On a personal level, music has an ability to resonate deeper inside of me than any other creative medium. I can listen to a certain song and instantly be transported to another time and space, where long forgotten memories bubble up to the surface of my mind and even tastes and smells will be evoked. I don’t get those same feelings when I look at a piece of art, or watch a film. Only with music.
A lot of music is moving, peaceful, relaxing, enjoyable, fun, exciting, yet I cannot think of too many contemporary musicians that meet my personal definition of ‘beautiful’. One man that does on a consistent basis is David Sylvian.
I am somewhat reluctant to continue further with this, because, well, it’s awkward – what I would like to say sounds contrived. The music of David Sylvian speaks to me in a way very few others have done. This is problematic because we are not one person – we are many persona’s that each have different behaviours and personality attitudes at different times, depending on environment, company and our state of mind at the time. It’s therefore very hard to say “this song sums me up as a person” as we are different people at different times. But the music of David Sylvian is perhaps the most consistent summary of ‘me’ that I can find. I constantly return to his work, and I find that when I am writing, or if I am need of concentrating or need some inspiration, I reach for something by him. I’m reluctant to say that David Sylvian is ‘my favourite musician, like evah!’ because it sounds as contrived as it reads. It’s not about favouritism, it’s about a creative artist making a profound impact on me as a human being. And that’s special and very different to just merely liking something. I like raspberry jam, it’s my favourite jam, but it doesn’t have a deep and powerful pull on me (except when I’m drunk and I’m in need of toast).
I discovered David’s music relatively late. I wasn’t one of these people that was there right at the start. I was a teenager in the mid 1980’s and I listened to Japan and other post punk bands, without being a die-hard fan of the band. It wasn’t until a friend leant me Japan’s Tin Drum LP in about 1986 that I really took notice of Japan and re-evaluated them. It was a while later, 1990/91, that a girl I had met on a night out later gave me a copy of Flux and Mutability and Steel Cathedrals. I can remember the first time I played it – it was on headphones, on my bed, with my eyes closed . I was completely blown away by it. I had to have more.
The album that haunts me the most (if such a thing is possible… is there a scale of hauntingness?!), is Secrets of The Beehive, released in 1987. I’m not even going to attempt to put into words how I feel about this album. Sometimes intellectualising a piece of art is irrelevant and pointless. It moves you, it speaks to you, it grabs you and it never lets go. I can’t say any more than that. One of the songs on the album, Maria, actually drew goosebumps when I first heard it. My mum is a seamstress and was often sewing in the spare room across from my bedroom and so had to listen to the music that drifted out of my bedroom door. She did like a lot of what I played but only occasionally would she ask what a particular song was. I remember she did with that one. It is a remarkable song.
One of the most important things about the work of David Sylvian is not just his song writing – it’s his ability to evolve and innovate musically and not just for the sake of it. David and Japan pioneered the use of samples of world music in mainstream pop, before the likes of Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon. Japan made extensive use of ethnic vocalisations, drumming , instrumentation and arrangements in their work. David also took ambient music to new levels of musicality and experimentation. (Although ambient is a much detested moniker, it’s one that everyone is familiar with and will suffice for now. I certainly would not describe his work as ambient in any way). He worked with creatively sublime musicians like Ryuichi Sakamoto, John Hassell and Holger Czukay, to create works that transcended the mainstream offerings of the 1980’s. For me, he is one of the most important musical innovators of recent times.
David still has the ability to astound me. A recent release of his, Manafon, featured a track called Small Metal Gods. A friend sent me a link to the video via YouTube – I have included it here because you really have to see it. What struck me about both the song and the video is just how ‘empty’ it is. The bare minimum both musically or visually happens and it’s a lesson in absolute beauty. In a world of colliding noise and colour, frenetic beats and frantic movement (watching a commercial music channel on freeview is the audio visual equivalent of assault and battery), Small Metal Gods is like cultural antimatter. Small Metal Gods is almost painfully slow, but it forces you to stop and look – it’s not an audio/visual experience you can dip in an out of you have to actually pay full attention, and that is something many of us, including myself, are just not used to doing nowadays. We have become hardwired to frantic.
Another comment that comes up sometimes with David’s work is that it is self-indulgent or pretentious. Self indulgent at times? Self absorbed certainly, and that's no bad thing. Pretentious? I’m not so sure about. I think actually his work is very honest – he is someone that is clearly pleasing himself and if you can’t please yourself as an artist, why are you creating art in the first place? I think David’s work is very personal, as opposed to work produced by more mainstream acts which are often aimed at pleasing a demographic.
Coincidentally, I share the same birthdate as David – February 23rd, and the same middle name. That has no bearing on the fact that I am so drawn to his music, but it’s a piece of synchronicity that did make me smile when I found out. I don’t often evangelise about a musician, but maybe it’s time for more of us to explore David’s work. It’s so vast and varied, there is plenty to enjoy and challenge. I hope some of you reading this take some time to dip a toe into David’s back catalogue and discover some gems for yourself, and in doing so, slow down for a few minutes whilst you listen.