David Toop is a musician, field recordist, author and professor of audio culture and improvisation. His first album, New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments with Max Eastley, was released on Brian Eno's Obscure Records in 1975. Since then, he has released dozens of albums, both solo and with collaborators including Paul Burwell, Steve Beresford, Toshinori Kondo, and Scanner. Among his many books are an early study of hip hop, Rap Attack (1984); a history of ambient music, Ocean of Sound (1995); and a memoir, Flutter Echo (2019). This fall, he has two new albums out on Room40, a collage of field recordings collected throughout his life called Field Recording and Fox Spirits and an immaculately produced series of sonic set pieces called Apparition Paintings. Matthew Blackwell
Matthew Blackwell: Hello David!
David Toop: Hello Matthew.
How are you doing in quarantine? I was reading your book [that accompanies Field Recording and Fox Spirits] and you mentioned that you were actually happier in lockdown than you were in January. Is that still the case?
(laughs). Yeah, to an extent, I guess. It’s been an interesting time for everybody, and a difficult time. But I think generally I’ve responded to it quite well, which is partly because of current circumstances in the work I’ve been doing. So yeah, it’s been alright.
You say that you’ve been spending most of your time reading and painting. What have you been reading lately?
I’ve been reading a huge number of books, actually. I read a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin in the summer. I’ve been reading a lot of a writer of Nigerian ancestry, Nnedi Okorafor. I’ve been reading a very good history of American slavery. I’ve been reading a multi-part Chinese novel from the eighteenth century called Story of the Stone. And a lot of research materials as well, for a book I just started writing a week ago.
Do you normally read so many books at one time?
I normally have like one or two books going. But at the moment I have a morning book, midday book, a research book, and an evening book or nighttime book. So that’s very much to do with the pandemic. Just a shift in work patterns, and more time I guess, but more composure to be able to read in that way. But I haven’t been able to read like this since I was in my teens or twenties.
I’ve found the same thing—usually I read one or two books but lately I’ve been reading four or five. I find it a bit frustrating, actually, because I’ll be in the middle of a lot of books, and rather than reading straight through one I’ll just jump between several. Can I ask which book about slavery you’re reading? In my day job I’m a professor of American literature, and I’m actually currently teaching a course on slave narratives.
Okay, yeah, I’ll have to go get it to remember the author. (David goes to get the book). Hi, I’m back. It’s called American Slavery and it’s by Peter Kolchin. Have you come across that one?
I have not read that one, no—the one I’m reading right now is The Half Has Never Been Told [by Edward E. Baptist], which is about capitalism and slavery. One thing that I was wondering in regards to [reading and painting], is that I was looking at your website for the London College of Communication, and it lists one of your research interests as “listening to silent media such as painting and literature.” Could you explain what that means? I was a bit puzzled by “listening to silent media.”
(laughs). I wrote a book in 2010 called Sinister Resonance, and in that book I focused on listening to paintings. Well, painting and also writing, particularly fiction. But paintings were at the heart of it. I concentrated on a Dutch painter called Nicolaes Maes, who was a pupil of Rembrandt when he was a very young man—a teenager in fact. Nicolaes Maes painted a series of paintings called The Eavesdropper, which depicted scenes of people listening. Overhearing, in fact, overhearing people speaking, or overhearing the sounds of other people. And that set me on a path of thinking about the idea of paintings as a sort of recording device, an audio recording device that existed prior to the existence of audio recording and its invention in the 19th century. So that’s what that means, I guess. It’s a bit more straightforward with literature, because literature is full of descriptive passages about listening. So Joseph Conrad, for instance, is full of examples. Painting, obviously, is a little bit harder to grasp, and in a sense is, I guess, a controversial idea. I did contact a few art historians about the idea, but none of them particularly wanted to talk to me (laughter).
Well, it took them into realms of conjecture which they were not happy about. Which I suppose is one of the advantages of taking on a subject if you’re not a specialist—you can do things that would otherwise threaten your job as a tenured professor (laughs) to make wild claims of that sort. But anyway, that’s what that means.