Questions devised by Markus Deisenberger
The first David Sylvian album I listened to was ‘Gone to earth’. Then came ‘Secrets Of The Beehive’, which for me was and still is a masterpiece. If I compare your new album ‘Manafon’ to ‘Secrets of the Beehive’, they couldn’t be more different from each other. The only similarity seems to be in the level of complexity. If your voice wasn’t that recognisable it would even be easy to believe that these are not only two different decades and two different works, but also two different artists. When you look back: Do you feel the same?
with Ryuichi Sakamoto 1987 © Yuka Fujii
I don’t look back, but certainly there’s been a fair bit of work produced. Some of it I feel completely divorced from, some of it partially. I’m frequently amazed that my peers still go out and tour material written when they were far younger men and women. I no longer feel I am the author of much of my own work and so sometimes feel an impostor when performing the material. I go out of my way to avoid experiencing this.
But to answer the question; Surely part of the fascination with my work lies in its diversity and in the growth of the individual at the heart of it? In a sense it’s important to acknowledge that this is indeed the same individual that created these recordings. We change, we age, evolve, times change and the language we use to talk about the same issues needs to change with them. I’m attempting to speak of these same issues, reflect the human condition, in a voice that speaks to now. Music as comfort food has its place but we’re lacking in the ‘music as experience’ department. Something that can potentially give a shock to the system, jolt us out of our apathy, and awaken us to the truth of our individual or collective predicament.
Slow Fire Tour 1995 © Ingrid Chavez
In The Wire interview you said after ending Japan you found a new base. Were you referring to ‘Brilliant Trees’?
I’m not sure what I was referring to from your paraphrasing but maybe I was speaking about the need to find a philosophical grounding, a rootedness from which the new work might grow. This was an active search taken at the time, 81-83, which unearthed something fundamental to my well being which was, and continues to be, invaluable to me.
How has your thinking, your view on the world changed since then, when you started your solo career back in the days of ‘Brilliant Trees’?
I’m still rooted in the same soil. I’ve grown a lot, matured. At least I hope I have. But I still recognise the man that wrote the material, I understand where he was coming from, his aims and goals. My worldview hasn’t changed so much as expanded. It continues to expand.
Mont Blanc 1984 © Yuka Fujii
How come that with Christian Fennesz, Werner Dafeldecker, Franz Hautzinger, Michael Moser and Burkhard Stangl so many Austrian musicians contributed to “Manafon”?
Well, the sessions took place in Vienna for a reason. The reason being there were these wonderful musicians residing there. I’d heard Wrapped Islands by Christian and Polwechsel and was really impressed by the restraint displayed in their performances and wanted to tap into that, in some fashion, for my own needs. Christian encouraged me to come to Vienna and go for what it was I had in mind. In some way you could say he acted as go-between or facilitator.
Was there a special moment, when it became clear to you that these sessions would lead to a definite output, to a record, or was it an intention from the very beginning?
Well, the intention had to be there from the outset. I didn’t know for sure if this approach, working with free improvising musicians in search of a fairly specific set of goals, was going to work or not but by the time I left Vienna, after one week of working there, I knew I was going to see this thing through, that the process worked.
Many journalists described ‘Manafon’ as a quasi ‘follow up’ to ‘Blemish’. Do you really feel the same, because for me ‘Blemish’, on which you also worked together with Fennesz, is possibly the closest record to ‘Manafon’, but it’s still miles away?
It is a sister to Blemish in that the approach to the writing, or rather the process involved in Manafon’s creation , mirrors that of Blemish, is an extension and development of those self same principles.
You said you took your first improv-steps on ‘Rain Tree Crow’, a very interesting project with your ex-band-mates from Japan. Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri and Steve Jansen back in 1991. Does the Title track on ‘Rain Tree Crow’, on which you sing over layers of improvised synthesizer-sounds and pipes, come close to the making of your latest work?
My first experience with improv came with the recording of a soundtrack by the name of Steel Cathedrals back in 1984. The second, and more important step, came when working with Holger Czukay on Plight and Premonition. It was because of the positive nature of this experience that I instigated the RTC project.
with Karl and Holger. Can Studio Köln 1987
If we want to look for early references for ‘Manafon’ we could possibly start with the track ‘Ghosts’. There’s numerous other pieces which one could point to during the intervening period between ‘81 and the present time all of which may or may not be relevant but were certainly part of my personal evolution. ‘Manafon’ is the culmination of 30 odd years of working as performer, composer and producer. It sometimes feels more like emotional archeology than anything else.
