David Sylvian – there's a light that enters houses with no other house in sight

posted by on in Music Reviews Print  

The whole has a feeling of flaking paint, bare floorboards, mostly glassless windows, and shingles slipped, letting in rain. Here, decay is only a symptom of a general malaise, a chronic dilapidation. Yet, through the broken windows and gaping holes in the roof come shafts of sunlight.

To begin, let's rewind.



I can't remember when I first encountered the poetry of Franz Wright. A friend of mine was very impressed by him, but I didn't really latch onto him at all. There wasn't anything innately wrong, as such – it just didn't grab me as other poetry did.



Fast forward.



2013, Punkt Festival, Kristiansand. Stephan Mathieu, David Sylvian and Christian Fennesz took to the stage in the Fønix Kino. The piece began, ambient, little microevents here and there, that evolving convolution of sound, and then came the voice. A broken voice, rasping, as much stuck inside the throat from which it came as leaving its owners lips. The kind of voice that made Tom Waits sound like a choir boy. However, the words were fascinating, and … heavily charged with an honesty that was almost unbearable, yet strangely reassuring. For me, the whole experience was as profound as any I had experienced in a theatre. Yet my head was making jarring gearshifts into analytical mode, trying to ascertain to whom the voice belonged, trying to make fuller sense of the whole.



After much discussion with the DPM regulars who were there, with William S. Burroughs and various others being regularly mentioned, a little bell sounded in the back of my head. Therefore, I asked Christian Fennesz: "Was that Franz Wright?" To which, rather pleasingly, I got a smiling "yes!"



Feeling very smug I was. Equally, however, I couldn't figure out what had happened that Wright's poetry was actually affecting me, getting in touch with something it hadn't previously reached. Was it his voice, with all the life-ploughed gravelly paths through it? The words themselves? The setting to music? All of the above?



Upon arriving home, I got a copy of Kindertotenwald, the volume from which the poetry came. I read it through quickly, a full read-through every night for a week or two. Then I began digging into it. This wasn't the Franz Wright I had been presented with before. This was something different (aside from this being a collection of prose poems, a poetical form that occupies a strange limbo, and continues to confound many).



Since then, like many, I have been patiently awaiting a recorded version, whether live or studio, of The Kilowatt Hour. The announcement on the 20th of October that Sylvian would be releasing a "long-form piece" called "there's a light that enters houses with no other house in sight" finally showed that something was coming with Wright's verse (and voice) – that title comes from the poem "Nude With Handgun and Rosary" found in Kindertotenwald.



Gone was Stephan Mathieu, and in his place was mention only of Christian Fennesz and Franz Wright. As such, it was immediately apparent that whatever this release was, it wasn't going to be The Kilowatt Hour (on his website Stephan issued the following statement: "I have not been part of The Kilowatt Hour since the final live dates were played in September 2013. Hence I was never involved in the production of a CD titled there’s a light that enters houses with no other houses in sight.My own dedication to Franz Wright will be published in 2015 by Editions Mego"). By contrast, where initially mention was made of The Kilowatt Hour in press releases from the Sylvian camp, these were subsequently removed. More ominous is the removal of the album "Wandermüde" from Sylvian's official discography). Part of me was disappointed, as I liked The Kilowatt Hour project, and liked it a great deal. The rest of me was very interested to hear what "there's a light that enters houses with no other house in sight" would sound like (although, now I have the additional anticipation of hearing what Stephan will produce as a dedication to Wright).



In addition to Sylvian and Fennesz, there are significant contributions from John Tilbury, Otomo Yoshihide, and Toshimaru Nakamura. The suggestion was something that would not be a million miles away from Sylvian's 2009 masterpiece, "Manafon". At the same time, "Uncommon Deities", an album where Sylvian read the poetry (translated to English) of Paal Helge-Haugen and Nils Christian Moe-Repstad had also happened since "Manafon", so I wondered whether that may have had some influence, although the lack of Jan Bang and Erik Honoré suggested that "influence" would be as far as that would go.



