David Sylvian: A Gifted and Most Unusual Artist

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David Sylvian’s New cd: Died in the Wool / Manafon Variations (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

David Sylvian is an unusual artist who has always interested me.  He first came to prominence with the glam rock band Japan in the 1970s.  Though less well known as Bowie and the New York Dolls, Japan continued to become more popular into the 1980s.

Sylvian signed as a solo act with Virgin in 1980.  That’s when he put out a number of fascinating cd’s, with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Holger Czukay of Can, Jon Hassell, the quarter-tone trumpet player and composer.  Perhaps the best-known is Sylvian’s singing on Forbidden Colors, the vocal version of Sakamoto’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.  Two of my favorite cd’s were Secrets of the Beehive and Dead Bees on a Cake.  There was also the supremely evocative ep Words of the Shaman, with Hassell and Czukay embellishing with exotic elements to create a fascinating soundscape.

Stream Snow White in Apapalachia by David Sylvian

The list of Sylvian’s collaborators is impressive:  Talvin Singh, Derek Bailey, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, Kenny Wheeler.

Sylvan formed his own label Samadhi Sound after leaving Virgin.  He returned to collaborate with Sakamoto on the Sony cd World Citizen a few years ago.

Sylvian doesn’t have a perfect or even a great voice.  But the sound of his voice has always been authoritative and captivating.  The new double cd is the result of his collaboration with Japanese composer Dai Fujikura, a disciple of the renowned French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez.  Sylvian sings with classical musicians on charts penned by Fujikura, on poetry written by a number of contemporary poets such as John Tilbury, as well as classic poetry by Emily Dickinson.  Much of the music is dark, brooding, and mysterious, more suited for late night meditation than heading for the beach on a summer day.   The second disc features extended audio composition  from an installation called “When we Return You Won’t Recognize Us”.   This larger work was commissioned for the Biennial of the Canary Islands, inspired by the discovery via genetic research,  that revealed that a majority  of Canary Islanders have retained their aboriginal genetic code despite Spanish colonization and the slave trade.  Very unusual stuff indeed.

David Sylvian is fascinating and artistically uncompromising. I suggest checking him out if you haven’t yet discovered his music.   Since leaving the glam rock Japan, He’s produced over 25 solo albums, and each depicts a new facet of a complex and unusual artist.