Collaboration and dialogue have been an important part of singer-songwriter David Sylvian’s 30-plus-year journey to the outer limits of popular song. From his earliest days as a post-glam pinup pop star in the group Japan, he has specialized in existentially intimate songs and a quiet but determined individualism. At the same time, in the words of Japan’s 1981 signature song “Ghosts,” this solitude has regularly been interrupted by ghosts that blow “wilder than the wind.” Perhaps these ghosts are collaborators. If so, they have included composer-pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto on Brilliant Trees (1984), Secrets of the Beehive (1987), and his surprising post-9/11 protest single “World Citizen” (2003); guitarist Robert Fripp on The First Day (1993); and, more recently, guitarist/improvisers Derek Bailey and Christian Fennesz on the remarkable Blemish (2003). The metaphor of haunting has been pushed further on 2009’s Manafon, in which Sylvian assembled a who’s who of contemporary improvisers in Tokyo, Vienna, and London, including Fennesz, Otomo Yoshihide, Evan Parker, John Tilbury, and guitarist Keith Rowe. Sylvian recorded a series of improvisations, later transforming them in his studio into the bases of a series of gloomy songs, his own voice and lyrics interrupting and shaping abstract, minimal rhizomes of sound and vice versa.
As Sylvian’s music has become progressively unmoored from conventional instrumentation and the usual building blocks of popular song such as drumbeats, melodies, and riffs, his lyrics have also grown darker and more gritty. The warm songs of 1999’s Dead Bees on a Cake, lit up by religious devotion, gave way to Blemish’s vignettes describing the pitfalls and struggles of spiritual growth, which are redeemed by the lovely concluding ballad, “A Fire in the Forest.” Manafon has no such redeeming moment. The title refers to a village in Wales where the poet R. S. Thomas lived in the latter part of his life, and the songs present fragmentary meditations on this caustic, hermetic figure and his refusal of most of the appendages of modern life—perhaps resonating with Sylvian’s own New England life, reclusive yet haunted via digital technologies.
Rowe, who interviewed Sylvian via email, was a founding member of the pioneering British improvising collective AMM, which has, at various times in its 40-plus-year existence, included Cornelius Cardew, Eddie Prevost, and Manafon contributors Tilbury and Parker. Rowe has performed a Cagean transformation of the guitar, subjecting it to tabletop experimentation as part of an assemblage of pedals and everyday objects, opening up, like Sylvian does, new worlds of sound.