The sound of silent art: Colin Marshall talks to writer, composer and sonic curator David Toop

David Toop is a composer of sound, writer about sound, curator of sound and research fellow at the London College of Communication. His works in text include Ocean of Sound, Exotica, Haunted Weather and the Rap Attack books. His latest is Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener, which explores the sound of silent art. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]

Toop1 The idea of doing a book about the sound of silent artworks — it's served you well. It's made an interesting book. It's made a book I've enjoyed reading, and presumably you've enjoyed writing. But there is a certain core absurdity to that idea that I'm sure is not lost upon you. Is that an advantage, the sheer humor, in a sense, of writing about the sound of things that are without sound?

Yeah, It's a kind of crazy idea. I was very conscious of it, particularly when I felt I was moving into areas that an art historian is really qualified to deal with. I thought, “Why hasn't this been written about?” Of course, one of the reasons it hasn't been written about before is because it doesn't exist. It's purely speculative.

For example, I write a lot about sound in 17th-century Dutch genre painting, the way acts of listening are represented. I hope I've made a convincing case. I was very conscious that these speculations, certainly based on research and intensive looking, but in the end, you can't hear the paintings. You can listen as intently as you like; there's no sound actually there. It's partly dependent on the development of an idea, for sure.

How accurately could I say the book is based on specifically your perceptions? After 40 years of intense listening, this is specifically about what David Toop hears in artwork?

It's certainly very personal. One other aspect of the book is the idea of sound as being very uncanny. I write a lot about, for example, sound in ghost stories and supernatural fiction, writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens. That, for me, connects with deep childhood experience. One of my first memories of sound is of lying in bed, feeling very frightened, hearing a sound; I didn't know what the source was. Just lying in bed as still as I could, as quietly as I could, believing I could hear somebody walking around my bed in the dark. What I was hearing would've been the normal sound that houses make in the night, creakings and groanings, the staple of horror films and ghost stories.

But this had a very profound effect on me as a child. It stayed with me. I've come to the point now where I'm asking myself, “Why is this so powerful, this idea of sounds that can't be connected with their source?” Why is it so useful to filmmakers, to people writing these kinds of stories? You come to the idea that sound, because it's so intangible, because it's so transient, it's something that we can't grasp, we can't see. It always has this property of being unstable in some way, elusive, uncanny. That, to me, is fascinating. Of course, yes, it's the David Toop perspective on things. It goes right back to this time when I was a child, having this very personal experience. At the same time, I don't think that makes it an experience so personal that other people can't relate to it. This phenomenon of things that go bump in the night, creaking noises and fear of the unknown as heard through sounds is extremely common.

I was watching a film last night with my wife, Paranormal Activity, which was on the television. We'd seen it before at the cinema. I thought one of the striking things about this film is that there's nothing frightening in it — except for sound. I mean, you see absolutely nothing. You see nothing. Nothing terrifying really happens. Toward the end of the film, a few small things like bedclothes being dragged off the bed and so on, but mostly you're hearing strange sounds: knockings and so on. Some people find this film really frightening. I think it's a good illustration of how powerful this is, this notion that sound is somehow threatening, somehow strange and uncanny.
Someone once said that, in film, you shoot things with the camera to show the audience how they look, but you do the sound design to show the audience how things feel. Is that a line you've heard before?

Not in that form, but something very much like it. I think there's a lot of truth in it. Sound, because of this intangible property it has, has strong connections for us with memory, with loss, and it connects very deeply with our feeling level, our emotional level. Of course it has all these other properties: it can be structured in ways which are very sophisticated, mathematically, it has an intellectual component, it has a very strong physical presence. But it does connect deeply with the emotional side of ourselves. If you took the sound away from a film like Paranormal Activity and just left the voice track and the images, it would be unbearable to watch; you would lose patience with it in about ten, fifteen minutes. It's just because you have this idea that something is making a sound, you can't see what it is, and that raises all kinds of fears.

