Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener
David Toop, Continuum, 2010, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1441149725
David Toop has been navigating his way through the cries, whispers, creaks, cracks and other noises off and good vibrations from the natural world ever since his split album with instrument inventor Max Eastley, New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments, was released on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975. Eastley’s side of the original vinyl edition found wind and water vibrating the air via the chimes and rustles of customised kinetic contraptions such as the metallophone and the elastic aerophone. Toop’s flipside was more frippish in tone, describing the calculated undulations of the three tracks on the sleeve as ‘dance music’. The title of the opening ‘Do The Bathosphere’ conspired with the suggestion, despite only featuring Toop’s keening voice incanting his playful lyrics like a post-modern mantra aided and abetted by The Cetaceans, a three-man choir that included Eno.
The centerpiece of Toop’s contribution, ‘The Divination of the Bowhead Whale’, is a series of slow-moving blocks of percussion based instruments including Japanese resting bells and a ‘bowed chordophone’ emphasising silence as much as sound. In his notes to ‘Do The Bathosphere’, Toop notes that live versions of the song have featured percussionist Paul Burwell playing bamboo pan-trumpet. On the album’s back cover, line drawings of each instrument include a set of aeolian bows.
In the 35 years since ‘New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments’, Toop has become one of the most formidable of aural explorers across both his own compositions and his extensive writings, first with his ‘Rap Attack’ series, and more latterly in the trilogy that began with 1995s ‘Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds’, moving through 1999s ‘Exotica: Fabricated Soundscapes in a Real World’ and 2004’s Haunted Weather: Music, Silence, and Memory’.
Sinister Resonance continues this lineage, as well as the one begun (publicly at least) on ‘New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments’ by way of an early study of the myth of Pan in its myriad tellings, with reference to aeolian pipes. The book is tellingly dedicated to Burwell, who died in 2007.
Across four sections, Toop explores the relationship between the visual and the aural via an encyclopedic set of references that map the umbilical and psycho-active links between the likes of James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, William Faulkner, David Lynch and Cy Twombly. Toop also makes passing reference to saxophonist John Butcher’s environ-mental performance in the Orkney islands as part of the Arika organisation’s Resonant Spaces tour, 2006.
Sinister Resonance arrives at a time when both visual and sound artists are turning more to their immediate environment for source material, or else rediscovering the future retro sounds of a make-believe past that somehow became flesh; in the first instance, ‘Lowlands’, Susan Phillipsz’s Turner Prize-nominated installation commissioned by the 2010 Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, in which a recording of Phillipsz singing three versions of 16th century ballad ‘Lowlands Away’ was looped and broadcast like a siren’s call beneath a Clydeside bridge. In the second, the cracked junk-shop vinyl 78s played by Philip Jeck on multiple record players and electronically are manipulated into something other.
There is too the reimagined sonic archeology of the Ghost Box record label, which itself makes audible references to hauntology, Arthur Machen, the eerie 1969 TV adaptation of Alan Garner’s novel for young people The Owl Service, and other excavations that have been the preserve of Strange Attractor magazine. A recent incumbent of aural ectoplasm is Katrina Dixon’s just established ‘The Spectral Dimension’ blog, (www.thespectraldimension.com), ‘where the paranormal and popular culture collide’, as she puts it.
Included here are the ‘Electrical Walks’ of Christina Kubisch, who, through customised headphones enables participants to pick up the otherwise hidden electromagnetic wiring of urban spaces. There is Breath, Samuel Beckett’s wordless life and death miniature that if created today would be labelled an installation rather than a play. There are the environmental recordings of Chris Watson, without whom David Attenburgh would literally be a voice in the wilderness. There is ‘Fragile Pitches’, the recording of Michael Begg and Collin Potter’s live sound installation that took place inside the gothic acoustic splendour of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh on Hogmanay 2009 / 10, Bill Nelson’s mind’s eye vision of a park at dusk in his 1980 instrumental, ‘The Shadow Garden’, and many others.
But the landscape Toop explores becomes darker and more sinister as he delves deeper and deeper between the cracks, joining the dots of what it means to listen and to be as listener. What Toop has conjured up is a series of sense memory echoes that suggest not just imagined pasts, but presents – and indeed presence – and futures too.
This is a book that shouldn’t be rushed, but be given space to unwind with late at night in an isolated cottage retreat far from the city hubbub. Once here, bask in the pin-drop quietude, turn the pages by candlelight, open your ears, listen to what lies below and breathe deeply on every gap between the sound of silence.
Neil Cooper is a critic