Life on the forest floor: QME talk to David Toop

In 2009 John Godfrey – composer, performer and artistic director of the QME – conducted an exclusive interview with QME special guest David Toop. Toop, a renowned author, improviser, visual and sonic artist, joined the ensemble on 31 October 2009 in Filmbase as part of their DEAF09 appearance. Toop gave a talk about his work, took part in improvisations and participated in the performance of his first-ever concert-piece, night leaves breathing, which was written for and commissioned by the Quiet Music Ensemble in 2008.

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When we first spoke about your piece for the Quiet Music Ensemble, night leaves breathing, you said that the concept of ‘quiet music’ was a very important part of the creative process. Can you tell us a little about your reaction to that phrase?


It’s a question of how we listen, or why we listen. Is listening a thin layer of sensory input devoted to speech interpretation, music appreciation, survival and a little bit of comfort noise, or is a primary means of locating the self, hearing the self, and connecting the self within the environment through which the self passes? Once you start to really listen with intent, then the world gets louder, not necessarily in its decibel count, but the field of awareness grows and so admits information that was otherwise peripheral. I’ve been listening to a lot of quiet music in recent years. as an experiment but also for personal preference, and what is strange is that the more I listen the louder it becomes, as if the significance of its pauses and reticence grow more full in perception. I very much like what the French music philosopher, Vladimir Jankelevitch, had to say about this in Music and the Ineffable. He reverses the normal idea that noise is an island within silence and talks about silence as an interruption to continuous noise:

“Silence was the backdrop suspended under Being. But now, it is noise that constitutes a sonorous foundation, suspended under silence. And this continuous pedal point, this obstinate fundamental bass skewered by momentary silence is indeed more imperceptible than the sound of the sea: it lasts our whole life and accompanies all we experience, fills our ears from the time we are born to the moment we die. As an interruption, a momentary lacuna that mars the noisy animation of Becoming, silence blossoms through voids that interrupt a perpetual din.”

Certain composers and musicians have a predilection for quiet; they are shadowy figures caught in the folds of official music history. Mompou is an example. I just discovered the piano works of William Grant Still and in their quiet fluidity they show an interest in sound as a haunting. Always it comes back to the idea that forms can be conjured out of quiet. Alberto Manguel writes about silent reading in his wonderful book, A History of Reading. We think of reading as a naturally silent activity that must defended against modern clamour, but as Manguel points out, the first regulation requiring scribes to be silent in monastic scriptoriums date from as late as the ninth century. Many dogmatic Christians were suspicious of silent reading, because it allowed private reflection unguided by orthodoxy and the conformity of the group. Reading aloud is an airing, literally, and in the private space of the silent reader, heresies can breed. Quiet music, similarly, can open a gap in the continuum of orthodoxies, the noisy animation of becoming, to enable another version of becoming, a charm (to use Jankelevitch’s expression) though which the listener is able to discover the imperceptible.


Dear David

Thank you for that fascinating answer! I’d like to follow on from its premise, since the questions of ‘how’ and ‘why’ we listen are so intimately bound up with questions of ‘when’ and ‘where’ we listen: the context so often determines, or at the least colours, our listening behaviours. Cage’s 4’33″ was originally conceived for the context of 1950s ‘art-music’ concert-going traditions; it has since become habituated into other traditions, but it was initially predicated on the hows and whys of listening in a ‘classical’ concert. I loved the dream about Elvis you describe in Ocean of Sound, and particularly the comment that you realised the Elvis you were hearing was ‘fake’, not because he was to be heard in the unlikely company of DJ Mixmaster Morris, but because his loafers were scuffed. In the dream, his voice was amazing, yet this sonic reality was under question because of his dirty shoes.

I’m sorry for the long preamble! Here’s what I’m getting to… Many people may not realise that your piece for the QME, night leaves breathing, was the first commission for a ‘concert piece’ you had received. Writing a piece for such a context always begs a great number of questions, but of particular relevance is the fact that concert music is expressly designed to be listened to with intent; not only that, but concert pieces are traditionally framed with silence in what might be conceived as a sonic ritual, the intent of which is to emphasise the ‘substantiveness’ of the work by contrasting it with its ‘empty’ opposite. Was there, thus, a qualitative difference in the way you conceived of this piece compared to your other sonic works, and if not, why not?

I would also wonder whether the necessarily artificial concert situation with all its rituals and social overtones ever truly creates a “charm… through which the listener is able to discover the imperceptible”, a journey which is, arguably, only truly experienced by each individual at their own choice and in moments of open awareness; this is one reason why QME events are mainly not in the form of a standard sit-down concert (you can’t ritualise the personal…). In terms of the ‘authenticity’ of sonic experience, therefore, are conventional concerts, in fact, always bedevilled by dirty shoes?


