and so it was the blues falling upon us

Paul Oliver books

and so it was the blues falling upon us . . . like a lot of other people, my head was burning and turning from the reality of an American president in 2017 unwilling after Charlottesville to fully distance himself from neo-Nazis, white supremacists, the KKK and other racists and so it was that I learned of Paul Oliver’s death. My copy of The Meaning of the Blues was close to hand and so it was I came to read Richard Wright’s forward, the conclusion of which said this: “The American environment which produced the blues is still with us, though we all labour to render it progressively smaller. The total elimination of that area might take longer than we now suspect, hence it is well that we examine the meaning of the blues while they are still falling upon us.” This was written in 1959, in Paris, for a soon-to-be architectural historian, English and art school trained, who had fallen in love with the blues and produced a book that was to contribute greatly to the scholarship and spread of a subject almost entirely outside his direct personal experience.

I was a teenager, maybe fifteen, when I read The Meaning of the Blues (in other editions titled Blues Fell This Morning). Oliver’s manuscript was finished in 1958, finally published in 1960 by which time he was on the road in America, recording interviews with an extraordinary range of blues singers, Speckled Red to Little Walter (recovering from a bullet wound), Mary Johnson to Sweet Emma Barrett. Oliver’s writing taught me how to think about music, make connections through to history, context and politics, particularly race politics; how to make some sense of an obscure lyric. In 1967, when I read Conversation With the Blues, the fruits of that field trip to a black America still enduring Jim Crow laws in the south, I began to develop an understanding of how to transcribe the cadence of vivid speech patterns, how to write about the relationship of music to its practitioners, their circumstances and the society of which they are a part.

Lightnin' Hopkins by Paul Oliver

Lightnin’ Hopkins at the Sputnik Bar, Houston (photo by Paul Oliver)

What I didn’t learn from him was how to write about the sound of the music. That seemed outside his purview, except for some isolated examples in Savannah Syncopators where intense encounters – “[in Ghana] . . . a chorus of women sings in chanting fashion, with one woman leading with vocal lines to which they respond, seemingly without relationship to the compelling rhythms of the adowa band . . .” – demanded description as evidence in a search for answers to questions about African retentions in the blues. How well his answers hold up after 37 years is for somebody else to decide but this approach inspired me when I wrote Rap Attack.

The exoticism of blues to a person like me, growing up in the suburban periphery of London in the 1950s and 60s, was one of the subjects I addressed in Exotica in 1999. After a trip to New York where I’d met Charles Keil, a fascinatingly perplexing track by J.B. Lenoir – “I Sing Um the Way I Feel” – had been on my mind. “Paul Oliver, one of the most eloquent of blues scholars,” I wrote, “had visited Lenoir in 1960, recording their conversation on a heavy EMI tape recorder that disintegrated when he journeyed south into the humid summer heat. Lenoir talked to him about dreams: the dreams of an old devil. ‘somethin’ with a bukka tail and the shape of a bull but he could talk’, that made his father quit singing the blues; a dream his mother had sent him, giving him numbers for the lottery; the musical inspiration that came to him, ‘like through a dream, as I be sittin’ down, or while I be sleepin’’.”

In 1984, Oliver prefaced the collected essays of Blues Off the Record with some cautious autobiographical notes that shed light on his obsession with the blues. As a teenager in 1942 he did ‘harvest camp’ in Suffolk, farm work taken on by teenagers to replace agricultural labourers called up for military service in World War II. Americans were building a base in Stoke-by-Clare, and Oliver’s friend Stan persuaded him to eavesdrop on a gang of black soldiers digging a trench. After a while most of the GIs were marched away, leaving two alone to finish the job. “We stayed behind the hedge,” Oliver wrote, “getting cold. I was getting impatient too, when suddenly the air seemed split by the most eerie sounds. The two men were singing, swooping, undulating, unintelligible words, and the back of my neck tingled. ‘They’re singing a blues,’ Stan hissed at me. It was the strangest, most compelling singing I’d ever heard . . .”

