David Toop “I’m trying to reverse in myself the received idea about sounding and listening, the notion that one is active, the other is passive.”

Improvising composer, field recordist, instrument maker, and writer David Toop has been a singular force in the landscape of experimental music and sound for the better part of five decades. His activities have ranged from the anarchic to the deeply spiritual, from collective gestation to those of an observer. In writing and in curating, Toop has explored the meaning and structure of ambient music as well as a deep and thoughtful engagement with hip-hop and its culture. Coming up in a path forged by improvisers like saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey and in a milieu that produced punk and sound art, Toop’s work is beyond category.

On the heels of two new releases — Energies Inertias Faint Beings (Room40) and Life on the Inside (Sub Rosa) — and a festival-length stand with the historical free music group he co-founded Alterations at London’s Cafe Oto back in June, Toop was eager to talk over email about the process of listening, performing, and documenting cultural actions as he experienced (and continues to experience) them.


Could you talk about Alterations in recent performance and how your approach to improvisation in that setting has either changed or remained constant?

Alterations was an improvising quartet – Peter Cusack, Terry Day, Steve Beresford, and myself – that played together from 1977-86. We split up because individuals in the group were moving on, because the productive conflicts were gradually turning sour, and perhaps because all those years of touring together in a Transit van had made us slightly sick of each other. When we played together again in 2015 it was uncanny. We were changed, older, battered by experience you might say, but the chemistry was still there. That was a mystery. Our most recent performances – June, during the Alterations Festival at Cafe Oto in London – opened up an area to which no other group has such blissful access. Abby Thomas, the archivist at Cafe Oto, described a recording of the second set as some of the weirdest music she had heard for a long time. I’d agree with that. It’s like a tag-team wrestling match in which there’s always the potential for extreme violence but in which all four wrestlers use origami, card tricks, bricklaying, sewing, confetti, flowers, hammers, spiritualism, and Taoist debate to bring about a result in which everybody wins and nobody wins. What was very surprising to all of us was that it had changed so much yet remained constant.

You have talked about solitude and individual experience as crucial to your writing practice and your recent music. Is there room for solitude amid collectivity, and vice versa?

To me, the great strength of free improvisation is the productive antagonism of individualism and collectivism. Collaboration is at the heart of what I do as a musician but I also need solitude in order to hear – to hear my thoughts, the world, new ideas, whatever I’m reading. Really it depends on what kind of work I’m doing – for a record like Entities Inertias Faint Beings I really needed to cut myself off in order to get a sense of how all of these sounds I’d made over time could live together. Writing is a bit different. I can never write when other people are around. Writing isn’t collaborative but it works over long durations, emerges from conversations, collaboration, practice, experience, history. Material, in other words, that collects together in silence. But these terms are misleading. There’s no such thing as solitude in contemporary life and collectivism is always partial and to some degree illusory. When I’m alone I’m acutely aware of sociability; when I’m with others I’m conscious of solitude. Maybe I go for a week without speaking to another person but their voices and my voices resonate within my body.

Could you talk about your experience of ritual in performing and listening to music(s)? How can the ritual of making translate to the ritual of listening?

The word ‘ritual’ conjures up images of shadowy figures wearing hoods and performing strange rites, but there are also the small rituals of daily life. There’s a ritual element to the way I have breakfast, a ritual of going to sleep, taking exercise, and so on, and those small rituals migrate to performance situations. I try to think about the ritual of activating materials and objects in performance. Bringing them to life, in other words, and the same is true of sounds themselves or the inert aspect of sounds that we call silence or quiet. That’s more important to me than thinking about the way the music is developing because it keeps me focused in the moment.

It’s a question of creating attention and presence, two very imprecise terms, but they intensify my awareness of what’s going on in the space and time frame with other listeners (because I’m a listener too, a visible listener who hopes to lead by example, who poses the question of how to listen). I try to draw people in, often with ambiguous sounds. Maybe the sound is too quiet to be heard but it does apparently exist so there’s curiosity and heightened listening. At the same time I try not to be thrown off what I’m doing by listener reactions. The tactic of enacting a private ritual helps to preserve equilibrium, maintain a coolness about the unfolding of the event.

I’d be interested in learning more about your interest in and approach to music of non-Western cultures — how you got exposed to music/sound made by people outside of the Euro-American orbit and, perhaps more importantly (or more intriguingly), how you came to record in Venezuela and release music from Papua New Guinea?

