Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:
A Geometry of Echoes
David Toop’s new book, Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener, came to me as something of a future echo. Perhaps cryptoamnesia would be here a more applicable term, though to find oneself thus implicated can be a bit destabilizing. But instability, and, better yet, uncertainty are key concepts in this book about the notion of listening. Though Toop is primarily known for his writings on music, this book is about something broader than music per se, less specific to the machinations of taste and style. Sinister Resonance deals with insubstantiality and the unknown, impressions unformed, eavesdropping, silence, memory, and fear through erudite investigations into the place of listening in literature, painting, sculpture, and film, as well as in a few sound works.
My first exposure to Toop was through his work as a sound practitioner, on the track with Max Eastley entitled “Burial Rites,” on the 1994 compilation Ambient 4: Isolationism released by Virgin UK. It’d be impossible now to accurately represent the impact and prescience of this album at the time, blending, as it did then, such disparate and alien frequencies. The following year, Toop’s book Ocean of Sound would come to define a new level of sophistication in cross-genre music exploration—uncharted terrain in 1995. Around this time I discovered that it was also Toop who had provided the eerie, off-kilter, atmospheric accompaniment on Simon Finn’s wholly obscure solo 1970 LP Pass The Distance, a haunting and disturbing acid-folk masterpiece. It turned out that Toop had been making music and writing about it from that point onward. His name was now etched in my mind as a purveyor of the subliminal Other which is to be found in sound.
I have spent the last 15 years plying the sonic arts of The No-Neck Blues Band, conducting assembly, and issuing missives. Collective sound improvisation, over the years, has had certain effects on the way that I listen. Specifically, I began to listen for, and to hear, that which is not there—not as auditory hallucination, but rather as a force of will, an understanding of listening as simultaneously receiving and creating, the filling in of un-seeable spaces with sound, an awareness of that subliminal Other outside of time. Admittedly this might sound outright delusional, but in certain books by the likes of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, and in the work of certain painters such as Roberto Matta or Kazimir Malevich, I’ve come to find respite and solace. Their work seems to me to be amid sound, a sound that I have come to know, a sound that I can hear.
When I came across Sinister Resonance at the bookshop I was eerily drawn to it by its title. Then I flipped through it, and there were Machen, and Blackwood, and Malevich, and so much more. Upon reading it I was even a little spooked: the resemblance of some of its contents with my own explorations and impressions were, to borrow one of Toop’s key words, uncanny. From prenatal listening to impressions of birdsong, and from Edgar Allan Poe and Virginia Woolf to Harpo Marx and David Lynch, Sinister Resonance investigates listening as experience as well as its portrayal. It is, in my opinion, a work unmatched, a veritable sourcebook with innumerable points of departure, and overall a stunning achievement.
Keith Connolly So how are you? I’m assuming you’re back home from your travels.
David Toop Yes, I got back home yesterday, thanks. It was just a short trip. I did a solo concert, a short one. They run a one-day event called Sonic Vigil every year in one of the cathedrals in Cork, and it’s quite nice. Everybody plays for 20 minutes, they have a ten-minute turnaround for everybody, and it runs from about one in the afternoon until eight o’clock in the evening.
KC I’ve never had the pleasure of playing music as a performer in Ireland, but I’ve been there a few times. Ireland is an impressive place.
DT I’ve been going to Cork for a long time. Great people, and it has an interesting music scene. It’s always a pleasure going there, even though it’s often raining.
KC Yeah, for me it’s sort of difficult to get to Ireland, unless I go alone. When touring I travel, unfortunately, with a veritable gaggle of people. So, could we begin by discussing the relationship between the occurrence of sound and the event of listening, as you see it?
DT Well, the continuity is in my mind. I was wondering what the nature of listening actually is. It’s an everyday experience, not necessarily a special thing, but it has elements of the uncanny about it because sound is so fleeting. Where does it exist in space? Where does it come from? It’s one of the peculiarities of listening that when we can’t identify the source of the sounds we’re hearing, we make assumptions, and, of course, that leads to ambiguity. That’s accentuated by the fact that sound seems to be at its source, all around us, and in our heads simultaneously. There’s a strong overlap there among what exists, what we think of as the real, and what may be auditory hallucinations. All this material is mixing in our mind with the constant flow of thoughts. The term I came up with was mediumship—there was some sort of power there. As we listen we’re trying to draw out information from something that has already passed, and was ambiguous anyway. This seemed to fit with the notion that the representation of sounding events or listening experiences can exist in silent media. It’s not so big a jump to think of literature in that way, because it’s a verbalization of experience. But a 17th-century painting is a bigger jump.
