Dancing about architecture
from Conductive Jelly zine, 2005

As part of the Antiliterature section of just-outside-Sonar events, David Toop did a reading from his newest book Haunted Weather. Toop writes, makes music and writes about music. Writing about music, someone suggested once, is like “dancing about architecture”. In point of fact, dancing about architecture, in every sense of the phrase, is a highly enjoyable pursuit. Even if some of us are, like Midge Ure, dancing with tears in our eyes. The lugubrious yet inspiring David Toop is one of the principal influences on this particular pamphlet series, it was our pleasure to bewilder him with which fact as we waited for his lecture.

It was in a church on the Carrer Hospital, or a former church, buffed up to be a centre for arts. Wooden chairs were set out in two blocks, and glowing from the weather we processed down the nave to take our seats. The minutes were passed in looking at the stapled handouts, a translation of Mr Toop’s presentation. On the little stage at the front a table with a laptop computer, a small mixing desk and some bottles of water formed another focal point as we waited. With the slight echoey hum of the PA around the vaulted ceiling, all that was missing was a couple of old ladies buzzing about with handfuls of flowers and some dripping green oases.

The ministerial air continued as the very quietly spoken Toop stepped up, apologised for speaking in English, and began a one hour exploration of atmospherics. The lights were dimmed and his laptop emitted a succession of white noises, sounds of water, birds, his fingers hovering as if in benediction over the sliders on the mixer. In the belly of the vault, an illuminated music scholar intoned the lesson. Toop’s tone was dry and measured, emphatic. But when he broke off and we sat for time bending moments listening to the hisses & crackles and trickles in the subdued light of the old church, he had an expression that suggested he was walking speculatively through some landscape alien to everyone, in particular himself.

Toop appears a man at a remove from most of what we call “music”, finding it instead in the quotidian. The creak of a gate as a fox noses inside the garden, the hum of travelators, the way the knock of a vacuum cleaner on a door can recall with vivid clarity a dead relative… the effect sounds can have on emotions is inscrutable. Toop seems haunted by them. There’s a weight of sorrow over him, sensitive to the sound of the universe, which suggests a combination of depressed genius and… well. Part of me wants to play him the Greatest Air Guitar Album In The World Ever that we sit nodding to over breakfast the day after.

“Get the Thin Lizzy on, Dave. Some Rainbow! There y’are!”

That’s just part of me though. His ideas animated the chats we all launched into afterwords, stepping into the evening light a little dazed, sat in a bar up the road.

It’s typically a good night hanging out with my great mate L. Wednesday’s mix of new music, new books and a trip to Azram’s Sheesh Mahal on Kirkstall Road LS4, for an extremely tasty dinner, was further evidence of this proposition.

It also, handily and because I was looking for it, allows me to continue the theme from The Mortal Bath’s closing piece of 2010 regarding writing output and minds trying to make sense of masses of data, with additional haunting motif supplied by a first glimpse of what looks an exciting new book, Sinister Resonances, from the consistently reliable David Toop.

L is into music. Lots of people are into music, in the way that lots of people like coffee, but lots of people only ever try the Grande Latte Semi-Wet. It even sounds like a foppish, irritating minor character in a novel about pre-revolutionary France. Anyway, L is familiar with the Grande Latte, and the continuous morphing of his heraldry in a bid to seek favour, but enjoys the company of those who choose not to vie at court for preferment.

To clamber down from this hill of coffee beans/dauphinoise analogy (and on into the fertile plane of a more general food analogy), I am describing someone who consumes music, in the economic sense and in the sense of it keeping him alive. Fuel packages arrive daily, from sound merchants such as Boomkat, Second Layer, Volcanic Tongue, Spin City, blogs like Olde English Spelling Bee, yea even digital hypermarts like Amazon, to name but a selection from the mall site map. They all bring… well, I can just about begin to describe, but I don’t want to just sit here listing links and have you riffing away when you just got here. It’s music you don’t tend to see in HMV (perhaps a lesson there, in that there are plenty of people still spending their money on music). The point for me is that it energises him, and I always come away from a meeting with my friend energised creatively. It always gets me a-wonderin’ about variety in the diet.

As well as intake, L makes and has made music for a number of years. We were in a couple of bands together – reader, hear our song! – and he has released lots and lots of recordings as part of an experimental group called Lanterns over the last five or six years. His latest incarnation, Castrato Attack Group, is ‘Dumber than a sack of hammers’. He was voicing a concern about his recent lack of output, which probably stems at least in part from the demands of his job as a full-time psychiatric nurse. He’s still a lot busier than I, who have not twanged a note in performance for some years now and am perpetually threatening to act on the feeling that it’d be ‘really great to be in a band again’.

