4 July 02004

Review of David Toop's Haunted Weather

I read much of Haunted Weather on holiday, on an apartment balcony overlooking the kind of Costa del Sol villa-sprawl that provided the setting for J G Ballard's Cocaine Nights. It's possible to read Haunted Weather through Ballardian spectacles: the latter's coining of phrases like "the marriage of Freud and Euclid" and "a Krafft-Ebing of geometry and posture" (both from The Atrocity Exhibition) could apply as a synopsis of Toop's concern with spatial and uncanny qualities of music, its root in our relation to our own bodies.

Haunted Weather is the latest in David Toop's reports from the sub-culture of improvised music and sound art. Ocean of Sound, his cultural geography of ambient music, is its closest precedent and relation. The new book focuses on "the way technology changes our relationship to the body", arguing that "digital communications have pitched the idea of space into confusion, so the relationship of sound to space has become an immensely creative field of research". It cares simultaneously for what could be called the essence of music qua music, and for how sound provides context for image and environment. Toop's approach weaves together his musings on theory with critiques of disparate artists from Toru Takemitsu and Akira Kurosawa through Morton Feldman to Derek Bailey and Pan Sonic.

The back cover of Haunted Weather claims that it "gauges the impact of new technology on contemporary music" but anyone expecting a broad overview of trends and their projections would probably finish the book disappointed. At times, the book does adopt the approach of many a lay science/tech book (like, say, Smart Mobs) in drawing together the work and quotes of a range of practitioners working in related areas. This works well for the chapter on generative music. But Toop eschews the sense of cumulation or progress you would get from a 'straight' study. He mixes sections of exposition with autobiographical reminiscence, portraits and esoteric history.

This oblique and variegated approach makes, predictably, for a curate's egg. I feel I understand Feldman and Takemitsu much better now. Toop's conversation with Derek Bailey shows great humour, and the many references to John Stevens constitute a moving eulogy to this mentor of Toop's. Meanwhile the book offers few fresh insights in its treatments of John Oswald and Christian Marclay. Toop enlightens us by showing that it wasn't only the avant-garde that paved the way for sampling as we know it: the precedents in 'low' culture and novelty records showed just as many innovations. His passage on the common — though unlikely — threads between Pan Sonic and rockabilly is intriguing but frustrates when the chapter ends suddenly just as the comparison was starting to build up steam.

"...David Toop has been compared to Brian Eno" reads some of the Haunted Weather publicity. It's probably unkind to suggest a hint a jealousy in this, as in wishing for Eno's money and profile. Why isn't David Toop presenting the Turner Prize or being listed by Prospect Magazine as one of Britain's top 100 public intellectuals, like Eno? Largely because he's aiming at a narrower audience, writing more for his peers than for a broader public. There's nothing wrong with that in itself, but sometimes you feel that Toop's vision is restricted by an in-group set of judgements and references. For example: the literary references are to W G Sebald and Iain Sinclair; the cultural politics are situationism and Naomi Klein's anti-corporate globalisation. I have a hunch that these reference points will make Haunted Weather date quickly, and that Toop would be better served by Eno's more catholic (if less oppositional) network of influences.

Toop has a sharp critical faculty that he's not afraid to use, as when he writes of "the experiments of the 1960s when the excitement of process and change could obscure the imperatives of making music that was worth a second listen." But his non-linear technique denies him the possibility of developing a sustained critical analysis. I also wish he would extend his radar beyond the canon that has been defined by The Wire, supplemented by a few idiosyncratic selections. What does Toop think are the important failures and wrong turnings in ambient and experimental music? I'd love to know what how he assesses the work of someone like Todd Machover whose experiments with digital communications and music grow out of the traditions of the academy.

On page 4 of the book, David Toop writes "trying to listen to everything has almost destroyed my desire to listen to anything". The low cost of recording and distributing music has vastly increased the amount of music available on what were the non-commercial fringes. I don't try to listen to everything, but even I find the quality of my listening affected, possibly irreversibly, by the sheer quantity of new stuff to keep up with. Toop does not deliver any resolution of this or other quandaries, but he's not intimidated by confusion, and perhaps his circuitous technique is a suitable means of expressing it.

When I was about half way through Haunted Weather I had a dream where as part of an audition or assessment I had to do a reading to a panel that included David Toop. As I am a confident reader I had no fears, but as I started to read the newspaper article given to me, I quickly realised that the reading made no sense without the photograph that went with it. I tried to 'read' the photograph, but how? Should I read each blade of grass in the picture left to right? Then how would I deal with the tree that punctuated the lawn? Painfully aware that I had made a wrong turn into a dead end, I reverted to the text. But by now my fluency was irrecoverable, and I sputtered to a stop.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Future of Music, Music and Multimedia, Reviews on 4 July 02004 | TrackBack
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