Throughout the history of art certain artists have been interested in what lies beyond the representation of the objects of this world—their work depicts sound in various ways. One section of the book concentrates on 17th-century genre painting. Of course I wondered why that period was so fruitful for this kind of study. My theory—I’m not an art historian, so I will probably be shot down by scholars—is that they were so interested in the representation of space, and they had such a facility in perspective by that point, that visual representations of sound were another way of emphasizing the spatial quality of their work. If you had sound, then you really enlivened this feeling of actual space. You had narratives in the paintings that went beyond simple depictions of people playing music—you get rowdy drunken scenes, people shouting, and then the Nicolaes Maes works that I concentrated on, where you have these women listening—
KC Right, the eavesdroppers . . .
DT The eavesdropper paintings, yes. I never think of the world in clean breaks—to me there’s a strong continuity there, because it’s another sense of listening. Listening feels imaginary. The commonsense idea of the world is that it’s object-based; we find reality through objects, through seeing and touch. You and I are both musicians, we work with sound, so, for us, the world may be experienced more as an event. But the dominant culture says, “Seeing is believing.” Now, because of this, sound has a very interesting stigma about it—it’s unreliable, uncanny. That gives it huge potential for composers, musicians, or anybody who wants to bring some sense of the uncanny into what they’re doing. Hence my focus on the importance of auditory events in ghost stories, horror stories, because as soon as you get strange sounds in there—a creaking door is the cliché, of course—you know something bad is going to happen.
KC Would you say that listening is an act of will?
DT It certainly can be, but there is involuntary listening, a sense in which noise happens without awareness, and then, at the other extreme, hyperacuity, this extreme sensitivity to the microaudio of tiny events. It’s an awareness that comes from training yourself by different methods, whether it’s by playing different types of music or just exercising the act of listening.
KC That being said, how much would you say that one creates what one hears?
DT That’s an interesting question. Hearing is very subjective; there’s no way of knowing if what one person hears is the same as what another does. We all have the experience of how utterly shocking it can be to discover what somebody else thinks about a piece of music, and how radically different that perception might be to one’s own. There’s a lot of filling in that goes on; a lot of sound is only partially heard. There’s a passage in the book where I talk about birdsong and composers like Olivier Messiaen who created work based on birdsong. When I listen to birdsong, I don’t hear the intervals of the piano—I hear an incredibly complex and fluid movement between many different sonic timbres. You have to listen carefully. People who love birdsong tend to translate it somehow into modular fragments, and they talk about birds as musicians, but, actually, birdsong is fantastically illogical. Brief snatches of melody may be interspersed with strange intervals, so it’s not structured like human music at all. The people who are hearing straightforward melodies and almost humanlike compositions—what they hear is lost in translation.
KC I feel we share an interest in an inchoative listening. My most engaged experiences of sound, whether in the act of creating sounds or in the act of absorbing traditional or abstract music, have been in this inchoative mode where you don’t have an end result in mind, or the end result is obliterated by the experience of the event. This idea of an impression not being fully formed runs throughout your book. You provide myriad examples of this experience of inchoative listening, which is my experience in improvising sounds in a collective setting and trying to understand what that act is. I was trying to grapple with the idea that sound can function as a kind of contrasting agent; it’s like an invisible structure within architecture. If you allow sound to happen freely within a collective mindset, or even as an individual producing sound with an open idea, it fills the space and you can begin to discern the shape of these sounds.
DT I agree with you. When you’re improvising with other people, suddenly you can have the feeling that everybody is working together to make invisible volumes in space, and connecting with other listeners. I felt it very strongly this past Saturday, playing the concert in a cathedral in Cork. You send out sound into a particular space with all its nooks and crannies, and around the audience. Sound does seem to move into particular areas just because of frequencies. You introduce a rich sub-bass and it begins to fill the whole space—you can feel it exerting pressure on the listeners. You increase it, and in that sense you connect the audience and yourself and the sound and the room. That’s a very productive area in which to work.
