With the forthcoming release of two new albums Apparition Paintings and Field Recording And Fox Spirits on Room40, we had the pleasure of a conversation with UK artist David Toop. Toop is known for his ongoing work as an experimental musician and author having worked with the likes of Brian Eno, Max Eastley, John Zorn, as a (brief) member of The Flying Lizards and authored seminal books on music, like Ocean of Sound and Rap Attack as well as contributing journalism to the likes of The Wire. He is also currently Professor of Audio Culture and Improvisation at London College of Communication.
His solo material, which blurs the boundaries between sound art, musicality, electronics and field recordings, has been released on labels like Sub Rosa, Samadhisound and of course Room40. We took the opportunity to not only discuss his new albums (with contributions from Elaine Mitchener, Keiko Yamamoto, Yifeat Ziv, Rie Nakajima and Áine O’Dwyer), but also some of the many layers of meaning around it. In a wide ranging discussion, he was also keen to talk about the dilemma between his work as an author and making music, the effects of the pandemic for experimental musicians, artificial intelligence and Brian Wilson’s compositional structures.
Cyclic Defrost: Where are you now, and how’s everything over there?
David Toop: I’m in London, and I don’t know, everything is a bit strange. You know, we are in a kind of entering phase, waiting to see what’s going to happen next. I think in a way that’s even more difficult for many people than it was at the beginning. In some ways I really enjoyed aspects of this thing that started. You know, there’s some huge ongoing problems, and particularly for musicians or everyone that works in performance there isn’t seem to be an exit strategy nor any clear answers to how this is going to resolve. Unless there is this dependable vaccine developed. Although I’m less affected by that than many of my friends because I have many other things to do. It still has a huge psychological impact. You know, one of the things you do is travelling and performing. By this point, it feels pretty serious. Speaking from my own point of view, and the community that I’m a part of, it’s a serious issue. Of course there are many other serious issues. It’s a strange limbo feeling at the moment, some people are behaving as if everything is fine and people like me, because of my age, I’m still being very cautious and hardly going out.
Cyclic Defrost: Musicians and performers are going through difficult times. But there seems to be some sort of an effort by some institutions or countries to support what they are doing. Wondering what’s the situation with the experimental scene.
David Toop: That’s been a big issue here, some of the performers got some small support that has happened through this time, same as some venues. It’s barely enough to keep them surviving, but the longer it gets, the more difficult it becomes. It’s not an area that’s really recognised in this country so all the attention goes to the official cultural sectors. There’s been some acknowledgment on that recently, but even then it doesn’t really include the more experimental side of things. Because that is just not a known entity in this country.
Cyclic Defrost: Are the experimental performers not included with the official cultural sectors or academic areas that perhaps get some support?
David Toop: In many ways you could say that the scene here was quite healthy before all this happened, there were some great venues and a lot of public support and interest. A thriving scene in many respects and in many different fields. I would like to think that it will continue. Everyone is still here, you see their presence in social media, or hear about it by being in contact or whatever. But it’s no surprise that this stuff is marching, it always has been. In a way it’s not going backwards because this music was so much when I started out, it was just completely off the scale.
I think many people are doing inspiring things, but they are also a poor substitute for being in a room with other people. I guess most people know that, but you have to do something. Personally I would like to see more debates about what might be possible as an alternative, but maybe that debate doesn’t exist in a serious way because actually there are no real alternatives. I’ve heard suggestions from friends of mine, different approaches. I was writing an essay for a friend of mine, an artist called Carlos Casas, and he was saying that he was doing performances in Portugal for 1 person. Carlos is much more part of the art world, so this is the kind of thought you can entertain in the art world, that you would do a concert for 1 person. Because after all if you go to an exhibition in normal circumstances you might expect to find 2 or 3 people in the gallery, unless it’s a big blockbuster show, obviously. But for musicians to play for 1 person, how is that going to work? You’d have to play continuously for 12 hours to get an audience of I don’t know.. 36 people !