Oliver’s influence, though not his acuity and depth of knowledge, is plainly evident in the first review I ever wrote, 600 or so words about a Realm LP – Dirty House Blues by Lightnin’ Hopkins – published in a self-produced school magazine called ONE, circa 1965 or 66. Much of it was cribbed from the LP sleevenotes and where my own opinions surface they are embarrassingly naïve. I was searching for something, comparing “Everything Happens To Me” to James Brown’s version of “Why Does Everything Happen To Me” without knowing anything about the convoluted origins of that song (and I still don’t know much), also finding “affinities, strangely enough” between a Hopkins solo on “Long Way From Texas” to the “fast clusters of bent, cascading notes” played by Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Buddy Guy. Strangely enough I don’t hear those affinities quite so clearly now. What we hear is determined by what we search for.

Dogon ancestral shrine

Dogon ancestral shrine (photo Corrie Bevington)

Oliver’s main job lay in architecture, specifically vernacular architecture and the symbolic significance of shelter. In other words he was interested in structure and those symbols, rituals and beliefs that “identify, seek or invest meaning” (as he wrote in his introduction to Shelter, Sign & Symbol, published in 1975). This may be why (excepting the example above) he kept himself and his subjective responses to the sound of blues out of his music writing. But he was acutely conscious of the problematic aspects of a white man from Britain writing so extensively about African-American culture and was prescient in 1966, if somewhat mistaken, to think that the music’s future was bleak.

The circumstances of his death are unknown to me but presumably he was unaware of the weekend’s violence in Charlottesville and its continuing repercussions. If he had been able to follow these events, I imagine he would have felt profound sympathy with Black Lives Matter, since that was the motivational force that led him to write about African American life through its music, back in 1951 when he was exasperated by the attention given to jazz at the expense of gospel and blues. And knowing of a US president recklessly tweeting threats of fire and fury he might have dreamed himself back at the beginning of his book publishing career, to the violence unleashed upon Freedom Rides, and to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which threatened to kill us all. As Richard Wright said, this may take longer than we think, and so it was the blues falling upon us.

Paul Oliver MM 1970

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Acetylene snares


“Raygun gothic,” William Gibson called it in The Gernsback Continuum, his term for the ‘tomorrow that never was’ and still the most vivid description of a certain style of retro-futurist, space age classicism exemplified by Frank R. Paul’s 1920s artwork for futuristic magazines like Amazing Stories. In 1911 Paul illustrated Hugo Gernsback’s novel – Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 – a book whose enticing title is belied by its contents. “Ralph then attached the Telautograph to his Telephot while the girl did the same,” is a typical sentence, making it fair game for the stigma of being “surely the worst SF novel ever published” (according to writer Martin Gardner) though since most of us now spend a considerable slice of our time attaching Telautographs to our Telephots, this seems a little unfair.

Yesterday I was attaching bone conduction speakers to snare drum wire – twenty strands of quivering silver steel, like curling hair – resonating the whole set up with a drum bought in Chiang Mai and a bell bought in a Japanese shrine, the reason for the latter being its iron clapper, useful for magnetically attaching the tiny speaker within the bell’s inner cavity.boneconduction + snare

I tried playing old cassettes through this instrument-without-a-body: spirit medium séances of Malay indigenous people, a herd of wildebeests, trance dances of Laos hill tribes imitating the sounds of dog, monkey, goat, sheep and cat, and finally an interview I recorded with my grandfather and uncle in 1979. That gravitation toward a kind of spectral oral history of distorted voices – human/animal/spirit – makes sense to me; the bone conduction elements of this configuration was developed for me last year by David Bloor for an installation, The Body Event II, that played back my conversation with John Latham through objects (books and their pages, representations of books, a howler monkey skull, my late father’s oil can, as in a Vanitas painting), into the space where I recorded it shortly before his death.

BE overhead skull

Syd Senior, my mother’s stepfather, was short and feisty, given to playing the jew’s harp and telling risqué stories after a beer. A talented Sunday painter in watercolours, he worked in the print; when I was a child he walked me around the City of London, took me to see paintings, Hawksmoor churches, the inner sanctums of print works and courts, a Dickensian world. By 1979 the stuffing was knocked out of him. His ruminative, gravel tones reveal a way of speaking now almost extinct, the way a working class north Londoner would say “gorn”, “old whasname” and “most interesting”. “I remember when old Queen Victoria died,” he told me, voice dropping to a whisper. “By god, you daredn’t say anything. They were very patriotic in those days, you know, 1914, all that lark . . . it was a very high class kind of thing. If you was common you wasn’t wanted, know what I mean?”

