director's cut version, The Wire, March 2012
by Simon Reynolds
The names Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari barely feature in David Toop’s writing, and then only late in the day (a few mentions in 2004’s Haunted Weather). But in many ways the philosopher duo’s concepts and coinages—deterritorialisation, “lines of flight”, nomadology, the rhizome—are the perfect way into Toop’s remarkable body of thought, as manifested across several decades of music-making, music criticism, and music-curation. D&G and DT are shaped by the multiple, interrelated radicalisms of the Sixties, from the anti-psychiatry movement to psychedelia (music figures prominently in D&G’s A Thousand Plateaus), from anarchism and androgyny to Eastern philosophy and mysticism. What you could term the “cultural libido” of these three men is very close: they’re turned on by the same things.
Flux and mutability are the utopian keywords of a materialist-idealism wherein forms, structures, genres, emotional/psychological rigidities, all dissolve in the flows of desire, energy and sensation. The non-fascist life, D&G propose, involves a perpetual unmaking of the mind and softening of the character-armour. Territorialisation, which in music equates with what Toop deplores as “taste tribalism” (purism, genre-patriotism, etc) is war psychology: fortified, locked into defensive-aggressive modes.
Exoticism is a strategy of deterritorialising, a line of flight outside the familiar life-world into otherness. As part of The Wire’s Adventures in Sound and Musicseries, Toop talked recently on Resonance FM about his lifelong fascination for “a kind of distant music” in terms of deconditioning: a 1960s buzz concept put into practice by figures such as R.D. Laing and David Cooper (both involved, like Guattari, in the anti-psychiatry movement). In Toop’s case, it’s aesthetics and taste that undergo a willed dismantling. Similar impulses impelled the trans-disciplinary work Toop tried to explore at art college in the 1960s: “multi media, projections and sound– radically adapting existing instruments or inventing new ones – rather than stay[ing] within limits of what’s available”.
In parallel with the instrument-building that informed his 1974 booklet New/Rediscovered Musical Instruments and debut album of the same name, Toop made several radio programs in the early Seventies for the BBC series Crossthreads. These were woven out of field recordings--Korean Confucuian music, aboriginal Australian mortuary ceremonies, Inuit eskimo vocal games—presented without contextualization or indeed any voice-over commentary whatsoever bar a few enigmatic sentences. Granted access to the BBC’s archives (“to me it was paradise”), Toop spirited the 10 inch discs home and taped them for private delectation. This personal collection of fabulously esoteric exotica became a “wellspring”, something he’d return to whenever his capacity for musical awe dried up.
Xenomania was not uncommon among that breed of hungry Seventies souls who would become post-punk prime movers. Blixa Bargeld trawled the “Obscurities Departments” of Berlin record shops; This Heat listened to Nonesuch Explorer LPs of Balinese gamelan;
No Wavers Arto Lindsay and Mark Cunningham tripped out to tribal trance music from Africa.
Toop went further, though, starting his own label Quartz in 1977 and releasing LPs of sacred flute music from New Guinea . He went literally further, journeying to the Venezuelan Amazonian jungle to record the Yanomami tribe’s shamanic rituals. This too was released on Quartz alongside improvisation LPs made by outfits in which Toop played. One of these albums, Whirled Music punned on what was then just an arcane term in ethnomusicology circles, not the record industry marketing buzzword it became in the Eighties.
Toop and Whirled collaborators like Steve Beresford and Paul Burwell were key catalysts in the 1975 formation of London Musicians Collective and its magazine Musics. The plural discreetly announces a guiding ethic of deterritorialism: totalizing conceptions of “what music is, what it’s for” are rejected in favour of discrete practices and histories. LMC founded itself on the principle of non-exclusion: its meetings were open to all, and accordingly rather fractious affairs. The same applied to Musics, a “squabblezine” full of angry correspondence from readers, “open letters” from the writers to critics at other publications, and ideological disputes within the editorial team that were ventilated publicly.