I think I’m as much at fault as anybody else here because once you’ve been doing this for a very long time, even though a lot of your practice is about dismantling expectations and orthodoxes, it’s still very difficult to kind of completely find a new format. And I’ve experimented with new formats. But I think whereas you have a lot of new online formats like Tik Tok and so on, which are great in their own way for people that like it, it’s not a substitute for people getting together in the same room, which is exactly what we can’t do. We can struggle and people come up with inspired alternatives, but it’s not enough, and the economics of it doesn’t work.
There has been some support from Arts Council, but certainly not from government! One other thing: something I’ve been talking to a lot of people quite recently is, if you are not in contact with people and you are working out in the world, not travelling, etcetera, it becomes really difficult to get new ideas. I find entries in my diary where it says: ‘I have no new ideas’. I’ve been writing non stop since April because everything at mine was cancelled, but then people were saying to me ‘would you write something instead?’. I actually didn’t want to do any writing this year, but I did it continuously from April until today. But it’s exhausting because I don’t really have any great new ideas. So I’m just drawing over what I’ve been generating over the past years. And it’s getting very tough, because without that stimulation you are like a monk basically.
Cyclic Defrost: I’m wondering if we could be talking of a more complex or elevated form of expression when interacting with someone as opposed to performing in solitude? Is that interaction necessary?
David Toop: For me it’s more than necessary. Improvisation is at the heart of what I do, and collaboration is at the heart of what I do. For me, performing live is to some extent an end in itself but it’s also like a research situation, a laboratory situation in which I’m developing techniques and instruments and new ideas while an audience is watching me and listening to me. That makes it a very heightened atmosphere, you are constantly taking that chance of developing these new things, and then inevitably some of those new things are incorporated into a recording situation where you are more or less alone, and no one is spying on you, and you have the opportunity to try things and rework them if they don’t work, or discard them if they don’t work.
Many of the ideas in this record come from things I’ve discovered over the last few years in terms of the kind of objects or materials I’ve worked with, and how I’ve worked with them in a live performance. And those live performances may be very different. It depends who I’m working with, and where, and how I feel like. So I take different setups to different gigs. In a way you could say that it’s a fragmented personality. I’m not just a guy that shows up with a tenor saxophone. I might show up with an electric guitar, or a lab steel guitar, playing a very loud set or I might show up with pieces of paper and, bone conduction loud speakers and play an incredibly quiet set, but to me it’s not a fragmented personality, to me it’s a normal personality that’s allowing itself these different ways of working. And then I can bring them together in the recording.. I was gonna say recording studio but I don’t have one, but you know what I mean, in the conceptual recording studio which is kind of in your mind in a way.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you think of writing about music as a type of literature?
David Toop: Well it can be, yeah. Literature is one of the things that is central to my life, I’m kind of serious about writing, which is not to say that what I write is literature, whatever literature is. I’ve been reading a lot since March. Every day I’m reading three different books at least, one in the morning, one in the afternoon when I have a break, and then one at night, plus some other books sometimes. I’ve read a staggering amount, and of course ideas are being generated by that, and it’s also helpful for my writing. I would say it’s one of the most important things for me in terms of keeping my brain alive.
Cyclic Defrost: You can still go through the phase of a writer’s block when writing about music, I’m thinking about this as a reason of it being an art form.
David Toop: Absolutely, I’ve been through writers block before. You could say I had that phase at the beginning of this year, the feeling of ‘OK, I just don’t want to write anymore’ (laughs). And then events didn’t work out that way. If I wasn’t writing now.. I’m doing some collaborations, online collaborations with music, and academic work but, basically my main activity has been writing. One of the things I’ve noticed is that my writing becomes quite fluent again, just from daily practice, constantly writing. Which is what it used to be back in 1980’s or 1990’s when I wrote full time. It’s just one of the things that marks my day nowadays. Some time reading, some time writing, some time making music. And from time to time also painting.