Recently returned from Venezuela where I’d recorded Yanomami shamans, I needed work. There was a chance to do some paid research for Artist Placement Group, for what was known as the Reminiscence Aid Project, placed with the Department of Health and Social Security. Initiated by DHSS architect Mick Kemp, it was developed by an APG team that included Ian Breakwell, Bill Furlong and Hugh Davies; for their input alone it should occupy a significant place in any credible history of sound arts. Shut down in 1979 by the election of Thatcher’s government, which put an end to long-term research in the DHSS, the Reminiscence Aid project was an early practical experiment in what is now called ‘reminiscence work’, a therapeutic tool with internationally proven efficacy in the care of elderly people suffering from dementia, memory loss and other effects of old age. Among other things I tested the Reminiscence Aid Project slide show in care homes and researched smog, the killer pea-souper fogs that blanketed London until the Clean Air Act of 1956 enforced smokeless zones.

So we talked about smog, Grandad Syd, Uncle Bob and myself, Bob returning again and again to acetylene lighting, the way its gaseous glow from his bike lamp lit a path through smog as he cycled to work at the Belling-Lee factory every weekday, or the acetylene flares burning holes of visibility from within the toxic murk. Through a now irritating oversight I neglected to ask about listening in smog, how a person might use sound to find their way or how sound was affected by all those soot particulates and was the dirty air of smog different to fog in its acoustic aspect? Nineteenth century physicist John Tyndall investigated the behaviour of sound in fog and found counter-intuitive results. The Duke of Argyll lived close to shipyards in Greenock, on the Firth of Clyde. “Shipbuilding goes on there to a great extent,” he told Tyndall, “and the hammering of the caulkers and builders is a sound which I have been in the habit of hearing with every variety of distinctness, or of not hearing at all, according to the state of the atmosphere; and I have always observed on the days when the air was very clear, and every mast and spar was distinctly seen, hardly any sound was heard; whereas on thick and foggy days, sometimes so thick that nothing could be seen, every clink of every hammer was audible, and appeared sometimes close at hand.”

To hear the dead speak through objects, living on borrowed resonance, their voices thinned, abraded and hazed by host materials and the lack of a tangible body is uncanny. The radio of things, it might be called by a raygun gothic enthusiast. Bone conduction was pioneered by Hugo Gernsback, publisher of Modern Electrics, The Electrical Experimenter and Amazing Stories. Nicknamed Hugo the Rat for the way he cheated the science fiction writers published in his innovative magazines, Gernsback filed a patent in 1923 on what he called the Osophone, a hearing aid that transmitted sound vibrations to the osseous tissue of the body. Clearly he had a thing about sound, also inventing a helmet device called The Isolator in 1925, a self-contained, oxygen-fed, deep air diver equivalent of the soundproof rooms constructed by Victorian writers such as the anti-democratic, pro-slavery historian Thomas Carlyle. As an aspirational state, the definition of silence to men like Carlyle was misanthropic: world, shut up!


Where the Osophone was a legitimate ancestor to technologies like Google Glass, The Isolator seems more like a bizarre antecedent to John Lilly’s 1960s deprogramming experiments with flotation tanks and LSD. Implicit in all of this is a deeper theme: the tension between humans as isolated or social beings, connected or disconnected, cut off by atmospheric or neurological conditions, deafness or personal experimentation, in the dark or lit by flares, lost to history and death or given revenant vibration by attachment to matter.

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raw materials

ear ectoplasm

The late-19th century spiritualist and campaigner Louisa Lowe was unjustly, if legally, incarcerated because her husband claimed she was mad. Giving evidence against her, the proprietor of Brislington asylum – Dr Charles Henry Fox – had this to say: “She writes these revelations on leaves of trees, or any dirty scraps of paper she may casually find, and she liberally distributes them.” There is something immediately familiar about this image of visions and so-called ‘passive writing’ (automatic writing, we might say) inscribed on leaves; maybe we should all be imprisoned for similar madness. As in the cases of spiritually inspired artworks by Hilma af Klint, Georgiana Houghton and Emma Kunz, it raises serious questions about the gender bias of art history and the progenitive nature of a canon that disallows rule breaking anomalies, because they are of the wrong type, have the wrong motivations, come from the wrong place or simply lack a particular style of self-awareness deemed indispensible to modernism.

