David Toop 2022-09-01, Photo Alf Solbakken

There’s a peculiar technology, that is in the same time overestimated and sometimes underused, and it is the “human unity”. It is a “technology” that has produced – by itself – a conspicuous variety of tools (and bits and pieces…), among those a “soundtrack” for its own adventures, the music. Music serves communication, sharing of emotions, poetry, art, self-consciousness, celebrations, power statements… and it is sometimes overwhelming, and diffused everywhere. Its current risk – maybe – is to be intrigued and impoverished by its industry, even if in crisis, curiously in the period of its maximum historical expansion.

But there are people that respect music, any kind of music, and its central role in our culture, and music becomes the center of their speculative interest. David Toop is one of them, but his analysis is really helping us to re-consider the “second art”, to expand its limits, to search in almost every aspect of our sensitive lives a “hidden harmony”, a resonance for a sort of sonic awakening.

The attitude of an “explorer” is due also to the fact music seems to be more “exposed” than “studied”. An explorer of an “Ocean of Sound” (from the title of one of his books) that is not only helping to better understand the less known manifestations of music/sound (the “fishes of the abyss”), but also the thick network of relations and communication and reactions activated by the trigger of sound.

As a composer, curator, musical instruments inventor, journalist and writer, Toop’s investigations on music are comprehensive. His musical partners have been innovative musicians from heterogeneous origins and inspiration, his musical production embodies the same insatiable curiosity demonstrated in his writings, his transversal point of view is enriching our view of contemporary expressions of music.

David Toop 2022-09-01, Photo Alf Solbakken

We met David Toop while he was curating and hosting “Punkt Seminar”, during “Punkt” Festival in Kristiansand – Norway (www.punktfestival.no) , one of the most exciting, innovative and creative music festival, born as “festival of the Live Remix”, where a real “familiar” atmosphere is the ideal basis for sharing exciting musical ideas, also through “live sampling and remix” techniques, and discussions about contemporary music and related art forms.

Marco Aruga: So: Mister David Toop, sonic explorer, I suppose! You have been exploring the matter “music” from several point of views, a 360 degrees view. As a musician, which kind of “possible music” attract you the most now? As a critic, are there any formula around the world today that is appealing you?

David Toop: What kind of music attracts me now, what kind of “possible” music… that’s interesting. I think that what I’m trying to work with now, is trying to find the music where I can use as many levels of technology as I can. So, for example, I compose in a computer, using different applications, but I also work with very simple materials: bowing leaves, for example, or bowing a cardboard box, or… I am also using obsolete technologies, like cassette players. Cassette players linked to bulk induction, loudspeaker switch, I can then attach to any material, even a piece of paper, and it amplifies the sound of the cassette. So, all of these different levels of technology, if you like that, represent the possibilities at this moment.

I can go to my garden, I pick up dry leaves – they are very dry at the moment, because we are in a period of drought – I can pack those in my case, alongside my violin bow, and all of these other things. But then I might reassemble all of these materials in a program like Logic, or Ableton Live, or whatever. Working on all these different levels feels like a kind of honest reaction to the situation we are in now, as human beings, where we still have this biological level, we still have that troubled connection to what we call “nature”, and then we work with all these very sophisticated technologies: the apps on my phone, all this kind of things.  That’s is my approach, at the moment.

About the other question, the musical “systems” around the world: I listen to very diverse types of music, I listen with interest the current hip hop production, some of it sounds very amazing, really, experimental in many ways. I also don’t listen to a lot of music, or not nearly as much as I used to, I just listen to the sound of my own world, that kind of thing… it is complicated for me, it is complicated, it changes all the time. I suppose that I listen to current production styles, for example, partly for professional interest, having worked as a producer, and working – as I do now – with new music applications for computers: I want to figure out how they work. Sometimes, somehow they have to relate to me, to this very basic type of listening. But it is not basic, it is quite sophisticated: to listen to these small sounds of my garden, for example…

Marco Aruga: Why music makes us glad, or sad, or … What’s the power of music, at last?