Hi John,

The dream about Elvis was a genuine dream, fairly faithfully recorded, as I recall, and when I read it back now I realise it was a form of composing in itself. At that time – 1993 or whatever – I was thinking a lot about the juxtapositions of music that were possible and imagining a world in which the outer limits of my interests, my passions, might be compatible within a ‘field of sound’. Perhaps Elvis represented one extreme, as an icon of popular music. In those days I was occasionally given the opportunity to DJ and I used to play an acapella doo-wop track from Japan – “Blue Velvet” by Tats Yamashita – over various ambient tracks. It always sounded indescribably beautiful – very David Lynch, I suppose we would say now – and an ideal of some sort. There are obvious political parallels, or implications, for this sort of utopian ‘composition’ – can such a society exist, or even a listening context, for such inclusive listening? The answer is, for a bit, sometimes, but not for long.

It is true that the piece you commissioned was my first commission of this type, a very welcome and pleasant surprise but problematic in some ways, and that encouraged me to think very hard about what I could do with the situation. I tried to make a piece that was in context with my interests of that moment, which included microsonic listening, sound and fear, sound and the uncanny, the fine details of an everyday listening environment, and representations of silence and listening in 17th century Dutch genre painting, or indeed the history of painting. In one sense, the intent is to open up the field of listening within the performance environment, so that an audience might become increasingly conscious of their own breathing, their own presence, and that is a central focus of my solo performances these days. There’s always crosstalk between my various activities. But it also attempts to focus intently on the playing of the piece, which is what you’re asking me about here. The piece asks for a mix of concentrated, exclusive listening and scattered, discursive listening. Maybe that’s asking too much! I was very influenced by the gestalt psychologist, educationalist and art theorist, Anton Ehrenzweig, in the 1960s, when I was a teenager. His ideas – particularly in The Hidden Order of Art – about the gestalt of listening, of scanning across detail within the field of listening while remaining closely focussed on the whole have made a lasting impact on the way I think and work. It is, of course, the way in which everybody listens, but I’m asking for an intensification of the process with this piece – night leaves breathing – but it grows out of the listening practice of my daily life.

Can it be transported to the concert hall, and can it work as a kind of ‘charm’, as Jankelevitch puts it? Mostly, the rituals of concert going are tiresome (I don’t go out much any more), and if I’m giving the opening to curate, then that’s the starting point: how can we make this different? How can we open up time and this particular space, wherever and whatever it is, to the charm? My answer is that there is no definitive answer, which is the opposite of the 20th century approach when certain composers believed that dedicated ‘experimental music’ concert halls should be built. Can you imagine an architecture that flexible? But it’s one of the biggest challenges of the moment – how to present new sound work, of any type, not just music, when the majority of conventional spaces available for this purpose are entirely unsuitable? Find the right space and already you have at least a proportion of the charm. The rest depends on all the other elements.


Dear John,

An addendum to my previous answer. I woke up early this Sunday morning, before 6.00am, came downstairs and wrote you an answer. After a few hours work editing my new book I then went back to bed and fell asleep. I had another dream, in which I was collaborating in some way with Edmund de Waal. I don’t know if you’re familiar with his work. He’s a ceramicist. He makes (mostly) white pots, vessels, whatever, and exhibits them as installations of multiples. I think my subconscious had created for me a performance environment – similar in some ways to the classic Greek theatre in which the voices would be amplified by resonating vessels. I was also writing this morning about the flutes made from swan and vulture bones that were found earlier this year in the Hohle Fels caves in southwestern Germany. They were estimated at being almost 40,000 years old. Thinking about that experience of making a breath sound like that, piercing and tremulous, in the darkness of a cave on the first known musical instruments, really grounded this question of the space of performance. I guess my dream grew out of that.


Dear David,

You referred above to an ideal of “inclusive listening”; could you say a little more about what this concept is to you?

In particular, I’m fascinated by your take on the various types of ‘open’ listening that have been posited in the West, going all the way back to the Futurists, and the apparent difficulty that we in our culture seem to have with it. For example, the Futurist Russolo invited us to experience the modern city with “our ears more open than our eyes”, and yet interestingly was still unable to resist the challenge of mimicking and organising the sounds he heard into groupings analogous to those of the orchestra, subjecting them to metres, and imposing upon them tessitura and shape. Even Cage struggled with this: his recognition that it was desirable to allow sounds to simply be themselves in order to truly hear them manifested itself in an ongoing (and not always successful) struggle to find ways to eradicate the ego from the compositional process.

