In Conversation with David Toop
An interview with the author of Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory
Molly Sheridan: Haunted Weather is rather unique in that the first person narrative makes it feel very personal, yet the topics can get very academic and abstract. How did you come to write the book in this way?
David Toop: When I wrote Ocean of Sound in 1995, I spent about six months just deliberating on the shape of the book. At that time I was emerging from a long period—over ten years—as a full time journalist, often working for mass market publications with strict style rules. You might say I had served an apprenticeship in communicating to a very broad audience, yet I wanted to deal with difficult issues and esoteric music at the same time as being accessible. The first thing to do was to abandon linear chronology, that boring and false sense of logical progression through which one development follows its precursor as if culture was designed in advance by an art historian. Then there was the problem that I personally knew many of the people I was about to write about; some of them were my friends, or close professional associates. In effect, I was an actor within my own drama, which raised some obvious problems of being partisan. Finally, I realised that if I wrote from my own point of view, as a musician, a fan, a record collector, a critic, a person deeply involved in all aspects of music making, then this was much better than pretending to be objective. Readers are interested in human stories, after all, even if they are not so interested in the content of a particular person’s activities. I think that was a way in, and very liberating for me, and it’s a method I’ve used ever since.
Molly Sheridan: It seems the ideal venue for much of the music you discuss in Haunted Weather has not been created yet. If you were asked to design that space, what would it be?
David Toop: Personally I wouldn’t design it. I’d go to a great designer and say, these are the challenges: it has to be a quiet, flexible space, with beautiful acoustics, somewhere between a small studio theatre and a white cube gallery, but without the associations of either, a neutral space that has a clear, simple aesthetic, a feeling that can accommodate very varied groups of people, a space that can be social but at the same time allows intensely focussed events to take place without disruption, a space that’s technically rigged for the present without feeling technocratic, discreet but not too polite or anodyne; what can you do?
Molly Sheridan: You devote several pages to a discussion of an exercise you used with a group of theater students in which you asked them to identify very early sound markers. What is yours?
David Toop: I wrote some of mine in Ocean Of Sound, in the introduction. They include the strange phasing echoes of a particular street I used to walk along with my mother, and wind howling in the drain pipes. They’re sounds that have quite a strong connection to some of the music I listen to now!
Molly Sheridan: The laptop is the new guitar. Agree or disagree?
David Toop: I sort of agree, except for the fact that laptops are far more standardized objects than guitars. When you think of all those incredible futurist designs and colors for electric guitars that started to appear in the 1950s, then compare them to the black or titanium minimalism of a laptop, there’s no contest. There are deeper differences, in terms of the origination of sounds, and in terms of the extra functions of which a laptop is capable, but for a lot of people, the laptop is the way to go. That’s just how it felt with an electric guitar when I started playing, in 1961 or so.
Molly Sheridan: When people dedicate much of their lives to music, I’m curious about what music they really love on a purely personal level. Could you list a few examples (no pressure that it be a “best of” sort of list, just what comes to you)?
David Toop: I really love a lot of very romantic 1970s soul, and that’s often what I’ll listen to when I’m feeling relaxed, or happy, or a bit down. Bobby Womack is a good example. I like romantic symphonic music, like Vaughan Williams and Sibelius, and since the mid-’70s I’ve listened to a Japanese composer named Minoru Miki, who wrote very beautiful, minimal but melodic modern koto music. None of these things are considered quite acceptable in the circles in which I move, but that’s tough. Music touches different parts of you at different times, and humans are complex creatures. The family situation is interesting. My wife, my daughter and me all listen to different music, but where we all come together is listening to club classics, great dance records of the last 30 years.
Molly Sheridan: Artsjournal.com recently hosted an online conversation among classical music critics concerning their predictions about the “next big thing” in music. I was rather frustrated by their posts (which were largely devoted to a debate between the merits of “classical” and “pop” music!). I was reading your book at the same time, about what vital contemporary music is and seeks to do, and was really curious what you might have had to say. Given the breadth of your knowledge base, what would you suggest is a current and/or future “big idea” in music?
David Toop: I always refuse to answer this question, or at least, predict the future. Ten years ago, what did we know about MP3s? In 1994, I knew maybe two people who understood that downloading music was going to be a significant issue, and I only knew one person actually in a position of power within the music business who knew about the Internet. Technological changes are very fast right now, and they have a big impact on all aspects of music making, manufacturing, distribution, and ultimately, meaning. Besides, I feel I’m involved in this process; I’m not outside it. I’m in a position to encourage certain tendencies, by curating exhibitions, or writing books, or if I’m a judge on a music prize. What I do know is that young musicians in places we never even thought about before are starting to make strange music with electronics, computers and local instruments. My friend Robin Rimbaud was in Hue, Vietnam, recently, and he was talking to me about performances he saw by people who had never heard experimental music or knew its history, but they were improvising on their own instruments. To me, that’s much more exciting than debating the merits of classical against pop, not least because these debates are locked in the past.