Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener

A sonic explorer gives Andrew Blake a new channel into the ambient soundscape and its effects on us

October 28, 2010
Crowd of people covering ears
Source: iStock

David Toop is an exemplary reflexive practitioner. His long career in music-making has been accompanied throughout by his journalistic explorations of what musicians do, how and why. This has led to several impressive book-length essays on the changing nature of musicianship, and indeed of what we might mean by "music".

And now he comes, through reflections on listening, to words and pictorial art as they suggest sound, help to produce our relation to sounds so suggested and, in the end, bring us to contemplate silence.

This has been a very particular journey of cultural exploration, so before joining Toop in his confrontation with the paradox of "listening" to silence, it is worth mapping that journey in a little more detail.

Since the 1960s, he has been involved as composer and performer with the making of new music, using sound-worlds that owe something to the American gurus of experimental modernism - John Cage, La Monte Young and Henry Cowell; indeed, Cowell's piece Sinister Resonance provides Toop's title. Alongside this hip experimentalism, Toop showed a general openness to music from outside Western learned and popular traditions. Working with musicians of a like mind has helped him to produce a series of writings on musicality and musicianship that have a particular acuity - and, perhaps, particular limits - because of this very personal musicality.

In 1995, Toop produced Ocean of Sound, which explored changing sound-worlds in 20th-century music starting from Claude Debussy's exposure, at the Paris Exposition of 1889, to a Javanese gamelan (a community ensemble featuring tuned percussion). The gamelan music led Debussy away from the narrative structures favoured by Beethoven et al. and towards a "liquid music" that surrounds rather than leads the listener. This, Toop proposed, means that there is a 20th/21st-century mode of hearing that is both more and less than listening. Music, in the age of information overload, cannot carry the expressive power of 19th-century European concert music and its mid-20th-century rock derivatives; instead it should just be part of the ether, and we as listeners should literally go with the flow, making chance connections with it as our exposure and concentration levels shift.

In 2004, Toop produced a companion journey into sound, Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory. Here he argued that digital technology has changed the ways in which music is perceived, stored, distributed, mediated and created, thus enabling the new musicality in which we all, as listeners, composers or performers (or indeed all three), can rejoice in the new ethereal sound-worlds.

Sinister Resonance is, as its title suggests, a development of ideas raised in these earlier books. It is, however, comparatively little concerned with musical modernism or the 20th-century avant-garde, or with recycled music, made on laptops, forming the ambient background in the fashionable bars of Yokohama. The centrepiece of the book is an elegant essay, "The Art of Silence", focused around a series of early-career paintings by the Dutch artist Nicholas Maes (1634-93), one of Rembrandt's pupils.

In the mid-1650s, Maes painted a series of variations on a scenario in which a woman is seen on a staircase outside a room listening to an act of sexual transgression by other members of her household. We collude with the eavesdropper, who is amused by what she sees and hears. In The Eavesdropper: Lovers with a Woman Listening (1656), for example, the eavesdropper herself is looking out at the painting's viewers, enjoining their silence by placing her finger on her lips in an operatic gesture, as she listens to the lovers; the whole, for Toop, hints at being a paused recording.

Sound and silence within the domestic interior are conditioned by the power relations of class and gender, and in looking and listening in while the master seduces the maid, Maes' woman-narrator directs us to enjoy, and become complicit with, their perpetuation. As Toop points out, Peter Greenaway and Louis Andriessen explored a similar domestic-comedy scenario in their 1999 opera Writing to Vermeer, in which women write letters to the artist while outside their houses the most vital Dutch conflicts of the 17th century take place.

But Toop's principal point here is not political but aesthetic. To wit, "the hearing of sound in a painting can only be speculative and uncanny", and his auditory response to these paintings underlines the book's exploratory thesis: that the act of listening necessarily engages us in a form of mediumship, in which we hear the fleeting and intangible "beyond the world of forms". When paintings, or for that matter novels, represent voices and other sounds, their and our mediumship becomes clear. They are haunted by the sounds they represent in silence. In responding to them, our imaginations are also haunted.

The exploration of art is accompanied by similar ruminations on sound and silence in written work. Toop spends much of his time in the company of the classics (Pan and Syrinx rather than Orpheus and Eurydice) and the modernists (especially Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf), although he also points to Charles Dickens as a great writer of the sounds of the uncanny. E.T.A. Hoffmann, of course, was acknowledged as such by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay, Das Unheimliche. The sandman's footsteps on the stairs remain viscerally frightening; Metallica's version of Hoffmann's story, played at high volume to prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay as a form of torture, was doubtless equally so.

Freud's essay, exploring the ways in which childhood terrors remain to provoke adult fears, is the theoretical frame of Sinister Resonance; this frame is matched by an autobiographical element that, while not in any Freudian sense self-analytical, helpfully takes us away from the art and literature from which we can too easily become distanced, critical, objective. Toop lies awake at night, or gets up to listen to slugs eating, or goes for a walk in woodland; he corresponds by email with someone otherwise unknown to him who shares a way of listening to music. The argument proceeds by aphorism and anecdote, by serendipity as well as by the orthodoxies of cultural history. Even here, especially here, when discussing the act of listening, Toop remains a reflexive practitioner.

In thus acting as the more or less reliable narrator of his own experience, drawing us into his own ways of reading, seeing and hearing, Toop has provided a valuable companion to new departures in the academic study of sound, such as histories of soundscapes before recording, or "historical acoustemologies" as Toop calls them, such as John M. Picker's work on the Victorians or Bruce R. Smith's on early modern England; and studies of soundscapes beyond our conventional categories of music, by academic practitioners such as Salomé Voegelin (on the philosophy of sound in the art installation), and Steve Goodman (on the political deployment of noise).

Moving towards his conclusion, Toop claims that "all silences are uncanny, because we have become estranged from absences of sound". Or as John Keats once put it, speaking I suspect for most of us, "Fled is that music: Do I wake or sleep?"

In other words, like Toop's previous work, Sinister Resonance points to the need for a fully nuanced examination of sonic reception. This is an age in which there is more, and more ubiquitous, music than there ever has been, within a generally (and increasingly) noisy soundscape. However much we may want to use music as an object of focused contemplation, in practice we all experience music subliminally, as ambient sound - as we drive, shop, eat and drink - as well as, he now argues, uncannily, when we read, or engage with art. How are we to differentiate among these experiences and regain our ability to focus (if we should)?

Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener
By David Toop
Continuum, 2pp, £17.99
ISBN 9781441149725
Published 24 August 2010

The author

From performing on Top of the Pops in 1979 with pop band the Flying Lizards to supervising PhD students at the London College of Communication today, sound curator and self-confessed "semi-academic" David Toop still manages to baffle his family and pet dog with his penchant for abstract, experimental music, most recently that of young Japanese musicians working with high frequencies.

Toop has a number of solo, collaborative and curated albums to his credit, has written five books and is a regular contributor to The Wire magazine. Last year, he added the composition of an opera, Star-shaped Biscuit, to his achievements.

One of his pastimes and inspirations is Japanese gardening, which he turns his hand to at his London home. He also confesses to a great fondness for pencils. As most of what he does is digital, he finds it deeply pleasurable simply to hold a pencil for a few minutes every week.

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