The Mysteries

93moscow1

The Mysteries.

Sometimes I felt the whole world was converging on this little room. And as I became more intoxicated and frustrated, I’d throw open the bedroom window as the dawn came up…I wanted my life to begin now, at this instant, just when I was ready for it.

The Buddha of Suburbia.

I spent so much time in my bedroom [in Bromley]. It really was my entire world. I had books up there, my music up there, my record player. Going from my world upstairs out onto the street, I had to pass through this no-man’s-land of the living room, you know, and out the front hall.

David Bowie, 1990.

Over seven minutes long, consisting of washes of synthesizer and slowed-down, reverse-tracked, treated piano and acoustic guitar passages that occasionally resemble melodies, “The Mysteries” likely prompted the FF button for some Buddha of Suburbia listeners. I admit I did this throughout the Nineties. It wasn’t until some depressive evening in the past decade when I heard this track again after a long absence; only then its humble, rationed beauty, its meager war against silence, finally caught me.

In the context of Buddha, “Mysteries” is an aural portrait of a suburban dreamer, a Hanif Kureishi or David Jones stuck in his room on some dreary Sunday, reading, staring at the magazine pages taped to the wall, listening to records on headphones, waiting for something to happen, thoughts floating and expiring like soap bubbles. Those who leave them call the suburbs soulless places, hives of conformity, and there’s some truth to the charge (but the same could be said for your typical urban hipster neighborhood). But this ignores a nourishing side of suburban life for the young: the freedom, time and space it provides for the imagination. Deprived of external stimuli, lacking anywhere to go, stuck in a small house where you can hear the rumble of your parents’ television through the wall, one outlet is daydreaming, idling the mind, planning fanciful escape routes and then, sometimes, turning to creative work.* It’s no coincidence that so many pop musicians have been suburban kids: the suburban misfit welcomes the future; he or she is nocked like an arrow towards it.

If the secret police ordered you to live in the suburbs for the rest of your life, what would you do? Kill yourself? Read? Almost every night I had nightmares and sweats. It was sleeping under that childhood roof which did it. Whatever fear of the future I had, I would overcome it; it was nothing to my loathing of the past.

Buddha.

So “The Mysteries” is a mind at roam, with its bed of synthesizer loops (making a constant double-tracked wash of sound, with some high whistles and “foghorns” appearing in the later minutes—another, lower-mixed loop sounds like a choir) as the droning background of everyday life. Bowie slowed the original tape, which, like “South Horizon,” was derived from a motif used on the Buddha TV series. This “open[ed] up the thick texture dramatically,” leaving room for Erdal Kizilcay to “play the thematic information against it.” The information was phased or reverse-tracked piano and, after two minutes, acoustic guitar: on “Mysteries” these lead instruments offer just brief forays of thought, fraying strings of sound, never developing or expanding on any initial observations; their progress always falls back after a handful of notes, repeating a pattern again or starting a new one just as tentatively, just as fruitlessly.**

Of Bowie’s past work, “Mysteries” is closest to “Moss Garden” (the acoustic guitar here in place of the koto), an instrumental track that seems symphonic compared with the melodic aridity of “Mysteries.” But there’s a lovely yearning in the latter’s absences and in its few presences. The descending three-note motif that appears five times on the track becomes, with each repetition, increasingly more powerful and resonant—its last appearance, late in the track (5:52), rings in triumph.

The title could have come from anywhere: for example, it could be a reference to Philip Glass’ Mysteries and What’s So Funny (1990). I’d like to imagine it calls back to a wonderful line Bowie said in The Man Who Fell to Earth: [Television] shows you everything about life on Earth, but the mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s the nature of television.” The mysteries aren’t shown, but just are; they are simply whatever falls between what we do: the corpuscles of our imaginations.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux. Misprinted as “The Mysterie” on the most recent US CD issue of Buddha.

* I realize this statement dates me as someone from the last generation to grow up without the Internet.

