Always Take The Weather With You

Itís been a few weeks now since I read David Toopís Haunted Weather [Serpentís Tail, £12.99] and my head is in a different space from then. Iíve had a weekís holiday abroad, a trip to London, bought some new CDs, and read some very different books; Toopís thesis has become distant and blurred.

In fact, I have to confess that I felt a bit confused even after reading the book, which was why I didnít write my review then. I enjoyed it at the time, it seemed to make some kind of an argument and ≠ as ever with Toop ≠ reference a wealth of obscure and intriguing music, much of which I immediately wanted to hear. In fact this desire was pretty much straightaway met by Staubgold who have have issued a double CD to accompany the book.

Really the book seems to be about everything except music. Itís far more about how music is made, what we might do with it, how we approach it, what it does to us, than your standard biography or musical analysis. Toop is fascinated by improvisation, by technological change, by much contemporary electronic music that deals with silence and small change, by recordings of weather and space; by the effect it all has on us as we listen or donít listen. In fact how we listen seems a major concern.

The trouble is, when you come to the CD, much of it is the sound of musicians disappearing up their own backsides. Itís research and development, not application. The sound of a room humming is, it seems to me, is not intrinsically interesting ≠ the musician attempts to make it interesting by contextualising it, by telling you about the room, by inventing a concept. Stones being scratched together make great sounds which can be looped and filtered and used, yes; but Iím not that interested per se in the initial source or what type of stone. This kind of stuff seems to be very much like a lot of conceptual visual art, which is never left alone for the viewer to simply look at, but always accompanied by essays, smartarse titles, critical commentary, theory and concept. On its own the whole thing hardly exists.

If one wants to listen to the weather, why not stick your head out of the window and hear the wind, rain, thunder, birds and city hum? The only level this kind of reported/curated music seems to work on is either as a kind of armchair travelling/exploration, or aural postcard ≠ Peter Cusackís CD of London sounds feeding my nostalgia for the city I grew up in.

So the most interesting music, or sound, on the CD is made by the likes of Oval, whose glitched CDs are mixed and arranged into complex drifts and layers of sound; by Evan Parker, whose intense saxophone solos splinter and redefine melody and linearity; by Christian Fennesz, as much entranced by the Beach Boys and lush rock as the workings of his laptop. Elsewhere the unrefined plinky-plonk improvisation or minimal electronic scratch-and-splutter is simply dull, whether you try to use it as background music or really pay attention and consider every sound.

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Itís a few weeks later. For some reason the fact weíve had winter squalls and storms amidst the summer sunshine made me think of Haunted Weather and my overdue review again. I sit down and re-read what Iíve already written above, as AMM clank and bang and hum on the CD player. Last Saturdayís Guardian had a good review of Toopís book ≠ good in both senses: it praises the volume and Steven Poole is also interesting in the way he writes about his subject, and in what he says. He suggests it is Ďnot just a deeply thoughtful and richly populated survey of modern experimental music, itís a meditation on hearing itself.í

But he also counters this with the fact that he feels Toop doesnít make value judgements, which I guess is at the heart of my value judgement that Iíve made above. And yet, of course, the musicians concerned have made decisions about what makes it on to their CDs. Iíd be the first one to support the idea of found music [or text], of collage and appropriation, recycling and juxtaposition. In fact I think I disagree with Poole ≠ Toop isnít making an argument for all sound having musical value, just the possibility of any/every sound having musical value ≠ especially in this postmodern, digital world we live in. His book is more an aesthetic of sound [and this sound is often presented as music] and an exploration of what we can make from/with sound and how we might, or already do, use it. Itís not a linear thesis, which perhaps is where Iíve come unstuck for the moment in this review. Itís more the kind of book one can dip in and out of, a source of food for thought, or things to listen to and consider.

Looking at the back cover blurb again I see it says that Ďthe book explores ways in which the body survives and redefines its boundaries in a period of intense, unsettling change and disembodiment. At the heart of the book is how sound and silence in space, in memory and in the action of performance acquire meaning.í As someone currently feeling quite buffeted around by domestic and other changes, I certainly rely on music both new and old, familiar and unfamiliar, comforting and disquieting, to see me through the day; I also long for some peace and quiet. Yes, quiet ≠ something which musical theorists long before Toop have suggested no longer exists. Sound and noise have to be dealt with, accommodated, excluded or simply put up with. Haunted Weather not only explores why and how we hear and listen, it also explores new strategies and reasons for both listening and hearing, and not-hearing. It tries to face up to the noisy world we live in and rationalize it.

I donít think this is anywhere as near a good book as Ocean of Sound, but it is intriguing and wide-ranging. It would be churlish to demand a summary in this kind of work, itís more a research paper than a published proof. It left me wanting more though ≠ but then I guess one of todayís problems is too much of anything, anyway. Haunted Weather will just have to do for the moment.

© 2004 Rupert Loydell

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