The Deleuzo-Guattarian concept of rhizomatic (derived from rhizomes, laterally connected plants like ferns and bamboo) fits the LMC milieu’s endlessly shifting line-ups and temporary alliances. Interviewed in Melody Maker as a member of Flying Lizards, Toop celebrated “the flexibility and unpredictability of improvisation” over “the hierarchical writing set-ups and the eternal marriages of groups." When I spoke to him for Rip It Up and Start Again, Toop pinpointed the influence of R.D. Laing’s critique of the nuclear family as an emotional hothouse breeding neurosis and mental illness. “The whole idea of the band as a family had to be destroyed.” Once again this paralleled Deleuze & Guattari’s anti-Oedipal politics and opposition to “arborescent” hierarchies (top-down, tree-like command structures like the state, patriarchy, the super-ego). All this in turn intersected with hot Sixties concepts like polymorphous perversity and play-power.
As a player, Toop was certainly putting it about a bit in those days. Along with Flying Lizards, he participated in a plethora of duos and ensembles drawn from the LMC pool, including Rain in the Face, 49 Americans, General Strike, and Alterations. For the latter, he contributed sounds generated using animal decoys, fire buckets, water, various flutes, whistles, plucked and bowed strings, music box, as well as electric guitar and bass. Some kind of pinnacle was Circadian Rhythms, an octet convened for a single July 1978 performance that lasted thirteen hours, with Toop’s unusual sound-palette for once out-done by Annabel Nicolson’s charcoal, sparks, branches, twigs, fire, pine needles, draughts, and smoke. The concert was originally intended to run for an entire day but ran into what Toop described as “a wall of exhaustion and an overwhelming feeling that there was nothing more to add... There were too many distractions and too many players."
The always-schismatic Musics fell apart a few years later, and not long after Toop quit the LMC, where he’d fallen into the de facto and unenviable role of organizer. “That’s the trouble with collectivism, it’s too exhausting”, he told me. During the Eighties, “sick of playing in bands, sick of playing with human beings,” he embraced the solitary empowerment of music technology. However the LMC’s all-gates-open ethos did reflower in evolved form with the magazine Collusion, an unofficial successor to Musics, co-founded by Toop, his then- girlfriend Sue Stewart, Peter Cusack, and Steve Beresford. The latter described the editorial philosophy to me as “trying to make more connections” and treating “the music we were involved in” (i.e. improv-meets-postpunk DIY) as just “another relevant genre” among many others, which included everything from Bollywood soundtracks and tango to Western Swing and calypso.
Celebrated by Richard Cook at the time as “a magazine of connections and interzones”, Collusion’s post-everything eclecticism anticipated the omnivorousness of our bloggy present. What’s really prophetic about the magazine isn’t just its globe-roaming diversity but the way it unshackled itself from release schedules and embraced the emergent “atemporality” of music fandom enabled by the rise of reissue labels and the discographical efforts of specialists. Toop himself talks of a “Mojo-like aspect” to Collusion. Contemporary sounds are present, as with the Steven Harvey’s celebrated survey of New York’s post-disco underground. But most of the content concerned the past. Unlike Mojo, the magazine’s retrospective gaze isn’t confined to rock history, though. Indeed, rock barely features at all in Collusion’s six issues, apart from an article on heavy metal that treats the scene ethnographically: just another (sub)culture with rituals to decode.
Many of Toop’s later preoccupations are already present: a piece on Les Baxter-style exotica, another featuring the phrase “the mediumship of the listener” that 25 years later resurfaces as the subtitle of Sinister Resonance. After Collusion’s demise, Toop continued this after-rock pluralism as a working journalist, notably in a monthly column for The Face: most forms of black pop, Eighties club sounds, and world-y sounds were covered, but electric guitar music, whether marginal or mainstream, was cold-shouldered.
