My favorite David Sylvian song is called "Fire in the Forest." Recorded for the singer's 2003 CD, Blemish, the song, just a voice singing over a humming guitar drone, has a gentle intensity that pulled me through a winter spent riding around on public transportation in the suburbs of Toronto. Hearing phrases like "there is always sunshine/behind the grey skies/I will try to find it/yes I will try" on headphones again and again in snowy darkness, somehow showed a fragile determination to transcend the ego's limits, made all the more moving for its place at the end of a record full of dark songs about spiritual struggle. Blemish is not a word normally associated with spiritual practice, yet the record reflects Sylvian's growing and deepening experience of sadhana, first with Mother Mira, then Shree Ma, with whom Sylvian and his family lived in California in the mid-1990s, and in recent years with Mata Amritanandamayi or Ammachi, as she's affectionately known.
Sylvian grew up in a non-religious family in South London in England and formed the group Japan in 1974. The group went on to considerable success as glam /new romantic rockers, but broke up after releasing the marvelous Tin Drum (1981). Sylvian has pursued a solo career since, whose early highlights include Brilliant Trees (1983), written in collaboration with trumpeter Jon Hassell and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Secrets of the Beehive (1987). A master of songs describing an existential spiritual struggle, such as Tin Drum's 'Ghosts', with its chorus "Just when I think I'm winning/ when I've broken every door/ the ghosts of my life/ blow wilder than before", Sylvian's lyrics have taken on an increasingly explicit spiritual form, reflecting his studies with various teachers after his move to America in the 1990s, where he still lives with his wife, singer Ingrid Chavez, and children. The first fruit of this period of sadhana, 1999's Dead Bees on a Cake, begins with the warm, bhakti-filled "I Surrender" and ends with a devotional vocal by Shree Ma.
The lushness of Dead Bees makes the austere, intense Blemish, with its stunning minimalist guitar work courtesy of Christian Fennesz and Derek Bailey, all the more surprising. The surprise for me, however is one of recognition, of finding feelings, confusions and internal struggles that I could not find a way of articulating, suddenly manifested, in gentle yet rigorous form. The surprise is compounded on the singers's new EP with Sakamoto, World Citizen, a startlingly direct, compassionate description of the current political situation in the USA - in effect, a protest song, yet one which does not contradict Amma's teachings at all.
One of Sylvian's most remarkable songs, Secrets of the Beehive's Orpheus, sings of the Greek legend, whose singing could charm animals, humans and Gods alike. We think of music today as something disposable, as "pop", as background music. Without hiding behind the rhetoric of "high art" or of any particular religious practice, Sylvian's music points to that Orphic power of music, to reveal to ourselves what it means be alive.
I met Sylvian in downtown Manhattan with his lovely daughter Amira. The singer still has the beauty of legend, but little of the ethereal quality that is habitually attributed to him. He speaks quietly, thoughtfully, precisely, while his daughter speaks on a cell phone to her mother, or lounges, reading, graciously tolerating us.
DS: I often feel that there's a greater union between myself and my teachers when I'm not physically in their presence. There's a whole other level of experience when I'm in their presence but that sense of non-physical merging, of intimacy is profound.
MB: It's surprising that you can visit someone who's been dead for six hundred years and burst into tears in their presence. That's how I felt at Hazrat Allaudin Sabri's shrine in India. They say that he was so fierce in his lifetime that the only person who could come physically close to him was a musician, who would sit fifty feet away and play for him. And you can still feel that fierceness today!
DS: That's another element, isn't it? The element of ferocity in the proximity of the guru. People talk about the experience of bliss, but the level of ferocity, the fire that one has to walk through, live through - that is also very intense. The degree of suffering increases as the experience deepens, for me, because at first there's less attachment to who one believes one is, and it's easier to let go of all the things that need to be let go of. As you move through different stages, the degree of fear increases with each new level of experience because ultimately you're getting to the root foundations of the ego which are unshakable. And there is real fear because you see the death of the ego approaching, and if you let go of that, what is there? As you have to face your fears in the presence of your guru, you witness other people going through their experiences. There's often this perception, 'why do I have to live through this fear? I'll take on anybody else's obstacles, but not this one!' (laughs) It's so pinpoint perfect, it's precision made, this laser-like intensity focusing on just what needs to be focused on. Once you move beyond a given level of fear, apprehension, there's an enormous release and a whole new world of possibility seems to open up. You live and breathe that for a while until you come up against that next obstacle.
