Lore Lixenberg in Star-Shaped Biscuit. All photographs taken at Snape Maltings, Suffolk on September 15th. Photographs by Jana Chiellino, courtesy Aldeburgh Music
15th September, 2012, Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, Derelict Building 9
‘Is this a truly violent record or simply a night at the opera?’ David Toop
‘It transforms words into incantation. It expands the voice. It uses vocal vibrations and qualities, wildly trampling them underfoot. It piledrives sounds. It aims to exult, to benumb, to bewitch.’ So wrote Antonin Artaud almost 80 years ago in The Theatre of Cruelty, First Manifesto, The Theatre and Its Double (1938). Poet, surrealist and madman, he’s playing the carnival barker for a rare kind of vocal extremity, and David Toop has been seduced by his call. Best known for his music criticism, in books including Ocean of Sound (1995) and Haunted Weather (2004), he has also worked as a musician and composer since the late 1960s.
With its text and score by Toop alone, Star-Shaped Biscuit is the latest addition to a formidable body of work. It is the latest incarnation of a lifelong fascination with eerie and spectral sound which here takes frightening new shape. The unsettling atmosphere is in place before a note has been sung.
The audience is assembled in a ravaged industrial space at the outer reaches of the Snape Maltings complex. Everything is coated in ash, the bones of the building groan in the night air, the moon drifts overhead, with the autumn cold just beginning to bite. A small ensemble crafted a fine mist of silvery noise, all glassy shivers, metallic growls and thunderous percussion that suggested a decaying house troubled by an especially malevolent poltergeist.
Elaine Mitchener as Euphrosine
The singers’ voices took on an unspeakably strange and monstrous form, transforming the libretto into something of traumatic and ferocious power, not so much sung as expelled. The angelic properties of the operatic voice (those that are usually ascribed to it anyway) were exhibited in gorgeous moments of swoop and flutter, but this was, almost entirely, a work of demonic intensity and despair, like an occult ritual or an exorcism. The story is as slight as a sliver of ectoplasm. As the world slowly drowns, the photographer Dora Maar (Lora Lixenberg) – Pablo Picasso’s lover, and psychoanalytic subject of Jacques Lacan – shelters in a ruin on an unnamed northern island, shrouded and sorrowful. Above her, in the shells of separate rooms, two ghosts appear: Euphrosine (Elaine Mitchener), a fictitious 19th century siren, and William Seabrook (Jamie McDermott), explorer, occultist, drug fiend. Catastrophe looms, darkness falls, hallucinations take hold… I confess a critical blindness: the narrative only appeared to me in intermittent flashes, with stark tableaux reminding me what a dark dream I was watching. Any plot was riddled up (and drowned out) by those three terrifying voices. Distend the hellish last half-hour of David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) and you come close. Star-Shaped Biscuit is, similarly, a work with a bodily aftermath. It leaves a deep but unnameable anxiety ringing in your stomach for nights afterwards. In other words, it haunts.
In a recent essay on Scott Walker’s similarly infernal album The Drift (2006) – No Regrets: Writings on Scott Walker (2012) edited by Rob Young – Toop sharply articulates the visceral nastiness in his own work. There is an equal ‘feeling of exposure in the voice that induces a special squeamishness in the soul’. Part of the listener flinches from this sort of aural and aesthetic extremity. It’s almost too abject to take but, slowly, it becomes darkly fascinating. Like much of Walker’s recent work, it maps out extreme regions of the voice that are scarcely recorded and still startle, especially when they’re encountered in the flesh. A uniquely harrowing register is reached, specially attuned to torture and torment. Artaud’s final work, To Have Done With The Judgment of God (1948), is also an unmistakable presence here, too, with ecstatic cacophony of moans, howls and sobs. Their hypnotic effect is difficult to describe and for some unimaginable. That ‘exposure’ in the voice hurts but it also feels strangely intimate, unveiling all the despair and terror that’s ordinarily kept hidden. Everything surrounding the voice vanishes because its distress is so intense and impossible to escape and in the end, resist. The listener becomes transfixed.
