Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener

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All of us, or should I say those of us equipped from the beginning with the faculty of hearing, begin as eavesdroppers in darkness, hearing muffled sounds from an external world into which we have yet to be born.

The Mediumship of the Listener

Four and a half months after conception we begin to hear. This is the first of our senses to function: hearing dominates amniotic life and yet after birth its importance is overtaken by seeing. Sound, which had been absolute and causeless in the womb, becomes something understood to happen as the result of. The enjoyment a child takes in banging things together is the enjoyment of this discovery: first there is no sound, and then — bang! If they lack a cause, then our need is to invent one. Places are saturated with unverifiable atmospheres and memory and these are derived as much from sound as any other sensation.

Although this book is more about listening than it is about music, in the first section I list sounds and recordings of music that connect me with that presentiment of reaching back or forward over hidden far distance to hear echoes of an unverifiable past. Some of these recordings have never been released in digital formats, so I listen to them on vinyl.

When the stylus connects with the surface of the record the crackle of this contact ushers in a ghost of time, even before music has begun. Like the cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig heard by Virginia Woolf, this is a transformative sound, a sound that dispels for a moment the visual, tactile reality of the present. In the amniotic ocean, all of us are unified by the furtive yet helpless condition of eavesdropping, unable to identify what we hear when its operation is enacted in another space, entirely beyond our experience as unborn beings.

Am I hearing things? Is there anybody there? I began a new phase of enquiry by asking such hypothetical questions. Why, for example, are the various modalities of sound — from silence to noise — associated so frequently with disquiet, uncertainty and fear, with childhood terrors and a horror of the unknown? At the same time, many people seem to be oblivious to noise and resistant to silence. The two positions seem contradictory, but are they inextricably linked? A duck hears also. Is listening more attentive than hearing, or is it the other way around?

Listening may be executed with effort yet result in nothing being heard, whereas hearing may begin as instinct and end in Le Sacre du Printemps. The point is that all hearing individuals are open to sounds at all times.

Professor David Toop

There is shuteye, but no shutear. Our reasons for deciding to listen, or learning to hear, may range from survival to poetry, from sexual desire to jealous desperation, from curiosity to snooping with malice. Developing our listening abilities in order to gain a deeper understanding of complex passages of sound from the entire auditory world — this is a decision that involves a rejection of cultural norms. I had been thinking more deeply about sound and silence, attempting to separate out the experience of hearing everyday sounds from the act of listening to music.

Listening more intently to those microscopic sounds, atmospheres and minimal acoustic environments that we call silence, led me to examine more closely the subtle perceptual entwinement of our senses. I kept notes in a journal, recording ordinary events.

Sinister Resonance : David Toop :

In detail, at an emotional as well as a perceptual level, what was I hearing as I walked the dog in local woodland, or listened to the nocturnal murmurs of our house? A pleasurable intensity of sensation grew out of this practice. For some years I had been conscious that my own ways of seeing had atrophied. I wanted to look again, with the same attention to detail that came naturally when I was an art student in my teens, before music and sound took over.

As I walked through the galleries, paced by time and broken time, floorboards creaked and echoed under the pressure of my footsteps.

Life On The Inside

One particular work in the collection began to link all these disparate threads. The Eavesdropper is one of his early genre scenes, one of a series of six works on the same theme. What all of them show is a moment of surreptitious listening, a prolonged instant of collusion between the central figure within the painting and the person looking at the painting. This led me to consider sounds as phenomena that are difficult to control or subdue, signals that may seem to come from nowhere, or an unknown source, then fade and die.

In many circumstances, sound and silence are uncanny. That may be because we live in a visuocentric culture, so sound seems disturbingly intangible, indescribable or inexplicable by comparison with what we can see, touch and hold. It may also be a reaction to noise pollution, through which the rarity and unfamiliarity of clear listening environments can attach strange associations to quiet places or odd sounds.

On the day I finished revising the first draft of this book I read an interview with an American band, Animal Collective. For cinema of such reach and ambition, it was revolutionary.

