Interview with David Toop

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Cover of David Toop's Sinister Resonance

 

David Toop is the author of several landmark books about music, including Rap Attack (1984), Ocean of Sound (1995), and Haunted Weather (2004). He is also a musician, with a discography spanning nearly four decades. His first record - a collaboration with the sound sculptor Max Eastley titled New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments -- was released in 1975 on Brian Eno's Obscure label.

In Toop's previous books Ocean of Sound and Haunted Weather, he explored sound in all its ephemeral, enigmatic, amorphous connotations. His new book Sinister Resonance, out soon on Continuum, takes those explorations a step further, drawing a dense web of connections between sound and visual art. Toop begins the book with the concept that “sound is a haunting, a ghost, a presence whose location in space is ambiguous and whose existence in time is transitory.” To explore sound’s intangibility and mystery, Toop wanders through a bewildering array of references from fiction, myth, painting, and architecture, allowing him to approach sound in oblique and unexpected ways.


 

Let's talk about Sinister Resonance. What drove you to write this book?

I was thinking about the senses a lot and I was thinking about the repositioning of the senses, and the focus on seeing and looking and touching in our culture, and I thought about John Berger's book Ways of Seeing. Obviously, there’s no auditory equivalent to Ways of Seeing; there’s no Ways of Hearing. I contemplated writing a book called Ways of Hearing, which this book is and it isn’t.

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Cover of John Berger's Ways of Seeing

 

In the process of doing that, I was re-reading his book. I began to think about what he said about his prioritization of seeing as the way we locate ourselves in the world. And what he said about the silence of Vermeer. It reawakened something in me. My background is partly in music and it was partly in visual arts. I dropped out of two art schools, in fact. I studied graphic design and painting. Then I dropped out and really went with music at that point. And I think that music and my concentration on sound has really taken over, in that 35-year period I'm talking about.

I started to look again at visual art. And that’s my attempt at it. I had a revelation; I was in the Wallace Collection and I saw this painting by Nicolas Maes, The Listening Housewife (The Eavesdropper), and it really struck me because it was a representation of a moment of listening. And that’s quite unusual. I researched this painting and I discovered that he painted a whole series of these eavesdropper images when he was a very young man. And that was a starting point for me of a whole train of thought, in which I really began to think about a history of listening, and how silent media represent the history of listening. Before the advent of audio recording in the late 19th century, all we have in terms of a memory of listening experiences, auditory experiences, is what is preserved through silent media - whether it's notation and writing or painting and sculpture. And to some extent in musical instruments. And auditory technology - basically, we glean some sense of auditory history from silent media. It really began to fascinate me. On one hand, it leads into a deeper exploration of the difference between the senses, and the overlapping between the senses and what’s actually going on with listening, and on the other hand it leads deeper into an exploration of incidents of listening.

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Nicolas Maes, The Listening Housewife (The Eavesdropper), 1656
(Source: Wallace Collection)

 

I think that the point is - and this is the main thread of the book, if you like - that sound has this characteristic of the uncanny, that sound is to some degree a ghost, and hence this expression in the mediumship of the listener. Sound is transitory, ambiguous in its location in space, and it’s uncertain; it lends itself to representations of uncertainty. It lends itself to feelings of dread and fear and loss and these emotional states, these extreme psychic states. It lends itself to mysticism, all these ineffable experiences. These sensations of immateriality. And so it’s a very powerful tool for musicians, but at a certain level, in social functioning or whatever, it’s perceived as being unreliable.

The way we describe reality is always through seeing and touch; seeing is believing. So listening has this negative quality, which is of course tremendously interesting. It can always have this sense of the uncanny. You can never be quite sure of what somebody has said to you. You can never be quite sure of the source of a sound, particularly when the source of the sound is hidden from you, which is often the case. We make suppositions all the time about what we hear. For that reason, sound is very important in, for example, supernatural fiction. One section of the book is focused on ghost stories and horror stories particularly from the 19th century beginning with Edgar Allan Poe, going through to all these late 19th century and early 20th century writers like Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood and Wilkie Collins, and onto 20th century writers like Shirley Jackson. Sound is often a kind of portent; it’s a sign that something bad is about to happen. Very often there’s a silence, and then there's a strange sound and the bad stuff begins. It’s almost like sound is the presence of a ghost, because sound has the quality of a ghost. You know, that the sensory quality of the uncanny is mentioned by Freud in his famous essay on the uncanny. He doesn’t elaborate on sound; he just makes the point that we have these deep childhood fears. In that sense for me, the book is personal. I went back to my first memories of sound, and they tended to be very fearful. Things that go bump in the night. These hyper-acute experiences of listening - which I tend to think of as paranoid listening - in a way you’re eavesdropping on what isn’t there. It’s manufactured in the imagination but it becomes very real, in an experience of terror.