Cyclic Defrost: Congratulations on Apparition Paintings, it’s coming in a few weeks time on Room40. I noticed that the album had glimpses of beauty, and felt a contrast with what’s happening nowadays. As if the process that led to this work didn’t start this year.
David Toop: That’s absolutely right, I recorded it last year between about March and June. More or less a year ago. And it was a very different feeling then. I was incredibly busy when I was recording, travelling a lot, a book coming out, my 70th birthday, I was in the U.S., you know.. I was all over the place. And recording in between.
What you say about this word beauty is interesting, because I felt there was definitely something to do with age, in a sense of intensification of my perception of life, and multiplicity of life. And the wondrousness of life. From the perspective of accumulating years, your priorities changing. What you appreciate in life also changes. I think that was very much my feeling at the time when I was making the record. I wouldn’t say it was an entirely positive feeling, because the politics of the recent years had been incredibly disturbing and frightening, making you angry and so on. Just in terms of the way I felt with what I was engaged in my life, I felt intensity, that is the word to describe it. I think that is maybe what you are hearing. And also, maybe there are quite big contrasts in certain tracks, between the roughness and chaotic feeling if you like, and then this more conventional..
Cyclic Defrost: In ‘Ocean Of Sound’ you were talking about heightened listening, I keep wondering if there is a certain attraction towards the difference between a quiet sound and its opposite.
David Toop: I record mostly at home. I mean some pieces or elements were recorded in different places, but mostly everything happens at home. And I can’t make much noise here, so I’m monitoring everything on headphones. I’m listening in a very detailed way, I’m hearing some frequencies that you wouldn’t normally hear, some movements of sounds, dynamic relationships, very detailed textures of sounds that you don’t hear if you are listening, unless you are listening very loud on a great system and you are very focused. Those things are very important to me within the texture of music. And I think those switches from these rough textures into things that are much more luxurious, like going from a texture that you feel you could almost cut yourself with to a string section, that switch is very interesting to me. Taking you from one world to another world, very quickly. In a way I feel that it’s a reflection of life, the life we live know. But it’s also a reflection of my thinking and the way I perceive the world. For example, I love big string sections, love movie soundtracks, 70’s soul with great complex beautiful arrangements, and now I love these very scratchy abrasive sounds, so the question is: ‘Could I bring them together?’.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you enjoy that contrast?
David Toop: I enjoy the contrast, but it’s something to do with my own personal development in a way. Something to do with whether I can bring the whole of myself to a piece of work, whether every piece of work is sort of partial. Do you understand what I mean? If I have all of these contradictions and contrasts within myself, can I bring them together in a piece of music, or do they always have to remain separate?
Cyclic Defrost: Can we push the limits of our perception through sound? What about the constant quest of ‘how to listen’. What do you think of it now compared to the truth that you knew, let’s say back in the 80’s?
David Toop: I think so, yeah. I mean, in the 80’s, if you wanna talk about the 80’s, I was much more fixated on music, to the extent that it completely dominated my life. Mostly I’m talking about listening to music, or writing about music. From the mid 80’s onwards, before that I was still working as a musician, then I went into this full time writing thing. I think over the last 20 or 25 years, certainly since writing Ocean of Sound, I found a way of listening which is much more equal in the sense that it treats all sounds as equal, whatever that sound is. It’s not the same to me, because sounds have very different sources, they can be social or they can be biological or not, you know. The way I hear them and the way I think about them, that comes across this record, there are certain tracks that are build up from field recordings or whatever you wanna call field recordings, and they mix together with things that you might describe as much more musical, but to me they are more or less the same.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you think that every work of art is an involuntary autobiography, would you apply this to music?
