head peelers

Extracts from a collaborative text written by David Toop and Marie Roux, published in Marie Roux’s photobook, The Head Peelers, published in an edition of 40, 2021.

A wandering adventure was my starting point. This is what I find exciting. I looked down at the earth between my feet, studied the transparent tea in my cup and found the furthest island off the coast of France. Its name was Ushant, written on my chart by an invisible pen. When I checked the paper map, only an Ile d’Ouessant was visible, though some faint blemish of the paper’s surface suggested that my island had once existed or perhaps existed to those who believed it could be found, perhaps by a swimmer who had lost all hope and prepared themselves for drowning, only to find sand under their feet.

There is nothing there except tourism in the summer, nothing except grasses, tangled fibres, a sweeping line in the sand as if a giant had leaned down with a stick, in one fluid move drawing a line to curb the incoming sea. There is nothing there except for dry, bleached leaves and stalks, twigs whose music in the wind is like the sighing of animals too thin to be seen by a human eye. There is a seaweed culture, tractors blocking the roads, carrying their slimy cargo towards a vast complex where the slippery fronds will be burned in open stone coffins, its brittle pungency later to be pressed into chocolate or made into a tea in which islands that escape the cartographers can be seen by those whose sight is conditioned by solitude and an affinity with the sea. The goémoniers who collect the seaweed sleep in hollows they carve out from the sand. From generations of this work they are black, they glisten; shy of observers, their monkish forms were only visible at those moments when they sensed the water retreating from the land. Because I was alone I saw them many times, though never approached.

There is nothing there except for black bees, makers of honey so pure that when I was cut, falling on rocks that were piled haphazardly, the way a child throws wooden bricks in a tantrum, the honey sealed the wound as I watched. A beekeeper on the island collects this honey and sells it to those who would live to be ancient while remaining young, though I never saw her or her customers during my walks. Maybe they had become so crystalline as to be invisible. Once I heard music on the beach. A piano was sinking into the sand as high tide approached, its sound thrown around by high winds.

Winter was raw. I smoothed black bee honey on my skin, wrapped myself in seaweed to keep warm. The wind and light shifted so much that if I noticed something I knew it was going to be different again very quickly. Intent on studying these constant transformations I would stumble into sheep. They seemed to belong to nobody, were constrained by no fences. Often they walked into my path deliberately as if to slow my progress, forcing me to study my feet, to notice that dry land and its plants were no different to the plants I saw under the sea. Sheep are not stupid. They wanted me to stop, to gaze at spiders whose webs were stretched across the paths. In their quiet, stubborn way they demanded I ask of myself, what was I seeing in these tangled remnants of green life; was it a script that I could read?

I fell into a rhythm on Ushant and the silence grew in me. On frosty mornings there were no longer footsteps to mark where I had walked. I no longer spoke, so the clouds of mist that formed around my mouth as I sang to myself were now part of the sky. They no longer belonged to me. Whatever could grow on the land was blurred in my sight, disappearing the way the trees had disappeared when they realised the wind was too strong. I could no longer see the whole of the land and the sea, or even myself, only slices, flashes of perception that came and went, like the beam of the deserted lighthouse. The smell of seaweed lingered in my nostrils for that final night and into the next morning. I could sense its fading potency as a reversal of what I see in the red dark as an image forms gradually on paper to become a fixed thing. This transience, I understood, lay at the heart of my reasons for being there, its brevity was what I sought.

