David Sylvian was a member of the seminal new-wave band Japan when he experienced an artistic and spiritual epiphany. Increasingly steeped in Eastern religion and philosophy, Sylvian cleaned up his act and embarked on a solo career which, for all intents and purposes, still plays a part in his quest for enlightenment. A regular collaborator with impressive and individualistic musicians such as Holger Czukay, Robert Fripp, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sylvian is also a skilled visual artist. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Sylvian about Zen and the art of music making.
The Onion: You once said that music encourages introspection, but introspection often produces music. It's a chicken-and-the-egg proposition, but which do you think comes first?
David Sylvian: Introspection. It's a process of discovery, of revelation of oneself to oneself. This process of looking within, of, in a sense, moving into communion with the essence of one's true nature and touching base with that, and everything that transpires because of that conscious communication, that conscious grasp of one's own basic state of mind and heart. I think from that state, so much is born; there is obviously so much potential there, and music is often born from that place and can lead us back there. It's a kind of release, an opening. I think music is very powerful, because it leads directly to the heart. It bypasses the intellect, or it has the power to bypass the intellect and go straight to the heart. So by the time the mind has the time to evaluate, to calculate, to tear something apart because the mind is divided, the heart tends to unite. The heart has already been seduced and the mind is disarmed in that way, and that's the joy and the power of music.
O: Your artistic endeavors include photography and poetry. Do you think any other medium is as immediate or universal as music?
DS: I don't think so. I think for me, music really does have the edge, because it is not tangible. We soak it in, just like we're immersing ourselves in water. We're surrounded by it. Inside, outside, music takes you over in a way that, say, literature can't. For me, the visual arts are less powerful. The viewer has to have a greater focus, a greater concentration, to be overwhelmed by a work of visual art or literature. There's a greater participation on the part of the reader, let's say, or the viewer. Music has the power to seduce, to overwhelm. The only comparable medium could be film, but I do think music has the edge.
O: If your introspection leads to the creation of music, and the music in turn inspires others, that implies a transferal of consciousness, since your music becomes the direct link between your own introspection and someone else's.
DS: It's a political act, in a way, to create music that has that potency, because there's a possibility of fundamentally changing the awareness or consciousness of another human being. You're working at ground zero there, you know? Obviously, you could say that the ultimate goal—and, of course, most of what you produce might not even come close—is that process of looking within, of coming into awareness, that allows certain questions to arise. I think music acts as an environment in which listeners feel comfortable enough to open up to themselves. It allows for a certain security, if you like. They're cradled by the music. It doesn't really matter if it's the music that seduces, the textures and the sounds. It can be a violent or graphic piece of music. But nevertheless, in that sort of environment, we open ourselves up. We allow ourselves to open up to ourselves. And I think as a result of that, certain questions come to mind, the quality of the questions we ask ourselves that determine our future.
O: Your own music seems to have documented your personal spiritual journey over the years. When you write it, do you take into account how others might react to it, or is it strictly personal?
DS: Because the starting point is so often an intangible complex of emotions that you kind of tap into and carry with you for a period of time, there's a period of gestation, often, prior to writing a piece of music. You find a form to pin this complexity, to translate it, to put it out into the world. In a sense, what happens is, I start working with a visual image that somehow reflects the emotional state that I want to tap into, and I'll create a piece of music that relates to that visual image. When I'm in the studio and I'm recording a work, once it starts to mirror back to me that original impetus, the intensity of the emotional experience ends the visual image that accompanied it. I feel that the work is complete, and therefore I feel that I've embodied something that somebody else may be able to tap into—a similar emotion, a similar complexity—and therefore share in the experience.
O: How important is an audience's reaction to the realization of the original impetus?
DS: Well, that completes another cycle, doesn't it? In the process of creation. The work going out into the world and finding a sympathetic heart, mind, set of ears, whatever it is, that opens up to it. Then the cycle is complete. I guess it takes one other person to tap into it. But the more people that listen, the more people that open up to the work, obviously, the better. Because it is an act of communication. You wish to communicate with as many people as possible. I think that empowers the work. It gives the life longevity, I believe. I don't know how that works, but I definitely believe that is the case.
O: There are probably better ways to maximize your audience that entail at least some element of artistic compromise. You can turn on the radio and hear what millions of people are listening to, emulate that, and maximize your audience. So the listener is not strictly the goal.
DS: No, obviously not. I mean, you can't sacrifice any aspect of the work. You try to make the work as accessible as possible without compromising the work in any way. That's really as far as you can take it. Once you start compromising the work, you may have more people listening, but the work is disempowered to some degree. You're diluting the power that can be conveyed through music, the potency of music.
O: Are your own works all inspired from the same internal source? If so, how or why do they manifest themselves in their different forms or media?
