David Toop (London, 1949) has been developing a practice that crosses boundaries of sound, music, and materials since 1970. Improvised music performance, writing, listening, electronic sound, field recording, exhibition curating, sound art installations and opera are part of his modus operandi. As a writer, he has collaborated in iconic magazines such as The Wire and The Face and published seven books, like Into the Maelstrom, Ocean of Sound and Sinister Resonance to name a few. He has released thirteen solo albums and has collaborated with many artists and musicians. His album Lost Shadows has been sampled for Björk’s recently-announced new album. In addition, he is a professor of Audio Culture and Improvisation at London College of Communication.
We talked to him on the occasion of his presence at Curtocircuito International Film Festival of Santiago de Compostela, and these are all the very interesting things he told us about music, sound and the art of listening.
You are a professor of Audio Culture and Improvisation at London College of Communication. How is improvisation taught? I mean, there are some structures and then you teach your students how to combine them? ‘Composing for improvisers’ is not a bit of a contradiction?
Well, this title is slightly my joke. Some time ago a student asked me, “Shall I call you professor of sound art?” I found it very boring so I came out with this title, Audio Culture and Improvisation. The latter is a key point for me because it has had a lot of difficulties in being recognized in the academic world. I have been running improvisation classes for ten years at London College of Communication and it was very important to me to attach the word to the title.
Every year I run a six-week class on improvisation, mostly for undergraduate but for postgraduate students as well. I think you are right, I do not think it is possible to teach improvisation. However, what I do is to try to set up the conditions in which improvisation is possible or can happen, therefore students can begin to analyse it and understand how to work in groups, how to cooperate with others and how to adapt the personal language to the group language. This goes of course beyond music, but learning how to work in a group is something that we all need to do, particularly in the 21st century. Thus I am not really teaching, what I do is set up a situation with guidance, encouraging the students to think, to analyse and to work with sound.
I also think that a good teacher should not impose anything, just give guidance. Any case, you do many things, as stated in the intro: improvised music performance, writing, composing, creating electronic sound, field recording, exhibition curating, sound art installations and opera. Do you prefer one activity to the others?
I used to have a division between writing and making, but over the last twenty years I worked hard to narrow that gap, to integrate disciplines although they are very different – the verbal and the non-verbal. Bringing them together was arduous but became necessary to me as it felt almost like a split personality, this kind of Hollywood cliché. In terms of preference, I need to do all of them. I had periods in my life where I tried to stop doing one or the other. For example, I had a long period in the '80s in which I was a music critic, so I tried to stop doing music; yet, it was a very bad thing to do – actually, impossible in the end. What happens is that different areas somehow inform each other educate each other. To this extent, if my practice is going to evolve, which I hope it continues to do, it is always necessary to have all these different aspects going on at the same time. For example, a few days ago I did a performance, and I wrote about that. It was an analytical work because I wanted to get closer to the essence of the performance piece. I thought about the ‘fluidity of practice’, which is something where a drawing can become a musical instrument; something we assign to a particular category, activity or practice that can become another. Same with teaching: I find it quite difficult, but again it is very important because it is about ideas and how do we exchange them.
Absolutely, I think teaching is bidirectional; you are feeding on your students and the other way around.
That is right; most of my teaching now is PhD level, doctorate students. I really enjoy working with the ones who are good, I learn a lot. The process goes back to when I was at school. I had a disastrous education, it was a catastrophe and as a consequence, I was a failure in almost everything. The ones who teach us are the ones inspiring us. I had an art teacher when I was a teenager, we worked together in performances and I still see him. I am very conscious of how a relationships teacher-student should be, and how a didactic process is a two-way process.
Ocean of Sound (1996), one of your most acclaimed works — book and music compilation — is twenty years old. Experts refer to it as a “historical survey” of ambient music. Do you think about the history of music as a type of archaeology of sound? I mean, nobody talks about the archaeology of sound as a study of human — and non-human — activity through the recovery and analysis of it as ‘material’ culture. I just came up with the idea, even though in music it does not matter if it was produced on the 14th or the 19th century or contemporarily, traces of music and sound in history are considered in a different way than other disciplines, isn’t it?
Archaeology of sound is an interesting way to look at it; the thing is that a lot of music forms happen simultaneously. If we think about archaeology, digging down, finding and identifying layers of history, to some extent that is true; but music is always happening all the time everywhere. We find historical music, for example, composer Henry Purcell, happening at the same time as new electronic music. This simultaneity is one of the things I was trying to deal with in Ocean of Sound.