David Toop: Music has this tremendous capacity to create emotional responses, physical responses, deep psychological responses. I suppose that some of the answers for that has to do with biochemistry, or with neurology, but in a way that those answers don’t interest me so much. Music is a human constant. You find music in every culture. That’s an extraordinary thing. There are very few things that You can say are very human constants, and found in very culture. Music has a huge significant to us. Why is that? Music works with time. In anything the understanding of time is very important for human beings. Music has this capacity to affects us physiologically. It has the power to change the mood, to transform, to bring us to other worlds. It also has the power to regulate us, I suppose. In other words, to make sense of life. To find some kind of order, in existence.

Now: why music does that? Nobody has yet answered. People gave many partial answers, coming from ethnomusicologists and anthropologists, to neuroscientist or psychologists, or whatever. All of these answers are partial. We don’t quite understand what it is. But I think one of the things it is, it is that music affect us powerfully, but it is invisible, and it has lasting effect. You could say that smell is invisible, and affects us, but it doesn’t really have a lasting effect, except insofar we can identify the smell of something “wrong”, not to eat it, three years later. But with music we can remember. Somebody said to me earlier today that most people relate to music as a kind of “nostalgia”, and I think it’s true. Music affected you at a certain age, maybe young, teenager, whatever… and will probably always stay with you. For some people, they’ll get stuck in that place, they’ll never move beyond that. The music they liked when they were 17 years old is “fixed”, that’s the only kind of music that matters.

That’s interesting. Because music is very “embedded” in our formation as human beings. Somehow, our development as human beings is “caught up” in the music, they merge together like this, they can’t be separated. I can hear a note from a record, and probably identify it, if I knew that music well. If I hear a note – of something that I liked when I was a teenager, like a James Brow’s record, or a Beach Boys’ one – I can probably say which track is, and remember the mood, and remember the occasion of listening of that record, time ago, and how it affected me. You know, music is very extraordinary, in that sense, and its invisibility affects the fact that is a “temporal” medium. Time… it is always disappearing, it feels like something that is always going away. That’s very important for humans, because humans have the consciousness of death, they have the consciousness of aging, and loss.

I’m not saying that all animals don’t have that consciousness, I think they do, but humans are very acutely aware of it, and they write plays about it, they make films about it, they write books about it, they write poems about it. A lot of human activities is devoted to this problem, if it is a problem that we all die… In a sense, I think music is important for that, because it is always reminding that life is transient, and things are disappearing. And it is very beautiful, in that sense, as well. It is a very poetic idea.

David Toop 2022-09-01, Photo Alf Solbakken

Marco Aruga: In one of your books, you suggested to “listen differently”, to take care about all the sound – and silence – that surround us. On the other hand, we see that often nowadays we express ourselves with a limited amount of words, we often listen to music that we can call – at least – “stereotypical”, often with a lower quality of sound also… How can we expand our sensitivity, and to gain a wider “vocabulary”, and a bigger “library” of sounds – and words – at our disposal?

David Toop: You really get what You work on, I think. In a language, if you contract language down to a “tweet” on Twitter – I mean in a way that is very clever about that, working within a tiny frame, and creating…. There are some writers who have written beautiful things just in a few sentences –
– but if everything You do is to reduce it that way, if You reduce a bit rate of music, for example, of sound, rather, if everything is a kind of reduction in that way, then of course your sense of possibilities is also reduced.
I think in a way You should do both. You should be able to work with these very small “epigrams”, if You like, writing in a very condensed way, or making music in a very condensed way, absolutely perfect, in a way like the Japanese “haiku”, where everything is beautifully constructed, and works in that very compressed way.  But You should also be able to be “expansive”, You should also be able to read books a thousand pages long, also. You should also be able to understand the difference between music which is very low quality, and high quality. I am not talking about the type of music, I am talking about the technical issues.
We should be able to tell the difference. So, I think it’s a problem if You can’t tell the difference. I don’t think it’s a problem just listening to “cheap” music on “cheap” headphones, but if it is the only thing You do, then You are not really understanding what’s going on in music.

