Name: David Toop
Bands/Projects: Alterations / Rain in the Face / abAna / Flying Lizards / General Strike / Max Eastley / Sculpture
Labels: Sub Rosa / Samadhi Sound / Room 40 / Virgin / Confront / Atavistic / Durtro / Obscure / Quartz / Bead / Y Records /Choo-Choo Train / Staubgold / Vinyl Factory / Nato / Incus / Saidera / Caiprinha / Lo Recordings / Bip-Hop / Barooni / Wire Editions / Intuitive / Time em:t / CCI / Daisyworld / Touch / Piano
Musical Recommendations: Rie Nakajima / Camille Norment
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I think about the way in which instruments have lives of their own – their boundaries are ambiguous and fragile. For example, there’s the memory of trying to harden my fingertips to play the guitar, using alum bought in powder form from the chemist; so was the alum powder as much an extension of the guitar as my calloused fingers, or come to that, the marquetry design on the face of my first guitar depicting a scene of a deer and the moon (if my memory is correct)?
There was also the strange circumstance of the surprise gift of this first guitar, for which my parents constructed a tableau in the living room, a static drama involving an improvised tipi (probably a blanket on sticks), with my sister sitting cross-legged wearing an Indian (native American) feather head-dress and holding the acoustic guitar that was about to be my mine. The scene was almost surreal and entirely atypical of my parents, sadly quite unimaginative and undemonstrative individuals. Even now, there is the question of whether I invented the scene in childhood to compensate for a lack of family closeness. Whichever it was, there is an air of installation or physical composition to add to the otherness of the drama and whether I was recipient or dreamer I would claim it as my first composition.
Between my 6th and 12th birthdays there was the ecstatic aura of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues, then guitar instrumentals by groups like The Shadows and The Ventures – 1950s and early ‘60s music, basically. But certain records from childhood fully brought to life that nascent exoticism awakened by the guitar emerging from its Sioux or Cheyenne tipi, in particular the theme song to a television series called Rawhide, sung by Frankie Laine in 1958 with cattle herding and whip crack effects. Percussive, echoing sounds, like the whip crack or Bo Diddley’s technique of playing single strings on his homemade electric guitars as if they were drums opened up my physical connection to the guitar and its possibilities. But the atmospheres of all these records, often associated with television series, films or photographs, is central to what I’d describe as a myth or imaginary ethnography lying tantalisingly just out of reach of whatever can be done with sound. It’s about boundaries and the lack of them, sound that’s as fuzzy and indeterminate as a Chinese scroll painting but at its outer edges, that’s what is interesting.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
There has always been a difficult relationship with learning which I recognise as being a handicap. If I had learned the guitar methodically and theoretically as a child, with guidance, faithful imitation and a lot of practice, then I might have ended up in a famous band, might be dead by now, almost certainly would be raddled with nostalgia and bad habits of all kinds. This difficulty with learning can turn you into an autodidact, which means you are more likely to question normativity, piecing together a world view which will be . . . unusual, at its mildest, totally deluded maybe.
I’m not sure about ‘own voice’. Our voices are composites as much as they are individual signatures. Collaboration has always been an essential part of what I do and all those collaborations with their struggles and intense working out of difficult emergent and transitional ideas become absorbed, to some extent assimilated as personal identity.
All I can say is that I felt different from the beginning, which was not easy to deal with, but there was a moment, playing guitar in an R&B group, circa 1964, when we were playing Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner” during a rehearsal (all that band ever did was rehearse) when the glass bottleneck I was using as a slide started to follow its own predilections, extending the noise elements of Bo Diddley’s original record into areas which set me apart from the other musicians. Not saying there was no going back but it gave me an insight into who I might truly be.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My first production challenge was to own the kind of instrument I coveted. I had an acoustic guitar but needed an electric guitar to play the music I liked. My parents didn’t have any money so I decided to make my own in the woodwork class at school. I took a Bo Diddley rocket-shaped design as a model, then learned how to space out the frets, where to buy fretwire, pick-ups, machine heads and all the other components. It wasn’t a good guitar but that principle of assembling an instrument from scratch has been useful for my relationship to what I call unknown devices or un-instruments.