You talk a lot in your book about the connections between painting and sound. You have some very interesting ideas about hearing the sounds in paintings. Even old chestnuts like Edvard Munch’s The Scream seem strange and new, using this analysis. You quote Munch, who seemed haunted by his own work, and the sounds beneath it: “I felt a huge scream welling up inside me--and I really did hear a huge scream...The lines and colors quivered in movement.”

It’s definitely a new approach and I tried to talk to a few art historians about it, and they kind of avoided it...I think it’s very risky territory for them. For one thing, they’re not really interested. But it’s very subjective; this is kind of my fantasy, you could argue. There’s a painting, it’s not making any sound, it’s completely silent, so what is he talking about? But at the same time, if you follow my logic, I think that there are many paintings where you can hear sound, and many paintings in which you can’t. That to me is an indication that the artist was in some way, consciously or unconsciously, interested in sound as an element of the work. I can’t prove that. The Scream is a good example, because as you say, it’s become a kind of cliché, wallpaper, in our thinking. But if you go to Munch’s ideas - the things he was thinking about and interested in when he did that painting -- he was interested in new science at the time, these theories of vibration and so on. He was experiencing these hyper-acute sensations in which sound impacted him very forcefully. He was experiencing this kind of bleed between the senses, almost. The senses were very integrated for him. They overflowed. If you go back to his ideas and what he was really interested in when he was doing that painting, it brings his paintings back to life again, that's one thing. But it really does give me some evidential basis for making this preposterous claim that certain paintings make sound. To me, it’s quite obvious in many paintings. And that’s because this is my area; this is what I'm sensitive to. And I come back to something that I was very, very interested in, [which] to some extent I had training in when I was very young. I come back to it through these 40 years of focusing very intently on sound and listening and music. And so that informs my perspective, my reading of these paintings. It’s my belief that sound is the silent part of the impact of many paintings. I also believe that sound is used to articulate ideas within certain paintings.

Tell me about your own experiences as a student in art school. I know that you were an art school student in Britain in the 1960s.

We used to do foundation here, and the teaching at that time - I'm talking 1967, 1968 - was based on a very intensive kind of looking. This all stems from one particular educator in Britain called Harry Thubron, who had this idea of looking; you would draw the spaces in between radiators and things like that. It was an exercise in looking, in seeing, in depth. So I did that for a year; then I did graphic design. I went to Hornsey College of Art, one of the main colleges that had a student sit-in because of the events of Paris '68. So there was a lot of revolutionary fervor at that time, and I got very involved in that and forgot about studies, and it had a huge impact on my life. In my first year of college, just before I left school, I was involved in a sit-in, a takeover of college, and it was incredibly exciting. I did a graphic design course, which I found quite boring. I left that after a year; I went to a painting course. I wanted to work with multimedia, I wanted to work with sound and light projections and so on; this was in 1969, 1970. And they said 'We can’t really help you,' so I walked out. And I was playing music with people by that time anyway. I’ve been playing music since when I was a young teenager, but I was starting to play music seriously at that time -- it was just more exciting, you know? I was very impulsive in those days, very reckless. I just walked out and became a musician.

Talk a little bit about silence. That's another one of those slippery subjects that you assess in your book. There's this one interesting part of your book where you talk to a deaf woman who is very angry with John Cage, because Cage didn't take deaf people into consideration in his ideas about silence. In Sinister Resonance, you talk a lot about silence.

It’s the complexity of silence, isn’t it. We have this orthodoxy now that stems partly from Cage. I suppose mostly from Cage - though as I point out in my book, other people like Virginia Woolf had explored these ideas before Cage had come to them. But we have this orthodoxy that there's no such thing as silence. In one sense I think that’s right; silence is just a word for many states, which are complex states, of noise in fact. Low-level noise. But then on the other hand we have the importance of silence as a metaphor - for example, silence used in talking about the Holocaust or genocide, or environmental destruction and so on. In that sense, silence is a very powerful metaphor. I don’t think we should lose that in this finessing of the real experience of listening to silence, but they’re different modalities in a way. Again, going back to these early modernists, the way Beckett wrote about silence, or Faulkner, or Virginia Woolf - silence could continually change in relation to beings and relation to context. So there was no such thing as absolute silence. It was this very complex property that shifted according to situation and according to the approach of the listener.