When I was around 20 years old all my early ideas and experiences about music were turning into something much more speculative. How to describe it? I was experiencing some kind of epiphany at that time. I was interested in a kind of distant music, so, again, there’s the importance of space—music that is so far away that maybe it doesn’t exist. I started to find music that possessed that quality, and references in literature that described that same oceanic feeling. Some of these ideas have taken me 40 years to work through, and, in a way, that is what I am doing with this book. Sound feels formless, ungraspable, so it can align itself with those aspects of life which, in themselves, seem formless. For some people it might be a mystical or religious feeling; for others it might be a kind of ecstatic, trancelike feeling, a kind of madness. There are many possibilities there; just the relief that comes from moving outside the boundedness of the self into communal, ethereal space. That’s a fantastic feeling.
Over the years I’ve accumulated a sound library of examples of “distant music,” a phrase I borrowed from James Joyce. At the beginning of the book there’s a long list of them, ranging from Gaelic psalms of Lewis to Panda Bear’s “Search for Delicious.” They all symbolize this sensation of formlessness, and why it’s exciting and necessary to human beings. It connects strongly with other vital, formless aspects of the human self. Music and birdsong tap into emotion, often, though not necessarily, in a good way. They infiltrate and speak to all of these things that have no material presence: emotions and psychology and thought and so on.
KC I would agree. Let’s turn to your ideas of memory and the original eavesdropping experience of hearing from inside of the womb. As you articulate in the book, as far as the senses are concerned, for months before birth you are already hearing through the womb. This sensory input would qualify as the first available memory you have as an individual.
DT It’s not so much what you specifically remember from before you’re born; it’s just that, first and foremost, we begin by hearing. I began to think about this when I went back to John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing, which I had first read in the 1970s. I might have gone back to it because I was thinking about the increasing amounts of theory about sound art and listening and was wondering, Why isn’t there an equivalent book on ways of hearing? I was struck, shocked even, by the first sentence in Berger’s book, which says that the child sees before it speaks. Of course he means that visual perception, in the most general sense, precedes verbal language. Then he goes on to say that this is what gives us our place in the world, but I’m thinking, Our first means of perceiving the world is before we’re born, when we’re getting tactile and hearing impressions transmitted through the body of the mother. It’s well established that the child recognizes its mother’s voice after it’s born more than the father’s, because that’s the voice it has lived with most closely in the womb. Hearing is the dominant sense until seeing begins to take over. Then we adapt to the object-based, visuocentric world that tends to dominate in our culture.
I really took exception to that assertion at the beginning of Berger’s book. To me, a lot of our early experiences are forgotten, but they’re still embedded in some way and determine who we are. It’s expedient to someone who is totally absorbed in visual culture to believe that seeing establishes our sense of identity in the world. One of the reasons why books on sound art and listening are being written now might be that the notion of who we are and how we engage with the world has been written by people who privilege text and materiality.
KC Beyond the idea of these first impressions, I was curious about the idea of memory as it refers to the advent of recorded sound. A fair amount of the literature and paintings that you discuss in the book come from a time before recorded music was available. Prior to these technical advances, sound or listening events were being captured, so to speak, in these other mediums.
DT We’ve got an idea of the history of recorded music, but how can a history of listening possibly exist? Methods for recording sound before the late 19th century did exist: musical notation of various kinds; writings on sound; representation of sound through images, painting, sculpture, drawings, and so on; and then musical instruments themselves. But, then again, that’s unreliable. I mean, a bell from the Middle Ages could sound similar to the way it sounded when it was first rung, but the way we hear it is different because the context is so different. A violin, which is so dependent on the action of the player, may sound completely different from the 18th to the 21st century. Part of the idea of Sinister Resonance is to begin to construct this impossible idea of the history of listening—of course it’s speculative and incomplete. For example, to look at painting in this way, which is fascinating but controversial, I suppose, does give us some indication of a sound world that existed centuries ago.
Another type of recording is oral culture, a transmitted memory that changes as it passes through generations. Just think of songs, for instance—as they were transmitted, they were adapted to new circumstances and changed slightly. Ancient forms of music, such as Gregorian chant or Japanese gagaku, can give us a sense of what music was like hundreds of years ago because they’ve been passed down by people carrying on a tradition, but it’s a very different experience from going and seeing a Leonardo da Vinci or cave paintings in the American Southwest or France. The music changes over time and in performance but that’s the true nature of sound: it’s the “ungraspable phantom of life,” which I quote from Moby-Dick in the beginning of the book.