** Paul Trynka’s bio said the track was sampled from “an Austrian classical work,” which doesn’t really narrow the alleged source down too well: Mozart, Haydn, Mahler, the Strausses and Schoenberg all could fit the bill. I’m guessing the reference is to the Second Viennese School of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg, but even their starkest pieces have more flesh on the bone than “Mysteries” does. Any ideas?

Top: Olga Schlyter, “Moscow, November 7, 1993.”

36 Responses to The Mysteries

  1. Maj says:

    I think I added this one to my sleep playlist for travels a few years ago. So that pretty much reflects my relationship to this song/composition. Good for sleep.

    Not bad by any means. I actually prefer it to some instrumentals on Heroes (incl. Moss Garden). Just very soothing and sleepyzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    • 87Fan says:

      Funny – I always put this track on my ‘sleep’ playlist. I love this song, although I admit I rarely listen to it unless I’m doing something low-key.

  2. Diamond Duke says:

    It’s certainly quite pleasant enough. This kind of ambient instrumental composition usually isn’t my cup of tea, but I’d have to say it’s still pretty nice.

    On the 2001 All Saints compilation, this track follows the Sense Of Doubt / Moss Garden / Neukoln cycle from “Heroes”. That’s a very effective bit of sequencing, because after the wailing angst of Neukoln, The Mysteries is like a ray of sunshine piercing and dispersing a dark, threatening storm cloud!

    • Diamond Duke says:

      [*SIGH*]…Here we go again. Another italics/boldface mistake. I’m really getting sick of this… :(

      Let’s try this again. [*AHEM!*]

      On the 2001 All Saints compilation, this track follows the Sense Of Doubt / Moss Garden / Neukoln cycle from “Heroes”. That’s a very effective bit of sequencing, because after the wailing angst of Neukoln, The Mysteries is like a ray of sunshine piercing and dispersing a dark, threatening storm cloud!

  3. diamond dog says:

    Gotta say its one my favourite compositions by bowie for years. cannot say what it os that i like about perhaps the link to earlier work but for me it reveals he still had it in him to be obscure which i thought he had lost. wonderful stuff

  4. Patrick says:

    Pleasant, relaxing, inoffensive. The sort of ambient drifting music that has it’s place (often before sleep) like Harold Budd or Bill Nelson. But like the previous track, “soundtrack” music that perhaps isn’t quite as weighty as it could be , to completely stand on it’s own, but with the right visuals might be quite powerful.

  5. Jeff Mangum says:

    Another excellent write up. You’re starting to make me like tracks I didn’t before and I’m afraid it’s not due to any effort of the track but down to your immaculate flattery.

    Also interested to see your opinion on modern artists that cite Bowie as their main influence. A lot of people throw him into their inevitable list of must-have icons next to the Beatles ‘n’ co, but modern art rockers like of Montreal seem to genuinely be a continuation of Bowie’s earlier ideas without seeming stale or nostalgic at all.

  6. Momus says:

    Son of Beano (the Bowie-Eno Side 2s), but it could also be a Vangelis outtake from Bladerunner, or something Angelo Badalamenti cooked up for Twin Peaks.

  7. MC says:

    Stark raving gorgeous. One of those pieces of music that make me tear up for no reason I can articulate: it’s just so beautiful. Great writeup as well – these BOS tracks have very little written about them, so each entry is like opening a new door. As far as Damon Albarn goes, am very keen to read what I assume to be the imminent discussion of Britpop, as this soundtrack is (I think) rightly seen as DB’s oblique nod to the Blur/Suede/Pulp axis.

  8. Anonymous says:

    As I said to one of the youngsters in my office who asked me recently, “What did you actually do before YouTube?”…

    “I looked at posters.”

    Great write-up as usual, thanks!

  9. Ian McDuffie says:

    I love the track immensely, but I had a similar epiphany moment with it that opened it up. The very beginning synth wash sounds enormously like the sound of an airplane flying by, the pitch shifting as it passes. It’s like the sound of the airplane triggers the mind wandering, soundtracked by “The Mysteries.”