MB: A lot of people like to think that a spiritual narrative consists in going from darkness and suffering to peace and equanimity, but I think of your music, and in particular of Blemish, which is so much darker than the records that came before. It's still a record about sadhana though ...
DS: It's darker than ever! Some of the experiences you're forced to live through, to face head on, you see them with such clarity. I don't necessarily feel better equipped to deal with what's coming, but compared to the past, when certain negative experiences have welled up and I've become immersed in them and not been able to find a way out of them... Going through a similar kind of thing at this point in life, it has been a very different experience. First of all there was a certain amount of objectivity, of being able to step back and say all of this is just par for the course, it's just part of the learning process. Whatever comes out of this is just to strengthen me and help me to burn off whatever needs to be cleared away so that I can see things clearly.
A lot of things that I couldn't face in my life I could face in the studio environment. I would close that door and start working and open myself to whatever came through. And often it was very negative emotions. And I thought well, I'll just look straight at them, and more than that, I'll take them even further than I feel them in my daily life, because I wanted to go as far with them as I possibly could. I felt very safe doing that. I felt that there was a strength inside of me that would allow me to pull back at the end of the day and be able to do away with those emotions. So I was pushing myself deeper and deeper into the negativity of the experience, wanting to know what that felt like that, if you let yourself go to the point of hatred, how does that surface and how do you give that a voice? It was a way of experiencing those experiences and giving them a new vocabulary that was pertinent for now.
MB: Now as in our time?
DS: Yes. I was also feeling that all the familiar forms of popular song were no longer doing it for me. Even those evergreen artists that you go back to time and time again weren't moving me any more. The form had lost its potency, it had been exhausted. I was beginning to feel: what next, what do you do? And I felt that I personally had to find a new form for what I was experiencing, and I couldn't encapsulate these experiences in traditional forms I'd been using. I feel it's true of other arts too: now is an important time to find vocabularies that are pertinent to our time.
Everything becomes a commodity. We're told that if we understand your taste in how you decorate your room at home then we can probably guess what kind of music will go with that environment. So it's a matter of tying everything together in packages so we can all have what's known as good taste, a tasteful environment. We can dress well, we have good taste in our cultural environment, we can participate in it but without any commitment, no going out on a limb, always tapping into something that's termed classic whether it's a couch or a Marvin Gaye record.
But when we find something that challenges all of that in the culture, that's when we discover who we are, and our response to that isn't preconditioned. We don't have the benefit of reading a review of this experience prior to having it, we have to comprehend it on our own terms: "why did I feel so irritated when I was provoked in that way?" I want to have that kind of experience. The one that isn't scripted. The one that will throw you into the deep end of an experience and you just have to work it out for yourself. There is no right or wrong response, only your true response. And that's what I try to find in my work, that true response. It doesn't necessarily make it that comfortable an experience to listen to but that's not the issue here. It's just trying to find a means to grapple with what it means to be alive in the here and now, trying to find a vocabulary for it, trying to press the right buttons in me and hopefully that will communicate to others.
MB: When you think of musicians who've become involved in sadhana, they often take on the costumery that comes with sadhana, but you seem to have made a conscious decision against doing that ...
DS: It's just not an outfit that felt comfortable to wear. You try everything at some point or another. When I was with Shree Ma we went through that, as a family, supporting and performing with her, but it didn't feel right.
MB: Have you done bhajans?
DS: I haven't recorded them, but we've sung them obviously. I'm very familiar with the form. But there's a certain resistance to that as a musician, an artist. I feel that I'm a very fallible person, I have powerfully conflicting emotions and I don't want to give the false impression that all is right in my world. On one level the world has a beautiful simplicity and clarity to it. On another level it's only got far more complicated, with an increased degree of suffering. I want to mirror that duality of experience. Sometimes I may only want to focus on the blissful elements of divine awareness, maybe within an entire project or just within one piece of music. Or maybe it lies behind everything I do already. It's hard to say. I don't analyze what I do to that degree. But I can't do away with all the questions I have about what it means to be alive in the here and now, all the troubles and emotional conflicts, the love and hate that live side by side. I don't believe it's possible to experience a purity of emotion, I don't believe I ever feel only love except possibly in the lap of Amma. Outside of that beautiful place, love is accompanied by a whole complexity of emotions including its mirror opposite. I want my work to have that complexity, because the best work is the kind of material that, no matter what frame of mind you come to it with, you can still see yourself mirrored in it.