One of the things I talk about in the book is eavesdropping. Eavesdropping is something we all do, either wanting to or not wanting to, but when you think about it, eavesdropping is common to us all, because that's our experience before we're born. We're there in the womb, we're unable to see anything, but we can hear sounds. We don't know what they are. We hear these muffled sounds — maybe more accurately, we hear and feel simultaneously these sounds from outside. But we have no experience of the world. The beginning of perception, of engagement with the world, comes in a form of eavesdropping. It's very powerful.

With the whole phenomenon of eavesdropping as you see it in the non-sonic arts — you mentioned earlier the 17th-century Dutch genre painting. You see some paintings of eavesdroppers. Was this the catalyst for you to cohere these ideas together, or was it something else?

Definitely the Eavesdropper painting was a catalyst. At that point — and this was a few years ago now — I had a few disparate ideas. I certainly knew I wanted to write a book about perception and listening and ways of hearing. I didn't quite know how to bring everything together; there were too many diverse elements. I went to the Wallace Collection museum in London, and I saw this painting, The Eavesdropper by Nicolaes Maes, who was a pupil of Rembrandt. I thought, “That's extraordinary, because what it shows is somebody listening.” It shows a woman standing in the center of a house, poised one food about to descend on a staircase, and she's listening to the maid and a soldier in the house kissing in the downstairs room of the house. She can't see what's happening, but she's looking at you, the observer, who's looking at the painting. Her finger is on her lips, as if to say, “Ssh — be quiet. Let's enjoy this moment together.”

It's funny, because it stretches across the centuries, this complicity between you and this person in the center of the painting, both eavesdropping on this scene. If you look at the painting, you're drawn into this whole story. He painted six of these paintings, as I discovered when I started to research it. Four of them, fortunately, are in London. They're all like different scenes from a film or a play; they all show similar incidence of eavesdropping, and they're all concerned with the same theme of somebody listening from within a painting. It's unavoidable. It's funny when art historians describe these paintings, because quite often they say, “Oh, the finger to the lips is pointing,” as if everything can be reduced to looking, but it's very clear that what this woman is saying is, “Ssh, be quiet.”

So there you have it; the silent medium is no longer silent. You're in a world of sound. I find this fascinating. In one sense, you could say it's predicting the future of the movies, or it's a kind of sound recording. Obviously sound recording didn't exist for us until the late 19th century, but people must've thought before then, “How can I preserve this sound?” You had the means to preserve memories through writing, you had the means to preserve material culture, objects and so on. “How can I preserve sound?” They must've thought about this.

What became evident to me was that certain painters were very interested in this idea, and others were simply not interested at all. You can test it for yourself: go around a museum, particularly of pre-20th-century paintings, and ask yourself, “Which of these painters enjoyed listening, and which of them didn't?” I found it becomes very clear very quickly, that, certain painters, there's nothing in the paintings that indicates any sound at all. Others, they're full of sound; you can virtually hear them. They're almost like a notation, or a score for musical composition. It's fantastic.

Toop2 Before you saw the Eavesdropper paintings, how much, when you would experience the purely visual arts, were you thinking about their sonic aspect? I can imagine that, considering how much of your life you've devoted to the reception, the production, the listening of sound, your mind would go to a sonic place.

It's funny you should say that, because I actually trained as a visual artist. I played music in bands when I was a teenager, but my idea was that I would become a visual artist of some kind, a painter, I don't know. I went to art school, and I eventually dropped out of art school and became a musician. Over the years, my desire to visit art galleries and look at art diminished. At a certain point, I felt I really wanted to re-engage. I was going to galleries and thinking, “I don't know how this works. How does it work to go to a gallery and look at paintings, look at artworks? How do you do it?” A strange disconnect, you know. You stand there for two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes? Or you just walk quickly around?

It's a weird thing: if you've spent your whole life going to music concerts where it's fairly clear how to relate — sitting in a chair or dancing or standing or something, but you know how it works — I had this strange disconnect. It's ridiculous; I don't know how to look anymore, properly. I felt my senses were completely out of balance; everything was so focused on listening. That was part of the whole process. I started going to museums and galleries again and looking at paintings. It was only then, through this process, that I came across this painting, The Eavesdropper, which gave me the gift, I suppose you could say, this revelation. After that, I started listening to everything I looked at. It was a great new discovery. But I certainly couldn't claim that, in previous years, I'd really been listening to paintings in the same way.

