Black Magic

David Toop's new CD, Black Chamber [Sub Rosa] is a strange beast. It's only in the undefined middle of the 13 tracks that what one often expects ´music' to sound like occurs; the rest is more to do with sound, field recordings, overheard noise, a collage of mood and instrument.

That's not a negative comment, although it was only when I left the CD on repeat play and got on with other things that I found myself engaging with the CD. Trying too hard to listen to it, I found myself shut out of a private universe, trying to make sense of what I could hear. One of the quotes on the sleeve is by the author and artist Henri Michaux: it mentions ´failed melody' and ´microquake'. These seem to have a bearing on Black Chamber.

Although the black chamber referred to in another quote on the sleeve seems to be a specific historical place where ´the emperor from Komatsu' went to cook, I have in mind the black chamber of sensory deprivation, perhaps a flotation tank or darkened room for meditation; a place where we can focus on small sounds and occurences, and how the world moves around us. We could also, perhaps, take on board Toop's statement in a recent Wire magazine that he has come in a lot of ways to dislike music, whilst retaining a love of sound and silence; John Cage's concept of music as simply an arrangement of sound in time & space; and Eno's idea of playing a section of field recording over and over again until one starts to hear it as intended and planned.

Starting to listen in this way, the tracks become short narratives, excerpts from musical occurences, interesting clusters of music and noise, aural fragments from other people's lives, their memories: ´the remembrance of what was once inspirational and formative, perhaps almost lost but then rediscovered...' * Three of the tracks are actual field recordings: one from a night market in Chiang Mai, one an Italian restaurant also in Chiang Mai, the third from Toop's own London garden; they are no more or less ´musical' or ´composed' than many of the other tracks. Since they have been carefully chosen and placed within the sequence of tracks I guess they wouldn't be.

When we hit track 6 and Lol Coxhill's flowing saxophone, the effect is stunning: lyric and melody are drawn attention to, the whole musical palette changes. Elsewhere, other contributions by Paul Burwell, Bob Cobbing, Terry Day, Tom Recchion and Yurihito Watanabe are often used more texturally: strange voices deep in the mix, held chords, shrill whistles and noises off. It's not always clear who is doing what - I'm not convinced the guttural voicings on track 4 isn't Cobbing although he's credited on the sleeve as contributing elsewhere. Is the heavenly singing or the spoken word on ´ill-faced doll' Watanabe? Who or what is sampled or taped, what has been created in the studio? What is the listener to make of the sexual voyeurism we indulge in listening to ´apartment thunder (eros + sacrifice)'?

I am sure there are no easy answers, and that Toop doesn't intend there to be. Whether one listens to this in detail or passing, as imaginary soundtrack or avant-garde improvisation, there is much to hear, much to learn to hear. This is a fascinating CD, full of music the listener must find out how to make sense of. Whether one creates one's own ´black chamber' and listens to the microquakes of textural change and sonic collage, or only peers into the chamber from outside, wondering at the darkness, if we allow it this CD will work it's magic. This is perplexing and engaging stuff.

© 2003 Rupert Loydell

[* ´the remembrance of...' is quoted from an email from David Toop]