David Sylvian – Do You Know Me Now?

A new 10-disc box set collection of David Sylvian’s samadhisound recordings is scheduled for an Aug. 4 release. The limited edition package will come with a 100-page hard-cover book featuring notes and unreleased artwork. It’s full title is samadhisound 2003-2014 – Do You Know Me Now?

I’m not going to offer a review here. I am too big an admirer of the man and his work to feign objectivity. This collection in particular, pulled from his own label, represents a body of work that continues to resonate with a lot of us, not just on its own merits but in terms of the long list of collaborators Sylvian introduced to us along the way.

Listeners of The Moderns will have heard me talk about this. No artist has had a more formative impact on me. Since my teenage years, I have followed virtually every one of his musical cues. Entirely without disappointment. It has been on my mind for some time to write a piece like this. I’ve tried and failed a couple of times. Sylvian’s work has been a part of my entire adulthood. And in ways that I struggle to articulate, it remains a document of my private life over four decades.

I came to Japan late. The band Sylvian fronted from 1974 to 1982 had packed it in before I ever owned a piece of product. Still, they figured prominently in the imagination of suburban new-wave fans like me, searching for music we could call our own.

Sylvian’s solo debut, Brilliant Trees dropped on the 25th of June, 1984. Its sullen beauty was immediately striking. It made the 17-year-old version of me feel a little less alone and as a result, a lot more hopeful. Two feelings I would never entirely shake. It would be years before I could appreciate its musicianship, or even understand the level of talent its players had poured into the thing. But emotionally, I got it instantly.

Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities followed a year later. Its instrumental tracks were very much a complement to the avant-pop of Brilliant Trees. At the same time however, Sylvian had produced music that had nothing to do with what my friends and I had loved in the first half of the decade. It was somehow both quieter and bigger, all at once. To me, it was the moment I realized Sylvian was going to be something more than a favourite artist. He was going to be a guide.

Few of his collaborators meant anything to me at the time. I recognized Ryuichi Sakamoto from their “Forbidden Colours” and “Bamboo Houses” singles. And of course we all knew that Sylvian’s brother Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri had been there all along in Japan.

But Holger Czukay, Jon Hassell, Mark Isham and Kenny Wheeler? These were names beyond my understanding of what constituted important music. Never mind the literary references, to Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, all of which flew well over my curly head.

Later came Gone to Earth, and contributions from guitar-wonders Robert Fripp and Bill Nelson. Fripp’s role as King Crimson front man made him a prog-rock leftover in my young eyes. Nelson held greater credibility with me, by virtue of his post Be-Bop Deluxe synth pop. Truth is though, I didn’t even know he played guitar.

In the years that followed, the list of artists Sylvian turned me onto grew – David Torn, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, Tavin Singh and of course his former wife Ingrid Chavez were the best known – but by the time he’d parted ways with Virgin in 2001, anyone associated with a Sylvian recording was automatically of interest to me.

The samadhisound name comes from a Sanskrit word for “total self-collectedness” associated with Hinduism and Buddhism. It is said to be the most advanced state of concentration achievable. Buddhists refer to it as the eighth and final step in the path to enlightenment.

The label sparked a new, even more audacious push into the avant-garde for Sylvian. Listeners like me didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to blow up our sense of new music all over again.

Blemish was the first album I ever bought by mail order. Released the same year that Apple’s iTunes Music Store opened for business, it wasn’t originally available on the service. No matter. More than a decade would pass before I stopped buying physical copies of his work. The fact that keeping up with Sylvian meant giving my credit card number to samadhisound was both mildly uncomfortable and entirely necessary.

The new disc was a revelation. Having grown up on college radio, I had heard plenty of sound art, free jazz and electronics. I had developed an interest in twentieth century classical music and considered myself more open than most to new sounds. Mostly though, it was an intellectual exercise. What I had loved (and still love) about Sylvian’s early solo work was his ability to interpret traditional song structures so artfully, and in doing so consistently produce deeply touching recordings. That was the kind of music that hit me hardest on an emotional level.

There is a widely held view that great art – the kind you can have a lifelong appreciation for – tends not to grab hold of you immediately. You have to go toward the work, which is to say you must approach it with greater patience than judgment. Blemish demanded both, twice over. Musically, the album offers up a sparseness more often associated with sound sculpture than art pop. Sylvian’s vocals had changed too. The edginess had always been there, but it cut more deeply now. And it wasn’t just the quality of his voice, Sylvian had embraced atonality to a degree we had not previously heard in his singing.

The album’s subject matter made it all the more jarring. Sylvian and Chavez had married in 1992, having met earlier that year during the recording of Sakamoto’s single “Heartbeat.” Blemish was about the end of that relationship.

“I came to hate her,” he sang. “Render the vow, it’s my home now.”

That piece, entitled “The Only Daughter,” is an achingly difficult listen. It combines all of the sadness, regret, frustration and anger that goes along with the end of a long relationship. It is deeply personal, often uncomfortably so.

“This your one and only warning, please be gone by morning.”

Again though, Blemish was more than an album that rewarded our dedicated attention. It introduced many of us to a pair of new collaborators: electronic musician and guitarist Christian Fennesz and improvisational guitarist Derek Bailey.

The Good Son vs. The Only Daughter came two years later, an album of remixes and re-recordings. With it, more names to add to our tally of Sylvian associates: Burnt Friedman, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré among them.

An intensely productive period followed. Collaborations with John Tilbury, Phillip Jeck, Eivind Aarset, Arve Henriksen, Taylor Deupree, Akira Rabelais, Werner Dafeldecker, Toshimaru Nakamura and a long list of others continued to add both emotional depth and artistic curiosity. In many ways, Sylvian had ceased to be a solo artist (if indeed he ever was one). He lent his genius and his fame to many of the world’s best avant-gardists. In return, they added layer upon layer to his recordings.

Sylvian’s most recent recording came last year; a contribution to a collection of reworked Sakamoto pieces released as To the Moon and Back. In a beautiful tribute to perhaps his most dear musical partner, he selected “Grains (Sweet Paulownia Wood),” a piece Sakamoto produced in one of his own collaborations with Alva Noto.

Sylvian added vocals: “I sit beside his bed, brushing the weather from his hands. If I’m no longer making sense, I no longer think I can.”

At the risk of reading too much into that touching lyric, it is possible to image that this (along with the box set) marks the end of Sylvian’s recording career. He has written about retirement in social media posts, but there’s never been a formal announcement.

If it is the last we hear from him, then his exit will have been a graceful one. A touching tribute to a loved collaborator, and an admission that without partners like Sakamoto, there is no more music to be made.

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