Certainly I've been conscious of connections. There's a very famous connection between the artists in New York and the composers: John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Morton Feldman, Philip Guston. There's a tight relationship between them, an influence that bent both ways, the composers influencing the painters and the painters influencing the composers. That came more from a knowledge of 20th-century arts, rather than this almost tangible sensation of being able to hear paintings. The challenge, of course, was to extend that into the 20th century, when you move away from representation. You can look at a painter like Francis Bacon: a lot of his paintings, sound is central to them. You have these screaming figures, and it's absolutely fundamental to the impact of those paintings.

Then as you move into abstraction, it becomes more difficult. That's where the latter part of the book really concentrates; you're trying to find, for example, this idea of the void, examining silence. A lot of people have made a comparison between certain abstract paintings, particularly monochrome paintings, and the idea of silence. But I was thinking, if you have a monochrome painting that's completely black, and then you have a monochrome painting that's completely white, are they both silent? In a sense, they're opposites, aren't they? Plenty of food there fore re-examing those ideas and trying to draw out what connections actually are.

When you originally left the visual arts, put them aside for sound and music, how much of it was this durational aspect, the fact that music is set in time, that made it more appealing to you?

The durational aspect was part of it, but I don't imagine I understood it in that way at the time. It's difficult for me to say, but I know I was at art school and started playing music. At a basic level, I found it more exciting. It felt more dynamic to me. Some deep part of myself was addressed by working with sound and playing music. Of course, the analytical side, the writing side, has ruin in parallel with that, has been equally important, but music has always been necessary to me as something that touches me very deeply.

I somehow lost interest in this aspect of seeing the world. We have this thing in our sociey that reality is imagined through seeing and touching. We have all these phrases like “Seeing is believing.” In that sense, sound and music has an air of unreality; it's insubstantial, and some people would use that word in a derogatory sense. It has no solidity; it has no reality. It's a bit like when you're growing up and your father says to you, “Be realistic. You can't make a living with this stuff.” That's our social view: music is important to us, but sound in itself isn't sufficient to describe reality. At some point in my life, I felt that, for me, it was sufficient, which is not to say that seeing and touching and all the rest of it became completely unimportant to me.

But maybe in some ways it's partly redressing the balance, that things get out of balance, our sensory engagement with the world can get out of balance. You have to work on developing what's been lost, to some extent. Certainly for years that's what I did, and what I still do with listening. I still spend a lot of time listening hard to whatever's around me. Maybe you came across it in the book, but some inspiration came from just taking the dog for a walk, walking through the local woods and using that opportunity to really listen to the environment and analyze what's going on. As I said before, that's something I'd forgotten how to do, looking. But I do think that listening touches a core part of myself, and maybe when I was 19, which was when this break happened, when I moved from visual arts into music, I had a realization: that was more important to me.

How much of this ephemeral, transient quality of sound — the fact that you're never going to again hear whatever sounds you happen to be hearing, whatever mixture of sounds you happen to be hearing, ever again — is directly appealing to you? How much of the appeal of sound to you can be explained by the fact that you like this one-timiness of so much of sound?

It's not just me. I think it's why we value music so highly. It doesn't matter whether it's a recording or live performance. It doesn't matter whether the performance, once it's over, will be lost forever, or whether you can listen to it immediately again, which is something that's now possible with MP3s. You can listen again to what happened three seconds ago. It doesn't alter the fact that it's always disappearing in time. I think we value that in the same way we value the seasons and the weather.

In Japanese gardening, there's a strong focus on the passing of the seasons and the sense of loss that gives you. That pain of feeling that even as you experience springtime, it's disappearing, is highly pleasurable, is very much a part of the way we make sense of the future, the way we make sense of the past and the way we engage with the present. It's as if, when you listen to music, when you listen to sound. You just have that split second in which to do so. Then it's gone. Then, obviously, you're on to the next split second.