David Toop: Sure, you can’t help things coming through and speak about yourself in ways that are beyond your own comprehension. I can’t know what impression somebody has of me from listening to this record, but I know that I’m revealing things. I’m revealing certain things deliberately, same as with my writing. I’m revealing things deliberately but at the same time I’m revealing things in an involuntary way, as you say. Even the most mediocre piece of music, that seemingly has no personality at all, is revealing something about the person who made it. Sometimes not a very flattering portrait but.. (laughs)
In a way, with this record, I was pushing certain things. Some tracks, you could listen to them and you would say that it’s self indulgent to include certain things, ‘Why are you including this? This is not experimental music!’ Or ‘Why include this, it doesn’t fit with everything else’. For me it’s a more complete picture of the contradictions with myself. I like so many different kinds of music, and so many kinds of music I guess that other people find incomprehensible.
Cyclic Defrost: You’ve said there is more than one instrument that you’ve been using constantly over the past 50 years. Could you tell me about one of these, and why do you think there is that connection with it?
David Toop: I have this guitar distortion pedal, which is called a Rush Pep Box, it’s a real vintage pedal, a very extreme distortion pedal, and I’ve had that since 1970, exactly 50 years. I got so interested in this pedal that I wrote an article about it, and I tracked down the guy who invented it. Sadly he died now, but he came to my place and I interviewed him and wrote a piece about this. That pedal appears on a piece called ‘She Fell Asleep Somewhere Outside The World’ which is a vocal by a friend of mine, Keiko Yamamoto. Keiko recorded 2 songs for me, where she lives in the southwest of England, in the countryside in Devon, she was sitting outside with her Zoom recorder. And she recorded these very personal songs, like lullabies. She sent them to me, there was a lot of wind noise that I had to get rid off, but there was this very strong sense of a woman singing to herself, at night, outside, in the dark. And I wanted to create this world around her which is like in a way a huge world, but still keep sense of her singing this kind of lullaby to herself. The track begins more or less with this huge distortion sound which is this extreme pedal. Because of that sound I think you feel the fragility and the gentleness of her song, and then she is surrounded by field recordings that I made in China and in Thailand, all kinds of stuff are going on, keyboard apps, all sorts of stuff. But this sound is very important, I think it’s also important to me because it makes a kind of continuity, I’m always changing my ideas, always changing the materials that I use, and the way I do things. But in some respects there is this long continuity which stretches right back to my adult life. I can say ‘yeah, I’ve used that pedal when I played at a little theatre club in 1971, and also with Keiko’s song in 2020. So that’s important to me, it’s kind of personal history which is not necessarily important to anybody else, and certainly not evident to anybody else unless I talk about it like I’m talking about it to you. But to me it creates extra layers to pieces which are already quite there anyway.
Cyclic Defrost: Does the significance of these recordings from the 1970’s change throughout time? I might be thinking about hauntology now.
David Toop: Well, maybe my view of hauntology is different to others but, I certainly think that the notion of archives is very important. Archives in the sense of memory or storage system for memories. Definitely one of the things about this record is that it’s full of memories in different ways. I think you could probably tell that from the titles. It’s also a reflection of people I’m working with now, people who were contributing to the record, are all people I’m working with now except for one recording, which is a recording by my old friend Paul Burwell who’s been dead for quite a few years now. But to work with that recording which was something we always talked about when he was alive, which I never did, and it’s very important to me. You could use that term, there could be a very strong hauntological element to this music. But the other thing I would say is that I don’t think it has that sense of nostalgia that a lot of self consciously hauntological music does. That guitar sound I was talking about was made last year, it wasn’t’ made in 1971, it’s just the pedal itself that makes the sound. In a way it’s a celebration that a vintage guitar pedal can survive that long, being taken around the world and still alive. In a way you are talking about life and dead.
Cyclic Defrost: What do you think was the hardest part to overcome to dedicate yourself to the arts?