The great failure of so called spiritual music that we're surrounded by in this culture is that it's a music that tries to placate, it tries to insist that you be peaceful and filled with love. Well nothing could irritate me more than being surrounded by a work of art at any level that's insisting I feel something. I would rather work embody all the possibilities and let people find themselves within it hopefully. They see themselves mirrored in the work and they find a release through the expression of the work. That's the best that I can do. I wouldn't want to give the impression of an ivory tower existence where nothing seems to touch you any more, that somehow you can ride over all these obstacles because you've found a greater inner peace.
MB: That's the problem of New Age music, and why so many people are so resistant to the idea of spiritual practice, or music that addresses spiritual issues.
DS: Yes, but it's funny ... we spoke earlier about spiritual music, and the first name that came up was John Coltrane. And that's the antithesis of everything we think of culturally as spiritual music. But there it is, there's the fire, it's right there in the work, the fire of purification, of suffering, of bliss. It's all there, embodied in that work and you can tap into that work on any of those fundamental levels, and experience it in a beautiful and profound way. That's the beauty and strength of a work that reflects all that we are and potentially can be. Maybe it's too much to strive for and maybe you're guaranteed to fail 99.9% of the time. But it's definitely a goal worth aspiring to.
MB: Your own sadhana is involved in very complex spiritual traditions, but the terms in which you describe spiritual struggle in your music, aside from a song like 'Krishna Blue' on Dead Bees on a Cake, avoid direct reference to these traditions and practices. Is it possible or necessary to articulate the specificity of your sadhana in your music?
DS: I don't want to fall into a stereotypical response to my relationship to the divine. I don't want it to feel too comfortable in my own work, as a writer. Writing a piece like 'Krishna Blue', that was during a period of the enormous romance of the relationship with the guru, which is lovely, and it's still present in my life. But now I want to deal with the complexity.
In a sense the guru romances you to begin, you kind of get an easy ride, so that you can just experience all the profound love that is there, without the discoloration of your own ego. And once you have been led in so far, you begin to have experiences that are more profound but far more difficult to undergo. I don't want to fall back on the romance of the journey. What is more intriguing is the reality of the journey because the reality is so much more amazing than just simply the romance. The reality of the journey encompasses so much, and there's no separation from it in any aspect of life. Not one aspect, no matter what one is doing. That's an incredible thought.
I compartmentalized my life at some point, saying, there's this and there's that and then there's spiritual life. To me, now, it's all become spiritual life. There's no part I'll allow myself to push to one side and say, well that's my dirty little secret and I keep that over there. No, it's all a part of my spiritual life. That's a tremendous recognition. Years and years of analysis couldn't have brought me to this point in time, to bring all of these separate elements and embrace them as one. I've noticed there's this radical shift in perception about what my life is, and doing away with the compartmentalizing, which seems to be borne out of what one perceives to be the good and bad in one's self, what is good or bad for one, and the different faces we show to ourselves.
MB: It's so hard to know what do with the outbursts, the things that one would like to be exceptions to the nice pure spiritual system. I love that title, Blemish, for that reason. It's the hardest thing to face up to.
DS: It really is. To me the notion of telling a story about who one is, while it facilitates a sense of mental well being and coherence to ones life journey, is basically a lie. It's so well edited that it can't possibly embrace who we really are, and of course who we really are is beyond all of that. So I've tried to let go of the notion of the story. In fact, now that there are all these different component parts of who I am, there is no conceivable story that can hold it. There's these moments that shine with clarity and beauty, and then there's these darker elements which are extremely dark. What am I going to do with them? All I can say is that that's divine too, and I now have to bring them in and embrace them as who I am, and they're part of me until whenever, until the next stage.
This article first appeared in slightly modified form in Ascent magazine. Thanks to Eddie Stern, Robert Moses, Clea McDougall and Kristin Leigh for their generous help with it.
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