DS: Ideally, it comes from the same source. I believe that it does. A truly successful work comes from the same source, and it's a matter of giving that work form in one way or another, whether it's in the form of music, a composition, a painting, an installation, a poem. You're basically bringing something, an energy, into the world, that you've tapped into. It's so intangible, in a way: Even to begin to describe the process, you fall way short. And, of course, I don't understand the process. That's the glory of it. You just get an inkling of what you think it's about, but you could be entirely wrong. [Laughs.] The thing about the whole experience is that you're tapping into something that you realize is so much greater than yourself, and way beyond your comprehension… I think that once there is recognition of that fact, there is the desire to understand it further and tap into it. Not with coincidence or prayers, but actually through focus, and discipline, and practice, and ritual. Talking to Robert Fripp about the same thing, I remember when we were working together, he said he was anything but a natural as a guitarist, and he had to work really hard to be as good as he is. He said he got to the point where he could tap into that energy, the discipline of being a guitarist—the inspiration of being a guitarist—at any point in time, whether he's having a bad day or a good day. He didn't have to wait for his mind to decide whether he was having a good or bad day. He could tap into that energy through constant practice and discipline, and through meditation. He's fully prepared all the time, which is an interesting comment to make, I think.
O: Is playing music in and of itself a form of meditation?
DS: Yes, it is. To varying degrees, though. There are times when you allow yourself to be totally lost in a work. So that is more like a kind of communion, you know, because you're being taken. You know you're in touch with something, so you allow yourself to be moved by it, be lost in it. It's an intuitive act, and you have to flow with it, whereas meditation is far more ritualized discipline, to reach that basic state where one is in control of the mind, where one is 100 percent focused. I think there is a difference in the techniques.
O: When you're collaborating with someone like Robert Fripp, Holger Czukay, Bill Frisell, or Ryuichi Sakamoto, do you feel you're all drawing on the same energy, or your own personal energies? They all have their own dominating personalities, yet when you work together, it all seems to merge.
DS: That's a difficult one to answer. In a sense, of all the people I've worked with, the philosophy behind the work I probably share most with Robert. The musical element, I have very little in common with Robert. [Laughs.] That would be hard to answer. It's not actually something that's discussed amongst musicians when working together, but I think there's a general awareness, a consciousness, when something comes into form or shape. There's an awareness that, "Yes, this is working," but what each individual is tapping into, I have no idea. That was certainly true when working on the Rain Tree Crow project. [Rain Tree Crow was Japan's 1990 one-off reunion under another name. —ed.] The musicians hadn't played together or been in a room together for eight years, but suddenly we were performing together, and yet there was still that energy, and once something was tapped into, it was recognized. There was eye contact around the room that said, "Yes, this is interesting. Isn't this something." But to know what [another person] is tapping into, I don't think is possible.
O: Do you think the collective energy of a band project is more powerful than an individual's energy?
DS: It can be. What might weaken the work is, if the other ones have compromised, it might come into play at some point along the line. And it often does come into play. Whereas if it's your own work, there needn't be any compromise, really. You just keep working in it until you hone it down, until it's just the way you believe it should be. We have four or five different people in the room, and everybody has a slightly different opinion of where a piece of music should go, you know, and there are compromises made, which ultimately may make the work suffer slightly. If there is one vision pulling the whole thing together, if there is one person there with the vision to put it all together, then I think maybe that's the most powerful setup to have, working within a group of likeminded musicians.
O: There are certainly specific musics where the collective consciousness does seem to play a part: jazz, of course, but also tribal music. But it doesn't seem to manifest itself too much in pop music.
DS: That's true. I think it could, and I think it does, occasionally. I think with ritualized forms of music, traditional folk music, this is music that's been digested for hundreds of years and becomes very much a part of the people and the culture. It is beyond mind; it is like a rhythm of the body. It's so much a part of the people. You could say that about jazz music, as well. The discipline involved in creating jazz, becoming technically proficient with the work and then going beyond that, to open up oneself, to go beyond one's technical limitations, to open the heart once the mind has been fully educated and engaged. Maybe there's a similarity there. The instrument becomes so much a part of the player. The player becomes as much a part of the instrument. And that's less likely to happen in pop music, because there isn't such a strong discipline involved. There isn't such a strong tradition involved. Jazz is opening up to improvisation and being focused and aware and in the moment, which are all wonderful meditative qualities. Pop music fails to show those qualities in most instances.
O: Do you think there's anything an artist can do to encourage a similar experience? Wouldn't every artist want to move closer to what he or she is creating?
DS: Maybe to move closer, they have to let go. They have to let go of desire. They have to let go of concepts. Again, I've talked to Robert a lot about this. You can do a lot of groundwork leading up to the creation of new work. You can study, you can listen, and you can have all kinds of conceptual ideas about where you want to go with a piece of work. But the moment you sit down and start writing a piece, you have to open up to any eventuality and let go of all that stuff for the work to really breathe. Because something could come through that could really surprise you and knock your socks off: "Wow, I wasn't expecting that." I've often found that if I sit down with the desire to write a specific kind of composition, or to overdefine the parameters in which I choose to work on that given day, I'm not being open-hearted or open-minded enough to allow that process of true inspiration to take place. So it's a tricky game, but I think ultimately it's a matter of remaining open. I think meditation is a wonderful tool. I recommend it for everybody, whether they're writing music or not. But it is a wonderful tool for musicians.