The idea that one might listen without judgement, without jumping immediately to categorise and organise, is one borrowed from Eastern philosophy, but could it be that the Zen ideal of the Mind as no Mind is not achievable in the West? I can’t help wondering whether we are actually too acquisitive: how many of us take vacations to exotic places and then spend the entire time taking photos (canned holidays) rather than fully experiencing ‘being’ there?

All best,



Dear John,

I’m just looking at a reproduction of Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt, painted c. 1595. What he shows is a female angel playing the violin. Joseph is holding up the music for her to follow – “How fair and pleasant you are O loved one, delectable maiden” from the Song of Songs, set by Noel Baulduin. The notation is clearly visible, though as Catherine Puglisi points out in her book on the painter, Caravaggio doesn’t show the words, so except for the patron who commissioned the painting and those literate in musical notation, this sub-text of the scene would have been obscure or inaccessible. Madonna and Child sit to one side, both fast asleep. There’s an interesting contrast between the ground on which Joseph sits, which is stoney (he is rubbing one foot on top of the other to stay awake), and the lush vegetation in which they sit, tall grasses, climbing plants and then behind them, fields, forest and distant hills. Just behind Joseph is their donkey, very close to the centre of the action, its nose up close to the violin and the music.

The scene is visual, but because of Caravaggio’s vitality of style, the drama he brings to foreground and depth, light and movement, I ‘hear’ the painting very clearly and it encapsulates the dilemma of this conflict between the symbolic and the abstract in listening. There is a deep symbolic language within the painting which would be very clear to those versed in its vocabulary, and the more accessible symbolic levels which allow anybody to understand the basic story, yet the words of the song are absent. We read the painting at various levels, and hear music without words, also hearing the complex ambient sound of the scene.

What does all this have to do with Russolo? Well, Marcel Duchamp didn’t think much of the Italian Futurists – he felt they were just urban realists, a banal version of the ruralists, and I tend to agree. For all their rhetoric of the future, they were often still stuck in the past. Cage’s dilemma was that he loved consonant music – the prepared piano pieces, or “In a Landscape” are simple but lovely. When I got married a few years ago, we played the latter just before the ceremony and none of our friends and relatives suffered any ill effects. You might say that the ability to compose, and the desire to do so, immediately draws a composer into shaping any material according to their personal template, and so their conception is not so different from Caravaggio – a melody, perhaps, along with the sound of grasses and leaves, the breathing of a donkey and two sleeping people, the slight friction of small stones under bare feet (a composition I’d enjoy hearing).

For me, it’s a productive dilemma and not necessarily one that should be resolved. The oddity and irrationalism of juxtaposition is what fascinates. Piero della Francesca also showed this startling closeness of angel musicians and animals, as if through this strange inter-species music the interdependency of opposites – high and low, beauty and ugliness, rough and smooth – is asserted. Perhaps the problem is our reliance on texts, words, seeing and touch as the true measure of reality, even reality itself. In such a world, sound without association, or sound as sound and not as symbol or vehicle, becomes difficult to comprehend, which is why so much music is discussed in terms of its words, the performers, its social or political significance, its theories and themes, and so on, until there’s no more room to think about the effect of the sound. A melody means ‘nothing’ unless it corresponds to an existing melody, yet its impact can be devastating - this is as true of a violin melody as the complex melodies of grasses waving in the wind. In evolutionary terms there must be constant pressure on us to identify sounds and their sources – are the grasses waving in the wind, peacefully,or is the wind the precursor of a storm, or are they disturbed by a predator, a lover, a snake?

We can’t, and probably shouldn’t detach ourselves from such associations, but for a composer, or an improviser, another choice exists: should some of this material be allowed to decide for itself how it fits within an overall event structure? Personally, I use accident and unpredictability – often I play an instrument at the same time as using a computer. Clearly, I can’t really control two devices as effectively as one, so stuff happens that I’m not expecting, or can’t easily control. I don’t like to wrestle it all into submission. I’m not sure if these ideas of ego, or zen, are still helpful. Yes, it’s an issue of the self and identity, how individuals define the self and how much the integrity of the self has to be maintained and even defended. But I never suffered a serious illness from having a sonic event take me by surprise during a performance! It simply makes me anxious that difficult moments will take place, or destabilises me when they do, but too many contemporary compositions, and improvisations come to that, seem to avoid such difficulties and so they offer only a feeble kind of consolation. Sound always asks questions of the attentive listener – what just happened, where did it come from, what produced it? To smooth that spirit of enquiry out of sound seems to be a corruption of its nature.

Best wishes,

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