  10. Jasper says:

    I enjoy this song. I recently collected the songs for All Saints, an album I did not buy, since I had all the songs already. Most of the music comes from Low and “Heroes” hearing them together I was surprised how close the newer melodies are to those. I like that.
    This summer after driving thru New Mexico I collected what I could from the never released soundtrack from The Man Who Fell To Earth, to make my own. I can recommend that, especially the music by Stomu Yamash’ta, his more quiet melodies has a lot in common with Bowie’s instrumentals. I believe they were both aiming for the same, to blend the traditional Japanese music with modern rock, When Yamash’ta really gets going its little too much prog for me, but most that ended up in the movie is great. Hearing the two It’s fun how clear it is to hear who had their starting point in the Japanese or western music, Bowies sound a bit less exotic.
    Not that I would not have loved to have herd Bowie’s take on the soundtrack, I don’t know but doubt that any was recorded and finished that we haven’t heard on official releases, I still like to imaging a beautiful complete album in some vault, just waiting to be released. Yamash’ta music fits the movie perfectly in my ears.
    I didn’t get to hear my TMWFTE soundtrack before driving home thru Kansas, it improved the ride ;-)

    • Jasper says:

      Just one note, I am aware that it’s not all of Bowie’s instrumentals that have a heavy Japanese influence, but I think it was an important part of his work.

  11. The Hunt Sales & Tin Machine Memorialist... de Molay says:

    Read in Drummaker.com website…, an article from David Barsalo that points the question “Is Hunt Sales The Most Under Rated Drummer in the U.S.A.? (of course, I can say YES!) “: “There has also been some recent internet buzz that David Bowie and Tin Machine may reunite in the near future.”
    OK for “the Mysteries”… i like it… but Buddha’s drumming don’t fits people well, this is weak… so, i’m again with Hunt (but i know he’s challenging his ideal drumming sideman trip -to me- with Dennis Davis who’s completely another trip…) , described by Reeves Gabrels in those terms which i completely agree with: “In my opinion, Hunt Sales is one of the great big band jazz inspired rock drummers… from the same school as John Bonham, Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell… All offspring of Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, and Gene Krupa. The intro to Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” puts him in the Hall of Fame, instantly recognizable as Hunt. It’s right up there with John Bonham’s intro to “Rock And Roll”.
    “Bish Bosch” from Scott saw the light yesterday in Europe, today… it goes Stateside; a collaboration between Him & Bowie should be some kind of Dreammmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm…..

  12. stuartgardner says:

    Thanks for sending me back to this one.
    “…its humble, rationed beauty, its meager war against silence…;” yes; very, very good, and you remind me here of Eno’s description of Neroli (my favorite of his works) as “on the cusp of music.”
    For whatever reason (and for better or worse), I’m naturally predisposed to concentrate on the content of art to the extent that I often neglect its form, and frequently your observations have alerted me to sonic elements I had somehow missed. As an example, I’m grateful for this:
    “The descending three-note motif that appears five times on the track becomes, with each repetition, increasingly more powerful and resonant—its last appearance, late in the track (5:52), rings in triumph.”

  13. Jacques de Molay, the hunt Sales Memorialist from Beyond says:

    “Paul Trynka’s bio said the track was sampled from “an Austrian classical work,” which doesn’t really narrow the alleged source down too well: Mozart, Haydn, Mahler, the Strausses and Schoenberg all could fit the bill. I’m guessing the reference is to the Second Viennese School of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg, but even their starkest pieces have more flesh on the bone than “Mysteries” does. Any ideas?”:
    i’m really into this second Viennese school, esp. Alban Berg; so i’m gonna try to find this mysterious linkage.