There are also a few improvised instrumental tracks on ‘Rain Tree Crow’. On the other hand there is a pure pop song such as ‘Backwater’. Was the to and fro between pop an impro – maybe that´s one of the special qualities of this work – caused by a struggle between members of the band or a struggle within yourself?
recording at Miraval, France 1989 © Steve Jansen
Although much of the finished work incorporates seeds of the original improvisations from which it grew, there was a lot of re-recording and polishing of the material. I don’t remember there being too much of a struggle regarding the different directions the material took although I do remember I’d frequently be forced to justify my decisions whereby one piece or approach might be deemed out of context and another not. ‘Blackwater’ might be the exception here. I think I fought harder for that track than any other. Not because if was of the greatest interest but it was a strong piece that worked well in the body of the remainder of the album.
with Richard Barbieri. Condulmer Studio. Italy 1989 © Steve Jansen
There are very few musicians in pop-history that always moved forward and really did not care about the mainstream. You seem to be one of these guys who always and only did what he wanted to do. But your path as a musician also seems to go back and forth – not in terms of quality but in terms of the degree of experimentation. For example it must have been a big step from ‘Brilliant Trees’ to ‘Gone to earth’, or from works with Czukay to ‘Dead Bees’, from works with Fripp to ‘Blemish’?
I can only say that the evolution appears relatively linear to me with frequent diversions, which I’ve tried to more or less eradicate, and occasional, and very welcome, leaps every decade or so. For example, from Tin drum to Brilliant trees or from Dead bees to Blemish. These are very important evolutionary leaps that change the shape of what’s to come.
San Francisco 1999 © Ingrid Chavez
Indigene cultures have a very different feeling for time compared to the society we live in. It is much less linear. They feel and live in cycles. Is this a way of thinking you associate yourself with?
Maybe the spiral is more of an apt analogy. The growth of the individual isn’t a linear journey. It’s experienced as multi dimensional, multi facetted, intuitive, and profoundly complex whilst conversely, and in actuality, it’s imbued with a simple clarity, a pure-tone playfulness and profundity which is something that frequently eludes us. We are ancient and fully alive in the moment. There’s less to be learned than to be undone.
In response to the question which arises constantly following the recording of ‘Manafon’; even when you’ve fallen from the path or deny the path exists, you’re still on the path.
Is there anything in your work you wish you had not done?
If you mean are there albums I’d prefer to live without, sure, there’s a few. Anything recorded prior to my 21st birthday might be eradicated without sense of loss. The second album Holger and I recorded together was somewhat forced. I certainly wasn’t in a healthy state of mind at that time. Also, ‘The first day’ suffered for similar reasons. But the experience of making just about everything I’ve been involved in has, in someway, proved formative. Working with Robert was tremendously educational and his presence in my life at that pivotal moment in time was welcome, even if I’m not convinced by the results of the studio recording we produced together. Live, it was something else.
with Robert Fripp circa 1985 © Yuka Fujii
Then there's aspects of any given work that could be improved upon or maybe shouldn’t have been attempted in the first place. But, as I said earlier, I don't look back. I don't go back and listen to the material afresh. That's a slightly intimidating proposition. As Borges once said, 'I never reread what I’ve written. I’m far too afraid to feel ashamed of what I’ve done'.
with Holger Czukay, 1988 © Nick White
The Wire titled their cover-story with you ‘the invention of solitude’. For me that sounds artificial as if someone purposely wanted to express themselves in a calculated or premeditated way, I didn’t experience ‘Manafon’ as a created soundtrack to silence and desperation... but as a very, very personal work...
I’ll not disagree.
The poet RS Thomas, whom the title-track of ‘Manafon’ refers to, has overcome a struggle with faith. Do you feel especially linked to him?
I can't say that I do. He just seems somewhat familiar to me. I think I grasp his mindset. He feels like a possible distant relation. I'm able to empathise with his contradictions, his single mindedness, his desire for the living knowledge of the divine reality.
He writes about work and workers to stay involved or connected. How does your touch to humanity, your connection with mankind work?