All this is easier (if not straightforward) to dispute when there are extraordinary artworks to contemplate. Louisa Lowe’s leaves and scraps are lost to an ineffable history of fragile and impermanent materials, along with those auditory manifestations of spiritualism that were so important to its efficacy as a spectacle of loss and empowerment. As scholars such as Alex Owen and Anne Braude have argued, spiritualism was a vital channel through which women, their voices otherwise suppressed, could ‘speak’ and establish agency, yet we have no documentation of what a séance sounded like, with its sonorous theatre of knockings and tappings, bells ringing and tambourines rustling in the dark, instruments played with no apparent human intervention and disembodied voices. According to Alex Owen in The Darkened Room, spirit writing would appear spontaneously on blank sheets of paper, “nobody actually witnessing its production but all able to hear the movement of pen on paper.”

Georgiana Houghton Glory Be To God

Georgiana Houghton, Glory Be To God, 5th July 1864

Spiritualism – hearing and transmitting messages from an invisible, largely unknowable spirit world – was a listening practice with a radical proposal: that the field of listening extends beyond what Karen Barad calls (in Meeting the Universe Halfway) “. . . a container model of space and a Euclidean geometric imaginary.” In my experience this sensation of moving through extended listening fields is fairly common during improvised music performance. At Hundred Years Gallery last September, a Sunday afternoon quartet of Douglas Benford, Sylvia Hallett, Billy Steiger and myself, I was experimenting with bone conduction speakers, attaching them to small objects – a rusty cowbell, a small metal container for gramophone needles bought in Porto Alegre, books that have some significance in my long struggle to better understand listening and resonance – in order to amplify voices and archival musics to a level of ghostliness that matched their place in memory.

set up Iklectik 2016

During a duo with Sylvia Hallett in the first half, she and I became aware of unidentifiable sounds, like another music, that was growing from within our soundfield but appearing to come from elsewhere. Neither of us found this surprising. Sylvia often uses a microphone and looping to sample and reconfigure real time playing; I was playing field recordings, interviews with subjects like Ornette Coleman and a cassette tape of Chinese religious processional music that I had copied in the early 1970s from BBC Sound Archive recordings, through my osophonic set-up. The potential for ambiguity was considerable, made more so when I learned that Sylvia’s microphone wasn’t in use. This was mystifying, though not particularly abnormal.

In the break, Douglas picked up a phone message to say that his father had been taken ill, though things were not so bad that he should leave immediately. In the second half I played a duo with Billy Steiger. At one point Billy went upstairs into the café. In the basement we could hear his footsteps crossing the ceiling, stomping around, hear his violin faintly, as if from another world. Back downstairs his violin was picked up and distorted by one of my vibration speakers, placed on a small tambourine on the floor to amplify the sound but suddenly acting as a receiver. All of these crossings between instruments, sources, materials, histories and places made it somehow irrelevant to maintain any identification with a sound or its point of origin. In the final quartet I felt the impulse to hold a bone conduction speaker to my skull. The music playing through the speaker came through clearly to me, like an inner voice, though I was aware that nobody else in the room could hear it. Differences between inside/outside, here/there, then/now seemed, not exactly to melt away, but to open up tiny glimpses into a radically changed sense of the world.

100 Years Gallery Calum Storrie

Calum Storrie, Hundred Years Gallery, 18 September 2016

Later that evening, Douglas sent an email. “Sounds like we were playing when my dad passed away at home,” he wrote. “It was very sudden and painless they think . . . to be honest he went the way he would have wanted.” The following day he sent links to a recording of the music, along with drawings of our various groupings by Calum Storrie, each one made in a continuous line, the drawing instrument not leaving the page until the end of the line. I felt a compulsion to write about this event; so many thoughts and emotions rising out of it. As I wrote to Douglas at the time, seeking his permission: “It’s a gig we will all remember because of the circumstances . . . It’s a question of what recordings can’t absorb or retain, in this case a major life event that escapes the microphone entirely and yet the music sounds more dramatic, less ghostly than it did in the room, so perhaps our memory of the event is somehow imprinted despite the technical impossibility.”

