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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Skin and Bone Listening

Cranc 1How to be, where to be, in a space, with sound, with other bodies? For me, in relation to what performance is becoming, this has been the biggest question of the past year. What does it mean to hear? What does it mean to be present, in relation to others (close proximity), to see, to perceive the temperature and extent of a space, to feel surfaces (floor, chairs, the pressure of sound) in relation to the body? What does it mean to be arranged in a formation, either as performers or audience? How can we change orthodoxies that have become so deeply embedded in the social ritual of performance, particularly when performance is becoming something other than performance?

The only chair I could find at Cafe Oto was at the far end of a crescent, in the negative centre of which lay a dark void. Cranc, the performers, had arranged themselves at the deepest part of the arc: Rhodri Davies with horizontal electric harp, Benedict Drew with mini-synth, laptop and projector, Nikos Veliotis with custom amplified cello, pre-amp and bass amplifier, Angharad Davies with amplified violin. They worked in darkness, facing Drew’s projected film, a flat screen that closed off the empty segment of the crescent.

For the first piece of the evening they began without projection – long tones, initially across a wide range of pitches but quickly converging on middle to low. The dominant tone, from cello, settled itself in a bandwidth that opened up the question of hearing. By lifting a paper mask from the projector lens, Drew created a new focal point, a circle of light and colour in which small lines reacted as if under intense stimuli. Those sitting close to me directed their eyes to this circle, as if drawn there by hypnotic compulsion. I did the same but was distracted by my perception of this dominant tone, a ‘hearing’ that was felt in the jawbone primarily. As Veliotis changed the timbre and frequency it moved up into my cheekbones, then down into the softer tissue between chin and breastbone. This was precise resonation – ‘skin and bone’ listening – in which the ears played very little part.

Cranc 2 The specificity of seeing and the processing of conscious thought that goes with it seemed externalised, embodied even, by these small particles, creatures of line and colour, dancing on the screen; it was possible to find a bridge between the screen – a kind of raw active life – and the particularity of the violin’s confident long tones and agitations. The amplification of the violin was clearly audible in my right ear, the acoustic violin in my left, so my gaze was pulled slowly back and forth, to watch an action (in the semi-darkness, where player sat in close proximity to audience), to hear its consequence (and so to see the screen, in close proximity to loudspeaker). Slightly discomfited by this swaying motion and the vibration of my lower skull, I settled an uncertain gaze on the window ahead of me, a misted rectangle whose upper part was divided by the canopy outside, winter shadow of a skeletal tree projected on its canvas ‘screen’ by street lights, its lowest edge undulating gently in the wind. Any connection to the music was coincidental yet here was another site for visual perception, opening up correspondence at a different level, slower, less specific, drifting rather than teeming and so reflecting the way the music slid through frequency and timbral spectra.

Oto window 2 To use a detestable shorthand, this was drone music, a genre (if that’s what it is) with which I have lost much of my patience. The excitement I experienced when hearing The Velvet Underground and Nico in 1968 or buying La Monte Young’s so-called black album in the early 1970s has been vaporised by hearing too many men in black hunched over electronic equipment in the gloom, pouring out long tones of indifferent interest. Yet there was an improvising sensibility and musicality in this group, a recognition that drones should not be a strategy simply to establish and sustain safe ground through fixity. Thin tendrils of distortion drilled into the core, wisps of feedback sparked off the substrate. There was perpetual movement and in the second section of the evening, moments in which all cohesion was lost, in which the whole piece threatened to subside, maybe collapse. By this point the room felt lighter, the audience less tightly packed, the void less empty. The involuntary poetry of the window remained as a reminder that the boundaries of performance extend beyond its physical perimeter.

Cranc were live at Cafe Oto, London, 14.12.2014.




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that lead beneath brambles to the bodies and minds of others