That makes it sound mechanical, which it's not; it's a seamless flow. The sense of something passing by has an intensity to it. I think that's one of the reasons music can be so locked into peoples' memories, their passions, their sense of identity, their emotional engagement with the world, in a way other forms of art… other forms of art, we have a slightly different relationship to. Nostalgia is a very big thing with music, isn't it? People get fixed on a certain period of their life when they were listening to a certain kind of music.

Or the pleasure people get from listening to birdsong; they know birdsong is very transient, is otherworldly, in a sense. It gives a deep pleasure to listen to it. It's the sense of something always passing. As human beings, we're conscious of our own mortality, aren't we? We're conscious of our given span. Music, in a sense, is a metaphor for that. It doesn't matter how joyful it is; it's always going to end. It's a kind of sweet and sour feeling, let's say, pleasure and pain simultaneously. That's what gives it its piquancy.

In writing the new book, how much of it was a guiding principle, then, to find the work of non-sonic artists — of writers, of painters, of all that — of artists who truly understood the transience of sound and seemed to have an eye toward expressing that transience, or evoking the transience or ghostliness? What that in your mind as the type of artist you wanted to think and write about here, or did it just end up that way?

I went into it with an open mind. I had some ideas because I do have some background in art history. I read a lot, so ideas had built up over the years. But I really went in with an open mind. You mention the writers I talk about; I started to read as much as I could of supernatural fiction. You can find a writer, Algernon Blackwood, for example — fantastic descriptions of sound. Sound is constantly important in his stories. Clearly it was very important to him. He was very sensitive to it, and he realized it was a useful device for conveying certain feelings of dread or fear, mysterious feelings,atmospheric feelings.

Edgar Allan Poe is another great example. Poe was the first serious writer I read when I was a child. You can say it almost scarred me, in a way. Reading stories like “The Telltale Heart” had a huge impact on me when I was a child, something I return to over and over again over the years. This was the first opportunity for me to really analyze these stories, to ask myself, “How is he using sound? Why is is important in the stories? What's it doing in the stories?”

And of course, you make discoveries, you go into these things with a fairly open mind and you make discoveries. Those are wonderful. In terms of the paintings, it's had a very big effect on me. I travel quite a lot, and every time I travel now, if there's a museum in the city I'm going to, I head for the museum. It's a great thing; it's like it's a privilege, in a sense, that you're being paid to go do your work and travel and experience this foreign city, but you also have the opportunity to see these wonderful artworks. It's been a very enriching experience, I must say, writing this book.

Toop3 I want to get an idea of what I imagine as being the feedback loop between you writing this book, which prompts you to look at and listen to things which may be relevant to the book, which you of course bring back to the book, then that changes the book. How much of the material, how much of the art, were you already aware of when beginning the book, and how much did you discover in the process of getting into the world of this book, the mindset of this book?

Seeing the Eavesdropper painting by Nicolaes Maes was a kind of epiphany. Something clicked in my mind. I thought, “This is fantastic. This is a new way of experiencing this work.” Of course, from that point, I was going everywhere, sort of experimenting: go to the National Gallery in London or the Art Museum in Dublin or the Louvre in Paris or wherever and ask myself, “What can I hear in these paintings?” It's a new way to appreciate these works; it doesn't cancel all the other ways that exist.

Take the example of 17th-century Dutch genre painting. This is a style of painting that has been extensively analyzed by art historians. It's so full of symbolism, it's so full of innovation in terms of perspective, it's so revealing of social structures, of the way people lived, the domestic environments, the social life of the streets, the architecture. They're so rich, these paintings, that when you look at the bibliography, it's vast. Now, you look at the bibliography of books about sound in general, it's very small. You think, “There's a lot of work to do here.” That's very, very exciting.

You ask me about a feedback loop; definitely, there was a very strong feedback loop going on. In a way, I was trying to be cautious: on the one hand, I was conscious of moving into territory which was not my own, moving into literary analysis and art history and so on, which is quite a dangerous thing to do. I've tried to write the book so I'm never pretending to be what I'm not. Do you know what I mean? What I'm saying, I hope, is that I'm a specialist in sound, a specialist in music and listening. I'm not a specialist in these other areas, but as an outsider, I think I've spotted something that is worthy of more research, more study. Perhaps it's interesting enough for somebody else to come in and give other views on it.

