'Into the Maelstrom' Provides a Fascinating View of 20th Century Underground Movements

by John Paul

8 August 2016

Free music performer and writer David Toop spends much of his latest effort exploring the philosophical and artistic movements from which pre-1970 performers drew inspiration.
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Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom: Before 1970

David Toop

US: May 2016

If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, how does one even begin to write about something as ephemeral and elusive as spontaneous improvisation, let alone its history? These performances are meant to exist in the moment, the result of real-time composition that, without the benefit of our present recording technology, live only within the memories of those who were there. Attempting to track the history and evolution of such music would then seem something of a fool’s errand with little to no aural documents existing pre-mid-20th century to analyze, and only the subjective views of those who experienced the music firsthand to go on. 

Yet that’s just what David Toop seeks to do with his latest, a densely philosophical exploration of improvised and free music and the motivating factors behind its creation in the years prior to 1970. It’s a heady topic made all the more so by Toop’s erudite prose and penchant for obscure references, cursory mentions of assorted artistic movements and fluctuating tone. This is not to say that Into the Maelstrom is unreadable. To the contrary, it requires the same focus and close attention needed to appreciate and consume the music being described.

Like the music itself, Toop’s writing ebbs and flows, often losing focus on the initially stated thesis and wandering off into a discussion of his own work within the field of improvisational and free music. Despite making his intentions known of penning a second volume to cover improvisational music post-1970, Toop spends much of his time exploring performances well after the titular cut-off year. Not that this is necessarily a detriment, given the greater contextual analysis Toop provides by granting an insider’s perspective on this oft-misunderstood approach to musical creativity, his time-hopping shows the glut of improvisational and free musics having taken place in the latter half of the 20th century.

Adding to that, much of the pre-1970 performances discussed are purely anecdotal, having existed solely within the moment they were created and not recorded to allow additional analysis. Toop plays into this idea when he asks several collaborators to write down their recollections of a performance in which they all participated. Their responses, all very Rashomon-esque, range from the deeply personal to the mildly disinterested, each having a slightly different recollection of the performance itself, illustrating just how lost within the music they can get.

All of the expected major players are present and given their due, but Toop seems more interested in the theoretical practices behind those who engage in free and improvisational music rather than assessing their musical output or even their basic practices. A well-respected improviser, author and music critic himself, Toop seeks to get to the root of the why rather than the how. In a telling passage pertaining to British guitarist Derek Bailey, Toop finds himself chasing Bailey’s evasive responses to his inquest as to why he creates the way he does. It’s quickly made clear that, as with most musicians, there is not a clear, well-defined answer to such a question short of a paraphrased “because it’s there”.

While improvisational and free music is the book’s purported theme and focus, Toop expands his reach well beyond the music world, providing far greater artistic and philosophical contextualization that helps place each era’s major figures within their adjacent artistic movement. In this, Toop spends time drawing connections between Dadaism and the advent of more sonically adventurous musicians exploring “non-music”. Due to the constant barrage of references to a wide range of artistic movements and the philosophies on which they are based, Into the Maelstrom requires a fair amount of external reading and research in order to better understand many of the points at which Toop is driving. In this, it proves a fascinating view of 20th century underground movements well beyond that of music alone.

Yet this highbrow academic approach works against the text, too often bogging down Toop’s narrative flow with densely structured paragraphs, tangents and history lessons. While all this is interesting, it often strays too far from the topic at hand and proves more a distraction than asset to the text. But given the ephemeral, largely intangible nature of the music discussed, Toop can’t be entirely faulted for finding more to say about the ideologies behind the movements that inspired many early practitioners of free music than the artists themselves. Furthermore, the restrictive subtitle Before 1970 becomes fluid to the point of negating the need for such historical narrative restrictions.

Ultimately, Into the Maelstrom serves as more of an overview of the myriad philosophical and artistic schools of thought that helped shape those who would eventually explore the extremes and possibilities of sound. In this, it almost feels as though the music Toop set out to discuss became secondary to the underground and often radical movements from which they spawned. Those looking for an overview of free and improvisational music will find themselves spending more time wading through many of the artists’ inspirations than the artists themselves or their work. Into the Maelstrom ultimately proves as elusive and frustrating as the subject it seeks to capture.

Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom: Before 1970


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