‘I think that if there is any value in hearing writers talk, it will be in hearing what they can witness to and not what they can theorize about’.
Reading these words by Flannery O’Connor on the train back to London from Whitstable after a day at the Off the Page festival, prompted me to gather some thoughts on Simon Reynolds’ ‘intellectual profile’ of David Toop presented as part of the event organised by Sound and Music and The Wire.
For if the slogan ‘We are all David Toop’, skilfully placed by Reynolds at the beginning of his talk, worked well to endear the audience and to warm them into condescending smiles as they tweeted it all over, one issue remains: throughout his presentation Reynolds seemed more inclined to theorising about Toop’s writing than witnessing to it, not quite looking at who we all supposedly are and Toop is – and leaving the writing, and what makes the writing, more or less absent from the scene.
I am always fascinated by how writers speak, by how they read their words aloud; by what types of space they create when they talk – wittingly, or in spite of themselves. The space of Reynold’s words was outlined by an angular delivery that frustrated what he introduced as a comment on ‘flow motion’. Despite its talks of shifting plateaux, the presentation was obstructed by its thwarted attempts to clamp down the ideas behind Toop’s writing, whilst overlooking its presence and spirit. As if you could detach the ‘ideas’ from the actual writing, from what shapes and informs it: other words, music, soundmaking, image-looking, listening. In Reynold’s talk Toop’s writing was replaced by a refrain of Deleuze-Guattari jargon. All the scrupulously arranged references to ‘deterritorialisation’ attempted to scrutinise the subject of the talk as if it was motionless. Suddenly ‘the rhizomitisation of writing’ appeared like a nightmare anticipating some obscure surgical procedure on a subject that eventually was not there – because you can’t dissect what is alive and flees.
Toop’s writing always meant for me the freedom – as a writer – to actually leave aside Deleuze, or any theorist du jour as canonised frameworks of legitimisation, and to explore instead unexpected, incorrect and incidental references. In Toop’s words, to write of music arises out of a search into ‘uncollected archives, those that gather like loose sand in the unofficial corners of culture’ and ‘teeter dangerously on the brink of vanishing’. Not certainly the safety of the Deleuzeian idiom.
So, I would like to witness now to this writing, to the space of Toop’s writing.
Every time I enter it, it’s as if I found myself in the Pitt Rivers Museum after a major earthquake – first overwhelmed, then gradually attracted by an array of curious and mysterious objects and signs, whose function is not always clear but that I can spend time with re-arranging. And then: a breadth of vision, multiple pasts crashing into now, lost histories, debris, dust and charms. They all prompt the forming and re-forming of a disjointed self in the manner of ‘ethnographic self-fashioning’, which is inextricably tied – James Clifford showed it – to the process of writing.
This writing: the recurring clusters of splintered loops; the self-corroding prose toward the end of Sinister Resonance, consuming the space of anticipation and hesitation reflected in listening. The animated rhythms against a canvas of stillness. Memories arranged in a rhapsodic manner. This writing moves and can seem to lead nowhere, and what really matters is that we are there – inside – and it still speaks. Read the loosening up and syntactical surrender in Burning Fuse, last year’s landmark article on mellow soul in The Wire: read the locked groove toward the end of the article, reciting ‘I am thinking’ six times, six long and ticking times, until the thinking is un-thought and its timing gives way to a feel, makes a point for an exclusion.
This writing is an instrument of nowhere. An attempt – always forestalled, always reinstated – at reflecting what Jankélévitch called the charm of music. It resists paraphrasing. It points at freedom on the edge of a line. It cannot be canonised because it exists in metamorphosis. Toop’s ‘impure’ mode of writing mixes personal reverie, biography, accounts, descriptions, fragments and quotes, meanderings. It is born out of the erratic density of notebooks constructed around the sensing of a living person. It speaks a hybrid language, attuned to heteroglossia. It does not explain, judge, claim to give value, impose interpretation. A lot is hidden: losses, voids against which the words are even more present as they hover on the disintegrating boundary of a self, that’s constructed and destructed polyphonically. The gathering of these elements is fleeting and non-scientific and unpredictable. This writing exudes no uplifting or secure strategy: it wants to be contaminated, it listens closely, in all the details, to the off-track moments of singular stories. This writing is not arranged according to the linear structures of a theorist, but according to the singular cadenzas of a musician. Like Toop says, this writing is gathered from vanishing sources, ‘the small print of record sleeves; oral history picked up (like a sexually transmitted disease) in a motel or bar; the obsessive-compulsive lists of fanatics; the outgrowth of analysis, discourse, accumulating factoids, gossip and rumour that clusters around their core activity, the workings of sound and listening that we call music’. It is precarious, frayed because alive. It leaves me longing to be mesmerised to listen, it makes me want to write.
This writing shows that to write is arbitrary, but demands to construct the arbitrariness with rigour: a rigour true to one’s own life. If it has to do with understanding, it does so literally by standing under the layered substance of experience – which is not authority, but attention. It carries the responsibility of making a shape.
This writing hallucinates sounds into words.
‘We listen to feelings; we listen to music. Both torture us with their resistance to language’. This writing is tainted and fickle, just like any listening moment. It is not a crystal-clear system of analysis. It does not call for deciphering, it has no key or code. It wants to be read; it exists on its own and needs no other justification than its very existence. It wants you to say, ‘I want to be here’, an act of volition that constructs its own world and place: a leap of faith.
So in this writing I like to read the night and shades before this leap of faith, generating precarious and alluring constructions. As a reader, I like to believe that in those words lies the nocturnal agony of doubt and of beginning, from which the words – and I with them – can’t be healed. Although drenched in music, art, poetry, this writing has visited many places and known people who stray from what’s commonly regarded as ‘art’.
This writing unveils and covers sounds at once. In the spaces in-between I have encountered from time to time: distant percussions, ruffles, soft voices, a sigh; the afterimage of a painting recalled; ecstatic rhythms; stories told, reinvented and interconnected; dust and ashes of songs; the unbearable lashing of a silence in a room, in a place that – I knew this from the start – is many-whered.
In this volatile space it is a solace to think, like Seneca once said, that ‘to be everywhere is to be nowhere’. That’s all there is, and where all we are: in this sonorous writing of nowhere, and it’s plenty.
David Toop, Sinister Resonance, New York and London: Continuum, 2010
David Toop, ‘Burning Fuse’, The Wire. Adventures in Modern Music, n. 327, May 2011, pp. 30-35
Flannery O’Connor, ‘Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction’, in Mystery and Manners, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, p. 36
James Clifford, ‘On Ethnographic Self-Fashioning’, in The Predicament of Culture, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1988, pp. 92-113
Vladimir Jankélévitch, Music and the Ineffable, trans. Carolyn Abbate, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003