That sense of having made a discovery was very stimulating for me. Yes, there was a sense of searching, and then finding new things within the material. These things become obsessive after a while. There came a point where everything I was reading, I was just putting post-it notes in every page that had an interesting reference to sound. There comes a point where you think, “Will this ever end? Will I be able to read a book again, free of this peculiar perspective?” Of course, in one sense, you're not.

I just finished a really interesting book by a Scottish writer, John Buchan. It's got some great passages which are very sensitive to sound. My feeling was that, because we are a visuo-centric culture, because we tend to value seeing and touching more than we value listening, this is a kind of undervalued aspect of our culture. There it is, it exists, it's plain to see, but it's barely recognized. In a sense, my work here is to expose it, just to say, “Here it is. This is my view of it.” Then your book comes out and you hope somebody else finds it of some interest or value, or actually finds it credible in some way. That remains to be seen.

I want to get an idea of the approach you've taken to the challenges such a book poses formally. With three of your past books, Exotica, Haunted Weather and Ocean of Sound, people who have written about them have said you use a subjective style, an eclectic style, a lot of unusual connections. Some say “stream of consciousness” — I think that's a little bit unfair. To what extent have you followed the lead of those books with this new one?

There were two extremes at work on me in this book that were, to some degree, in opposition. One of them is the fact that, for the last ten years, I've had a position in academia. It's not a teaching position; it's as a research fellow. I have a great deal of freedom, but at the same time, for the first time in my life since I dropped out of art school, I'm within an educational institution.

Of course that began to have an effect on me. I was being invited to speak at academic conferences, and to some extent feeling the weight of the — let's say — catastrophe of my own education, having to deal with that. I was beginning to supervise postgraduate students and reading more and more scholarly literature. This had a big impact on my writing — a crisis, even, at a certain point. I suddenly didn't know how to write anymore, and it took me a few years to resolve that problem. What kind of style do I use? Do I completely reject my past style, which, as you say, has some aspects of stream-of-consciousness? I worked as a music journalist for ten years, so obviously that has been an influence on me. How do I resolve that? Do I abandon that style completely and work in a scholarly way, according to all the conventions of academia, or do I continue and ignore all that?

That was a difficult problem to resolve; I would say it took me a couple of years. Some of the period in which I was writing this book, I really struggled with it a lot. I hope I've come to a resolution. I don't know what you think about it, but I think it has some sense of the previous style, but maybe it's more careful in certain areas. It's less — what's the word? — cavalier about some of the more philosophical assertions or arguments, let's say. On the other pole to this, partly I was writing about the key modernist writers: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Faulkner, Samuel Beckett. All of these writers wrote in extraordinary ways about sound. You could argue that James Joyce's last book, Finnegans Wake was completely about sound. He described it as music, just music. Virginia Woolf, her books were full of passages which anticipate John Cage by many years, passages about listening and the effects of sound. Faulkner — extraordinary, a book like The Sound and the Fury. It's an auditory book. You hear it as an outpouring of conversation, inner thoughts, sounds.

These writers who were instrumental in the technique of what we call stream-of-consciousness were very much on my mind as I wrote the book, and to some extent influential. Certainly there are passages where James Joyce is coming through very strongly, Samuel Beckett's coming through very strongly, particularly at the end of the book, which is examining Joyce's short story “The Dead” from Dubliners. It ends with this image of Samuel Beckett walking through art galleries and hearing the sound of his own boots. This became very real to me, this technique of writing, this was of, in a sense, honoring more closely the way we think, or even the way we dream, in the case of Finnegans Wake.

I won't pretend it wasn't a conflict: on the one hand, the urge towards academic respectability, and on the other hand, the extremes of high modernism. I leave it to you to come to a conclusion about your feelings as to whether it works or not, but certainly for me it was a fascinating struggle. I am interested in writing. I'm not just a person who's obsessed by music and who just cranks it out; I'm interested in the process of writing, the practice of writing. It's very important to me, the reader's relationship to the books. It's not just facts and information.