I allowed my ears to spend a large amount of time with this new piece. At just over 64 minutes, it is a piece that immediately announces a requirement for focus on the part of the listener. Of The Kilowatt Hour project, Sylvian had said, "If I'm honest I'd be disappointed if I failed to discover a new language with which to work." From the outset, it is apparent that he has.



The overlaps between "Manafon" and "there's a light that enters houses with no other house in sight" are merely circumstantial. This is music that breathes with decaying lungs; and this is what the cover reminds me of – those wintery branches look like an x-ray of human lungs, as much as fulfilling any visualisation of the title "Kindertotenwald" (literally translated as "Children Dead Forest", and given Wright's work as a volunteer in a centre for grieving children, could be taken as "Children of Death's Forest" as much as it could be taken as "Forest of Dead Children" – the two meanings are suspended, their individual certitude denied by the other – although I'll allow German speakers to debate that properly).



The title, "Kindertotenwald" also echoes Gustav Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder" (which is usually translated as "Songs on the Death of Children"), which itself was taken from an original collection by Friedrich Rückert.


Piano leads us in, although it has been carefully tampered with, and seems to stutter. The tides of musical breathing are incremental layers of sound, punctuated by occasional glitches, and unexpected loops lifted from the music that has immediately preceded it, like an echo that refuses to fade.



When Wright's voice appears, reading "Wintersleep", there is a steady incursion of Fennesz's guitar. Wright's reading is not a typical declamatory style, as adopted by far too many poets. Instead, he is casual, unhurried, matter-of-fact. In short, it feels honest, no matter how off-kilter or slightly surreal his turns of phrase actually are (the idea that he has become the blizzard, or that the blizzard has become him, is a linguistic slippage reminiscent of Richard Brautigan, where words exchange places without exchanging meanings, and vice versa, but almost so you don't notice at first. This could be disconcerting, but in Wright's case, it makes perfect sense).



Fennesz's guitar treatments and playing are beautifully paced, simple, welcome, and bring a resolution that is in keeping with the shoulder-shrug ending of "Wintersleep":


"And when you think about it, why should you try, why should you even care?"



The music has a strange feeling of all happening simultaneously in many different rooms of a large house, and the recording is being made while moving through a series of corridors, picking up snatches of elements here, and fragments there.



The next poem is "The Wall", an evocation of Baudelaire. Musically, there isn't a massive shift in tone or structural methods. "The Peyote Journal Breaks Off" comes next. The closing lines are poignant, potent: "All at once I am vividly aware of what this room is going to look like when I am no longer alive" and they echo into dissolution. Fennesz's guitar returns once more, merging with a denser passage, carefully enfolded and unfolded layers of unsettled harmony (rather than a discordant saturation of notes and chords). This, musically speaking, is one of the piece's most beautiful moments, not solemn, not trite, but perfectly balanced.



"Dead Seagull" is the next piece, a poem that seems to address his father, and harks back to the earlier "P.S." from the collection "Walking to Martha's Vineyard":



I close my eyes and see
a seagull in the desert
high, against unbearably blue sky.



There is hope in the past.



I’m writing to you
all the time, I am writing



with both hands,
day and night.



Such poems as "Dead Seagull" and "Transfusion" reinforce the notion that Wright is viewing himself as a grieving child, not only for the loss of a loved one (usually taken to be his father, as already stated), but for the loss of self, the loss of time.



The musical introduction to "Blade" stutters, stumbles, ruminates, procrastinates, but gradually finds its voice, a certainty amid a lack of the normal demarcations of motif development. The poem itself was one that caused Wright some difficulty (and was one of his first forays into the prose poem form):



There was a prose poem, one of fifteen pieces in the very first little book I had out, hand set type, there in northern Ohio January of 1976. It was called "The Knife." I never could get it just right. (Speaking of that, it did make it into Kindertotenwald! It is the one-sentence piece called "Blade"--and dated 1975-2010. It is one sentence, a super-condensed sentence, and it is what has finally become of a prose poem which took up about a page.