I wrote it in 1995, which was quite an exciting time for music because there was a softening of boundaries between genres. In my opinion, genres had been very separate before and suddenly seemed to merge, it was even possible to hear all of them within the same set. I found it very interesting; it reflected some of my ideas, ideas that caught my attention since I was very young. I have always been very open to the sound I listen to, that is why I wanted to extend sound beyond the human; there are, moreover, a lot of notions about non-human sound in the book. Because of the advances in technology in the 20th century, we were able to hear sounds that were previously inaccessible, whether it would be ultrasonic, birds, fishes or whales. All these sounds that could be heard in detail changed our sense on how important we are, in other words, they reduced our importance within the Universe. Obviously, there are still sounds we are unable to reach.
Ocean of Sound is really about reversibility, which I saw as one of the strongest characteristics of 20th-century music. Although it pretends to be about happier music, it is really a book that tries to find a different way to think about the evolution of music and listening in the 20th century. While writing it, I was moving away from the idea of framing everything within music and moving toward listening. Ocean of Sound was my most popular book because it wrote very directly about music and also it got away the idea of high and low art division in music, the polarization between popular and the so-called classical. I was very flat, the book talks about every type of music and how sounds interrelate. They were all equally investigated, elitist or pop music. It was really about what was going on at the moment and how all these different forms interact. It was a way of putting down ideas I had been having since I was a teenager.
That is a really good point, even though it exists this division in music – pop music being mainstream and classic or experimental music being more elitist –; everybody and every culture sing and dance. I think the polarization is much bigger in visual arts, where low culture only gives access to commercial or pop iconic images whilst high culture stays in museums and institutions far from mainstream. Connecting with your previous answer and talking about reaching a huge audience, do you think is there a global audio culture nowadays? How do you think technology and the Internet — as main communication media — have changed our way to perceive/consume music?
It is a big question that everybody asks. I am not sure if it is possible to answer because we are still in the middle of it, it is very hard to understand things when we are still in the process. Things change very quickly and you get the sense of that just from social media, for example, looking at the articles people post. Four or five years ago, people were constantly talking about how you could no longer make a living as a musician because you could not sell records anymore. This discussion stopped now, either because people are tired of talking about it or because it is an old topic; the changes really killed that so badly that there is nothing left to talk about.
I think our understanding is partial; we are so close to what is going on, that the most important thing is to keep working and to stay optimistic. There are many issues around the world that are truly depressing, but at a certain level of practice, you have to keep working and stay positive, assuming that the world will continue to exist and that there will be room for things people like you and I do, otherwise there is no hope.
The online life has changed things dramatically and it is very complicated to say how this is happening. It is certainly impossible to talk about the future, yet we always should think about it. In my work, I am always moving towards the future. I was assuming that everything I did had future within it; I never understood it at the time I was doing it. I look back at things I wrote and now I begin to understand them, however, I wrote them down and I published them because I knew they had something, they had the future in it.
You are a visionary!
Well, this is the way we have to work, always looking forward. It is really complex to analyse what is happening now and it will not be productive because of the constant changes.
“There are many issues around the world that are truly depressing, but at a certain level of practice, you have to keep working and stay positive, assuming that the world will continue to exist.”
Considering your vast experience, is there any kind of music you never listen to? What about non-western music? Are you interested in Asian, African or South American music culture?
There is a lot of music I do not listen to anymore and that is because I’ve done it very much in my life. Potentially I am open to any kind of music because it all has some sort of interest, even if you do not like it. The music I have listened to most consistently and continue to do so is ‘70s soul and global traditional music. Therefore, I listen to music from Korea, Japan, Indonesia, many parts of Africa, South-East Asia, Amazonas, Papua New Guinea, etc.
Evan Parker and I do a semi-regular event called Sharpen Your Needles in which we play records of what used to be called ‘ethnic music’. Mostly, we play it from vinyl, from our own collections, and we talk a little bit about what we play. It is not an academic thing or a lecture, it’s more like a social listening session in which people can sit together and listen to music that is not generally available anymore, either on record or online. It can be very moving, really revelatory, to be in a room of quiet people, all of us listening to a secret ritual of Australian aboriginal people, sacred flutes from Papua New Guinea or a Japanese temple ceremony.
Anything you are listening nowadays that you will recommend?
In terms of new(ish) things on record I like Frank Ocean, Shabazz Palaces, bits of Bon Iver, but what I really like is the small gigs of free improvised music that happen in London. Some of them are almost private, they are like a workshop. The quality of listening is very sophisticated, very intense. It is quite detached from any notion of mainstream music or commerce and often genuinely experimental.
I am curious about your fields of interest: writing sound and experimental notation. Tell us about those disciplines.