My feeling about silence is that the closer you focus down on it, to use a visual metaphor, the more you discover. There’s this paradox - the deeper you get into silence, the noisier it becomes. I was fascinated by these scenes of silence, which were so important to painters. Particularly from the 16th century on, I suppose, and many examples in 17th century painting. All these paintings in Dutch painting from Rembrandt and through to Vermeer, these paintings of people sleeping or reading. The fascination of that simple situation - that ordinary situation of life - somebody sleeping. But what does it mean? How do we engage with that? And some of our engagement is of course auditory. And again it comes back to this theme. There's a narrowing, isn't there, there's the idea that the visual aspect of the scene is what’s truly important, is what’s central. Truthfully our engagement is a much more complex, interlinked engagement. If we're with a person who's sleeping, we're hearing and seeing simultaneously. You can't really separate them out.

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Johannes Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, 1663-1664

 

In your book you also talk about Malevich's Black Square in relation to silence.

Yeah, I do. In later paintings, there’s almost this line. You go through Rembrandt and Vermeer, you come to this point which Ad Reinhardt described as an endpoint. It wasn't an endpoint, but in another sense it was. It was the end of a stage of Western art, this very interesting point, where Cage composed 4’33’’ and Rauschenberg painted white paintings and Ad Reinhardt was painting these so-called black paintings and Rothko was making black paintings and Nam June Paik made his blank leader film. It was like, bringing this down to nothingness. Where do you go from there?

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Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1913

 

In a sense, that has been our dilemma ever since -- for the artists, or for musicians, and the audience. Where do you go from there? Do you go backwards? Do you go back to 19th century romantic music, or do you go back into figurative painting, or do you go into pure philosophy? Where do you go after that? It created this colossal dilemma, and you could characterize that as a kind of silence. What was interesting to me was you do find examples of people making a direct link between monochrome paintings and silence. But that for me raises a difficulty. Is it possible to say that all these monochrome paintings, from Malevich to Rauschenberg at the white end of the spectrum through Brice Marden and Yves Klein and so on to Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella at the other end - are they all silent? How can that be? They’re all completely different. They go through the extremes of the spectrum. For me it doesn't quite work. But it’s an interesting idea, this sense of nothingness, the void. And nothingness, the void, is really where you begin as a composer, a musician, or as a listener.

With Yves Klein and his investigations of the perfect color of blue, you talk about the idea of a single, ringing note.

His symphony was a block of one note, and then a block of silence. So it’s like he’s saying, it was both. It could be both. That was the paradox. I think you could read monochrome painting in the same way. With Ad Reinhardt - it's wrong to talk about Ad Reinhardt's paintings as being black paintings, because they're not; there's a very defined geometric structure within those paintings - are they noise, or are they silence? Its something Reinhardt thought about. It's a reductionism and it's a maximalism, simultaneously.

IKB-191-1962.gif Yves Klein, IKB 191, 1962

 

Your books have a sprawling, stream of consciousness style to them, but they're also very coherent. One of the interesting things about this book is that you return to a lot of themes again and again. Woolf, Duchamp, Beckett - they all become characters in your book, in a way. You keep going back to Beckett; you keep going back to Woolf. They keep surfacing.

All of my books since Rap Attack were constructed with a kind of musical form. This idea of revisiting thematic material and weaving it through, with this long duration, so that people have these gentle reminders. That’s the kind of musical sensibility, I think; it’s conscious and it’s unconscious. I do it instinctively, but I also know what I'm doing. It’s about craft as much as anything, but it’s also about the experience of doing an awful lot of this kind of writing, for decades, and also playing music in this kind of way for more than 40 years. It’s part of the experience. I think if you approach writing a book in a more formal way, it’s a very different sense of form. What I do is much more instinctive. There’s a lot of experience both in writing, and in music. It is a way of writing that you may like or dislike or may find illuminating or frustrating, but it’s a way I have that expresses the way my mind works. It’s constantly branching off in different directions. It’s more like plant growth, really. I'm trying to be true to the way I think, but I want to communicate that. I don’t want to be hermetic. I want to communicate with other people who think differently from me. I suspect a lot of people think somewhat in that way, and then it’s tidied up for consumption, regularized. But the idea of the informal is very important to me. And of course it’s influenced by other media; it’s influenced to some extent by film, by new media, by digital media, by cut and paste, by collage, in visual art and music, of course. Conscious influences, over the years, but ultimately at heart it’s the way my mind works. Or not even the way my mind works - just the way I feel in the way I engage with the world.

Geeta Dayal is the author of Another Green World (Continuum, 2009), a new book on Brian Eno. She has written over 150 articles and reviews for major publications, including Bookforum, The Village Voice, The New York Times, The International Herald-Tribune, Wired, The Wire, Print, I.D., and many more. She has taught several courses as a lecturer in new media and journalism at the University of California - Berkeley, Fordham University, and the State University of New York. She studied cognitive neuroscience and film at M.I.T. and journalism at Columbia. You can find more of her work on her blog, The Original Soundtrack.