David Toop: The most difficult thing to overcome would have been not to dedicate myself to the arts. If I had managed to do that, I might have had an easier life but that was impossible. My problem, like everybody else is always the economic problem. How can you survive? And, how can you survive and keep your integrity, without compromising yourself. That has always been a constant struggle. Now I’m much more settled, I have an academic job though I’m semi retired from that. I have income from doing the things I want to do, whereas there were many times in my life with no income at all, being incredibly poor, or where I had income from doing things I didn’t want to do, which can be quite corrosive or soul stirring. And, of course everybody else here who is younger than me, I see them going through the same struggles, and trying to deal with them, and in a way there is nothing you can do because it’s a condition of life. If you work in this field, and you are working with ideas and forms that are strange for people, or difficult, or not immediately accessible, you have to accept you are gonna have quite a tough life financially.
I mean there are many other difficulties of course. I think one of the struggles was a conflict I used to have between writing and making music. The desire to make music was very strong, but then the desire to write was very strong, and they always seemed to be in competition with each other. And at a certain point I stopped playing music because I was in my mid 30s and I just couldn’t take this kind of lack of money anymore. This constant poverty you know. So I became a full time writer, and the only way I could do that was more or less to stop playing music entirely for a time. And that was, I would say very destructive to me, destructive to me and destructive to people around me. Because I wasn’t being true to myself, and that is a very dangerous thing to do.
In the last 10 years I’ve worked very consciously on resolving these dilemmas and finding a way to bring these activities closer. I feel much happier now, and much more settled, but as I said to you earlier it’s been thrown out of balance by the pandemic.
Cyclic Defrost: Perhaps you could share some nice memories of both worlds. What are some of your most memorable experiences performing live?
David Toop: I always used to be very dissatisfied with live performances. I felt that throughout my 20s and 30s and also when I came back to performing, in my 40s, I was never satisfied. And I think in the last few years I’ve reached a point where I feel incredibly happy with the people I’m working with. Quite a lot of different people. I feel quite satisfied with what I do. So there is a lot of performances I’ve done in my last 2 or 3 years that I feel are very memorable for me.
I don’t listen back to them and think ‘Oh my God it’s terrible’ which is what I used to do. And in a sense I feel I’m fortunate that I’ve lived long enough to be able to get to that point where I can be reasonably happy with my performances!
Cyclic Defrost: And collaborations?
David Toop: I love all the people I’m working with now, you see some of them on this record. Rie Nakajima is on this record, I’ve worked with Rie a lot, and I learned so much from her. She has an incredible mind, and an incredible facility with materials and movements and making things happen and working with sounds and so on. Very inspiring.
But then, there is an ex-student of mine on this record, a singer called Yifeat Ziv. Up until this year I’ve been running improvisation classes in the university where I work, I’ve done that for 20 years, and Yifeat was on the last class before I stopped. She was a singer, doing her masters, and everybody started playing and I immediately liked her. She is really experienced, she knows absolutely what she is doing, she is brilliant. And at the end of that class she came to say thank you, and I said ‘you have a lot of experience, don’t you?’ And she looked at me very surprised and said she has been working as a singer in various settings in Israel, and then decided to do this masters and explore sound. I invited her to sing on this record, and what she does is amazing.
But you know, that’s typical. I’ve done an interview the other day and one of the questions was ‘What was it like to work with Brian Eno, Thurston Moore and Ryuichi Sakamoto’. And I sat and thought about how to answer. In the end I wrote ‘Ah, famous people!’. You know, it’s very difficult when you get a question like that. Obviously it’s different working with famous people, it’s crazy to say it’s the same. It’s not the same, it’s different because they are famous. It’s not different musically, but to me, although I recognise the differences, I don’t value any person more than the other. Somebody that is completely unknown I can learn a huge amount from. I could really learn a lot from working with them. They have no reputation, and no one heard of them, but it’s an amazing thing to be able to work with them. And then yeah of course it’s amazing to be able to work with Thurston or Sakamoto, those things are great too.
