Of experiments, writings, compilations
Interview by John Wisniewski
It's not easy being a polymath. Musician/composer/author/ethnomusicologist/educator David Toop is proof of that. Since we last spoke to him in a 1997 interview, he's come out with several books, including Sinister Resonance (2010), Into the Maelstrom (2016), Flutter Echo (May 2019, which we excerpted here) and Inflamed Invisible: Writing On Art and Sound 1976-2018 (November 2019). For albums, he's since released Sound Body on David Sylvian's Samadhisound label (2006), Entities Inertias Faint Beings (2016), Apparition Paintings and Field recording and Fox Spirits (2020) on Lawrence English's ROOM40. That's not even mentioning his recent collaborations include Rie Nakajima, Akio Suzuki, Tania Caroline Chen, John Butcher, Ken Ikeda, Elaine Mitchener, Henry Grimes, Sharon Gal, Camille Norment, Sidsel Endresen, Alasdair Roberts, Fred Frith, Thurston Moore, Ryuichi Sakamoto. If that wasn't enough, Toop is also a curator of sound art exhibitions including Sonic Boom at the Hayward Gallery (2000) and is also Professor of Audio Culture and Improvisation at London College of Communication. In between his busy schedule, we managed to get him to answer some questions about his work and career via email.
PSF: You've been working on your new album Apparition Paintings. What inspired you to create on this one?
DT: I recorded the album last year, started in March and by the end of May, it was more or less finished. A lot of other things were going on at that time so it was a case of finding brief opportunities to work on it. Like everything else I do, there's that practical aspect to it, feeling excited (or depressed) in the moment of working but not exactly waiting to be inspired. I know I'd been thinking about it for a while and that manifested itself by titles appearing to me when I was watching a film or reading a book. I'd think, that sounds like a piece of music I'd like to hear. Those sentences I wrote down, like when Marilyn Monroe says, "You could touch him but he wasn't there," in The Misfits, didn't exactly shape the piece they were applied to but they contributed some kind of mood, back in the shadows.
PSF: What were you listening to while recording this album?
DT: I don't really remember what I was listening to back then. There's not much direct connection anyway. I do remember hearing Billie Eilish's album during that period, and thinking that the way they used space in the production was really effective. Maybe that had some effect on one particular track. The previous year, I'd been listening to Tyler, the Creator's Flower Boy album a lot. There was one track on that - "Garden Shed" - that starts with guitar. That guitar sound influenced me a bit. But in general, I feel I have a lot of accumulated listening, some of which comes through, some doesn't. Even I couldn't identify it half the time. You can hear very strong input on this record from friends - Rie Nakajima, Elaine Mitchener, Yifeat Ziv, Keiko Yamamoto and Áine O'Dwyer - who really add a lot of their own personalities. That's more important than external influences.
PSF: You wrote an excellent book on hip hop called Rap Attack back when there were few books about that style of music. Could you tell us about this?
DT: It was a long time ago, 1984! Basically, I loved the music and I thought it was a great story, the way this new form had emerged seemingly out of nowhere but it was actually rooted in a specific area of New York, in the conditions of that time in the 1970's and in a deep and complex African American oral and musical culture that went right back to Africa. It was totally modern and new but it was also ancient and archival. In fact it still is. I was listening recently to Playboi Carti's "@MEH" and the same elements are in there - that idea of verbalisation as a thing of mysterious power, a weapon, and then the weird minimalism of the music track.
PSF: You worked with The Flying Lizards in your early years. What was that like?
DT: David Cunningham always describes it as a project, not a group. There was no fixed membership. I met David when I was doing a bit of teaching at Maidstone Art College in the 1970's. He was a student there and he'd already made the first Flying Lizards single, a cover of "Summertime Blues." He knew Steve Beresford, who I was working with a lot, so when "Money" was a huge hit, he was given the go-ahead to make an album and pulled in Steve, myself, drummer Dave Solomon and Vivian Goldman to work on it. We only played on a couple of tracks - David was very self-sufficient - but one of them was a minor hit, let's say almost a hit, and the other one was sampled by The Roots, so that's not bad. Steve and I have the same problem - people saying to us, I loved that version of "Money," and we're forever having to explain that we didn't play on it!
PSF:.You have collaborated with many music artists. What was it like working with Brian Eno, Thurston Moore and Ryuichi Sakamoto?
DT: Ahh, famous people. I'm very fortunate- collaboration is at the heart of what I do and I get to work with many interesting people, all of them different, all of them brilliant in their own ways. Brian, of course, invited me to record for his Obscure label in 1975 ( New And Rediscovered Musical Instruments), so I've known him for a long time. I've known Ryuichi for a long time too, initially through interviewing him for The Face magazine way back when. I really enjoyed playing a duo with him in London. He's extraordinarily versatile in what he does. The record of that concert will be released early next year. Thurston I met when he and his partner, Eva Prinz, wanted to publish a facsimile edition of a magazine called MUSICS that I'd been a part of in the 1970's. We started playing together, often with Steve Beresford, and then in 2018, he and Eva put together a mini-tour and road trip, the three of us driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles along Highway 1. For one of the gigs, we played a duo at the Henry Miller library in Big Sur, outside at night with insects chirping in the background. It was something I'd always wanted to do since I was a teenager in the 1960's, reading Miller and Kerouac. And they curated the whole trip exquisitely, so we stayed in places like the Phoenix Hotel and the Madonna Inn and visited every book and record store en route. I love playing with Thurston. He's a great listener and an immensely kind and generous person.