And Sinister Resonance does feel different than your previous books, although I can't put my finger on it. In many ways, it feels similar to them; nobody would mistake it for someone else's book. It's interesting you mention your relatively new academic position, because I've always thought of you and your work as the work of a non-academic, in a very good way. I do think a lot about the position of the academic: they can write for academics, in which case their audience is quite limited and often the work itself is not particularly accessible, or they can write for a wider audience, but the problem of academics writing for a wider audience is that their next meal is not coming from that project. I don't know if you know what I mean —

I do.

Toop4 The stakes are different, and not necessarily in a good way. How important is it to you to keep the not-an-academic feel? Is this something you've even considered part of your identity?

I was never given the opportunity to be an academic until ten years ago. Even though I was interested in scholarly work — I've read a lot of anthropology over the years; I've certainly done a lot of research in these areas — I was never part of an institution. I felt very conscious of that, maybe even had a chip on my shoulder about it because I had a very difficult experience myself with education as a teenager. Coming to terms with that was quite difficult. I must say I had a degree of prejudice; I freely admit that.

A lot of the time, prejudice comes from a lack of understanding. As I've spent time within academic institutions and worked with people who have a much more scholarly approach, I begin to appreciate it more and understand it more clearly. You develop sympathy, but at the same time, if I have a value, it's as something of an outsider. The value of the outsider is that they can come up with these new ideas, like this crazy idea of being able to hear paintings. I did try to talk to a couple of art historians about it, but they more or less ignored my e-mails. I think what they feel is, “Oh, this is too risky for us. It's too shaky. We can't get involved with this.”

I respect that. I understand that. They have a position which is dependent upon fulfilling certain rules of the academy. I don't. I'm much more of a freelance kind of person. Being a freelance kind of person means you live with a certain kind of insecurity, but it means you do have the advantage of being able to say what you want to say. You just put it out there and other people judge it. I've always felt that I wanted my books to be available in bookshops, not just university libraries and so on. That's been very important to me. The feedback I've had from a book like Ocean of Sound — I still get feedback. I opened my Facebook page two days ago and somebody had posted something and they said, “Oh, I'm just reading Ocean of Sound for the third time.” I think that's great. That's fantastic. That's a book that came out in 1995, and people are still drawing something from it. People say to me, “That book, I just came across it by accident.”

That's probably the difference, isn't it? Books like mine you could come across by accident, whereas more academic books, much more expensive, much harder to find — it's very unlikely you'll come across them by accident. You have to go through a research program, then eventually you'll come across them. My books, you can just walk into a bookstore and pick them up. They have attractive covers, which is another thing that's always important to me. Leaf through it, and maybe it's something you've never considered before. Maybe you're a person who doesn't like experimental music. One of the things I think I do is to make links. Sometimes those links are unexpected, but they do connect you from something you know to something you don't know.

In our society, there has tended to be a very strong compartmentalization of different experiences, different cultural forms, different genres. We can talk in a very broad sense and say art is separate from science, for example, or body is separate from mind, or we can talk in a specific sense and say one certain form of dance music is separate from one form of, say, heavy metal. I don't really buy those compartmentalizations. I understand why they exist, how they've come into being and why they're convenient, but it's not the way I think, it's not the way I experience the world, it's not the way I believe things should be. What I hope for my books is that somebody could pick one up and, for example, if they're looking at Ocean of Sound, they find a chapter about Kraftwerk and think, “Oh, I like Kraftwerk because I like techno music,” and then they're reading about Sun Ra. They've never listened to any jazz in their life. Equally with this book, somebody could say, “I'm interested in ghost stories” or “I love Charles Dickens” or whatever, and the next thing they know they're deep into listening to the sound of leaves underfoot.

