harp, mouth bow, diddley bow, and kantele (zither). Like drums these instruments are fundamental and common to many musical cultures all over the world. I would go on to use all of these instruments on Twinkle³ recordings.’

David Ross and Clive Bell prior to a performance at the John Rylands Library, Manchester. David Ross’ set-up in the foreground. Photograph by Judith Goodman.

All these musical experiences fed into what David Ross would contribute to Upon This Fleeting Dream. On the instrumental title track that opens the album we can hear his sound processing in action. An Asian wind instrument can be identified but – at least in part – its sound is directed through the modular set up.

‘At the start of lockdown I invested in a sampling instrument that operates in the control-voltage domain, the Make Noise Morphagene, which allows me to control/manipulate any sound recorded into it with the rhythmic control voltage (CV) being generated by my modular system. The track ‘Upon This Fleeting Dream’ was made with a capture of Clive playing the khene, a Thai mouth organ, which was sampled and then controlled/accompanied by rhythm and pitched sounds generated from my modular system. The solo, free of the CV, becomes a lead voice.’

The result is a unique blend of the timbre of the khene, rooted in centuries of musical tradition and controlled by the breath of its player, interacting with the electronics of the modular set-up which manipulates the sound according to its own determination within parameters set by Ross and subject only to his intervention.

The same approach underlies ‘If I Leave No Trace’, one of the tracks with David Sylvian’s narration. ‘‘If I Leave no Trace’ was made from a solo on the pi saw, a reeded flute, treated in a similar way. Elements of the solo were recorded into the sampler and scored within the rhythm/processing patch, then the solo was used as a lead voice. What you hear on the record in the body of those pieces is a straight stereo capture of all these musical elements arranging and re-arranging themselves simultaneously in real-time rather than a multi-tracked construction.

‘It’s the sound of an elaborate synthesiser patch free-associating and regenerating. I am listening and directing the course of things as they unfold and trying to make musical decisions, i.e. when a change of some kind is necessary. The synthesiser can be programmed to generate evolving material but has no ears to hear or mind to interpret or critique its own output, so I’m not completely redundant!’

The presence of beats within the tracks confound any conventional sense of rhythm and are an essential aspect of what Ross wished to explore with his custom set-up. ‘I couldn’t find a way to explore the ideas I had for the rhythmic arrangement of sounds in an electronic music context on any existing instrument or combination of instruments. I often find the rigidity of timing/phrasing in much electronic music to lack expressivity, as it is often dictated by global quantised clock values rather than the sense of time being a product of the ever-changing tension/release, amplitude or other values occurring between the elements at play within the music. In my belief, time/tempo is more natural, dimensional and expressive when “modulated” by these factors.’

In addition to his readings, Sylvian provided another element that was integrated into the music and processed alongside the various acoustic instruments played by Ross and Clive Bell: field recordings. Ross: ‘David sent over several hours of recordings made on his phone. I listened to everything and tried to explore the potential of anything I thought might be useful with my studio and voltage-controlled sampler. The example that comes to mind I was really happy with are the metallic sounds on the intro and outro of ‘If I Leave No Trace’. Some kind of pitched filter resonance seemed to start happening, extending the melody inherent in the sample to create an almost meditative atmosphere.’

‘If I leave
no trace behind
in this fleeting world
what then could you

The words here are drawn from the Genji Mongatari (The Tale of Genji) by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978- c. 1014) and specifically from the story of a girl named Ukifune. This is how the circumstances are described in Yoel Hoffman’s book, Japanese Death Poems: ‘It is not clear whom she loves, but at least two young men are enamoured of her. In a way characteristic of the Japanese, Ukifune decides to do away with herself in order to solve her dilemma. Just before throwing herself into the Uji river, she writes a number of poems.’ The text that Sylvian reads is that of her final note to Prince Niou-no-miya, the most ardent of her suitors.

This sense of a life being erased from history recurs in the deliciously brief final track of the album, ‘Empty Handed’. Backed by a reprise of the musical theme from the album’s opening, Sylvian reads a couplet emphasising the humble nature of our birth and death, words that draw us to question the significance of a single human life. The poem was written by a Zen monk, Kozan Ikkyo, on the day of his death in 1360:

‘Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.’

Exploring David Ross’ previous work, I noticed a recurrence of imagery from the Hindu religion, for instance for a 2021 release with Clive Bell on Mark Wastell’s Confront label, Garuda vs Naga. Here the sleeve-notes tell us, ‘The name refers to the eternal and persistent tussle between two fantastical creatures from Hindu mythology and also reflects something about how the record was made.’ Just as on Upon This Fleeting Dream, Clive Bell’s playing of the bamboo shakuhachi and pi saw acts both as the lead voice and the raw material to generate responses from David’s modular system. ‘The result,’ he says, ‘is that the two elements (pre-recorded audio and audio-generated electronics), become inextricably intertwined, just like the fates of Garuda and Naga.’