KC With Joyce’s “distant music” or the legend you reference of Mimi-Nashi Hoichi, as told by Lafcadio Hearn, in which a blind biwa player is summoned to play for a royal court of the listening dead—a grappling with formlessness is at the very essence of listening. I’d say that formlessness, or nothingness, does not exist except as nonentity, that is, as an idea. But the idea of formlessness can reveal a form that doesn’t rely on advancing the purpose of content. That’s a huge hitch in the way that people see things—Boethius talks about a morality in music. There seems to be a moral obligation, more for critics than musicians themselves, to justify content. Critically, you run up against these walls, especially with abstract music where the purpose of content interferes with the idea of exploring formlessness.
I was wondering about your take on the notion of psychogeography, not so much in the Situationist sense as in the ideas of Iain Sinclair and J. G. Ballard, whom you mention in the book. How does this relate to sound? And also the ideas that you mention of Thomas Edison that sounds reverberate, and there’s an afterimage, an echo which never entirely dissipates. Does sound remain in specific locations, does it transcend time in the sense of outliving its durational aspects?
DT I am interested in ideas like psychogeography and hauntology, but I think they’re metaphors, they’re ways of making sense of the world. The Ballard story “The Sound-Sweep” is so great because, for one thing, it’s very prophetic. He foresees a version of the world as it is now—giant dumps for sonic rubbish at the edge of the city. I love the idea that sound is like dust or something—there is a waste element to it, it collects and so it has to be cleared away. It fits in with very speculative 19th-century ideas about sound never truly dying, but just gradually fading away or collecting in the atmosphere. What really interests me in all of these ideas is that they’re stories that help us to understand our situation. I’m not so much interested in them as real possibilities, but I’m not necessarily going to say that it’s nonsense. The sci-fi notion that sound is a substance that soaks into the fabric of a building is fascinating; I understand it as a very powerful myth about the atmospheric power of sound. People talk about atmosphere, but what is it? It’s an accumulation of conditions that creates a feeling, and if you work with sound, and particularly with audiences, you know that sometimes that accumulation of feeling happens and sometimes it doesn’t, and you can’t always explain why. You know, you take away sound from so much film or TV and there’s nothing happening; then you add music and it comes alive, it begins to communicate very strongly at a level beneath image and verbalization.
KC Needless to say, the live experience of music or sound of any type is the most psychoactive level of listening.
DT There are quite a few passages in the book where I’m just taking the dog for a walk or going to the local woods and having quite magical hearing experiences. It’s all very domestic and ordinary, but I can hear things that are transformative. Maybe I’ve come to a point where that has much more meaning to me than putting another CD on or listening to iTunes.
KC Listening to you describe the incidental sounds of nature when you’re walking your dog made me think of my understanding of psychogeography—it’d have to do with location and the history of site-specific events and proximities. Whereas the way you introduce Arthur Machen or Algernon Blackwood’s work in Sinister Resonance seems to have more to do with the timeless sound of reality and our consciousness. Psychogeography is time specific, it has to do with the idea of location and triangulation, whereas in Blackwood’s and Machen’s work it’s about crossing this threshold where you are almost no longer in time, you’re outside of time.
DT Blackwood wrote about houses in which a very disturbing residue of sound lingers; it’s hanging there as a malevolent presence. He also wrote about the wild outdoors, full of eerie sounds, inhabited by pagan forces that can sweep away an unsuspecting traveler. Blackwood focused on the uncanny side of listening, and how it really unsettles us, maybe because there is no proper history of listening. It’s as if Blackwood were saying that this is the true nature of nature, or of dwellings, that lurking somewhere beneath superficial impressions is a potentially very destructive force.