  14. David L says:

    Of all the great write-ups on this site, this may well be one of my favorites, in large part because of your astute observations about life in the suburbs. It’s easy to focus on the negatives but I had never really considered what you brought up about a child’s life in the suburb — so true. It was that way for me. I grew up in a CT suburb, fled for college, then LA, then NYC … and now I’m back many years later and why? To raise my own kids. So thanks for affirming that decision! ha ha. And oh, the Mysteries is wonderful.

  15. Pierre says:

    Nice analysis. Yes at times it sounds classical, I wonder which austrian piece it was influenced/sampled from, if it ever was ?

  16. humanizingthevacuum says:

    I used to use this track in late ’95 to help with sleep. Lovely thing.

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      I have a number of albums which I use for such a purpose (for the sake of variety.) These include: Ambients 1 and 2, Apollo and The Pearl by Brian Eno, several Michael Rother albums, and the rather beautiful Carousel by Robin Guthrie (ex-Cocteau Twins).

    • Stolen Guitar says:

      Also recommend Keith Jarrett’s ‘The Melody at Night, With You’ as a very tranquilizing sound. Beautiful.

  17. gcreptile says:

    I like this song, but didn’t have that epiphany yet. It sounds more finished than Ian Fish and South Horizon. However, I think that the piano is too prominent in this song. It’s too detached from the ambient sounds. It’s what makes Moss Garden superior.

  18. Magnus says:

    While I’m 100% confident “Ian Fish U.K. Heir” includes a variation of the title track’s melody plucked very slowly on acoustic guitar, I believe “The Mysteries” also includes a melodic reference to “Strangers When We Meet,” pulled apart and again played very slowly.

    Sing along to the notes… “All… Our… Friends… Thin… And… Frail…” There’s some mutated reference going on here.

    The background information on “Ian Fish” is almost certainly the “zane, zane, zane” portion of “Buddha” slowed to an incredible rate and also distorted. Thus, it’s always been my deduction that “The Mysteries” may also get its backing information from another track on the album. Perhaps a synth part from “Strangers.”

  19. Magnus says:

    What’s more, when you consider he may have been stealing from himself, it makes the very title of the piece, “The Mysteries,” a little in-joke.

    For my money, “The Mysteries” is the best instrumental track on the album. The seemingly much preferred “South Horizon” was dated sounding in 1993 and sounds even more dated today. And not just due to the drum machine but also the effects Kizilcay chose to use on his bass runs.

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Funny thing: Bowie included South Horizon on his original 1994 limited-edition two-disc version of the All Saints, but it (along with the three Black Tie White Noise instrumentals) were omitted from the 2001 single-disc version (and replaced with Crystal Japan and Brilliant Adventure). So perhaps Bowie himself came to agree with your assessment…?

  20. david says:

    I don’t know about the Austrian classical work, but please listen to Mitten im Garten (alternative piano version) by Popul Vuh, its very similar and difficult not to see how Bowie hadn’t heard this during his Berlin sojourn.

  21. Frankie says:

    One of my favorite instrumental Bowie tracks ever. The emotion of it blew me away the first time I heard it. It left me in tears. Excellent for meditation and reflection on the mysteries….

  22. steve collins says:

    you’ve reminded me of myself, in my suburban bedroom in 1975 or 76, with my uncle’s cast-off dansette, listening to young americans or station to station. music as a message from somewhere else. all you’ve got to do is win…

  23. Remco says:

    Hello nostalgia!, the scene of the teenager locked in his/her suburban bedroom is awfully familair, I’m pretty sure I spent most of june-july 1993 (the recording date for this song) staring at my suburaban ceiling hoping for SOMETHING to happen. It makes me wonder if my kids will be grateful that I let them grow up in a city but somehow i think they’ll be just as bored and dissatisfied as I was.

    Lovely song by the way.

  24. giospurs says:

    wow, that was really beautiful.
    ok, it’s sparse and soporific but there’s nothing wrong with music being sleep-inducing.

  25. s.t. says:

    I think of this as a shadow track to Badalamenti’s “Mysteries of Love.” So, a shadow track to an already spectral song that graced a cinematic rumination of suburbia.

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