Toop’s first proper book was The Rap Attack (1985), a richly researched but relatively straightforward hip hop history. Ocean of Sound, published ten years later, implements deterritorialisation at the level of the text itself. As he wrote for more magazines and newspapers, Toop found himself increasingly constrained by the strictures of mainstream journalism: clear argument, intro/conclusion, and so forth. As Ocean of Sound was to be a meditation on music’s “alternately disorientating and inspiring openness”, the first thing to do, he recalled later, “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.” In its place, a musicated writing (leitmotifs, samples) and “making connection sideways”: a rhizomatization of the text, in other words. Ocean of Sound doesn't proceed by argument but by through filaments of observations, anecdotes, quotations and insights. Inferences and implications spread out in ever-widening ripples. Even individual sentences often unfurl as a chain of supplementary clauses (freefloating ideas, imagistic metaphors) that gradually recede into the horizon.
“It’s a way I have that expresses the way my mind works,” is how Toop described it. “Constantly branching off in different directions”. That image suggests dendrites in the brain and dream logic, but it also anticipates the hyperlinks of the net, whose criss-crossing lines defy the limits of space and time. What had been realized at Collusion at the level of editorial policy (genre pluralism, atemporality, the global village) now inhabits the individual writer’s style of thought.
There is a proto-blog aspect to Ocean of Sound. Alan Kirby argues that digiculture involves a distinctive form of textuality characterized by “onwardness and endlessness”. The blog format encourages meander and fragmentary comment; inconclusive arguments resumed or revised in subsequent posts; the stringing together of barely-related thoughts and observations, illustrated by audio or video. And Toop has talked of consciously aiming with Ocean and subsequent books for a “hypertextual approach” that makes “overlay and displacement into a coherent, compelling (non) narrative.”
If the methodology seems ahead of its time, so are many of Ocean’s insights, such as the thought (more leitmotif than thesis) that “music—fluid, quick... outreaching... immersive and intangible... has anticipated the aether talk of the information ocean”. Rereading recently the written-in-1994 observation that “music floats around in the aether of the WorldWide Web, waiting to be downloaded, hoping to talk to somebody”, I did a double-take: mildly surprised that sound-files were getting shared so early, but really startled by the understated pathos of “hoping to talk to somebody”. It seemed a prophetic intimation of the isolation and anomie that the Internet purportedly eradicates yet really and merely rearranges.
A year after publication, Ocean of Sound became a compilation as well as a book. The selection mirrored the time-and-space vaulting logic of the text, sliding from King Tubby to Herbie Hancock, the Vancouver Soundscape to Howler Monkeys, the tracks mixed without gaps, so that their outer edges brushed. Although individuals had privately compiled crazily eclectic mix-tapes, as far as know this is the first compilation of its kind to be commercially released.
Other Toop-curated collections for Virgin followed: some (Crooning on Venus, Guitars On Mars) more deterritorialized than others (Booming on Pluto tracked the electro diaspora, Sugar and Poison celebrated R&B slow jams as psychedelic erotica). There was a wild moment at Virgin in the mid-Nineties, when a sector of the company, overseen by Simon Hopkins, flashbacked to the label’s pre-punk spirit of experimental eccentricity (Faust, Gong, Lol Coxhill, et al). Alongside Toop’s Ocean of Sound series were equally all-over-the-map surveys by Kevin Martin of “isolationism”, “electric jazz” and dub’s viral influence, plus single-artist CDs from Paul Schutze, Techno Animal, and DT himself.
Spirit World, one of Toop’s two Virgin albums, betrayed some contemporary influence from drum-and-bass but sounded like jungle made by someone who’d actually been inside one, absorbing sense-impressions of its perpetual roil of growth and decomposition. Spirit World and its predecessor Pink Noir previewed the preoccupations of Exotica, the sort-of-follow-up to Ocean of Sound. Deterritorialisation of the text is taken even further here: fact and fiction, memoir and fantasy, coexist and blur, with sections that vaguely recall Conrad and Ballard and a hilarious dialogue with canine movie-star Lassie about recordings of animal-and-bird sounds.
Lassie alludes wryly and slyly to the notion of “the armchair traveler”. What emerges as a subtext of Exotica is the idea of the collection--a public or private archive of recordings, texts, images—as a decontextualisation machine. When a collection achieves a certain density and duration, the proximity of things of far-flung provenance allows for the remapping of cultural fields: strange connections cutting across time and space and genre become almost unavoidable. Ownership and location of cultural forms gets displaced from its proper setting. The Internet-- a vast collective collection, a non-space of absolute proximity between everything-- is just the nth-degree fruition of tendencies inherent to the archive.