You said something a while ago about content, and while you were saying it, I was thinking of void and silence. Sound is good at communicating the notion of the void that begins many religious narratives: before the world of forms, there was just swirling nothingness, then the world of forms was created by God or whomever, and all the detail was filled in. But as you rightly said, nothingness doesn’t exist. Music has a physical presence that instruments can register. The same is true of silence; it’s the post-Cagean idea that there’s no such thing as silence. Yet it’s actually very useful in certain circumstances to consider silence as nothingness because it expresses so many important ideas. I describe silence in the book as a form of noise—the deeper you go into silence, the more information you find. In the end, sound is a very powerful metaphor for expressing all these ideas that we find so ungraspable and unsettling. That may be one of the reasons why people find certain kinds of improvisation so hard; it puts them in the midst of events that seem to them formless. If you’re an experienced improviser, you don’t have that sense of formlessness because each moment has structure, though you can’t know the end result. For people who are very uncomfortable with improvisation, it just sounds like chaos, like a terrible kind of mess.
KC Would you mind talking about a couple of these pieces of music?
DT Well, I wanted to write a book that wasn’t about music. I said this to a few people and they thought I was being quite perverse. But if I’m going to talk about Robert Schumann, then I’ve alienated the rock fans, or if I’m going to talk about jazz, then I might alienate classical fans. I wanted to write a book that was really about sound and listening without having to do that through the medium of music. There were just a few sections where music seemed very relevant; there’s a lot of potential in thinking about musicians and composers who have operated or are operating somewhat outside of, let’s say, the center. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re avant-garde. It’s as applicable to a composer like Schumann as it is to some of the examples I’ve mentioned in the book, such as Scott Walker or Morton Feldman, people who are more on the edges and are moving toward this sense of formlessness that we’ve been talking about. It’s typical of certain periods of music that you get this feeling of breakdown. It can happen in popular music—a breakthrough when people are experimenting with the notion of formlessness and even aspiring to chaos. Everything is becoming reconfigured and then it all works itself out again and it’s back to business as usual. But those periods can have a huge impact, not just on music itself, but on the way people think, the way they behave.
KC We haven’t really touched on something that runs through the entirety of the book, and is implied in the title, taken from Henry Cowell’s composition. I’ll quote from the beginning of the essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” by H. P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.” There’s a sense of the listening experience as being a suspension of your normal sensory comfort zone, an introduction to the unknown. How does the idea that this has sinister implications factor into the overarching sense of the book?
DT Well, the first experience of sound I remember was thinking I heard an intruder in the house. I also have a very vivid memory, from when I was slightly older, of thinking I heard somebody in my bedroom. I was lying there in the dark feeling this person gradually move around my bed. I thought that if I kept very still and very quiet, he wouldn’t know I was there. (laughter) This is my formative experience of listening. It’s based on fear. I use the book to explore that idea. It comes back again to the significance of eavesdropping, the uncanny sense that sound can be disconnected from its source—you may think you know what the sound is, but you can’t be absolutely certain. For me, a lot of the power of sound comes from that uncertainty.
Maybe the book was slightly reactive also. From R. Murray Schafer’s first writings on soundscapes onward, sonic theorists have described sound as something beautiful and benign, almost excessively positive. I understand that, and I feel that in relation to many of my experiences of sound. But I have this continuing relationship with sound, also, in which I do find it sinister. It makes me fearful at times. I’m drawn to the gothic. I’m drawn to the experience of fear in many ways. I suppose I wanted to state another case for sound, to move the discourse slightly away from utopian conceptions of sound.
One of the first serious authors I remember reading as a child was Edgar Allan Poe. “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” had a big impact on me as a child. They’re about hyperacuity, about extreme listening, and the notion that within sound there exists that experience of fear. Which came first, my feeling that sound was somehow sinister and threatening, or reading Edgar Allan Poe? It’s a mixture of both. I was attracted to Poe because I already experienced the world in that way. Which is not to say that I don’t experience music as joyful and uplifting and sublime and all the rest of it, I do!
KC Perhaps there’s a sense of exhilaration within the experience of fear, a sense of awe at the power of the sounds that create that feeling, that bring you into contact with this element of the unknown. That’s certainly been my experience when hearing certain recordings or seeing live performances, like Iannis Xenakis’s “La Légende d’Eer” or Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” which I had the opportunity to hear performed and conducted by him recently in New York. There really is this sense of awe that is borderline terror, almost, in this music. It’s an exhilarating, albeit, to some extent, paralyzing experience.
DT It’s a belief that everything in life is provisional and uncertain. That’s terrifying, and it’s exhilarating at the same time.
Keith Connolly is a founding member of No-Neck Blues Band, a seven-piece improvised-music collective.