The Ecstasy and Dread of Sonic Flux: Simon Reynolds on David Toop

Hello. This is my first post to the blog, and I’d like to use it to tell you about a very interesting article I read recently in The Wire magazine (April 2012). It’s a piece by the music journalist, Simon Reynolds, on the writer and musician, David Toop. Toop has been known for quite some time for his antipathy to ‘taste tribalism’ – the way people occupy forms of music as if they were fortresses in which they can take shelter. He has emphasized the porosity of genres and the need to dismantle these fortresses of taste. In this, his work has a strong affinity with the theories of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, amongst which is the idea of the rhizome, based on plants that proliferate in a multiplicity of directions, open-endedly, unlike trees which are rigid, trunk-based plants. So, for example, the ‘idea of the band as a family’, Toop says, ought to be dismantled because it is too much an unshifting ‘tree-like command structure’. Instead, music should be made by temporary alliances of people, shifting collectives who gather together for a project, then disband, reforming in different configurations elsewhere. An important part of this way of working is to open yourself up to a whole host of new influences and inspirations. So, for example, post-punk musicians in the 70s-80s were ‘xenomaniacs’ ( lovers of otherness) and sought out exotic, obscure forms of music for ideas: field recordings from other traditions – religious, shamanistic, aboriginal, nomadic; environmental soundscapes; avant-garde musics. Toop has celebrated what he calls an ‘ocean’ of rhizomatically connected sounds.

This extends to Toop’s writing about music, too. He wanted to abandon a linearized, chronological account of music because this was fundamentally unimaginative. Music journalism should disorientate (‘deterritorialize’, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms) as well as provide orientation. It should expose the reader to untimely, surprising connections. In fact, writing should be more like music, more rhapsodic. Writing can sample, can explore resonances.

Reynolds’ article is also intriguing in the things it says about the resonances between music and the digital. Since the 90s, Toop has become very cynical about what is happening to music when, in the ‘always-there plenitude’ of the internet, it is all so abundantly and easily available. Post-punks (pre-internet) had to put a lot of energy into discovering new things, now the whole process has been de-energized. As a consequence, Toop began to become pretty much allergic to music, developing ‘xenophobia’ (fear of the outside) rather than xenomania. Now the imperative for Toop seems to be to protect himself from the formlessness of the digital, to keep a space for himself in which he can cultivate his projects. Toop is particularly wary about the ‘exaltation of the virus’ in a lot of contemporary writing and those writers and musicians who celebrate contagion in culture. The problem is that contemporary capitalism is viral, infecting and marketing every new idea, every form of inventiveness. This is the negative, dark side of viral, digital culture – it throws us into a precarious existence where all our energies are harvested by capital. In fact, this thesis is very close to the argument that Rob Coley and I have put forward in our new book on digital culture, Cloud Time (published by Zero Books – we sent Reynolds an electronic copy a year or so ago, so I wonder if it helped him crystallize his views on this?).

The upshot for anyone interested in audio production is that we now live in a highly ambiguous, indistinct situation where we are torn between life in a blissful, ocean of sonic flows – a multiplicity of fascinating new forms – and a ‘non-specific dread’ with regards to the future, when every dream, every urge, every idea is instantly seized and sold on by powers we can’t control.

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