Death of the MothThe book jacket is designed by Vanessa Bell, sister to Virginia Woolf. Her drawing for the front of the jacket is of trees and grasses, many black pen lines pulling and curling in vortical movement, little differentiation made between figure and ground.
Shelley Hirsch was in London for a short stop and we talked of stream-of-consciousness, her speech by way of illustration of the process and its importance to her singing suddenly branching into organic, unpredictable storylines that in their density came close to Vanessa Bell’s drawing. Shelley then talked about an essay she had come across at the beginning of her life as an improvising singer: Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting: a London adventure. Woolf sets out to buy a pencil, the excuse to immerse herself into human life, its grotesques, the passing snatches of its exchanges, its glimpsed scenes, overheard chatter, press and movement within the atmospheres of the city.
I told her I knew the essay well. I have a copy in The Death of the Moth, collected essays published by the Hogarth Press in 1942, tattered now, barely retaining its book jacket by Vanessa Bell. Woolf urges walking as an opening of the senses but the movement is through streets and over river into the strange digressions of her own mind. Nothing in life repeats. “The sights we see and the sounds we hear now have none of the quality of the past,” she wrote (and this was in 1930); “nor have we any share in the serenity of the person who, six months ago, stood precisely where we stand now.” She experienced all of these bodies as a potential dissolution of the self: “Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others. One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?”
After the conversation, Shelley and I walked over the road to Cafe Oto’s project space to hear a septet of string players: Jennifer Allum, Bruno Guastalla, Guillaume Viltard, Hannah Marshall, Tim Fairhall, Angharad Davies, Ute Kangiesser. They present themselves in a horseshoe shape in that order, from left to right, taking half the building; the other half occupied by a small audience so predominantly made up of improvising musicians – myself and Shelley, Steve Beresford, Eddie Prévost, Marjolaine Charbin, John Chantler, Daichi Yoshikawa – that a mirror septet is within the bounds of possibility, should anybody wish to suggest it.
I listen closely for a while, studying the sandbagged air-raid shelter ambience of the Project Space. Then as Guillaume squeezes a second bridge between the fingerboard and strings of his double bass I open my notebook. Sometimes to write is to listen closer, if only because each moment of listening and observation demands a fitting language but also suggests its own digressions. Angharad flicks the strings of her violin and I think of school and those incidents of minor bullying when a bigger boy flicks his victim hard to the head or arm with an audible pop. From outside we can hear a loud Jamaican voice. Periodically trains pass close by, their rushing metallic roar wadding the room like an abrupt influx of iron filings within which the music’s flinty intensity is momentarily buried. Can we talk about surface and depth, a constant movement of small cries, whistle tones, dark notes and silver? I am struck by the sight of so much grained brown wood – two violins, three cellos, two double basses – and how the swirling grain is a static echo of the physical movements out of which musical form is developed. Sliding, striking, flicking, muting, bounding, abrading, tapping, snapping, drawing and pulling. The angularity of an arm moving according to its nature as a hinge. The spring of horsehair held in tension. A bow moving elliptically, as if stroking the stomach of a placid bear.
Then there is the doing of nothing, inactive, silent, looking up at the corrugated plastic skylight or down at the floor. Ideas move in contagions: bass sneezes; cello catches a cold. Shouts penetrate the sandbags from outside. Many years ago these would have been bothersome. Now the music absorbs whatever infiltrates its space (already the bodies and minds of others). Then a sudden cessation during which quieter voices can be heard from the street; a long pause, intensity trembles in the air until released by subtle shifting of body language. The heart of the music falls silent once more, covered as it must be by the brambles and thick tree trunks of ordinary living.

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Automatic writing

IMG_1470Robert Ashley’s death last week gave me the odd feeling that I should have been listening to more of his music. Absurd really, to self-impose a kind of obligation to consume. The truth is I loved his work but never felt much of a compulsion to listen to the recordings. They seemed beautiful shadows of something genuinely new, something he spoke about, wrote about and enacted: a different way of being within music.

He was one of the few composers of his generation (and subsequent generations) who fully understood that after Cage, electronic music, free jazz, pop music, happenings, proliferating media and all the rest of it, you couldn’t just carry on as if nothing untoward had happened, making your ‘experimental’ music with all the formal constraints and solemn ritual still in place. There’s an interesting essay Ashley wrote for the CD release of Alvin Lucier’s Vespers and other early works (New World Records, 2002). You can’t hear Vespers on a recording, he says, because the experience of hearing the music comes from the space in which it’s performed. He also talks about attempts to subvert the concert hall or redesign concert halls specifically for experimental music, as if it’s going to stand still for another hundred years to please the architects. He talks about fire marshalls. Basically, if you think you’re being subversive but at the same time pleasing the fire marshalls then you’re not subverting much at all.

A lot of composers and musicians shared that sentiment for a while but then turned away into less problematic territory – back to the 19th century or to a vision of jazz bars as they were prior to the 1940s, wherever their spiritual home might be. Robert Ashley worked out ways to make a piece that could be heard on television, or heard in a public space as if you were in a hotel room alone, hearing some other guest’s discarnate mellifluous speech rhythms coming through the adjacent wall and by putting a glass up to the wall and listening hard you could eavesdrop on this man’s muffled monologue about the particles of life, recited to the accompaniment of a radio broadcast by Liberace or one of those early New Age composers from Los Angeles, but Liberace after his audience has departed the building and his secret deepest vision of a cosmic music is finally given a silence in which to float like a voluminous sun bed on a Hollywood pool.

There was a stillness or stasis about Ashley’s pieces that demanded some new venue for listening that just doesn’t exist. In a way, television (arguably the most important medium of the 20th century but a wasteland for almost all composers) was the best way to encounter what he did, a box in which dreams spewed forth as if mind itself; now television is pretty much dead in the aether so there’s a moment that won’t come back.

IMG_1467In what setting should music be experienced? The question resurfaced, as it does in every exhibition that demands listening, while I walked around Cevdet Erek’s Alt Üst exhibition at Spike Island in Bristol (15 February to 13 April 2014): the video of his fingers attempting to tap out a sonic translation of a timeline of life-related events; the measures, markers and cycles alluding to sound’s temporality; the rooms called Üst and Alt – day and night, up and down, high and low, heaven and underworld. Blue LED lights and bass beats measure time in the murky claustrophobia of Alt, and in the dazzling sky light of Üst, a cardiac pulse of a low beat emanates from under the feet as if seeping upwards from the underground below. All of the ideas within the exhibition came together in that moment of being within the shock of daylight, the emptiness of a room, sound coming from elsewhere.

