Music is difficult to capture in words, but sound—of all varieties, from industrial noise to pastoral near-silence—is even more daunting. But English musician, curator, composer, and writer David Toop regularly takes it to the page anyway, from 1996’s Ocean Of Sound, a landmark study of music as immersive environment, to 1999’s Exotica: Fabricated Soundscapes In A Real World and 2004’s Haunted Weather. (The latter focused on the effects of technology on sound, music, and, not incidentally, humanity.) Toop’s subjects are redolent of perfumed air, but his prose and concerns remain grounded, even as his books are less narrative than discursive, jumping from one topic to another like eclectic DJ mixes.
Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship Of The Listener is Toop’s most ambitious book yet: an exploration of sound in novels, poems, and paintings from before the era of sound reproduction. That may sound dicey, like an extended ode to synesthesia. But Toop doesn’t translate mute works into sound by color or verbal line; rather, he uses the aural environments the works themselves depict as jumping-off points to examine both the objects under study and the nature of humanity’s relationship to sound itself.
Not just sound, either: “Silence can occupy space with the stealth of fine white sand in subtle movement, an unoccupied chair in an empty room, an abandoned car, sifted flour falling on a chopping board, the cooling of boiled water,” Toop writes, riffing on Roland Barthes’ famous phrase “the grain of the voice” and connecting the sounding-out of words with Melville’s description of Ahab chasing Moby Dick by listening to the whale’s sounding: “To sound is to dive into the black abyss.” One of Toop’s most illuminating close readings is of Dutch painter Nicolaes Maes, who created a series of eavesdropping paintings: “With scientific detachment, they experiment with the possibility and impossibility of bringing sound into life through a mute medium; with humanistic engagement they locate the significance of sound and silence within human events, specific places and the world of objects.” Toop’s clear sense of mission gives him and his book a firm grip on this slipperiest subject.