Scott Walker- Psoriatic, _The Drift _(4AD, 2006)
Toop has always been a masterful curator of voices, especially those that are marginalized, otherworldly or might have abandoned the alphabet altogether for being too restrictive. He’s fascinated by vocals that perform wayward flights into strange territory. In his compilation Crooning on Venus (1996) this is manifested in its most sumptuous and dreamlike edges: the spooky translucence of Chet Baker set alongside Nico’s ice-cold drone, followed closely by the cascading vocalizations of huntsmen from the Amazon rainforest. Unlike most music writers, lyrics are not Toop’s primary source of illumination. He explores sound with extraordinary acuity, capturing its imaginary spaces and intoxicating textures. Only his first book Rap Attack (1984) involves a sustained engagement with the lyrical voice, as it attempts to trace early hip-hop’s broadcasts from the never-ending block party back through the signifying riots of James Brown, doo-wop and African mythology.
Toop’s subsequent writing has overlaid such careful excavation with a more sprawling, shape-shifting approach. In exploration of a certain sound, the text becomes an echo chamber, full of quotations, fragments and oblique games of call and response between a bewilderingly vast array of cultural material.
His most recent book Sinister Resonance (2010) opened with the premise of sound as ‘a haunting, a ghost’, and proceeded, audaciously, to map its presence in all sorts of supposedly silent media. Strange scenes and phantom sounds abound, gathered with the rich but elliptical correspondence of snapshots. There’s Samuel Beckett as a small boy unable to sleep, listening to dogs barking in the night, or the graveyard gramophones in Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) that play the buried voices of the dead, or the ‘eerie, aeolian wail’ that heralds the arrival of the flying monkeys in the film of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Examining the accompanying press material, its libretto seems to operate in much the same way. An enormous constellation of writers, artists and poets are appropriated, so many that listing them feels funereal, like making inscriptions on a mass grave for the avant-garde. Jean Cocteau, André Breton, Joyce, Georges Bataille are all in attendance, as are Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe and pieces of The Tempest (1610) (and many others). At its centre is the titular object, the biscuit kept in a star-shaped casket, owned and kept untouched like a holy relic by the French dandy and poet Raymond Roussel. Dora Maar acquired it at a flea market after his death and here it features as one of her few remaining possessions, alongside, appropriately, a heap of weighty books. If Toop was slightly less adventurous, his opera would be like a requiem version of one of William Burroughs’ cut-ups, where multiple texts are snatched and spliced together, making a perverse magic out of the spark between a line of poetry and a weather forecast. Star-Shaped Biscuit is what Tom McCarthy would call a remix of modernism but it’s one where the source material is taken to such vertiginous heights that it’s almost silenced entirely.
One ghost, though, could be heard throughout though he was never explicitly invoked. Beckett, especially his later work where he was similarly fascinated by eerie sound, always felt on the threshold of hearing. Not I (1972), his monologue where manic speech rushes from the mouth of a disturbed woman, in particular, was constantly echoed.
Not I by Samuel Beckett (1972) performed by Billie Whitelaw
But behind that, too, there’s a deeper, darker resonance. Joyce’s daughter Lucia, who was obsessed with the young Beckett, is almost a double for Dora Maar. She was a schizophrenic, analyzed by Carl Jung, whose mother dreamt of her – in an extra-uncanny detail – appearing in a play ‘involving Shakespeare and two ghosts’. Star-Shaped Biscuit is full of such artful allusions but they’re only a small part of its power. It’s a remarkably strange and singular work that channels modernism’s untrammeled, lunatic invention to spellbinding effect. I half-expected everything to end not with the apocalypse but with one last mad howl from Artaud that would capture its spirit: ‘Ghosts are engines!’