As it transpired I was unable to write, maybe because so many other implications were crowding out this more prosaic theme of recording and its limitations. Even now, the raw materials refuse to coalesce, swirling around each other like one of Georgiana Houghton’s spirit drawings.


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the sweat of toads

“I was in search of something – a small detail which I remembered with special intensity as part of my vision.”

George Eliot: The Lifted Veil (1859)


The man whispers in Spanish as he pisses, sniffs, sighs, washes his hands, all sounds of the higher frequency. He is breathing in reverberance. He goes. Upstairs in Malba, the Buenos Aires Museum of Latin American Art, Victor Grippo’s Vida-Muerte-Resurrection, ten lead vessels – cylinders, square and rectangular boxes, cones – face each others as if the beginnings of a western frontier town set in the future. Beans moistened with drops of water spill out from this sombre architecture, their germination wreaking havoc among grey sobriety.

The alchemy and hermetic symbolism of materials is central to Grippo’s work, a radio drawing electrical energy from a potato, his writing – An Observation ‘In Vitro’: “It lived in the intestine of a toad. It was carefully extracted with a pipette and placed more carefully still on a glass slide, isolated, solitary and mobile in a drop of water. The refringent cilia . . .” and so on. “For Grippo,” wrote Guy Brett, “it is an article of faith that instruments of work and works of art have a common starting point . . . the irony of an inchoate lump of unstable matter forming a ‘homage to constructors’ could be read as an acid comment on the perversion of construction and order by fascist regimes.”

Writing on Lotto’s Toilet of Venus in Pissing Figures 1280-2014, Jean-Claude Lebensztejn surmised that “Lotto seems to have been keenly interested in alchemy, where urine plays an important role, and in the illustration of hermetic symbols, of which the wooden covers in the basilica’s choir provide so many stupefying examples.” C. G. Jung’s understanding was that base materials such as urine were instruments of a kind of folly. In Alchemical Studies he favoured examples of commentators ridiculing the “frivolous triflers”, the literalists who worked with urine, salts, metals, the sweat of toads. His sympathies lay with those who passed beyond the torturing of arcane materials into a contemplative symbolism of the psyche, in which lead, for example, was “identical with the subjective state of depression.”

This dismissal of materials, to rid the world of objects in favour of pure spirit, is a denial. I watch keenly for the way in which materials and objects are tortured in the pursuit of that illusion of pure spirit we call music. Tania Chen at Café Oto on the 15th June drinks coffee to keep jetlag at bay, creates feedback with small walkie-talkies, plays back voicemail messages both private and banal, shows brief video clips from her travels: rooms, corridors, aircraft interiors in which flight attendants wrestle with food trolleys. The corridors have a disquieting aspect, if only because there is a weight of cinematic evidence proving that corridors are dangerous places.

She speaks about her dog Lychee, allowed in the cabin of the plane because Lychee offers emotional support in a world that has the potential to be grey as lead. The set up is like a living room, a table and chair, an open laptop, an awkward passage back and forth between table and piano. Tania moves to the piano, leans into it, her body sinister in the way it hovers over the keyboard, seducing it into softness before suddenly shooting out quick, stabbing motions of immense force, shocks that unlock the violence latent within every piano. Without drama she speaks, phrases plucked out of life’s banalities, poignant emails about family, friends and forgotten birthdays, the sacrifices of certain choices and what must be forsaken to make something this fragmented, raw, intense and compelling. Lychee the companion dog has sad eyes, we might say, knowing nothing of a dog’s sadness. “Soft and fluffy,” she says, repeating, “soft and fluffy.” But the mood is as sticky as the sharp rasp of Sellotape pulled from a roll as if ripping the dressing off an open wound. There is nothing slick here. We see all the video clips laid out as a thumbnail world of atomized moments and locations, observe the uncertain process of searching, choosing which one, see the dislocation of time, the disconnections from earthing and familiarity, the fracturing of emotional ties, represented by these disparate materials as they acknowledge travel itself as a material (just another complex of refringent cilia that form the so-called ‘instrument’, it could be said) with which a musician works, torturing the materials while lifting a veil on life-death-resurrection.