I have a section in my blog called Writing Sound, which is the practice of writing that tries to say something theoretical about music or sound being at the same time a sound work in itself. To me writing sound has a long history. When I was in my early twenties, I worked with Bob Cobbing; he was a real turning point in his time. He was interested in sound, concrete poetry, and explored the visual and auditory possibilities of the alphabet. Cobbing was breaking sentences and words down, even letters into marks and shapes that we did interpret with musical instruments. For me, that was a very important beginning, thinking about the similarities and differences of writing as an extension towards speech and music. And in a way, they relate strongly to the idea of making marks and music notation. I was an art student too and I was thinking about going into visual arts, there was a bit of conflict there but similarly, there was a convergence. Going back to what I described before as fluidity of practices, it is possible to be working in one field with a certain type of technology and methodology and actually, also to refer and work in another.
Talking about avant-garde artists, I had the pleasure to talk to several artists about John Cage and his investigations on experimentation, indeterminacy and the execution of the piece itself plus the anarchic sonority that temporality produces. In your book Into The Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation And The Dream Of Freedom Before 1970 (2016), you talk about the post-cagean era. Which are the parameters related to indeterminacy and improvisation in composing in this new era?
First of all, there is a huge difference between indeterminacy and free improvisation. Within indeterminacy, the composer is very present, while in free improvisation the composer is gone. That is a big difference and it has political implications in the way we can think about work as a collective with no hierarchy. It is a different way of thinking about relating to people and the psychological effect of that. At the end of September, I took part in a performance piece by Rhys Chatham called Guitar Trio. It was, in fact, an expanded version, with six electric guitars, bass and drums. I hadn’t played a composer piece for years thus for me it was a vast experience, an opportunity to observe the differences.
I enjoyed playing it, I have a great respect for Chatham plus I loved the piece. But I was playing a completely different type of performance, totally improvised; I would use the word ‘distributed’. The feeling you have as a human being is completely different. In one setting you are agreeing to obey rules whilst in the other you are working collaboratively with other people, objects and processes, you are much closer to the audience and you all are working on what is happening. One might think from a historical point of view that there are strong connections between these two activities but the level of thinking and feeling, psychology and politics are completely different.
Then, to you improvisation is a non-hierarchical composition? Is it sound anarchy?
No, it is not anarchy of sound, it is much more complicated than that. We can say it is non-hierarchical without saying it is anarchic. Hierarchy has become established; even when two people sit together to have a coffee there is already a form of hierarchy. It is very complex and this complexity that is implied in free improvisation is what I am trying to work in the book Into The Maelstrom.
Some days ago, electronic musician Paul Jebanasam told me the sounds that interest him the most are the ones you cannot hear. You are also interested in listening to ‘silent’ media such as painting and literature, and this is what you talk about in Sinister Resonance, right? The book you just mentioned above and the subject of the conference you gave during Curtocircuito a few weeks ago. Could you please develop a bit on this?
When I wrote Sinister Resonance (2010), I began to be interested in the idea of representation of sound and listening experiences through media like painting. For this reason, I ended up thinking a lot of in 17th-century painting, particularly Dutch painting in which this thing happens —relatively speaking— a lot. There was no audio recording technology at that time, so in a sense, these paintings were like tape recordings. You could say that because of their effect on people, they created listening experiences. They were like music landscapes.
But there is a paradox, thus the aim of Sinister Resonance was to find a history of listening to works in which artists had represented different types of listening either in novels, paintings or other art forms that are not associated with listening at all. It became a fascinating exercise to me. In the conference I talked about this and about how my thinking has moved on since writing that book. Again, going into the fluidity of practices, the notion of drawing can become a sound experience. It is a strange area of creating confusion but I do sympathize with the emotional effects.
About the sounds you cannot hear, two years ago at a festival in Belgium somebody said to me that he or she was always looking for new sounds, to which I did respond, “No, it is not about searching for new sounds, it is about the effect sounds have, the way they relate to each other, to things, to objects and the source that create them”. There was a time in my life in which I was listening to sounds in my dreams, which is quite unusual, but when it happens it is very striking, as you can hear sounds you have never heard before. Nevertheless, that sound is in you, as you are able to dream it in a subconscious way. Our human senses are very limited anyway. When I was young, I was very interested in the sound produced by bats and dolphins because they are ultrasonic, and also elephants work with infrasound. We operate in a very narrow bandwidth, which is privileged towards speech; therefore our reality is very limited. There is a complete sonic universe out there and it is part of the journey.
And in the context of a film festival where film, music and sound have a strong relationship, what kind of cinema are you interested in author/art house, experimental, big and expensive productions?
I am not interested in Hollywood productions at all, but I watch films all the time; it is a huge part of what I do, I work for films many times. As the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu said, “Writing music for films is like a passport to freedom.”