Somnambule - Writing About Music

David Toop, Haunted Weather – Music, Silence and Memory (book and cd)

In ‘Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory’ David Toop writes about the effects of new technologies and the related global diffusion of musical and sonic practices which were once the sole preserve of research institutions, nature recordists and maverick composers. The book begins with a reflection upon a brief, almost gnomic diary entry made by the author’s late father about prevailing weather conditions which establishes a somewhat sombre emotional tone for the book. The enquiring nature of Haunted Weather is in a sense the antithesis of the father’s uncommunicativeness and can be interpreted as an attempt to understand disciplines which may frequently appear to share a similar opacity.

Toop employs the cumulative, patchwork-quilt approach familiar from his previous books ‘Ocean of Sound’ and ‘Exotica’. This enables him to string together a wide range of disparate, but interconnected themes - including the impossibility of silence, the currency of performance, the chasm between networked laptop performers and their instrument-based colleagues, the engagement of Japanese culture with sound, etc. – as well as extended reflections upon the work of Toru Takemitsu, Morton Feldman and John Stevens. In so doing the author becomes something of a modern day Herodotus reporting on fantastical new forms and practices from seemingly perpetual journeys as performer, speaker and listener. Three quarters of the way through the book, the author raises a key issue:

“...the effect at the moment [of live streaming, installations, MIDI files and the release of authored software] can feel and sound like the aimless exploration of a huge choice of possibilities, something like the experiments of the 1960s when the excitement of process and change could obscure the imperatives of making music that was worth a second listen.”

This perceptive observation reveals a level-headed approach to his subject at the same as it opens up a whole world of debate centering upon the value of these forms of sonic experimentation. As Toop notes, the popularity of Fennesz’s 2001 cd ‘Endless Summer’ (which centres upon Beach Boys melodies) arguably highlights the desire for tangible reference, however abstracted, to shared experience. The author also notes challenges such as the tremendous amount of choice offered by software and the concomittant attenuation of physical interaction with those choices. The former issue is elegantly addressed earlier in the book by a quotation from a poem by Rikyu:

“How much does a person lack himself
Who feels the need to have so many things.”

In choosing not to directly suggest solutions, the author wisely refuses to add his voice to a restrictive manifesto, but his thinking does become clear both in the nature of the particular questions he asks and in the memories and thoughts articulated throughout the book.

The episodic format is occasionally frustrating when issues are not explored in greater depth, but this is balanced by the refreshing amount of space the structure provides for the reader’s own reflections at the same time as it avoids the danger of becoming too drily academic. The melancholic beginning of the book is pleasingly balanced at its conclusion by Toop’s recounting of a Christmas spent with family and friends. Haunted Weather is a fascinating and thought-provoking collage of ideas, memories and observations which is highly recommended for anyone remotely interested in the porous boundaries between electronica, sound art and free improvisation.

The accompanying compilation is a useful guide to many of the artists referred to in the book. Each of the two discs begin with the relative figuration of groups such as Oval, Matmos, Autechre, Fennesz and then leads the listener towards less familiar artists such as Peter Cusack, SME, Toshiya Tsunoda, Jem Finer. This is a sensible strategy in recognising that the potential audience for both book and cds is fans of so-called cutting-edge electronica. Even the pieces which are already familiar are a pleasure to encounter in a new context which provides a useful space for reassessment.

Colin Buttimer
April 2004
Published by the BBC