Like a lot of people of my generation in the UK, I was exposed to Indian music through popular music but there were a lot of opportunities even before, at least to develop an awareness. There was Hawaiian and Latin music on the radio in the 1950s, ersatz versions of Native American music in westerns, a lot of exotica basically, and however dubious or inauthentic it was, there was something intriguing about it all.

That developed into something more serious when I was in my early twenties. I started to listen to music from Japan, Korea, African regions, Tibet, Bali, Java, and so on, mainly through listening to the radio at first. In around 1971, for example, I heard a radio program about sacred flute music from Papua New Guinea, recorded it on my mono cassette recorder and listened to it over and over again, really obsessively, because I was drawn to the apparent formlessness of the music, the way this group of large bamboo flutes seemed to hover in a beautiful luminescent cloud. I was drawn to musics that possessed that oceanic feeling, probably because I was uncomfortable in my own body, my own society, and yearned for some kind of transcendent experience.

There was the attraction of shamanism at that time also. I read Mircea Eliade’s famous book on the subject (The Sacred and Profane) in around 1972 and really responded to the sections on transformation through learning animal languages and secret languages, using an instrument as a vehicle for passing through into another realm. It wasn’t just about becoming entranced, though that was audible in the music I was hearing – variations of slow and fast trance rhythms from Chad or Bali, Korean Confucian music or Japanese gagaku. It was more about wanting to be something other. Writing turned everything back to the word, which is specifically human, and graphic work like drawing fixed everything in marks on a surface. But sound was non-specific – floating in the air, filling up space, emerging and vanishing – so it seemed to have more transformative potential.

There was something about animal nature that was compelling. How to be an iguana, a lemur, or an electric eel? I dreamed about that from childhood, dreamed about traveling to the jungle or desert. As a teenager, listening to blues records, it broke out of otherwise urban narratives as a form of supernatural animism, like in Lightnin’ Hopkins’ recording of “Catfish Blues” – “You know I wished I was a catfish, swimming in that deep blue sea.” Maybe there was a sense of alienation, arising from the artificial gap between nature and culture, or natural and human. Last year when I was working on Entities Inertias Faint Beings I was reading Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects. I was pleased to see him denying the existence of nature as a separated domain of forests, rivers, oceans, animals, and so on. In the period when I was beginning to develop a concept of working with sound, maybe 1971, I was trying to feel my way out of the conventional notion of human beings as capsules whose boundaries distinguished them from nature, instead seeing even the respiratory circulation of air that activates a flute as one example of humans being nature.

Of course if you really felt the reality of that condition then you would never have to leave the suburbs, but I felt entrapped by conditioning and wanted to experience other realities – and not just through drugs. The opportunity arose to fulfill that dream in 1976, through meeting a Venezuelan artist called Nestor Figueras. We talked about Yanomami shamanism. A few years passed and in 1978 he set up a journey into Amazonas in which I was able to record Yanomami shamanism, rituals, and songs [released on Hekura, Quartz 004). That was a formative moment for me because daily life among the Yanomami was clearly interpenetrated by forest beings and spirits. Their sonic world, in particular, was never innocent. It was always alive with actions of unseen beings. No matter how you interpret such beliefs they intensify the sensation of being a part of complex and vast forces.

As for Papua New Guinea, that was another dream but it wasn’t me who recorded the sacred flute music that I released on my label. It was Ragnar Johnson, an anthropologist who I met in the mid-1970s. He was just about to go off to PNG for a period of fieldwork in which he planned to record sacred flutes. Of course I was very excited about that, so I started a record label – Quartz – to release some of his recordings (Sacred Flute Music from New Guinea: Madang/Windim Mabu). They’ve just been reissued by Stephen O’Malley on his Ideologic Organ label. Stephen is very interested in the trance potential of music. I believe that’s one of the aspects of Ragnar’s incredible recordings that he found so compelling.

Was there a conscious effort in your own work, especially in improvised settings with Paul Burwell, to explore a sonic/spatial imprint related to that which you (may have) experienced with the Yanomami and other non-western sonic cultures?

One of the things that struck me very forcibly during my experiences of hearing Yanomami shamans and their music was its fragmentary nature. None of it had the kind of shape we come to expect from music yet it was still extremely powerful, maybe more powerful because it co-existed so easily with the mundane workings of daily life. At that point you have to concede that either everything is banal or all things and actions are sacred. Whichever it is hardly matters because they’re just words anyway, just categories to reduce impossible complexity to the limits of human comprehension.

