Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener by David Toop

The Scream (partial) (1893)

Adventures in forensic listening; the intangible, even ghostly, qualities of resonance.

Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener

Publisher: Continuum
Author: David Toop
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Length: 272 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1441149725
Publication Date: 2010-07

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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.