PSF: What decides what new direction your music will take from album to album?
DT: For me there's a continuum between gigs, research, collaborations and recording. They all link up together and feed each other. Sometimes. new ideas will come from instruments I'm working on or a book I'm reading. I can't say I can perceive a direction in my music though, or at least not a single direction. One track is a nod to the Beach Boys, another one is at least partly inspired by music composed by Toshiaki Tsushima for Hideo Gosha samurai movies in the 1960's and partly by sleeve notes I wrote for a vinyl release of Dave Grusin's soundtrack for The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Two tracks are built around songs written and sung by Keiko Yamamoto, so they're different again. It's all to do with connections.
PSF: You are interested in the history of British experimental composition. Could you tell us about this?
DT: I'm not that interested in British experimental composition but I am deeply involved in the history of UK free improvisation, both as a player and scholar.
It's a complicated story and some of it is in my book, Into the Maelstrom. You could say that a small group of musicians in the mid-1960's learned how to learn a new way of playing music, without any score, instructions, discussion. I came into that scene in 1970's, when I was twenty-one years old. I still consider improvisation to be the basis of everything I do.
PSF: How has the pandemic effected your work and creativity?
DT: In certain respects, I'm more content now than I have been for a long time, partly because some of the stresses associated with working under 21st century capitalism have been displaced. I've always been a bit haunted and hunted by normal life. The predictability of that treadmill has gone and although I've experienced anxiety, feelings of isolation and a general abhorrence of all those monsters of politics who are destroying accountability around the world, I'm fortunate in having resources and a history of self-motivated working and monkish tendencies.
It's partly to do with life stage. At the age of 71, I don't feel I'm missing out on life in the same way that I would if I was 21 or 41. I'd normally be travelling a lot but I've travelled so much in my life that it's actually nice to be at home, watching the seasons change, instead of watching the destination board. All gigs, lectures and workshops were cancelled of course, but they've been replaced by writing commissions, which is what I've been doing solidly since April. That's funny because in January, I'd decided I never wanted to write again!
Other than that, I've made a collaborative album with Lucie Stepankova, a long sound piece for a Joachim Koester exhibition in Bergen and a duo piece with my old friend Steve Beresford for Jon Abbey's AMPLIFY 2020: quarantine festival. I worked on the Field Recordings and Fox Spirits project with Lawrence English and I've been painting a lot, reading a lot, working on a new approach (for me) to nylon string guitar, doing some academic jobs like examining PhD's via Zoom or Skype, which is not as weird as I thought it might be.
I miss my friends, miss gigs and lack stimulation but living through a global catastrophe has its points of interest. My parents lived through two World Wars, the Spanish flu pandemic and the Great Depression. You have to expect a certain amount of disaster in a lifetime.
PSF: How do you look upon early recordings now such as the Obscure album and Paul Burwell collaborations?
DT: They were like navigations into the unknown, often in leaky boats, but they were so replete with discoveries that I've been building on them ever since.
There was a plan to release a lot of the recordings that Paul Burwell and I made together in our respective homes between 1970 to 74. As so often happens, that project evaporated but it was amazing to work on those lo-fi cassette tapes, trying to project myself back into those times, places and bodies.
A lot of what I'm doing now is very similar in terms of structures and what you might call fascinations and atmospheres. Of course, it sounds radically different because I'm more experienced - I know what I'm doing, more or less, and have the technology to accomplish it - but for all their faults, those raw recordings came from the alchemist's laboratory.
PSF: Since you have an array of instruments that you play, how do you make decisions about which one(s) to use for a particular piece? Does it happen that sometimes the instrument(s) dictate the shape of the piece itself after you've initially conceived it?
DT: Instruments can make pieces, yes. On the new album - Apparition Paintings - there are a number of tracks which are very much guitar pieces, one that's a bass recorder piece. Certain ideas are going through my mind and I often have what you might call sketches, scraps of recordings that are on their way to becoming something more complete. I'll also record a bunch of different ideas with the same instrument and one or other of them might become the basis of a piece or turn out to be a useful addition. I like that focus on materials.
As an improvisor, I'm thinking about materials all the time and during a concert, it's a fast process, moving from one thing to another, making instant decisions, keeping on the move. I always say that improvisation is the root of what I do and that's a good example of how it works. That intuitive quickness in front of an audience then informs the slower process of composing in the computer.
PSF: How do you decide to divide your time between music and writing? Do you like to alternate? Do you draw on ideas for one to use for the other now?