But by the time I went to Amazonas the duo with Paul Burwell was eight years old. We reached that point very early on in our relationship. Although I could pin down a lot of what people call influences, I’d say that the chemistry between us, what we were searching for, led us down that particular path and everything we heard, read, saw, learned about was a validation of what we’d discovered intuitively and through working intensively on our mutual understanding. At a certain point we were drinking a lot in order to push ourselves beyond the civilized act of making music. Ultimately, that’s how Paul died, by drinking too much, so you could argue he took that as far as it could go. I think he lost faith in what could be done, so self-destruction was the only option. I’ve never lost that faith, consequently never fell into despair, so now I look after myself in order to be able to follow my ideas to the end.

How has your view of (or approach to) environmental music shifted over the decades (if it has indeed shifted)? Is active engagement with one’s sonic environment still a key to knowing the world? Is being able to drift in and out of sonic-spatial consciousness a healthy engagement with art?

I’m trying to reverse in myself the received idea about sounding and listening, the notion that one is active, the other is passive. This feels like a big step and I have some research underway that’s backing it up, but it feels too early to really discuss it. A feeling came about very early – of melting into so-called landscape or sound or spoken words – that came about through working with artists like Marie Yates, Bob Cobbing, Carlyle Reedy. In my early twenties I really believed, or wanted to believe, that certain types of music possessed magical properties, to change human consciousness or even change the structure of society. Then I mislaid that vision, or maybe put it to one side in order to learn something about being socialized. Now I’m not so sure. We don’t really understand much about consciousness, nor do we really understand the extraordinarily complex ways in which society shifts. There’s a feeling of bewilderment at the moment, how did (do) all these things happen? For sure there are openings that can be addressed by the acts of sounding and listening. For example, I’m quite skeptical about sound walks but on a couple of occasions recently I’ve taken students on sound walks and the consequences have been startling. To some of them it’s a revelation, which makes you realize that you can get too specialized for your own good, lose touch with the effects that you come to take for granted.

To circle back to my first question, how have you worked with the participant-listener dichotomy, and how does each inform the other (if at all)?

It always loomed as a problem and that’s why reports of all-night events in Bali with babies crying and people asleep became so important. It came down to music in our society being reduced to a commodity, a very potent and alluring commodity for sure but that only increased the problems rather than ameliorated them. Improvised music was the closest I’d come to finding a music in which the emerging shape of it is discovered simultaneously by everybody in the room and that emergent shape can be radically, mysteriously different for each one of them. In that situation, everybody is a participant with it being a question of emphasis as to who we consider to be actor or audience. Everybody is an actor but not in the crude way that participatory arts encouraged. It’s more subtle, maybe subtle to the point that many of those present don’t realize they are actors.

How are you – or are you – able to objectify music in which you’ve participated as a performer as a listener/writer? Could you discuss your process of translating experience to text at this point in time?

Somebody was saying to me the other day, never trust an artist’s account of their own work. Jane Austen went further. One of her characters says: “Those who tell their own story, you know, must be listened to with caution.” Really, there’s no objectivity in my accounts of what I do. It’s me telling my own story, maybe because I can’t help it with the analysis, or because I despair of what others have to say or because there’s a field of action in which it’s impossible to disconnect sounding, listening, writing, speaking, thinking, making marks, activating objects, contemplating objects, reading texts, making emotional connections, and all the rest of it. They all bleed into each other so rather than it being a translation it’s a view from a different side.

What precedes your decision to release a document of sonic activity into the world at this time?

A long period of not releasing anything. It’s like there was a stopper at the end of a channel. The channel was filling up but I couldn’t persuade myself that unstopping it made any sense. But it’s also necessary to accept delays and blockages, to work through struggle, to open yourself to new ideas rather than hammering away at habits. To be honest, I was mourning losses in my life, needing to let go of a lot of painful memories, both recent and distant. If you’re a musician, composer, sound artist, whatever we call the thing we do in the 21st century, then sound articulates aspects of the self that otherwise stay silent. Certain elements of those losses I could talk about, write about, but the deeper part, the inchoate part, needed to be shaped in sound and exposed to the air.

Your music – and your writing – both present a very physical way of interacting with the world. How do you feel that the digital environment in which many people engage art and culture, at least in the west, can be manifested physically? Is tactility something which can transfer through our recent obsession with ephemeral, albeit vaguely socialized, engagement with art?

Well I’m interested in intimacy, the tactile nature of phenomena, how things get under our skin. I participate in social media, do all that stuff, but I know there’s a very particular region of physicality that lies undisturbed by so-called networks of connectivity. There are references to it online but not the physicality itself, that creeping sensation that enters your pores, invades your body, either by stealth or violence. That’s what remains open as a question to be perpetually answered.

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