Photographs: Marie Roux

About davidtoop

Ricocheting as a 1960s teenager between blues guitarist, art school dropout, Super 8 film loops and psychedelic light shows, David Toop has been developing a practice that crosses boundaries of sound, listening, music and materials since 1970. This practice encompasses improvised music performance (using hybrid assemblages of electric guitars, aerophones, bone conduction, lo-fi archival recordings, paper, sound masking, water, autonomous and vibrant objects), writing, electronic sound, field recording, exhibition curating, sound art installations and opera (Star-shaped Biscuit, performed in 2012). It includes eight acclaimed books, including Rap Attack (1984), Ocean of Sound (1995), Sinister Resonance (2010), Into the Maelstrom (2016, a Guardian music book of the year, shortlisted for the Penderyn Music Book Prize), Flutter Echo (2019) and Inflamed Invisible (2019). Briefly a member of David Cunningham’s pop project The Flying Lizards (his guitar can be heard sampled on “Water” by The Roots), he has released fifteen solo albums, from New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments on Brian Eno’s Obscure label (1975) and Sound Body on David Sylvian’s Samadhisound label (2006) to Entities Inertias Faint Beings (2016) and Apparition Paintings (2020) on Lawrence English’s ROOM40 label. His 1978 Amazonas recordings of Yanomami shamanism and ritual - released on Sub Rosa as Lost Shadows (2016) - were called by The Wire a “tsunami of weirdness” while Entities Inertias Faint Beings was described in Pitchfork as “an album about using sound to find one’s own bearings . . . again and again, understated wisps of melody, harmony, and rhythm surface briefly and disappear just as quickly, sending out ripples that supercharge every corner of this lovely, engrossing album.” In the early 1970s he performed with sound poet Bob Cobbing, butoh dancer Mitsutaka Ishii and drummer Paul Burwell, along with key figures in improvisation, including Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Georgie Born, Hugh Davies, John Stevens, Lol Coxhill, Frank Perry and John Zorn. In recent years he has returned to collaborative performance, working with many artists and musicians including Rie Nakajima, Akio Suzuki, Max Eastley, Tania Caroline Chen, John Butcher, Ken Ikeda, Elaine Mitchener, Henry Grimes, Sharon Gal, Camille Norment, Sidsel Endresen, Alasdair Roberts, Thurston Moore, Jennifer Allum, Miya Masaoka, Extended Organ (with Paul McCarthy and Tom Recchion), Ryuichi Sakamoto and a revived Alterations, the iconoclastic improvising quartet with Steve Beresford, Peter Cusack and Terry Day first formed in 1977. He has also made many collaborative records, including Buried Dreams and Doll Creature with Max Eastley, Breath Taking with Akio Suzuki, Skin Tones with Ken Ikeda, Garden of Shadows and Light with Ryuichi Sakamoto and co-productions (with Steve Beresford) for Frank Chickens, the 49 Americans and Ivor Cutler. Major sound art exhibitions he has curated include Sonic Boom at the Hayward Gallery, London (2000) and Playing John Cage at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol (2005-6). In 2008, a DVD of the Belgian film – I Never Promised You a Rose Garden: A Portrait of David Toop Through His Records Collection – was released by Sub Rosa, and in 2017 his autobiography – Flutter Echo: Living Within Sound – was published by Du Books in Japan. His most recent records are Dirty Songs Play Dirty Songs (Audika, 2017), Suttle Sculpture (Paul Burwell and David Toop live, 1977, Sub Rosa, 2018), John Cage: Electronic Music for Piano with Tania Chen, Thurston Moore and Jon Leidecker (Omnivore, 2018), Apparition Paintings (ROOM40, 2020), Field Recordings and Fox Spirits (ROOM40, 2020), Until the Night Melts Away (with Sharon Gal and John Butcher, Shrike, 2021) and Garden of Shadows and Light (with Ryuichi Sakamoto, 33-33, 2021). He is Professor Emeritus at London College of Communication.
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9 Responses to head peelers

  1. withanotherear says:

    Hi David,

    lovely text! Good to read from you. Ushant! I always wanted to go there, since I saw a film about the island a few years ago, but never got an answer from them. Great. Must be marvellous.

    Best wishes, Pia


  2. Catharine Cary says:

    fabulous, David. thank you!

  3. babajohnny says:

    How wonderful, magical and transformative!

  4. John Eckhardt says:

    thanks david, captivating – i would be curious but suppose the book is not simply available or to look at in greater depth online?

    hope all is well & best *j



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