As the subtitle Fabricated Soundscapes in A Real World hints, exotica involves misrecognition and falsification: Les Baxter’s layering of “layered dislocated fantasy on dislocated fantasy”, the cosmopolitan confections of Hosono, Sakomoto, Van Dyke Parks. The book points also to a deeper impossibility at the heart of the exoticising impulse. “Exotic” is not an intrinsic property of the object but entirely relational. In its native context, the Northern Dahomey funeral ceremony played by Toop on Resonance FM last year is not alien or disorienting; it is homely, music tethered to a socially cohesive occasion, and a coherent cosmology. In its original setting, it’s probably as conservative as an Anglican church service. The very musical attributes whose embrace makes us brave, exploratory, risk-taking, for its proper audience signify obedience and conformism. My favourite example of this paradox is Ofra Haza, briefly almost-famous in the West after being sampled by Coldcut on their remix of Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid In Full”. But Haza turned out to be an MOR superstar in her native Yemen, the equivalent of Barbara Streisand.
There’s another paradox to “rootless cosmopolitanism”: its dependence on cultural forms that evolved over a long period in rooted, inwardly-focused cultures. Like marsupials in Australia, the more cut-off the culture, the more alien is the music. Case in point: the Yanomami, who had barely experienced any contact with the outside world when Toop recorded them in the Seventies But the syndrome can be seen in popular music too, from hip hop’s emergence from the South Bronx (which Toop attributed partly to “the ghettoisation that took place in American cities.... that lack of mixing and fluidity”) to the relative insularity of Chicago’s footwork scene. Within the bourgeois-bohemians context of art-pop, “taste tribalism” is considered regressive; curiosity and the open-mind are virtues. But tribes, ethnological or subcultural, are not cosmopolitan: from food to music, they are governed by a defined and inflexible set of attractions and aversions. Closure is strength, and exposure to the outside (anthropological, economic, media) is generally cataclysmic.
“At home he feels like a tourist/He fills his head with culture/He gives himself an ulcer”—Gang of Four, 1979
One rationale for this piece is that musically-speaking, it’s a Toop-y time. What I’ve taken to calling the Zones of Alteration (after the blog Altered Zones, RIP) is a post-geographical network of artists who make porous the membranes between genres. Oceanic and cosmic imagery abounds in the Zones, both echoing and extending the aspirations of earlier phases in which Toop was active: ambient and space music in the 70s, post-rave electronica in the 90s. Exotica as a concept is prevalent and relevant like it’s not been since the mid-90s: a blog-world cult for vintage ethnological recordings and environmental soundscapes is matched by releases from new artists with titles like Cambodian Field Recordings or Pacific Fog Dreams. One of my favourite denizens of the Zones, Dolphins Into The Future, a/k/a Lieven Martens, makes fictitious field recordings and litters his work with references to cetaceans and Polynesia. He cites Ocean of Sound as a major influence. Exotica shows us how the various exoticisms (Orientalism, Pacific-ism, Africa-as-heart-of-darkness-ism) were the other side of imperialism, a response to the “glut of new stimuli” (spices, fabrics, curiosities, et al) pouring into the colonial homelands. Equally it’s clear that today’s xenomania is entwined with globalization and the distance-abolishing effects of the Internet.
In truth, though, the idea for this essay came to me in a flash, as a fully-formed sentence: We Are All David Toop Now. Unpacked, what that slogan says is that any kid with a broadband connection can access the sort of of dizzying diversity of listening experience that took Toop a lifetime of obsessive dedication to accumulate. One drawback of reading Ocean of Sound and Exotica when they originally came out in the Nineties was the discographies at the back: how on earth to get hold of all this often out-of- print esoterica? Today almost of it is online, as blog-shared albums, or excerpted on YouTube.