It's being able to make that leap. Suddenly you're in an area you don't know anything about, but you're not so totally uncomfortable or lost that you can't cope with it, which I think happens in a lot of academic books. They're so specialist, necessarily so, that if you don't know about the subject, you're really lost. You feel you need to go back ten steps to have a greater understanding. And there's a certain amount of snobbishness, isn't there, in all kinds of areas? Classical music is a prime example, but it's not just classical music; dance music culture can be very snobbish, hip-hop culture can be very snobbish. “If you don't know about this, you're nobody” kind of thing. That's not what my books are about. They're about moving more fluidly, let's say, between all these areas of expression.

Yes, classical and hip-hop and electronic dance music are three areas where the sub-genre walls stand quite high indeed, often triple-reinforced. In life, were these boundaries something you had to de-program out of your own brain, or did you just never acquire them, and that's why you've taken the path you have?

It's an interesting question. I certainly went in for a certain amount of deprogramming in my late teen age and early twenties. I very deliberately began to listen to forms of music or forms of sound that had a very different structure, very different things going on in them to what I had grown up with, what I was familiar with. But I must say, if I go back further than that — and this comes through in a book like Exotica — I grew up in the 1950s. Rock and roll was part of that, and had a huge impact on me, but also it wasn't such a fine demographic tuning that goes on these days. It didn't exist then.

If you listened to the radio in the 1950s, you would hear such a bizarre cross-section of music. Particularly living in this country, in England, you'd hear strange Latin music and country music and sort of like classical music and bits of rock and roll. Everything was mixed up together. I think for some people, that was a terrible thing, and as soon as they became a teenager, they separated out: “I just listen to soul music” or “I just listen to rock music” or “I just listen to pop music” or “I just listen to classical music before 1890” or whatever. I took this experience of this strange mix, haphazard, almost random mix of musics, and that was the way I listened.

That's not to say that I didn't have strong tastes; I did. When I was a young teenager, I identified with certain kinds of music, but I think I was always looking for what's beyond what you're given. I started listening to the Rolling Stones when their first single came out, and almost immediately I started thinking, “Where does this music come from? What's the original? What's that sound like?” I went to the original, which happened to be by Chuck Berry, and I thought, “Actually, this is better. This is more interesting.” That process was very rapid for me. Everything I listened to that was produced here, I could go to the source, and I found the originals more interesting.

Of course, once you start on that path, then you're constantly looking for what's beyond. In that sense, yeah, I developed a form of quite open listening early, early on. Once you've got that, you don't really lose it. You're fairly open to anything you find interesting. I had a strange experience a few years ago: I had a kind of brainstorm. I decided to do this opera-writing course as a student. Opera was maybe the one music in the world I couldn't stand. I knew nothing about it and I didn't want to know anything about it. I'd never been to the opera. Everything I heard of opera, I didn't like. But for some weird reason I decided I wanted to do this opera-writing course. Things really happened after that. I was awarded a fellowship to compose an opera, and that's what I did. I've become more open to opera, but I realized that we have certain areas that we dislike because we don't feel a part of it.

This is where racial divisions or class divisions or education comes in. Then we have certain other areas of music we reject through prejudice: in my case, opera was one of these examples. We have certain ares of music maybe we don't understand, and then we have other areas of music that are either tuned or not tuned to who we are as a human being. That accounts for taste, I suppose, our preferences. You can be as open as you like, but you still have preferences. And then you have critical faculties: you say, “I like the idea of black metal, but when I listen to it, most of it sounds really terrible, badly made, so I like these examples, but I don't like these examples.” You have that necessary critical discrimination. It's not all great; it's not all terrible. You begin to develop discernment within that.

Staying open is very important, and I think as you get older — I'm 61, and I can really feel the pressure to not stay open. It becomes more important to expose yourself to maybe what you don't like or don't understand. Otherwise there's a kind of ossification; it's just part of that natural process of human aging. There's a sensation that you can get tired of always listening to new stuff. That's something you have to work harder at, but it's still possible to do it, I think, and if you have that foundation of openness, it doesn't matter if it's the new thing, the next big thing. You kind of understand what's going on in it. Sometimes something comes along, you think, “Oh, I don't understand that at all. What's going on here?” What you've heard is probably a great music, or a real breakthrough. That's a fantastic moment, when you just don't get it. It's an openness. That's how I would describe it.

All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.

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