Marco Aruga: You were also investigating the great power of the memories of sound, that is an experience we all have been living. Music as great vector of emotions, and memories in particular.
Could you please tell us anything about that?

David Toop: Memory is a strange thing with music, because – as I have said many times – music is always “disappearing”. Even if you are listening to a recording, the first minute of the recording has gone, and now you are listening to the second minute, and that’s gone, and now you are listening to the third minute, and that’s gone, … Appreciating music, understanding music or any sound – let’s forget about music, but any sound – depends on you having a memory. Let’s say you are a player, and you play free improvisation. People talk about free improvisation as “being in the moment”, but it is not just “being in the moment”, because you have the consciousness and memory of what happened, how you got to the point you did, how that trajectory works… but you also have a sense of the future, because you are trying to continue the music, you are trying not exactly to work towards something, not working towards a climax, or a big ending, or a completion, or anything like that, but you are definitively feeling “I want to keep the group’s sound going, and I want to keep it productive” and so on… actually, in terms of time, you are – at the very minimum – in three different places at once… I mean, it is much complicated than that, but that’s another story.

I think memory is an extraordinary thing. Music is one of the last things to go, when people loose memory, when people are suffering from dementia. Often the only thing they can remember is music. They can’t remember the partner, they can’t remember the family, they don’t know where they are, but they can pick up an instrument and play, or they recognize a song. Tony Bennet, the singer, he’s suffering from dementia – I think it is – he could still do concerts, and sing all of those songs. He can’t remember the people he is with, or anything else. It’s remarkable. I have seen a film doing it: being interviewed, he doesn’t know really where he is, and then he’s singing his songs, with all these lyrics. Because he has done it some many times, it’s “embedded”. Music is a kind of “embedded” in us, in our body.
Our bodies are in a sense “walking archives” of music. Many many layers, because of all the things we have heard. We remember things that we hate. “Novelty records”, we absolutely hate. Sometimes they are coming to your head. They just come, and “Where did it ever could come?” I was writing last year, as writing in my journal, that I got up in the morning, and suddenly I remember this record from the 1950’s, this stupid “Novelty record” called “She wears red feathers and a hula hoop skirt”, it came into my head. I haven’t heart to that record since probably 1956, I haven’t thought about it, nobody mentioned that, just “pop” into my mind, and there it is. I can remember the record, I can’t remember all the words, but – you know – enough to be annoying.

Music is remarkable, in that sense. It is constructed to be memorable, and I think that – in itself – will probably tell us many things about the evolution of human culture in the years to come. Music has some very important part to play in self-awareness. Certainly memory is essential for keeping community together, for remembering survival skills, for remembering “who is the enemy to who”, all these different things. How to get to my home… and maybe music has some evolutionary role, in one of those necessary tasks. Then it has to bring structure to sound, so that it is recognizable. It is in itself memorable. It may have helped us to apply that method to other tasks, in the past. People are theorizing this kind of things, and I’m speculating. I think that music has had a very important part to play in our role, and an important role in memory.

David Toop 2022-09-01, Photo Alf Solbakken

Marco Aruga: How do you imagine the future of music?

David Toop: I have no idea. I have no idea about the future of music. Music changes all the time.

For example, I have said I have an interest in new music technology. If you are slightly outside it – you use it, but you are slightly outside it – maybe every six months you hear something that is new and different, that’s not to say that it is revolutioning the music, but the way people put together music changes, the aestethics change, I suppose. But predicting these things is crazy, it’s like predicting anything in life. There are too many factors, too many variables, in life, to be predicting anything. That’s why betting is so risky.
I think it is essential that humans don’t know exactly what it is going to happen. When people say “I wish I could win a lottery”, a lottery is a chance. You wish you could win a lottery, you might also be wishing other kinds of luck, but bad luck may happen too. We negotiate life, according to how we deal with that. We don’t know what it is going to happen, it may mean we will have very creative lives, or looking for new things, or finding new discoveries, to keep alive, in a way, against this inevitability of death.