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many private concerts

tissue drawing 11I was obsessed with the slippery, unstable nature of the categories through which we learn to divide experience: time, the materiality of objects and the imperceptible slide into intangibility, what some called spirit though I would reject the word for its religiosity.

But then there were texts I encountered while researching secret and sacred languages: “. . . And they saw the words coming forth from his mouth like birds of gold, silver and precious stones, which flew over the brethren in secret . . .” (from The Cult of the Seer in the Ancient Middle East, Violet MacDermot, 1971).

On New Years Eve, 1976, I gave a performance at Action Space, London (maybe solo, or maybe with dancers Miranda Tufnel and Eva Karczag, I don’t clearly recall), during which I poured fine sand onto a steel plate amplified through a contact microphone, dipped my fingers into lighter fuel and set them alight, imagining their silent flicker as the thin high song of hidden birds.

In Andrew and Marilyn Strathern’s Marsupials and Magic (1968) I had read about the concept of ‘calling upon’, used in relation to Mbowamb spell-making in the western Highlands of Papua New Guinea, a means of understanding a statement by “hearing the name of the action mentioned in it.” A comparison is made, a simile such as the gleam of a white marsupial/the shine of human skin; the simile is then spoken. Within the domain of sound and listening I experimented myself with this ‘calling upon’ various properties, processes and transferences in order to understand better the connectedness of phenomena.

de la Tour Education of the VirginMore recently I began to use paper, fascinated by a strangeness that we take for granted. Flexibility, porosity, strength, a gleaming like the white marsupial. Reading, it might be said, is listening to paper. I scratched paper, wrote on it, treated it as a drum skin, thought of it as human or animal skin that could be responsive to touch and emit sounds. A book held open, illuminated by the drama of candlelight calls upon fire, warmth, the sound of breathing, a miracle of light in sooty darkness, words rising up like birds of gold, silver and precious stones.

tissue bloomUsing tight compression I crumpled paper close to microphones, allowing it to unfold slowly as if giving up a contained secret, its faint crackle fading with the gradually easing elasticity. There was a world in there, close to what we hear when we are alone and silent, nothing stirring, without movement, minds drifting and open. Is it possible to share this micro-world, as listeners collective yet separate? I tried; failed. I tried again; failed. I will try again.

David Toop will perform Many Private Concerts with Rahel Kraft, Wan-Chien Cheng, Tomoko Hojo, David Bloor, Deniz Paran, Brigitte Hart, Tu Pham and Alessia Franchi at Collective Capital, London Contemporary Music Festival, Ambika P3, NW1 5LS, 11 December 2015, from 19.00.


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a voice, uncanny instrument

Bosch copyThe Quiet Coach on a train is often a site of tension. So when three male off-shore workers, all of them drunk as wasps drowning in a whiskey vat, decided to occupy a table just by the sign that said QUIET COACH, the word trouble might as well have been added to the buffet menu. Their fun lasted from Edinburgh to Darlington, at which point the youngest, most voluble of the three was neatly extricated from the train by transport police, presumably fated to find his way to Leeds by many buses, all of the loudly advertised plans for himself and his girlfriend gleefully trashed by Mr Alcohol. This left the other two in whispered conference. What could possibly have caused this catastrophe? After all, the lad had done no harm. Finally their puzzlement was solved by the woman who stood up to inform them: “You are in the quiet coach.”

This scenario exposes the ethical conflicts that typically erupt from antagonisms of acoustic and social space. What also comes through is the stark power of the voice to disrupt and dismay. Softly unassuming in repose, voices can mutate into weapons with an inexhaustible supply of ammunition, the harm of their most serious wounds lingering over a lifetime.

IMG_0004 Voice is an uncanny instrument. Up it rises out of the body like fire and smoke, but from where: the lungs, the chest, the stomach, the larynx, the mouth, the mind? In close proximity you can feel its sound entering the ears yet also sense the air of it, even the temperature and smell. Voices heard together in anger or laughter are like weather systems in collision, swirling together through echoing space they are loath to share.