I could simply answer that the connection comes through the act of creation. It generates feedback that takes me on all kinds of journeys that might otherwise never have been made available to me. Unlike Thomas' literary work, mine isn't entirely solitary. In fact it has frequently brought me into contact with large gatherings through performance. I could go on but I think the social aspect of what I do is fairly apparent. Outside of that there is what I'll simply refer to as my 'practice'. This has brought me into contact with people from all walks of life in service and support of one another but I don't want to overstate its importance here.
with daughter Isobel. Kerala India 1999 © Ingrid Chavez
Having said that, I have for the past 6 years or so, lived a very isolated existence. I don't make excuses for this. This withdrawing has been important to me.
Can you imagine leaving your chosen isolation behind for your next work or do you think a step like that could constrain you intuition?
It will be what it will be. No artificial parameters set in place.
Freeing your mind for total improvisation must be very difficult as you have a system of more than twenty, thirty years of making music in a particular way, developed your own system... Sometimes it seems (especially in the opening track ‘Small Metal Gods’) though you really improvised, you can’t completely free yourself from a certain catchiness?
I’m not sure why I’d try and lose the hooks to a melody just as I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to find them. The balance struck is the one I felt best served that particular composition. You are in service to the composition, nothing more.
Do you think this work, as a collision of these two worlds, possibly gives people who are not used to improvised music an opportunity to open up to it?
I don’t know. That wasn’t my raison d’être for producing the work. It could potentially alienate both my own audience and the audience that embraces pure free improv. It’s a new hybrid. I’m not sure where it will find its audience. It’s in no hurry though. Open minds will embrace it when they stumble across it perhaps. At least this is what I wish for it.
Having made this album, do you feel like there are still other places to go in improv-music or do you plan to explore other fields?
Hard to say right now. There’s no desire to identically repeat the approach I took with this album. Maybe I’ll take a completely different detour on my musical map and revisit this side of my work at a later time should I be given that opportunity. There might be a personal need for a reactionary response to the approach embraced on Manafon. But first things first, and that’s the sense that something needs to be addressed and from that point on it’s a matter of finding the appropriate form it should take.
Could you imagine being more directly involved with the musicians you worked together with on ‘Manafon’. For example, not having them sign off on their material but playing sessions together with them?
That’s really not what I was interested in exploring in relation to these musicians. I’m not a free improvising musician, I’m a composer or songwriter, however you want to phrase it. I was interested in expanding my musical horizons by working in an area seemingly at odds with my own goals. At no time did I entertain the notion of becoming a free improv artist and that remains the case. These guys, many of them, have devoted decades of their lives to a particular pursuit, to the liberation which comes once a certain proficiency or fluency has been established with their chosen instruments, to a living and breathing in the moment. This is a philosophy that accompanies not just the generation of the music itself but the lives of the participants also. You don’t, or at least I don’t, presume I can just wander into their environment and don my improv hat for the day. That’s not how it works. On the other hand, there’s elements of improv in all the best work in the arts. A theatre actor works from a script but she can bring that work alive night after night through the creative act of will and imagination. This is another form of improv also. Too much emphasis gets placed on the act of improv as if it’s the exclusive domain of the few. All the arts embrace elements of improv, from the creative act to its performance, otherwise they’d be no life to them. With free improv, what you have is that immediacy, that lack of time lapse between impulse and execution, an act of pure creation in the moment. Thought and action become one as a result of the emphasis on the intuitive. At least that’s how I’ve viewed it up close.
What´s your favourite music at the moment? Or what record accompanies you on cold days?
I’m not listening to music at the present time.
Sonoma CA 1999 © Anton Corbijn
Music such as the songs on ‘Manafon’ must be very difficult to perform live. Either it’s not improv anymore – or like Franz Hautzinger told me in an interview – after a while it looses it’s authenticity and plausibility. Anyway, would it be possible to find a completely new live-setting for this material which might satisfy you?
I’ve given it a lot of thought. It would mean finding a very specific group of individuals who were happy, willing and able to embrace elements of both free improv and composition. Not an impossible task. In fact it could be quite a thrilling project to be a part of. However, I’ve not yet decided if live performance is on the cards for me at present.
Is there any possibility that your Austrian fans will ever see you perform live in Vienna or some other places?
That depends on the outcome to the self-directed question above.
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