(From "Exclusive Interview With Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet Franz Wright" by Anis Shivani, Huffington Post)



Again, as with "Dead Seagull" the theme of certainty being removed by over-contemplation arises. "Transfusion" segues in, and again, the music seems to rest on the periphery the majority of the time.



There comes a strange, somewhat disconcerting series of subtly placed groans, followed by a glitching lo-fi voice, almost incomprehensible initially, but which speaks the lines:



Beneath the Eastern hedge I choose a chrysanthemum
And my gaze wanders slowly to the Southern hills.



This does not seem to be Wright's voice (I haven't been able to locate the voice after a simple search or two – perhaps readers will fare better). It is taken from a reading of a translation of a poem by Tao Qian (aka Tao Yuanming), a Chinese poet of the Six Dynasties period. He was a nature poet, but one who derived inspiration from the nature immediately around him rather than seeking it in far-flung reaches, and with no requirement for it to be wild rather than cultivated. I can't quite decipher the logic behind this inclusion, but I do know that Tao Qian holds a place among those Eastern poets that inspired a great many poets since the Beats – perhaps Wright is among those. However, the origin of this sample is a distraction to some extent, and in a way, I find its inclusion slightly odd (unless it was the voice of James Wright, which would have a different kind of cohesion). However, it's location near the centre of the piece (in play time, if nowhere else) hints that it holds a degree of significance, if not for Wright, then certainly for Sylvian in relation to Wright.



"Imago" enters. The piano tintinnabulations fading behind Wright's voice, filtered to become a different sonic identity, echoing the theme of metamorphosis contained in the poem. The poem itself has a darkly humorous edge to it, a resigned laughter in the darkness. Abrasive tape-reversed sounds flit through, some grinding in place briefly before wandering off to meet a distant silence.



Simple piano chords and arpeggio bass emerge, suggesting a near-romantic undertone to the bell-like loop that has stayed with us for several minutes. It disintegrates, replaced by percussive mutters and shrill whines. An insistent note stumbles into extended chords. There is a hint of a church bell about these notes, a tolling knell. Feedback howls in like a Hollywood injun turned operatic diva.



"Nude with Handgun and Rosary" comes shuffling (literally, as Wright's voice is given a degree of spliced destabilization, whether as cosmetic fixing, or artistic manipulation is unclear, although unnecessary to know). The piece concludes with "Song", set to strings that have more than a hint of 1940s Hollywood. That final line rings on long after sound ceases:



"If you liked being born, you'll love dying."



Throughout the piece, there are string samples, but no identification has been given. Additionally, it is hard to tell where Sylvian ends and Tilbury begins (or vice versa). Further identification of the elements becomes increasingly difficult, with the exception of Fennesz's guitar. Perhaps this is as it is intended, and further, as it should be.



The whole has a feeling of flaking paint, bare floorboards, mostly glassless windows, and shingles slipped, letting in rain. Here, decay is only a symptom of a general malaise, a chronic dilapidation. Yet, through the broken windows and gaping holes in the roof come shafts of sunlight. By turns, it feels equally as though it is a journey through a darkened room filled with chiming mirrors and clinking chains. It lends an intuitive feeling to the notion that in this place Wright's voice is the only thing that is trustworthy, as though everything else may well hide vicious traps, or some inescapably attractive negativity.



While there are no obvious motifs, musically speaking, or put more simply "hooks" of any obvious kind, the piece doesn't seem to require this. Yet, I can't help but feel that the long-form piece was not the appropriate vehicle for this project. While that was more successful in The Kilowatt Hour concerts, I have a feeling that this was because the piece was made such that long-form was an essential part of its make-up, with the inclusion of Franz Wright's voice feeling just ever-so-slightly "tacked-on".

My personal feeling is that "there's a light that enters houses with no other house in sight" would have been more successful had Sylvian taken a similar approach to Wright's poetry as Mahler took to Rückert's, selecting poems, and setting them individually to music in some form (not with singing of the words, of course – use of Wright's voice). The selection of poems here suggests some kind of continuity (which, of course, they do have, since they are written and read by the poet himself), yet I feel that the sheer scale of the piece creates an impression of a directionless meander between Sylvian's post-Manafon soundworld and Franz Wright's poetry. The effect is often beautiful, unsettling, dark, cold, and futile. However, it does not sustain any particular feeling of unity, musically or thematically aside from a certain stylistic one. To have had each poem, as the poetry of "Uncommon Deities" was presented, in an individual setting, creating a standalone piece that could be a column to support the whole, would have been – to my mind, at least – a more satisfying approach.