Profound thoughts, banalities, vulgarities and obscenities, confessional whispers, harrowing screams and enticing murmurs: these are all voice. Every voice functions within a relatively narrow spectrum yet each is distinct, identifiable, unique. Masked emotion is betrayed by the voice, each shred of pride or vulnerability, anguish or joy. Voices match each other in intricate improvised counterpoint, flow in affinity or rancour; sympathy soothes grief, calm may neutralise rage yet neither can erase the raw texture of the voice they seek to subdue.

IMG_0891Voices in extremis are fearsome. Listen to singers who have technique and courage to explore the far limits. Possessing the same basic instrument, most of us know that comparable extremes are buried deep inside us, unresistingly unlocked by emotional or physical pain, ecstasy, alarm and fear. So there is a fear of self-knowledge in hearing this alien voice, secretly carried within.

Bell conversation_0001Improvising singers work with differing levels of analytical consciousness. These may range from obliviousness to hyper-awareness, yet all these levels are distinct from the analytical consciousness of speaking about singing. Can the voice talk about itself, in flux between that part of the brain that engages in analytical discourse and the body giving full flight to sung voice? Can it move fluidly between all of its properties: its silent, secret self; its instrumental self, separated from communicative imperatives of language; its need to project ideas, sounds, stories and questions out into the air, often using technologies that launch the voice into spaces far beyond its own body?

Since 2000 I have been based at London College of Communication, occasionally wondering what the word ‘communication’ means in the digitised, globalised twenty-first century. A voice is a thing of strange noises, fluctuating pitches and terrible silences. It must fight through tangled thickets of class, race, gender, sexuality, ideology – what Mladen Dolar in his book, A Voice and Nothing More, called “the political dimension of the voice” – for recognition, clarity, even just audibility within an ecology of communicative signs.

Polke copyIn the past I interviewed many remarkable singers – Kate Bush, Björk, Luther Vandross, Robert Wyatt, Scott Walker, Abbey Lincoln, Bobby Womack, Diamanda Galas, Youssou N’Dour. As if the nature of the voice is an unspeakable mystery, none of them had much to say about the voice as instrument, only its context and effect. In 1989, for example, Kate Bush told me about her visit to Bulgaria, to collaborate with The Trio Bulgarka for her album, The Sensual World: “The girls were asked to perform by a friend, so the oldest lady, Eva, picked up the telephone and listened to the dialling tone, went ‘Mmmmm,’ and they all tuned up to the note and burst into song. Within five minutes I was just crying. We’re not used to that intensity, really.”

These are the reasons why I have brought together three remarkable improvising singers – Shelley Hirsch, Sofia Jernberg and Elaine Mitchener – for an event: The Ecology of the Voice. Our purpose is to explore these possibilities (with the audience), moving as freely as possible between vocal modes and registers. Will it work? Only those within hearing distance of the voice will know.

Ecology of Voice 2015

The Ecology Of the Voice

David Toop with Shelley Hirsch, Sofia Jernberg and Elaine Mitchener

Platform Studio Theatre, Central Saint Martins, Handyside Street, London, N1C 4AA.

November 12th, 18.30.

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stick, spit, reed and tubing



“Or maybe the music we are hearing tells us about the unconscious, coming from some place of archetypes or from the trauma of unspeakable secrets.”

Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Timothy Morton.


There are many ways to think about a musical instrument. A compellingly bizarre essay published in 1976 by Alan Dundes – A Psychoanalytic Study of the Bullroarer – is perhaps the most extreme example of this. Through the convolutions of his argument, Dundes persuades the reader to consider the bullroarer through a miscellany of interpretations and theories: a phallus, a phallus inverted to become a womb or substitute womb, the fecundating agency of wind, fertilising breath, thunderous farts of the gods, an excremental device of shadows and secrecy, the voice of deceased ancestral spirits, an excreta hawk, shit eater, masturbation symbol and flatulent phallus.

Perhaps this is a lot of weight for a slender strip of wood to bear, but once implausibility and risibility are set to one side, then a different kind of thinking about objects of this kind opens up, not just in relation to the instrumentality-of-the-instrument but as a loose, vast ‘mesh’ (to borrow Timothy Morton’s term) of properties, actions, conditions and futures (what I have called elsewhere ‘bodies without organology’, which is to say an object whose extent lies far outside the constraining discourse of musicology, encompassing the deepest reaches of its composition). If what is just a simple strip of wood attached to string can inflate itself to the cosmic dimensions of flatulent gods then its supposed evolutionary position somewhere to the furthest far west of the piano becomes reversible, the piano a regression or retreat back into the cave of resonances, too timid to venture into a vibrating, respirational and unsystematic open air populated by shit eaters, excreta hawks and farting gods.

