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Green Light in the City

David Toop interview

8 December 07 words: Amanda Young
'Galleries are a nightmare! No gallery is designed for sound. Mostly, they have high ceilings and lots of glass'



David Toop could be characterized as a sound artist, musician and journalist. He approaches the sonic from every possible direction. He has a diverse body of work that includes improvisation, sound installations, pop music production, music for television, theatre and dance. Since finishing education in visual arts in 1970, he spent many years working as a music journalist and critic for The Wire, The Face, The Times & The New York Times. He is the author of four books including Rap Attack, an engaging insight into rap music and Haunted Weather, a personal journey into the sonic. During his spare time he conducts a laptop orchestra, and has appeared on Top of the Pops with his band The Flying Lizards. David Toop came to Broadway cinema and media centre to lecture to Nottingham Trent University Fine Art students.


You previously studied fine art. What prompted your shift from visual arts to working with sound?
I was at college doing painting and was having to working on the bar at the Round House, in London. One Christmas it held an ice show and at night when the theatre was closed, some of us started playing on the stage. In this crazy cold environment, friends were invited along and it became this sprawling band. We just used to play all night, by the ice. So that became a really interesting situation that started developing. At college I wanted to work with multi media, projections and sound, but it was still very early for this and the college couldn’t support me so I walked out and I started playing music. I had met this drummer and we both had the same level of seriousness, the same level of intensity, with what we wanted to do. We both played in bands that kept falling apart and in the end we thought we should just play, the two of us. And that’s what we did for the next ten years!

How did you see music and sound sit within an art context back then?
It was still very new for people to work with sound then, nobody new how to talk about it. Lots of musicians came out of Art College but that was something separate, people studied art, played in bands and the bands became successful. I think if I had had more freedom and encouragement I would’ve explored those initial ideas.


You curated the Sonic Boom exhibition for the Hayward gallery, what was your approach?
The Hayward had put on themed shows; art and fashion, art and politics and they wanted to do one on sound. I thought, you have all these sound artists that have been around for years and you’ve got new people coming through too, you could put them together in the same show and then you’ve got this generational thing, which could create a really dynamic situation. I felt that most of the sound art shows that had been done before explained the history of sound art and told you how to approach the work. I really wanted to do a show that was very experiential and very immersive. One where you didn’t need an explanation, were you just went in and it hit you.

Why did you choose artists like Brian Eno and Thurston Moore?
To make people aware that there was very specific sound work going on and that there was a historical tradition and contemporary take on it too. I think sonic boom needed that sense of bigger works, which had more impact and that were more engaging. The point is if you have some one like Brian Eno in a show you can get a page in the Evening Standard, people will want to interview him. It’s invaluable really. I think that’s one of the things about getting into curating, you start having to think in that way. Managing budgets, and thinking about art, and very quickly you realise its not just about the artwork.

Galleries tend to be very aurally flat, how do you go about presenting work within these kinds of environments?
Galleries are a nightmare! No gallery is designed for sound. Mostly, they have high ceilings and lots of glass. It’s all flat, reflective surfaces. They very rarely have any way of dividing the work properly. In the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol, I was given a room to make a group show, but people don’t think of the problems that come with that, the sound goes everywhere. So you have to say, ok, I’m going to work with this idea. I have to make sure everyone is happy, that everyone knows about it. I’m not going to get someone that is going to say, I can’t do this situation, after they start installing their work. You have to treat it like you are making one big instrument or a huge sound piece.


Thinking about the acoustics of space and how much this affects the sound quality, where would be your ideal place for exhibiting sonic work?

I think one of the best ideas is an exhibition they have in Berlin called Sonambiente, where they just use different spaces, abandoned factories or whatever is available at the time. Berlin is full of those kinds of spaces. Then you can have complete separation between every sound and you can have spaces that have more character. Site-specific work is one of the best approaches to it, but that’s in an ideal world. Most of the time people say, do you want to do an exhibition and then here’s the situation. You either say yes or no.

What is your experience of ipod culture, sonic walks and the use of headphones in artworks?
I think Janet Cardiff’s audio walk was one of the pioneering works in that field. You picked up a discman from White Chapel library with a sound track that guides you round the streets. It was quite influential and still is, developing the growth of environmental sound recording and how to deal with that as a performative medium or something that can be seen as an installation rather than it just being a form of documentation.

How do you feel about cataloguing sound?
Why would you want to catalogue everything that exists? The idea of conservation, as the word suggests, has a conservative side to it. And there does come a point where that can step over to conservatism which is very anti the future, anti technology, anti this and anti that. This happens all because the past was supposed to be better. That comes out of desperately trying to preserve phenomenon, that in their nature, slip away, they have no permanence. In a way it’s a desperate quest. I’m not anti-conservation; I’m quite the opposite. I am just wary of some of the attitudes it can generate, which can be very oppressive, and very restrictive. If you are constantly thinking, this has to be documented, this mustn’t disappear, your not actually living in the present, you’re thinking about what you can keep from the past, to save in the future. You’re not actually where you really are.

You spent time in China working on a piece called Beijing Water Writing, how was that?
The British Council was moving to China and they did a project called Sound and the City taking over British artists to communicate this idea of sound. I recorded in various locations, and created montages. They got a building for me, behind Tiananmen Square. It was a fantastic experience. The soundscape is incredible! If you go to parks there’s a huge amount of activity. You get lots of people close together playing different kinds of music and then you get ballroom dancing groups, dancing side by side. One group is listening to the tango, and the other is listening to the waltz, on little tape machines. I don’t know how they keep in time! So you have this weird mix of sound, people playing old folk songs, people listening to Chinese opera and people doing old-fashioned street cries. Then you get contemporary stuff, shops advertising loops of techno beats or something and it all just mixes together. The old people keep pigeons and attach whistles to the their tails, so you encounter flocks of pigeons flying around making this eerie whistling sound. A lot of people keep birds and insects for their songs. You see people walking along with birdcages meeting up with their friends and hang the birdcages from the trees whilst sitting and playing games. There is this tradition in China, of keeping insects, and putting them in cages around the garden when you have guests. There are specialists that can tune the insects by dropping wax on their wings, so you can have a whole orchestra of insects.

Is there a sound that you ever feel nostalgic about, a sound that you would re-visit again and again if you could?
I’m very interested in the sound of rooms. Because they are very elusive, its very difficult to describe and very difficult to record. The components are very subtle. Certain sounds always fascinate me, like creaking floors. That’s a great one because that takes you back to childhood, when creaking floors are frightening. And then your teenage years, when you’re trying to sneak in, late at night, when you’re really drunk. In a way you get to know a map of your house, and the stairs. Or very personal sounds like my dog sleeping. Just the way your environment builds up a sense of who you are.

David Toop talked at Broadway Media Centre 2 November 2007

David Toop website

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