Let’s begin this review with a thought experiment using a universally recognizable artwork: In your mind, bring up the unfortunate figure from Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Then, imagine you can hear what sound he’s making. A scream, obviously, but is his cry shrill, cracked, or pitiful? A simple experiment like this unfolds just how rarely we ponder deeper aspects of listening. How does listening happen, why do songs evoke memories, and how is hearing related to our other senses?
In Sinister Resonance, the role of the listener and sound’s relation with non-auditory expression directs David Toop into provocative questions like the ones above. Toop has written for The Wire and mapped the outer reaches of musical expression in books such as Exotica and Haunted Weather. Toop is a listener as Borges was a reader. In a passage of musical reverie in his book’s opening pages, Toop fondly recalls “chants of Ethiopian Coptic debteras”, “Tim Buckley’s ‘Starsailor’”, “John Zorn’s The Clavicle of Soloman”, “vocal polyphony from Corsica”, and “Japanese gagaku court music”.
Toop applies his omnivorous listening tastes to a distinctively ethereal brand of sound studies. The author is cognizant of the intangible, even ghostly, qualities of resonance. He understands that what we hear can spook us at a deeper, more unsettling, and more animal level than what we observe. His introduction (or Prelude in this case) states “sound is a haunting, a ghost, a presence whose location in space is ambiguous and whose existence in time is transitory. The intangibility of sound is uncanny.”
This premise directs Toop into cultural forms of listening and how sound is portrayed in art and literature. His term, “forensic listening” is doubly apt: it denotes approaching sound with a scientific attention while also summoning up some disconcerting postmortem connotations. At its most enlightening, Toop’s writing attains a feverish energy when presenting an argument, willingly following tangents, and splitting the difference between words and music with delightfully poetic language. Magpies, for example, are describes as having a “forty-fags-a-day rasp and hack”.
Nowhere is this freewheeling intellectual performance better realized than in Part I of Sinister Resonance. Entitled “Aeriel – Notes Toward a History of Listening”, this section covers, just to name a few things, the mythology of Pan (and his flutes), the challenges of birdsong notation, neonatal hearing, and what Walter Benjamin heard when he took hash. Interspersed between these topics are cultural theories about portable listening devices and the discomforts of both awkward silences and oppressive noise. Though anchored to the theme of liminal hearing, this section soars with the improvisatory flair of a lanky saxophone run.
It’s in “Part II: Vessels and Volumes”, that a lag in energy sets in. To correlate the writing to a musical improvisation once again, Toop lands on a phrase and repeats it too often. The “phrase” is an investigation of sound in non-auditory representation, specifically painting. Beginning from the cryptic, vaguely Tao-sounding sounding note by Marcel Duchamp that “One can look at seeing; one can’t hear hearing,” several paintings are listened to and heard. (It’s done much like our experiment with The Scream above.)
What Toop is implying is undeniably brilliant. Prior to recording technology, sound was “recorded” in non-musical mediums like writing and painting. (Even musical notation is silent; without a performer it remains as quiet as a dead cell phone.) This listening to oils is extremely subjective, however. Getting the most “plays” is 17th century Dutch artist Nicolaes Maes, whose Eavesdropper paintings portrayed overheard moments of domestic naughtiness in chocolaty, Rembrandt-esque hues.
The sound-via-painting theme drags on in painting after painting and the listening is often much too close. Few readers will share Toop’s wish, when observing the still life paintings of Adraen Coorte, to hear “an organic music which can register the infinitely slow decay of strawberries.”
Fortunately, the remaining two sections are harmonious. Here are supernatural literature’s creaks and spectral moans heard in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Bram Stoker’s portentous animal noises, and the imposing atmospheres of E.T.A Hoffmann. These are “anomalous sounds” that “may border on hallucination or madness”.
Following the din of madness, the work concludes on a note of silence. In this domain the smallest sounds are amplified. There’s a taxonomy of air texture (Hissing Air, Putty Air, Dampened Air, etc.) and a listening to the heavy nothingness of monochrome painting. Sinister Resonance is both a timeless survey of sound’s intangibility and a significant voice in the study contemporary hearing. Toop proves the mystery of sound is also its appeal.