There is a temptation to compare this whole undertaking with radio plays. Such a comparison, while not entirely without validity, doesn't hold water for me. This piece is made up of readings of prose poems to set to music. They are not dramatic poems (in the strict sense of that term). This is not a dramatic work. If anything, it feels more like a soundtrack – literally the soundtrack, every sound made, music, Foley, voice and all – of a film. Without visuals, the piece becomes an inner film, a soundtrack to an internalized experience. Imagining a film of the kind displayed in an art gallery is not difficult.



Perhaps this explains the multiple editions of the album. The deluxe edition takes book form, with selected poems by Wright (presumably those used in the piece), and featuring photography by Nicholas Hughes, Amani Willet and David La Spina. The digipak edition features only the photographic artwork by Nicholas Hughes. Finally, a digital version (of which – the deluxe or digipak (presumably the latter)? Alternatively, is it unique unto itself?)



When it comes to music, I am sceptical of limited editions and deluxe editions of new works. If important enough, the artwork should be the only edition. To my mind, multiple editions serve only a small number of purposes in real terms, none of which is particularly positive:


1. Exploitation of "the collector" or "completist"

2. Masking of inadequacy (real, or imagined) – a sign of insecurity, in other words.

3. It is economically-driven, catering "as much as possible" to give the full artefact to as many, realistically.



(In my view, the deluxe version of anything should be the only version. If economic constraints dictate limitations, then so be it. Creating multiple versions creates an implied "hierarchy of appreciation", where only those who commit to the deluxe version are "true fans", or worse, "get what it's all about". I have yet to receive my physical artefact, and so am working solely with the FLAC file, the cover image, and Sylvian's notes on the microsite, http://davidsylvian.com/theresalight/ )



The inclusion of such extensive visual material forces the asking of the question "Why is this necessary?" Although I'm not waving a sycophantic flag here, I'm not waving a negative one, either: the piece stands up, it works, flaws (as I perceive them to be) and all. I don't feel the need for an injection of visual material. When considering that the poems were once sent out to survive on their own – and did so very successfully – it comes across as a touch disingenuous to buff out the piece "there's a light that enters houses with no other house in sight" with visuals.



However, I'm spending time on what I feel to be inessential (as well as unqualified, since I can't yet view the visuals), so will conclude.



"there's a light that enters houses with no other house in sight" is a very fine piece, and in all likelihood, will become one of those Sylvian creations that, for a great many fans, finds itself remaining in near-pristine condition towards the back of the album collection. Somewhere behind "Manafon" and "Blemish" or "Secrets of The Beehive" and "Gone To Earth", sitting shoulder to shoulder with "Camphor", "Approaching Silence" and "Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities", appreciated for what it is, but not enjoyed as often. Or enjoyed at all, in some cases – the poetry may well not be "poetical" enough for some, whatever that might mean, while already there are signs that the music is too challenging – Sylvian biographer Chris Young has written about this, and I would agree with him. Such a fate, while not inevitable, would be unfortunate, because it is a rather beautiful piece, often melancholic, frequently dis-eased, ambitiously failing. The poetry is certainly the star, with the music as supporting cast: the poetry has a bright future, the music will probably remain in repertory theatre.



I once had a teacher, a De La Salle Brother, who told me that there are three endings possible for any story, and that they were analogous to the mysteries of the Rosary:


"There are Joyful endings, and there are Sorrowful endings. Glorious endings are either of these with an injection of politics."



For me, "there's a light that enters houses with no other house in sight" finds the oft-excluded fourth ending: the Acquiescent – those first two with an injection of resignation.


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When we rate an album or concert etc we rate it on the "Huzzah!" system. A score can be between 1 and 3 huzzahs:
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