I think the key is that he is always reading, finding, sampling, mixing flavours. It is enjoyable work to watch, as Jerome K Jerome nearly put it. I have only a fraction of the patience and attention span when it comes to rooting out sounds and looking for music in unlikely places (Spotify and digital watches both seem pretty neat ideas to me). This last point regarding music in strange spaces is something Toop, from my preliminary skim of Sinister Resonances, appears to expand on at much more impressive length. It’s as much the sounds of silence, what Debussy referred to in his celebrated quote, ‘Music is the space between the notes.’ I was listening to John Cage’s “4’33” during its charitable assault on the charts in 2010, and was, as intended, intrigued by the sounds occurring on the periphery as I listened. Music, and the act of seeking it out in its infinite forms, is a great way of entering one’s Calm zone. I am extremely glad to have a friend in someone who is such a quietly enthusiastic forager for noise.

As a word lover, I was also pleased to discover that there are now at least two senses in which people understand ‘to blog’ as a verb. Referring to the album ‘Bamboo for Two’ (see below), and further work, L said ‘You can just blog it.’ I had to take a minute to establish that he was saying ‘Look x up on a blog,’ whereas, I explained, I understood it in the form of ‘Writing about x on a blog’. His response was: “Well, you can always do both.” Thusly was the wusly.

The soundtrack:

Actress – Splaszh
James Ferraro – Night Dolls with Hairspray
Chrome – Half Machine Lip Moves
Monopoly Child Star Searchers – Bamboo for Two
Oneohtrix Point Never

…and those retail links:
Boomkat Manchester, UK
Second Layer London, UK
Volcanic Tongue Glasgow, UK
Spin City Sheffield, UK
Olde English Spelling Bee New York, USA
Amazon like, Amazon

Had a most beguiling walk through a near-deserted City of London yesterday. On a fine Bank Holiday Monday, there were only a handful of tourists. At times it was like wandering through our own fiefdom, or at least a giant hall of mirrors.
Tower 42, and I can't remember the other buildings... in EC2N.
That’s Tower 42 and, er, some other buildings in EC2N.

We were heading towards the Barbican Centre. In the bright sunshine, the water features and early-1980s buildings caught some hint of what future might have been intended when it was built…

…although in wind and rain, and even just a bit of cloud, it looks pretty bleak… but we agreed you’d probably still live there if money were no object.

Inside the arts centre bit, we queued for about an hour to see an installation thought up by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. Basically, four and twenty zebra finches (ish) are flittering about a walk-through aviary, the which is furnished with amplified bass and six-string guitars, and cymbals with contact mics affixed. The birds fly about, work, nest and play, with a soundscape occurring ‘naturally’ as a consequence of where they land.

Apparently this is a very popular YouTube clip, and it’s been featured on CuteOverload, but I wasn’t aware of this til after… we just saw it in the listings mag and thought we’d have to get along.

And how worth the wait was it? Well, well worth it! The suspense was mounting as the queue edged forward. Numbers allowed in the room at any one time are limited to 25 so as to not freak the birds out, and there was a pretty healthy queue all afternoon, just in case you’re in Landn taahn and thinking of going. The entrance is a chain curtain with a flickering strobe, the entrance passage was darkened and echoing with high trills. We figured this must be to give the birds the illusion of another flock, or a bunch of bats or something, to stop them all just flying off from their enforced ambient session band internment.

Despite the prominent signage forbidding photography, once inside the aviary virtually everyone had their devices out and clicking within 10 seconds. It was really amazing. The birds were fearless, carrying on as if there was nothing at all unusual about the situation. Nests had been constructed in the bridges of the basses (they didn’t seem to like the six-strings in the same way)…
The finches snapped above were sitting on the strings grooming each other. Well, the male ones (coloured) were actually doing all the grooming.

The “soundscapes” were great. It was very relaxing, both in the sense of being so close to these little bundles of life whizzing about, and with the delicate noises coming from the instruments brushed by wing or foot. There was no constant twang-thrum-tishhhh, more kind of abstracted little snippets of sound, perhaps as befits somethings so small and precise. Baths (and feeding) took place on the cymbals, which gave great little washes of sound, the finches never seeming to arrive on their own:

Periodically the finches would all decide to fly about from one spot to another, resulting in neat little pseudo-chords from the random plucking, or leaving one finch to hop about on the strings in what one might fancy was a thoughtful solo. Occasional duets…

Jazz odyssey:

‘…this is Derek Smalls… he wrote this…’

Perhaps the best moment of all was when we were standing next to one of the guitars and a pair of birds just flitted straight on to Julee’s coat, which was folded over her arm.

I had to try and capture it for posterity, and got about three snaps quickly by pretending to read text messages very close to my face. This is the least blurred – sorry for the unflattering angle, Ju! The birdies must have been there for about a couple of minutes, for what purpose we had no idea, but they were clearly fascinated. It was mutual; a very beautiful moment, and I felt throughly Franciscan. The two ladies watching this from the other side of the guitar were greatly enchanted also, their cooing a counterpoint.

After that we gradually made our way out, enjoying animated discussions of exactly how many finches and instruments we would need. There was still a huge queue. Everybody’s heard about the birds…

How the holiday weekend flew by!