The nagging question that followed the initial thought-flash was whether all this knowledge and “experience” has anything like the same value when it’s achieved effortlessly. On Resonance FM, playing the precious ethno-treasure he taped from the BBC archive or hunted down in record shops, Toop recalled those Seventies days when he spent so much time writing to people in distant leads beseeching them to send him LPs. At the extreme his hunger for “unknown worlds” took him to the Amazon. Few of us would ever go that (literally) far. But when “discovery” is completely divorced from a sense of quest, isn’t it depleted of much of its libidinal energy?
There’s another drawback to the Internet as portal to myriad elsewheres and elsewhens. Because analogue-world collecting involved physical exertion and travel, distance and delay structured music-consumption according to a rhythm of hunt and capture, ingestion and digestion. Those vital gaps are insidiously filled in by the Internet, whose always-there plenitude incites restlessness, the audio equivalent of checklist tourism. Before file-sharing, the only people who experienced this kind of frenetic overload (of choice and sheer volume) were the rich and those who got sent shitloads of freebies, i.e. critics and deejays. Now this unearned “wealth” has become the generalized condition of music fandom. Toop, in his work, has wisdom to offer concerning this predicament.
After several years penning a monthly column for The Wire, in December 1997 Toop handed in “a letter of public resignation”: the culmination of a mounting “indifference to contemporary music” and the fatiguing chore of finding things to say about it. Only old Takemitsu soundtracks and memory-rush ambushes (hearing the O-Jays in Pizza Express) provided solace during this chronic state of sonic anhedonia. “I’m outta here, if not forever, then for a long lie down in a metaphorical dark room lacking in music transmission technology.” 1997 seemed like a pretty exciting time to me, musically, in the pop mainstream as much as the margins, so at the time I was puzzled by the column. Yet I recognised from my own experience the occupational hazards of the critic obliged to process too much “pretty good” music in too short a time. Rereading it recently, I was struck by its courage and candor, coming from someone who made much of their living writing about music.
The crisis seems to have lasted a while: in an Invisible Jukebox from March 2003, Toop discussed the attraction of Japanese musical minimalism as a reprieve from an “overload of information”. “A lot of people feel there’s too much stuff out there, too much music.... I feel it myself, I love silence, but music as a whole I don’t like anymore.... I don’t like listening to it on the radio, seeing music on television. I don’t like having it on in the house... That love of music as a generalized experience, I’ve come to the end of that.” A few years later, recalling the dry spell, he talked about how “it became a real problem for me. I wondered how I was going to carry on writing about music. Now I’m much more ruthless. I don’t listen to anything unless it’s really good.” But then how do you determine what’s “really good” without checking out lots of contenders? Every first-time play competes with something else’s second or third listen. Two aquatic metaphors go to war here: surfing versus immersion.
Overall, the ocean as a resource of utopian metaphor is looking kinda tarnished these days, from over-fishing desertifying the seas to the Pacific Trash Vortex, that gyre of plastic litter. The ocean even suffers from noise pollution: gas drilling, cable-laying, freighter propellers, and military tests have turned it into a deafening nightclub, in which sea mammals are unable to communicate and their equilibrium is shattered. If the ocean-of-sound prefigured the ocean-of-data, it’s hard not to see parallels with the Internet: not the clean, smoothly functioning expanse for communication that the obsolete term “cyberspace” once evoked but a crowded, cluttered “junkspace” (Rem Koolhaas), a place where we didn’t transcend ourselves but inevitably brought along all our petty crap.
Haunted Weather, the third volume in a loose trilogy that started with Ocean of Sound, seems like it’s anticipating the hauntology discourse of recent years. Actually, this 2004 book surveys of an array of sound art and environmental music practices, at time resembling the travelogue of Toop and his peers on a global circuit of festivals and exhibitions. The title has a discernibly ominous tinge, though, mirrored in the text by flickers of anxiety about digital technology’s dematerialization and disembodiment of sound and an overall sense of overload: “how to maintain poise in a world gone crazy with... informational delirium”, “the hysterical onslaught of information, mediation and consumerism”, “data pipes spurting information of massively variable content [in] unprecedented, oceanic volumes...”. Aqua-utopian imagery shifts decisively to the darkside, and the source of the switch is traceable to that late Nineties moment when flood-became-drought: “In the past, trying to listen to everything has almost destroyed my desire to listen to anything.” Cultivating a Japanese dry garden at the back of his London house becomes a form of therapy, its seclusion and focus returning him to analogue time and earthy materiality. The sounds of birds passing through help Toop find ““a way back into music after a period in which my feelings about sound seemed to be deadened.”