Later that afternoon (04.03.14), I gave a talk at Spike Island about music and time, playing tracks like Joe Hinton’s “Funny How Time Slips Away”, Sly Stone’s “In Time”, Felix Hess’s frog recordings from Australia, an exceedingly slow, sacred Javanese gamelan from Jogjakarta (“Sekatan Kyahi Guntur Madu”), Arpebu’s “Munsta from Kavain Space” and Ryoko Akama’s “Jiwa Jiwa”, created on the Max Brand synthesiser during a composer-in-residence programme at IMA in Austria. Ryoko’s recent CD – Code of Silence (  – gives no information about the latter piece other than its title so I asked her for some thoughts. Her return email spoke about sine waves and beat frequencies, sustained tones, other worlds with the emptiness of sonic ‘surfaces’ and an aesthetic that arises not from duration but the complexity of listening and its context and conditions.

She translates “Jiwa Jiwa” as “slowly but certainly happening”, giving the example of finding a water leak coming through the ceiling, the stain gradually growing in circumference: “You might say – it is getting jiwajiwa there, water is permeating jiwajiwa.” So the sound is a type of sculpture (maybe like the slower kinetic sculptures of the 1960s by Pol Bury, Gerhard von Graevenitz and David Medalla); change is taking place but at a rate that is hard to discern, closer to stasis than movement.

In the same week (07.03.14) I gave a talk in the Royal College of Art’s Vocal Dischords symposium, using the technique of automatic writing I’d tried once before at Bristol Arnolfini’s Tertulia – Writing Sound event, a set-up in which I write without a script and whatever I write can be seen on screen by the audience in real  time. The question of whether automatic writing is possible in these circumstances becomes part of the performance, not least in the sense that fluidity of so-called inner thought is hard to realise except in private. The pace is slower than speech, more stilted or inhibited by observers, subject to error and revision. At one point I played an extract from Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing and in that heightened, stressful atmosphere heard it as unvoiced thoughts bubbling out of the eyes like soap, seeping slowly from the pores of a face.

For all I know this live performance of writing may be painful to watch but it comes, in part, from an active questioning of spontaneity in improvised performance, along with a questioning of the voice-as-sound, the droning seducer that transmutes ideas into theatre (or so it hopes). What are voices in the head? In pursuit of the origins of spontaneity in 20th century music I have been reading largely forgotten writers who experimented with automatic writing and what William James described as stream-of-consciousness. Mary Butts is one of them, an author whose short and turbulent life included the largely thankless task of assisting Aleister Crowley with the editing of Magick in Theory and Practice. Her novel Armed With Madness (1928) opens with a sentence that makes you want to love it – “In the house, in which they could not afford to live, it was unpleasantly quiet.” A description of listening and silence as uncanny and occult follows, not dissimilar to passages written by Virginia Woolf at almost exactly the same moment in history.

Dorothy Richardson by Man Ray

Dorothy Richardson by Man Ray

Dorothy Miller Richardson is another. Her Pilgrimage series of 13 novels, the first published in 1915, was a meticulous, if highly selective recording of a life, each instalment given an enticing title, each of which could be the name of a film I would pay to see: The Tunnel, Pointed Roofs, Honeycomb, Deadlock, Revolving Lights, The Trap, Dawn’s Left Hand. The protagonist – Miriam – lives a modest, unspectacular  life. In The Tunnel (1919) she is ecstatic to be renting a dingy room that gives her some measure of independence. Time barely seems to move, yet the cycles of life, day and night, the cruel measurement of work and time off, drudgery, disgust and tea, the tasks to be performed at a given time within the patterns of her job, her walks through a London that feels both hostile and magical, the surging and ebbing of feelings, convictions, confidence and often silenced opinion open out, fold upon fold, light and dark as she learns how to live and finally to write. The reader is caught in the streaming of this interior monologue (as Richardson liked to call it), absorbed, like Robert Ashley, in the particles of life: “As she began on her solid slice of bread and butter St. Pancras bells stopped again. In the stillness she could hear the sound of her own munching. She stared at the surface of the table that held her plate and cup. It was like sitting up to the nursery table. ‘How frightfully happy I am,’ she thought with bent head. Happiness streamed along her arms and from her head. St. Pancras bells began playing a hymn tune in single firm beats with intervals between that left each note standing for a moment gently in the air.”

An ordinary life; a dull life even, yet the polyphony of emotions and sensations is hallucinatory in its measured precision and accumulation of bliss: “The lecturing voice was far away, irrelevant and unintelligible. Peace flooded her.” Why do we have to spatialise time, sound and thought, reducing all three to a manageable linearity and locus that has nothing to do with the way we think or hear? Because they are elusive, everywhere and nowhere. The pouring of thoughts, thoughts under thoughts and other inexplicable murmurings of consciousness may take place in a dark room of the imagination within the body as if a kind of ectoplasm gushing out of some hidden spring and dispersing into nothingness, into the blood or becoming a sound recognisable as audible words, the marks of writing or some other signs on or from the body.

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