Once this was a subject of prolific anthropological debate, this complicated relationship between the playing of a bullroarer and its sounding, in which the instrument became spirit voice or mask, a collusion maintaining the structure of a society, the way in which women, men, children, non-human entities and barely imaginable beings negotiated each other’s space. The object or sculpture of the playing – to whirl a strip of wood in circles – was the small spark that lit the raging fire.

I am not listening to Seymour Wright’s Seymour Writes Back (alto saxophone solos 2008-2014), partly because I have done so and will do so again, but partly because to attend to the spark at this given moment of thinking through ideas is a distraction from the raging fire. It may be that he has some sympathy with this idea of bodies without organology. The physical form of the release is a folded sheet of texts and photographs on which are mounted four audio CDs, further enfolded in a wrapper reproducing a 1920s design by calligrapher Margaret Calkin James, an artist whose posters for the London transport system were both as celebrated yet as anonymizing as Phylliss Pearsall’s design for the London A-Z street atlas; within this he quotes Peter Brook on King Lear: to paraphrase, the play (a usefully versatile word in this context) is an object, a cluster of relationships, complexes and meanings rather than a linear narrative.

If you like, it’s a mythology of the saxophone, a universe inhabited by the gliding tremor of Johnny Hodges (true ancestor to Albert Ayler), Sonny Rollins mowing his lawn, the reaction of the crowd to those famous 27 choruses played by Paul Gonsalves that set alight “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue” at Newport, 1956, Richard Wilson’s Watertable (whereby London’s agitated water table could be seen and heard through a 28-inch diameter concrete pipe sunk 4 metres into the clay beneath Matt’s Gallery), the unfolding of London’s spaces and places over centuries, the blurred still image of a blurred video of Willis Gator Tail Jackson screaming through a tenor saxophone without restraint on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1955. These and others.

He quotes Clarice Lispector, from Água Viva and Hour of the Star – “What am I doing writing to you? Trying to photograph perfume?” and “as for the future” – both quotes as enmeshed with spectacularly vast sets of ideas as the bullroarer; in doing so pulling aside the screen (as Daniela Cascella does also in her F.M.R.L.) that was obscuring for us the prophetic relevance of Lispector’s writing to our present day endeavours in the making of an un-music, by which I mean a working in sound/not-sound that attempts to reclaim an intensity of time, feeling and objects from the emptied out rites of bourgeois music.

ClariceLispector            And if I listen I hear the vibration and resonance of a pipe burrowed through London clay into its watery substratum, a new way of listening as predicted by Clarice Lispector in Água Viva (1973): “I see that I’ve never told you how I listen to music – I gently rest my hand on the record player and my hand vibrates, sending waves through my whole body: and so I listen to the electricity of the vibrations, the last substratum of reality’s realm, and the world trembles inside my hands.”

And if I listen I hear the respiratory, the gustatory, the intestinal (not unlike the bullroarer whose sacredness can never be disconnected (no getting away . . .) from sex, food, shit and death. And if I listen I hear the disappearance of the saxophone, lost in the woods or eaten up by circular inhalation and the voracious nature of space and its bodies. And if I listen I hear the future of a tradition. There is Evan Parker, seated at the table and photographed by Roberto Masotti for his book, You turned the tables on me, and there in this title and preceding titles – Seymour Writes Back, Reed ‘n’ Wright, and so on – a jazz tradition of creaking puns on names exemplified by another alto saxophone player, Lee Konitz, whose “Subconscious-Lee” and “Ice Cream Konitz” have a purpose beyond what we call word play.

And if I listen I am in-close and personal to spit, reed and tubing, to the face and mouth, to the rumble of steel through tunnels under the last substratum of reality’s realm, the friction of expulsion into restless air, the softness of an instrument that gives itself up to all those vibrations to which it is subjected.



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