The British author and musician discusses Vermeer, Virginia Woolf and his new book Sinister Resonance
Published by Continuum next week, David Toop’s Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener expands on the theme of haunting in sound that he investigated in Haunted Weather (2004). This time, his subject is not music as such, but the experience of listening and how it is articulated in the visual arts, poetry and fiction. In a journey across Dutch painting, Modernism and the uncanny, Toop outlines a number of trajectories across sound in silent media, showing how sound can be implicit and imagined, and calling for an opening up of the discourses around sound to include a range of other references and disciplines.
DANIELA CASCELLA: Sinister Resonance has been described as your ‘most philosophical book’. While reading it, though, philosophy appears to be the least of your preoccupations, as literature and visual arts shape the structure and substance of your words instead. As always, the point of departure is your personal experience of listening, from which you disclose a network of thoughts and references. Could we start by discussing your method of work?
DAVID TOOP: My organizing principle is anti-systematic. It has to do with following a network of connections, rather than establishing a system. It’s very intuitive, like an improvising musician’s. There is always a dialogue for me, between being a musician and being a writer – they inform each other.
There are different starting points for Sinister Resonance. One of them is somehow a philosophical enquiry, although it is true that philosophy is alien to me; I find it difficult to read, it either feels too simple or incomprehensible. I realized that the discourse around sound had become stereotypical and limited, and that I had the need to kick against that. Also, I wanted to get away from writing about music for a while. I think that a lot of people found the music I wrote about in my last book, Haunted Weather, very difficult. But there is something we all experience – listening to the world. I wanted to write more about the experience of listening, rather than music, and to get away from any tribalism of taste, aesthetics, or judgments of quality.
I was drawn again to John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing (1972), which I’d read in my 20s. Berger says that before words comes seeing, and through seeing we establish ourselves in the world. In fact, once we’re born, hearing is the primary sense through which we establish who we are. Only later, we move toward the object-based world and visual perception, and away from the less tangible world of hearing.
In Berger’s book I also found this idea of ‘the silence of Vermeer’, which made me think: ‘why is it silent?’ All paintings are silent. Yet I found sound in the Nicolaes Maes painting The Listening Housewife, or The Eavesdropper (1656), though in actuality there’s no sound – it’s my construction, it’s like creating a score for a music that doesn’t exist. There’s a link here with the distant music that James Joyce writes about, the music over the horizon that is the ungraspable phantom of life. That, in a sense, is the most appealing music.
DC: This is not only a book for listeners, it is also a book for readers. It happens often, to read a description of a sound in a book, and to be happy with the experience of reading it, with no need to actually hear anything at all. How far can you separate the realm of reading and of listening in relation to the perception of sound, and how on the other hand do the two intersect? DT: At one point in the book I write about an exhibition at the Mauritshuis in Den Hague by the Dutch painter of still lifes Adriaen Coorte.
I describe it as a kind of music that I wanted to hear. But, do I really want to hear it? The intangible reality of this music immediately diminishes the imaginative conception of what the music might be.
This is also true for literature: you read extraordinary descriptions of listening experiences, you recognize them, but they are un-reproducible. This imaginative dimension disclosed by words is crucial, and it was important for me in my 20s: to find descriptions of music in literature, in works of anthropology and in travel books, and to hear that music in the words, while knowing that the reality it was going to be different.
DC: I would say you use literature as material. Could you think of your writing as a translation, or a notation, a ‘recording’ of other texts, and not only of sounds?
DT: While composing a new piece, it is possible to create an environment, an atmosphere, a set of parameters through text. This crossing of different areas becomes more and more important to me. Music, sound, listening experiences are very difficult to write about. Then you come to literature, and you find great writers who are able to capture something about their engagement with sound. For example, I’ve just read As I Lay Dying (1930) by William Faulkner and some of his writing about the act of listening and the experience of being within sound is extraordinary. You don’t go to philosophy, you go to these incredible writers who are able to describe these experiences of the senses.
DC: The authors you mention in Sinister Resonance did not write specifically about sound, though, but about experiences and stories. I found a big claim in the book for narration and storytelling, as they are disclosed by sound. In his essay ‘The Storyteller’ (1936) Walter Benjamin says that the ability to develop a narrative has to do with writing something that can’t be summarized, but that exists in the uniqueness of how it’s narrated. How do you construct your narrative across so many stories and references?
DT: I’ve never denied that my books are very personal. And it is true, the structure of Sinister Resonance depends on a personal vision and intensity, that make the connection possible across all the reference. I’ve never thought of myself as a great storyteller but if my books weren’t based on some sort of narrative it would be unbearable and unreadable. It all begins with my notebooks, day after day, and working ideas and experiences across the act of writing.
Then, towards the end, Sinister Resonance disintegrates. Although I realized the possibility of making it as cohesive as the first part, I chose to leave it as an open narrative. I’ve become more and more conscious that my books circle around the same material, they go back to it as a kind of obsession. So, if there are things left out in one book, they allow me to go back to the same material, adding new reference, in the following one.
DC: You write about walking as a special state in which you discover different ways of listening. It reminded me of humming or doodling, when sounds and forms take shape without us being aware of them at first. Could we also say that listening is a state of mind where thoughts are found unexpectedly?
DT: Absolutely. The walking experience is relevant because of this sense of discovery: to walk means to be continually connected, it’s not like sitting in front of a stereo, or an orchestra. The contradiction is, if you walk you hear imperfectly, and when you stop, hearing becomes very vivid, sound comes into focus and into being. That is a particularly dramatic confrontation with the experience of hearing.
DC: You illustrate the essence of sound as something that haunts a place, or a text, and at the same time cannot be captured.
DT: That’s the pathos of sound. It is always lost, even when it’s recorded. Think of Virginia Woolf’s idea of some device that you plug into electricity and that would bring back the auditory trace of certain times. It has to do with loss, grief and memory. Then you get the full sense of this idea of haunting, because it connects so deeply with mediumship, with being there and not being there, this overwhelming desire to connect with the afterlife, while sound is there as a haunting.
DC: How would you expand the theme of eavesdropping, explored in the book in connection to the six ‘Eavesdropper paintings’ (1655–7) by Nicolaes Maes?
DT: Eavesdropping, not in a conscious way, is part of everybody’s life. Think of the experience one has with incidents of eavesdropping, when you learn things you don’t want to learn. And if your life is built on listening, the actual act of hearing becomes as significant as what you learn through hearing. The act of eavesdropping seeps into your consciousness and hooks you, and you can’t prevent yourself from colluding. Likewise, you walk up to one of the Maes paintings, you look at it because that’s what it’s there for and that’s what you’re there for, and instantly you collude in this act of eavesdropping as the woman in the picture says to you ‘Shh, be quiet, listen to what I am listening to’. That’s a wonderful device, which makes you complicit and helpless as you are caught unexpectedly in an act of listening.
DC: You have said that one of the aspects that interest you about being an improviser is the possibility of constantly challenging the stability of the musician’s identity. Your next book will be about improvisation. Whose identity will you challenge then?
DT: I’m always challenging my identity. Writing a book is simultaneously to write and un-write yourself, and it’s a necessary process. There are ideas that work like obsessional notes, like constant points of fascination: that’s where the charm is, as you return to them through the act of writing, you un-write yourself and by the end you are a new person and the process begins again. Un-writing yourself requires tremendous intensity. Writing, in this way, is a kind of performance, sustained over a long period. A recurring thought now is: how often is it possible to do it?