DT: As I said, I was really tired of writing but had the wake-up call on that, the one that says 'this is the way you make your living at the moment.' I'd actually been researching a new book for a couple of years, a subject in which I was thinking about music and race, but being in lockdown somehow made a concentrated project like that impossible, plus there was such an explosion of pain and rage going on in response to police brutality against black people, so as the Black Lives Matter movement spread and took on aspects of the legacy of slavery and racism - statues of slavers and so on - it just felt better to absorb that and wait to see how it developed.
This has been such an extraordinary time for so many reasons so it's impossible to think you could carry on as normal. The thing is, I don't feel healthy or truly alive if I'm not playing music and if I'm not writing, then I have more thoughts going on than I know what to do with. If I don't have some sort of balance, then I start to lose the reciprocity of thought and action that, for better or worse, determines who I am.
PSF: Your compilations for Virgin were astounding. Do you miss doing them? Do you have plans to do any more similar ones?
DT: Thank you. I do miss them, yes. In the past few years, I've come up with playlists that could easily have turned into compilations. There was a piece I wrote for The Wire magazine, on black minimalism. I felt that the playlist I put together could have made a really worthwhile compilation. Also I've made a couple of programmes for NTS radio, one on the recordings made by Jean C. Roche, mostly birdsong, insects and amphibians, and then another one in a sort of homage to Arthur Russell's World of Echo, tracks that use echo in striking ways. If I had the energy I'd find someone to release them, but by the time you hit your seventies you have to accept you can't do everything.
PSF: As someone who was so adept as creating compilations, what do you think are essential components for creating them (in an aesthetic sense)?
DT: Obviously, a wide knowledge and recall of music but also an instinct for how things can go together. It's no good just indulging in random craziness, there has to be some connection between one track and another and then across all the tracks, a connection that creates flow, or disrupts in a purposeful way. You have to be a listener. As a listener I respond to contrasts and that's what I've tried to achieve in compilations and playlists, either juxtapositions of tracks that really shouldn't go together or sequences in which there's movement of texture, emotion, or the history of a track.
PSF: If given a huge grant, what kind of large-scale project(s) would you like to execute?
DT: Ha ha ha, very unlikely. I don't think of myself as the sort of person who gets awarded that kind of grant. I also don't think of myself as a big project kind of guy, which is why I don't spend time on applying for these things. Mostly, I fund things myself. But if I look at it a bit closer I realise that there are plenty of projects that could use significant support - for example, some detailed research on two books I'm planning, which would include travel, and curatorial projects which bring together the work of people I like and respect.
PSF: Do you have any particular treasured items from your travels?
DT: A lot, because I tend to search things out when I'm travelling. I have a pair of shaman cymbals from Korea which I bought from a man who was selling antique items out of a cardboard box on the streets of Seoul. Then I have a pair of pellet bells - a Hmong shaman rattle from Laos - bought on a dusty street in Nong Khiaw from a man who was selling things from a Perspex display case. Funnily enough, both the cymbals and the rattles are connected by ribbons, faded lilac in the case of the cymbals and red in the case of the rattles. A pigeon whistle from Beijing is also precious and so is the long Yanomami arrow I bought back from Amazonas. Actually, my living space is full up with objects like that but they all have a use value. I'd love to own some Lucie Rie ceramics but the ceramics I have are all used, for eating or drinking tea. There's always a usefulness or an emotional significance. If not, it has to go.
PSF: Do British, and maybe American, painters inspire you?
DT: They certainly used to. When I was a teenage, I loved Franz Kline's work and Robert Motherwell, particularly the abstract expressionists who were influenced by Asian calligraphy and ink painting. Now, I'm more likely to search out the original sources. Some years ago, I read a book by the French Sinologist and philosopher, François Jullien, called The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject through Painting. That book had a powerful effect on me and introduced me to the idea of apparition painting. Then in October last year I was playing a solo gig in Cologne. My hotel was walking distance from the museum for East-Asiatic Art so I made a visit and found they had examples of apparition painting in their collection, by Chūan Shinkō, for example, a Zen monk painter from fifteenth century Kamakura. That's when I decided to call my album Apparition Paintings. The painters (specifically meaning painters, rather than artists) I think about at the moment include Ithell Colquhoun, Hilma af Klint, Mark Tobey, Lee Ufan, Etel Adnan, Morita Shiryū and Henri Michaux, but they're not just British or American. I'm addicted to buying art materials. Well, there's a great photograph of Morita Shiryū painting with the biggest brush you've ever seen. My ambition is to own a brush that big!
PSF: Do you have any favourite musical artists and composers?
DT: Hundreds, maybe thousands. I've been listening to Solange's When I Get Home a lot during lockdown. I find it simultaneously soothing and inspiring. The same for Alice Coltrane, particularly one of her cassettes - Turiya Sings- that she released through her Avatar Book Institute in the 1980's. Also koto pieces by a Japanese composer, the late Minoru Miki and new releases by friends of mine- Rie Nakajima, John Butcher, Rhodri Davies, O Yama O. To be honest I don't listen to anywhere near as much music as I once did. I'm kind of full up with music.
Also see David Toop's take on the evolution of electronic music
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