Their cumulative emotional effect is overwhelming; the question of whether one or other of them is music, noise, ambient sound, real music or good music is hardly an issue. A line was cast into the dark, a search for similar memories of this emotional affect from my own childhood, particularly my acute fear of strange sounds heard within eerie silences, those things that go bump in the night. Looking at Dutch paintings of the early modern period stirred a realization: many of these painters were representing sounds, noise, silences and moments of listening through visual means.

In other words, they were using one of the only means available to record auditory events for future centuries to decode. From that point I began to listen more closely to visual media from all periods. This unexpected sensation of clairaudience, of hearing inaudible sounds, either from remote history or recent times, struck me as uncanny, as if I could suddenly hear the grass growing or listen to the inner thoughts of a stranger. The thought is not so strange. All of these paintings in the Wallace Collection were silent recordings of auditory events, some more silent than others.

Sound haunts their silence as a spectre of history that can never be heard in full, yet its presence is buried within their creation.

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I wanted to write more about the experience of listening, rather than music, and to get away from any tribalism of taste, aesthetics, or judgments of quality. Berger says that before words comes seeing, and through seeing we establish ourselves in the world. Only later, we move toward the object-based world and visual perception, and away from the less tangible world of hearing.

That, in a sense, is the most appealing music.


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DC: This is not only a book for listeners, it is also a book for readers. It happens often, to read a description of a sound in a book, and to be happy with the experience of reading it, with no need to actually hear anything at all. How far can you separate the realm of reading and of listening in relation to the perception of sound, and how on the other hand do the two intersect? I describe it as a kind of music that I wanted to hear. But, do I really want to hear it? The intangible reality of this music immediately diminishes the imaginative conception of what the music might be.

This is also true for literature: you read extraordinary descriptions of listening experiences, you recognize them, but they are un-reproducible. This imaginative dimension disclosed by words is crucial, and it was important for me in my 20s: to find descriptions of music in literature, in works of anthropology and in travel books, and to hear that music in the words, while knowing that the reality it was going to be different.

DC: I would say you use literature as material. DT: While composing a new piece, it is possible to create an environment, an atmosphere, a set of parameters through text. This crossing of different areas becomes more and more important to me. Music, sound, listening experiences are very difficult to write about. Then you come to literature, and you find great writers who are able to capture something about their engagement with sound. DC: The authors you mention in Sinister Resonance did not write specifically about sound, though, but about experiences and stories.

I found a big claim in the book for narration and storytelling, as they are disclosed by sound. How do you construct your narrative across so many stories and references? And it is true, the structure of Sinister Resonance depends on a personal vision and intensity, that make the connection possible across all the reference.

Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener

It all begins with my notebooks, day after day, and working ideas and experiences across the act of writing. Then, towards the end, Sinister Resonance disintegrates. Although I realized the possibility of making it as cohesive as the first part, I chose to leave it as an open narrative. So, if there are things left out in one book, they allow me to go back to the same material, adding new reference, in the following one. DC: You write about walking as a special state in which you discover different ways of listening.

It reminded me of humming or doodling, when sounds and forms take shape without us being aware of them at first.

David Toop, Continuum, 2010, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1441149725

Could we also say that listening is a state of mind where thoughts are found unexpectedly? DT: Absolutely. The contradiction is, if you walk you hear imperfectly, and when you stop, hearing becomes very vivid, sound comes into focus and into being. That is a particularly dramatic confrontation with the experience of hearing. DC: You illustrate the essence of sound as something that haunts a place, or a text, and at the same time cannot be captured.

It has to do with loss, grief and memory. Then you get the full sense of this idea of haunting, because it connects so deeply with mediumship, with being there and not being there, this overwhelming desire to connect with the afterlife, while sound is there as a haunting. And if your life is built on listening, the actual act of hearing becomes as significant as what you learn through hearing. Your next book will be about improvisation. Whose identity will you challenge then? Un-writing yourself requires tremendous intensity. Writing, in this way, is a kind of performance, sustained over a long period.

A recurring thought now is: how often is it possible to do it?

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