Given these religious allusions and the reflections on mortality central to Upon This Fleeting Dream, is there a spiritual dimension to David Ross’ music-making? ‘Short answer, maybe… For myself, I think I’m agnostic by nature, I don’t like to discount any information. I also don’t feel any pressure to try and understand the universe, I am aware that that is well beyond my remit. I believe that the “truth” knows itself and doesn’t require me to. In the meantime there are the endless mysteries of just being here to mull over – breathing, looking, being conscious, let alone speculating on music, aesthetics, quantum physics or god.

‘Perhaps mystery merges into a feeling of spirituality when emotions are heightened, as they often are when making music, creating a kind of elevated consciousness, or maybe there is an actual spiritual dimension, I don’t pretend to know and happily accept that I am on a need-to-know basis with reality. The feeling of collective conscious I have experienced playing music in groups has made me think about the phenomenon of consciousness in a broader context.

‘Monotheism, quantum physics, and Hinduism/Buddhism seem to me to share the idea that the universe itself is somehow a “conscious” entity. In Monotheistic belief, god is omnipresent and conscious, in Hinduism the same is said of the all-pervasive life-force Prana. In quantum physics the zero-point-field is the omnipresent substrate of reality. I broadly accept the idea that the universe is somehow a “unity” but don’t necessarily attribute that to any particular god/gods or scientific principle.

‘I do believe we have an unconscious but direct physical connection to this conscious universe somewhere within our being, which informs our present and evolving state, from regulating unconscious processes like breathing to more emotive interactions – anticipating threat, etc. I believe the evolution of everything in nature is informed by a similar connection to the wider world around it.’

The cover of Stochastic Moods by David Ross, Cuspeditions, 2018. Photograph by Judith Goodman.

David Ross released an album of electronics in 2018, Stochastic Moods, which forms part of a trilogy of solo releases by each member of Twinkle³ on the Cuspeditions label which followed on from the group’s project featuring Sidsel Endresen, Debris in Lower Earth Orbit. For Stochastic Moods, Ross observed that our human brain, with its electrical connections and impulses, acts as a complex filter to create ‘states of relative stability’, determining what we experience as human consciousness. ‘I started thinking of improvising with control-voltage electronics as a parallel to these processes, regarding the electronic field as a metaphor for the zero-point-field or vital principle,’ he says.

‘Composing with volatile analogue systems now seemed an endeavour to distil stable voltage-states from the infinitely random potential of the electronic field, to determine audible balance situations for musical contemplation.’ (2018)

Having explored with David the method and philosophy that lie behind his music, I find myself listening to Upon This Fleeting Dream with enriched perspective. Now I can appreciate not only the text and instrumentation from ancient cultures but also their interaction with 21st-century sound processing techniques as the self-determination of synthesiser patches and sequencers becomes a key element within the improvisation.

Alongside the tracks from Upon This Fleeting Dream, I add to my playlist ‘Churning The Ocean of Milk’ from David Ross & Clive Bell’s Garuda vs Naga as an extension of their work together and the pure electronics of ‘Zero Point Field’ from David’s Stochastic Moods. It’s an intriguing and novel world in sound, and I’m glad to have encountered it.

‘If I Leave No Trace’ – ‘Empty Handed’

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; 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 photography by David Sylvian.

Unless otherwise indicated, all artist quotes in this article are from the author’s conversation with David Ross, 2023. Full sources and acknowledgements can be found here.

Download links: ‘Churning the Ocean of Milk’ (bandcamp); ‘If I Leave No Trace’ (bandcamp); ‘Zero Point Field’ (bandcamp); ‘Empty Handed’ (bandcamp)

Physical media: Upon This Fleeting Dream (bandcamp) (UK stockists – junoresident); Stochastic Moods (bandcamp)

The book Japanese Death Poems can be purchased here (Amazon)

‘A developing interest in composing with electronic systems and a desire to explore certain musical/rhythmic ideas that were impossible to realise on any off-the-shelf electronic instrument led me into the world of voltage-controlled analogue synthesisers. After a few years of trial and error I started assembling a modular system of my own design, it’s the system you hear on Upon This Fleeting Dream, and is very much based around trying to explore the same rhythmic ideas that have always motivated me. Summing up, I have tried to bring all of my experience as an instrumentalist, improviser, synthesist and composer to the making of Upon This Fleeting Dream.’ David Ross, 2023

2 thoughts on “If I Leave No Trace – Empty Handed”

  1. I’ve never read something so ‘visceral and compelling’ like this amazing (again) feature! ‘Absolutely spellbound’!

    What astonishes me the most is that the article starts with something we could call ‘mechanics’ for then originating something we could call ‘spiritual’: wow, i’m speechless (now)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Marta. I really enjoyed talking to David and exploring his practice and philosophy. I’m listening to ‘Upon This Fleeting Dream’ and related releases which fresh perspective now.


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