Whether in the 1970s, making instruments and sound-making devices of all kinds, in the late 80s and 90s, working with computers and finding ways to subvert software applications, or now, when I’m using any material – paper, water, sticks, microcomputer toys, computer, drum, phone or whatever – as ‘instruments’ where the extent or edge of the instrument is uncertain.
Outward appearances would suggest that these challenges, if they are challenges, have changed dramatically over the 45 years I’ve been working intensively with sound. And really I think these challenges are just the defining characteristics of working as an artist; but my feeling is that they have a continuity. Time is not a progression or evolution but more a cycle in which each revolution takes on a new outer form but remains essentially the same object of contemplation.
Tell us about your studio, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
Since I moved house two years ago my studio has changed a lot. Now I have a small studio at the end of my garden which I hardly ever use. It’s part of the garden and weather, existing as an ideal, maybe, a place of refuge where I can go to enter into another state of mind if the weather is not too bad. That section of the garden is like a Japanese dry garden – gravel, three stones, a tsukubai water basin and black bamboo – which symbolises water and islands. I’m very interested in the trope of the ancient Chinese scholar’s studio. There’s a book of supernatural tales I like called Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, by a 17th century writer - Pu Songling. Basically you surrounded yourself with objects, materials, images and instruments that stimulate the imagination and then inspiration would take effect. That has always been my guiding principle.
What are currently some of the most important tools and instruments you're using? In which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity? How do you see the role of sound designers and software programmers in the creative process?
I’m using paper a lot, which relates to drawing, something I used to do a lot and now seem unable to recapture. The process of moving from electric guitar with distortion boxes (early 70s) and flutes through home-made instruments, then electronics and MIDI from the early 90s, then laptop, now all kinds of small instruments and un-instruments like paper, water and so on, is a strange circular path along which I feel led. Their placement in a space is vital, so at a certain point in the 1970s when I was working with percussionist Paul Burwell, all our instruments moved down onto the floor. We got rid of seats, stands and all that professional paraphernalia and just threw everything on the floor. After a while we started treating our instruments with some contempt, breaking them, soaking them in water, whirling them around.
Some of that attitude, or at least the materials themselves, were transferred to the period of working in the digital domain when that became possible; making sounds from leaves, stones, foliage, snapped wood, small sounds of all kinds which were edited, processed, pitch shifted and time-stretched. For me it was a question of developing a language that had very little to do with the musical orthodoxies of working in applications like Logic. It was closer in fact to the sound gestures of improvisation and the act of writing (as a physical memory of marks on paper or some other substrate), even when using a word processing application.
It’s a very open field, so it’s shocking to hear how conventional so much ‘electronic’ music turns out to be.
Many contemporary production tools already take over significant parts of what would formerly have constituted compositional work. How has this affected your own production process and its results? Are there any promising solutions or set-ups capable of triggering new ideas inside of you as a composer?
There’s a real difficulty in understanding how this functions but it’s true that composing in the computer blurs the distinction between a graphic relationship to sound, ie. notation, and the physicality of making sounds by action in air. I still use Ableton Live as a performance tool sometimes because it’s relatively flexible in a performance context but that phase is probably passing now.
Now I’m really going back to very basic questions, like, what is the auditory consequence of putting a malleable surface, like tissue paper, in relationship to a field of activation, like a portable fan, for example. Yesterday in a performance I squashed tissue paper into the smallest possible volume, put it inside an empty plastic water bottle, then listened to the faint crackling sound of its slow unfolding. I hoped to encourage the audience to do the same but it didn’t work – they didn’t take it up or understand that it was an invitation, not a performance. The key to all of this is vulnerability – not worrying if something ‘goes wrong’, doesn’t work or makes you look silly – and also making genuine discoveries during the act of performing. That means there is always a question ahead of you; nothing is closed off.