Although Haunted Weather is generally optimistic about laptoptronica sour notes are sounded concering digi-tech too. “I love this aspect of digital composition,” Toop writes in reference to the myriad options that empower the solo artist. “And at the same time regret it.” Digital audio workstations “can take away the space, or the air, from music production”. During one compositional process, he impulsively throws open the window to “let a random chunk of the world outside” into the work. Reflecting on the illusory wealth of having at his disposal “six different computer software programs” and numerous plug-ins, Toop echoes Brian Eno and Holger Czukay when he argues that “omission is a virtue. Without limitations there is only confusion, vulgarity, the loss of meaning. I can’t truly live by it but I bear it in mind.”’
By 2010’s Sinister Resonance, there’s a shift towards a wholly negative conception of sound as uncanny and threatening: no longer protean but formless, not so much wombing as “enveloping, intrusive”. What’s striking about the book is the near-complete avoidance of music in favour of representations of listening in literature and painting. The sonic affect previously provided by music can seemingly now only be achieved through other art forms, and as a negative intensity: the inverted-bliss of the disturbing noise, the pregnant silence. In interviews, Toop spoke of sound in terms of “uncertainty” and ambiguity of location, “extreme psychic states,” “dread and fear”. He recalled primordial experiences with sound as a small child, imagining hearing intruders in the house or in his room. Xenophilia flips into xenophobia, fear of the stranger. The exotic (in Greek, literally “from the outside”) becomes invasive.
“I wanted to state another case for sound, to move the discourse slightly away from utopian conceptions,” Toop declared in one interview. Certainly we’re long way from the Nineties, when flows-of-sound and flows-of-data were celebrated by such as Sadie Plant and DJ Spooky in an libidinized jargon of mutation and motility that derived largely from Deleuze & Guattari. Others favored metaphors derived not from fluid mechanics but virology. Kevin Martin, a/k/a The Bug, titled his Virgin compilations Macro Dub Infection. This exaltation of the virus in certain circles (see also the Plant-associated CCRU) always amused me: I’d wonder if these folk modified their views when they came down with stinking colds or lost a hard drive’s contents. Viruses, biological and computing alike, are nothing if not deterritorialising agents. But then as the critic Judith Williamson points out, many “flows” are “deeply pernicious”: the flightiness of capital in a globally integrated market, traffic in narcotics and weapons, the spread of diseases and non-indigenous species. Like a strong immune system, boundaries and border patrols can be necessary protections.
So many debates, in politics, economic, and culture, revolve around the ambivalent status of “flow” / “flux” / “flexibility”. In the 90s, a decade that echoed the 60s, we viewed these qualities and tendencies as inherently progressive. Eno, in a 1992 magazine essay on perfume quoted in Ocean of Sound, celebrated our “increasingly un-centered, un-moored” lives, in which values were provisional, subject to constant revision. The sociologist-philosopher Zygmunt Bauman calls this “liquid modernity”, a postmodern/post-Internet update of Marx’s “all that’s solid melts into air”. As social norms weaken, as migration for work becomes more common, as individuals adjust to the possibility of mid-life career changes, existence takes on an ad hoc quality. Character itself becomes fluid. Bauman sees the possibilities as well as downsides of this existential instability. But in recent years, academia has been rife with buzzwords like “precarity”. “Flexibility” has increasingly negative connotations, suggestive of the “flexible work patterns” imposed on a labour force vulnerable to outsourcing and the alarming fluctuations of global capitalism. It also suggests management consultancy speak: the ideological slipperiness of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has been traced by some to his profession, which entailed an endless chameleonic adjustment to his clients’s needs, a perpetual modification of thinking “in a world that’s constantly changing.”