The year before last Thurston and I did this road trip in California. With his partner too, Eva Prinz, we did this road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles down the Pacific Coast Highway, because they knew it was something I always wanted to do since I was a teenager reading beatnik writers like Kerouac or Henry Miller, not that Henry Miller was a beatnik but, we played at the Henry Miller library in Big Sur and there must have been about 6 people in the audience. You are asking me my memorable gigs, and that was incredible, we were outside, and it was warm, and the insects were chirping, and it was so incredibly beautiful. You are not thinking about famous people when you are doing that, you are thinking ‘this is just an amazing thing to be able to do’.
Cyclic Defrost: You’ve been everywhere and interviewed a lot of people that I admire. What are the most memorable interviews that you’ve made as a journalist?
David Toop: I think one of the most memorable ones, partly because it was really really terrible was a phone interview with Brian Wilson. He was someone I’ve idolised since I was a teenager, I absolutely love, not all his music but his great music. In fact one of the tracks on Apparition Paintings is kind of a homage to Brian Wilson. I wouldn’t say it’s a Beach Boys track, but it’s a guitar instrumental, called ‘All I Desire’. It’s because I’m kind of obsessed with 2 guitar instrumental songs on Pet Sounds, one of which is called Pet Sounds, and the other one Let’s Go Away For Awhile.
Anyway, I interviewed Brian Wilson in the 80’s, when he was under the control of this bogus psychologist Eugene Landy and he was in a very bad state. And it was a phone interview, which can be difficult anyway. And it was a kind of nightmare, and I was sweating you know, if he was a person I didn’t care about then, it was fine, it could have been a disaster and I’d gave up. But it was the opportunity of interviewing this person I idolised, idolised in a sense of his musical abilities. I can still have that feeling that I had during that interview, of trying to get him to talk, trying to get things from him that were sort of coherent, and trying to keep my mind on track. Because what happens on those interviews is that your mind goes, suddenly you can’t think anymore, you’ve lost it completely, and I was trying to keep myself together to do this interview.
Cyclic Defrost: Were you able to?
David Toop: Well, kind of! In fact the interview was much more interesting when I listened back to it than what I thought when I was doing it. At the time I thought he was saying nothing, but he was saying some things. It definitely wasn’t an enjoyable interview at all. But then again, I had many interviews where you just talk and it’s just a really interesting exchange, and you are privileged because you are able to exchange ideas with someone that otherwise it would be very difficult to have access to.
Cyclic Defrost: I keep on wondering what would have happened if he managed to finish ‘Smile’ back then in the way that he wanted. Do you think it would’ve changed the course of music?
David Toop: I think it would have had a big effect, yes. And I think because of the way things were recorded, he created a very difficult situation for himself, working in a modular way in a time where everything was on tape, also working in this very professional setup, with top session players. It’s very interesting. I’m kind of obsessed watching those Pet Sounds sessions audios on YouTube. You hear him running a session, and you hear the musicians talking, you hear the way the arrangements fit together, even then what he was doing was very complex. But he wasn’t really working so much in that modular way then, where he would make 5 or 6 alternate sections which were maybe 20 seconds long, and then he’d have to figure out what to do with them all, mix them all differently, how to edit this one, which one to choose..
I think even if the drugs and the emotional situation and the break down hadn’t been a fact, it still would have been very difficult for him working in that way. You know, we can do it easily now because we can see everything on a screen. Very often I’m working in that modular way, on a screen, and I have this nightmare in front of me of all these different sections and very often I work quickly intuitively in that way. But I can see what I’m doing, I can move things and so on. With him, he had to keep it all in his head, because it was all on tape. And there was also this immense time pressure, which he pushed against enormously by making things like Good Vibrations and spending a huge amount of time working in this modular way, or Heroes And Villains. And yeah, it was justified by the results, and sales and all. But there was still pressure. By the time he got to that point it was pretty much impossible.