Perhaps the very idea of change itself has lost its utopian lustre. “The versatility of the space of flows” could describe the anarcho-utopian procedures of the 1970s LMC, or the electronic milieu of the 90s with its remixological back-and-forth. But it’s actually Manuel Castells’s description of the lightning-fast movements of capital within the “informational city” that connects the world’s financial districts. In “solid modernity” (the era of Fordism and strong unions), stability and permanence were seen as obstructing the free-flow of energy and desire. But in postmodernity’s liquid flux, the solid, and its close conceptual cousin solidarity, start to seem like essential bulwarks, a vital “drag” on the mercurial tendencies of hyper-capitalism. This applies at the level of the state, the family (children flourish in conditions of structure and routine), and the individual psyche. It’s possible that in the near-future, as we’re buffeted hither-and-thither by data and fashion, psychological characteristics such as rigour and rigidity will lose their pejorative connotation. The ability to make your mind up, to not see all the sides of everything, might become prized like it was in the olden days. Certainly it’s true that any long-term collective project requires a degree of territorialisation: in gardens where we feel secure, things come to fruition.
Although a fellow-traveler with the Nineties technotopians, Toop has always been attuned to ambivalence and reversibility. In Ocean of Sound, he writes about a "sensation of non-specific dread that many people now feel when they think about life, the world, the future", but argues this is the other side of the coin to “a sensation of non-specific bliss.” In one of his most recent writings, he achieves a perfect poise of neutrality. It’s the foreword for Jean-Yves Leloup’s Digital Magma, a book that offers a Toopian reading of electronic dance culture in terms of “flux and network.”. Right there in the title there’s a geological pun that implicitly contrasts the molten flows of digital music with the solidity and stasis of rock. But think about it: magma is uninhabitable, you can’t build anything on it, its liquidity liquidates all it touches.
In his foreword, Toop presents the effects of electricity on music in the 20th and 21st Centuries as an alternating current flipping back and forth between liberation and control. Energy, flowing from fossil fuels or hydroelectric dams, passes through cables and airwaves and wirelessly into the info-sphere; the current and the culture are a single force, “all flooded through” the “fields of economy, the symbolic and memory”. But every positive reference (astronauts gazing down at Earth) is counterbalanced by a negative (intercontinental ballistic missiles). Then the final flourish: “With digital audio, the objects of music begin to disappear into an aether of intangible properties, a mist that enshrouds and disintegrates established structures with no regard for their traditions or values. Like the dizzying rise and fall of a financial system based on intangible commodities these new conditions plunge us into instability and uncertainty yet as cultural formations they also possess great potential for value and meaning”. The sentence trails off tentatively, an obligatory expression of faint hope upstaged by the awesome, awful drama of recent cataclysm: currencies and assets in freefall, value voided, millions of live stalled still in limbo.
“One must take care not to deterritorialize too quickly”-- Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. 1980
“To be everywhere is to be nowhere”—Seneca, circa 64 AD.
Where now for David Toop? The subject of his book-in-progress is improvisation. I can only speculate, but it seems that a circle is being completed: returning Toop to where he started, if not as a fan of music then as a practitioner-conceptualist. Back to music that exists outside mediation, entirely in the moment of its creation; music that in its truest form is never recorded, archived, distributed. Music inseparable from the bodies of its composer-performers, from their presence in a shared present. Concrete yet cosmic; ephemeral and eternal.
a version of this article was delivered at the Off the Page festival in Whitstable, February 2012
bonus material at the Wire website - a Toopographical portal to various related articles by Toop and others (and also me) plus a radio dialogue with music between Toop and Derek Walmsley . (There was a second instalment of this, Music From the Lost Worlds II, broadcast by Resonance FM in December, but it doesn't appear to be online yet).
also check out Toop's essay - "Sounding the Object: a Timebase Archive" which concerns "a proposition for a hypothetical environment in which intangible multi-sensory events can be experienced as if in a museum. This museum of the imagination displays various sounding devices and listening events, all of which are footnoted by ancillary theoretical, conceptual and anecdotal material from the author’s sound work practice and research between 1971 and the present.". And also mentions Toop's concept of "biosonics"