I was an avid collector of Smile bootlegs until they kind of remade it and then I went to see that live show, and in a way it was extraordinary to hear it done, it made me think ‘you had to wait until the technology was there’. The way that you could have that many musicians, playing that many instruments, to be able to play string sections with keyboards, all that stuff, none of it was available. It’s just amazing.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you think having these limitations in technology back then, is like the opposed example of Kraftwerk not having the limitations at the time of Autobahn?
David Toop: That is part of the way we work now, you know. I made this album doing a lot of different things: travelling, working on a book, a festival, lot of gigs, writing, and yet I was able to make this album, because I was able to start working on a Saturday and do quite a lot of work. Different things, things that don’t connect up, things I haven’t predicted. Whereas if you are in that Brian Wilson situation, you are in the studio, you are paying session players some high rates, and you have to choose beforehand. You have to think ‘Ok, I want 2 accordions and I want a guy that can play bass harmonica, then I want a percussionist who can play vibraphone’. You know, this or that, or a double bass player who could play with electric bass, and you gotta’ imagine all of this in your mind before you even start, then you call all these people, and it has to work in a matter of a few hours.
He is also working on probably 2 tracks or something, he has to leave a track free for the vocals, if something doesn’t work he’s gotta call everybody back and do it differently, obviously he was able to do that at certain points, but mostly the thing is fixed. Then you realise how astonishing these arrangements are, which is so weird for pop music. And that is why it’s so fascinating to watch those sessions of Pet Sounds, he was very determined.
I can give you an example of it, I did this track, the other track with Keiko singing, a track called Suddenly The World Had Dropped Away, I recorded a nylon string acoustic guitar part, not for that track but for something else but thought it’d work on this track. And it was in a completely different key from Keiko’s voice, and I didn’t care. I just liked it. I took all of my mixes into the studio where I work, Dave Hunt’s studio, place where I worked since I was in The Flying Lizards. And at the same time I arranged for Yifeat to come and do her vocal. And Yifeat is a very schooled musician, and Dave Hunt is a very schooled recording engineer. Anyway, I was checking through the mixes to see if they worked on his system, and we got to that track, and Yifeat said ‘that guitar really disturbs me’, and Dave said ‘yeah it disturbs me too’, and at that point I’m prepared to compromise. Very often I’m not prepared to compromise, but on this case, I thought that if it disturbs them, it will also disturb a lot of other people, and they won’t be able to hear this track. So I thought harp would work instead, so I contacted Áine O’Dwyer, and she listened to it, and she thought she could do it on concept harp, in which case it’d have that romantic soft feeling, almost like Alice Coltrane or something. But instead she chose this steel string harp, which is quite violent and it was kind of perfect, because she was working very closely when she recorded it at her place, very closely to what Keiko was singing, and it had this really cutting quality to it, which the original nylon string guitar didn’t. And I thought it was great. I had that luxury of being able to completely change pieces in that way, whereas back then in Brian Wilson’s time, it wasn’t really possible.
Cyclic Defrost: In Ocean Of Sound you said: ‘our attempts to reach impossible collaborations are nothing compared to the speculative power of machines.’ Have you thought of the concept of singularity in technology and its possible implications with artificial intelligence and music composition? At what point does this turn into science fiction?
David Toop: Well, in some respects it already turned into science fiction. As an example, one of the keyboards that I played in ‘She Fell Asleep Somewhere Outside The World’, this vintage keyboard, I was playing it on a phone app (laughs). If you’ve said that it’d be possible to play this rare vintage keyboard from the 1970’s on a phone, that would have been incomprehensible some time ago.
It’s funny that you mention AI, this week I’ve been struggling to write an essay, partly I’ve been struggling because of the heatwave (laughs), but also because I’ve been finding it very difficult to write. I worked this part of a project in Oslo at the Academy Of Music there. They were working on a project of using software algorithms with live improvisation. So, a machine that would learn certain things and, in theory, improvise with the improviser. So I was invited into this project as a kind of commentator / observer. It was very interesting, and great to go to Oslo, and spend time with people so interested in these things. And talk about the things or problems that this would raise, what it would do and what it couldn’t do. The project was supposed to finish in September, but of course it was completely disrupted by the pandemic, we had to cancel a meeting earlier this year. So I was asked to write an essay, like a conclusion. But I found it almost impossible to do and partly it’s because at a time like this, what you want to be doing is to be playing with people, what you don’t want to be doing is playing with algorithms. I find it very difficult to get enthusiastic about this idea, and I know that other people involved in this project have felt very similar things. What they want to be doing is play gigs with people. If you think about these things in relations to developments in AI which can not threaten all of this, in terms of what we do..
Obviously music is being made, and will be made by AI, and it affects just about anything that you can think of, in a funny kind of way. You can see that the present conditions might have accelerated that, we now understand that many jobs can be done remotely. The age-old idea that for something to happen people have to gather together.. this can also happen from a distance. I think it’s very disturbing for a number of reasons, partly because of the effects that it will have on employment, and especially if you think about what the consequences are. And we had this situation going on since March, where a lot of people lost their jobs, or they are only partially busy. What do you do with these people?
There are right wing forces which love the idea of AI because supposedly it’s a neutral force, a post-ideological force, and that is really disturbing. I mean we have a guy in this country, one of the main advisors of the government, Dominic Cummings, and he wears things on his t-shirt about AI, he is obsessed with it, obsessed with the science fiction ideas about it. In a way it’s interesting how these ideas have been taken out by extreme right wing people, they see it as a controllable future. And to me it’s disturbing, for me to write this essay, I have to think how we are colluding or collaborating in some way with this development of AI by working on these funded research projects. They are very popular, I’m actually invited onto another project in Denmark, and there was another one that I was a little bit involved with from California, that originated in Sweden. In the Northern countries they are fascinated by this idea of whether we can use machine learning in an improvised music context.
Cyclic Defrost: And the dark side of it, who is the creator of the art by these algorithms. We might not be so far away from Isaac Asimov’s ‘Bicentennial Man’ story.
David Toop: Yeah, and you can hear music now which is computer generated, it’s very obvious how easy it was going to be as soon as media was invented. So, if you could create some algorithms for some sort of soothing piano music, why do you need a piano player to play it? And this music is like free music, so the ethical implications are quite disturbing. If there is no live music, then it’s possible for people to say that live music isn’t really important. I mean, live music is very strongly regulated by things like licenses and so on. And all of this could be replaced. I’m getting very dystopian now, to be honest I tend to be a very reasonably optimistic person, in a way it gets hard to keep working on new things if you are a complete pessimistic or lacking in hope, although those 2 things are different, pessimism and hopelessness. There are many disturbing things happening at the moment, that is just one of them.
Cyclic Defrost: Imagine the pandemic is over and you are free to choose a place where to go first.
David Toop: I choose Cafe OTO, and sit with some of my friends. Just talk, drink tea. And I think that would be amazing. Because there is a real community built up around venues like that, and they are not just venues, they are kind of a way of life in a sense. You go and if it’s a busy night you can see 20 people, friends and acquaintances, and you talk with all of them. It’s incredibly stimulating. John Butcher released an album on Cafe OTO’s label a couple of weeks ago, I downloaded it and listened to it and thought: ‘What’s John doing’, so I wrote him an email to ask what was going on. He said he’d become quite isolated, he said he could have gone and talked to people but for some reason he didn’t, and I totally understood that, and we had an email exchange and it was very nice. John is the kind of person that I miss seeing. We are not gonna necessarily sit and talk for hours, but we talk and interesting things come up. Lots of my old friends, also my new and younger friends, that is what I would do.