"I try to frighten myself": Master musician and curator David Toop on his extraordinary cassette tape archives

By Ben Miller | 26 March 2016

Curator's Choice: David Toop's archive of 200 audio tapes, dating from 1973 to 1995 and featuring BBC vinyl and rehearsals, is a music fan's dream at Wysing Arts Centre

A photo of a series of tapes from the BBC sound archive created by David Toop at Wysing Arts Centre
David Toop, Archives Unspooling (1973/2015)© Photo: Paul Allitt
"The first of these cassettes comes from 1971. I knew people who had reel-to-reel recorders, but they were really geeky types. I couldn’t afford one. Then these portable cassette machines came onto the market. I probably said I wanted one from my parents as a Christmas present in about 1970.

Of course the quality was terrible. The one I had was mono. It had a limiter so as soon as it went above a certain volume level the whole thing crashed. Immediately, for me, it felt like a tool with a huge amount of potential for recording my own music and things off radio, record and even television.

A photo of a series of tapes from the BBC sound archive created by David Toop at Wysing Arts Centre
© Photo: Paul Allitt
There was no simple way to do any of these sort of things – no dedicated cables you could buy off Amazon. You had to figure each one out. It wasn't tiny: that makes you think of iPod shuffles or something. It was like a brick and it had very simple controls: play, forward, reverse and record and probably a volume control.

It had a connection with something like ten really tiny micro pins. I made a lead which went to my record player and connected that to the loudspeaker. It was a complicated arrangement, but that suited the job in a very primitive way. It had a little plastic microphone and I used to record rehearsals.

A photo of a series of tapes from the BBC sound archive created by David Toop at Wysing Arts Centre
© Photo: Paul Allitt
I’d written this letter of complaint to the BBC, getting something off my chest at the age of about 21, saying that I thought it was one thing to talk about habitats or animal species disappearing, but music was disappearing and I felt that was the BBC’s responsibility. I got a fantastically nice reply from the BBC Sound Archive producer, Madeau Stewart.

She was an extraordinary woman: very eccentric, very posh. She was interested in my ideas and invited me in and gave me the run of the archives for more than a year. Most of it was on ten-inch vinyl, although some were on these massive transcription discs, absolutely terrifying. And they let me take things home which was just extraordinary.

A photo of a series of tapes from the BBC sound archive created by David Toop at Wysing Arts Centre
© Photo: Paul Allitt
I would record all these recordings onto my little cassette machine. They all slotted in with the rehearsal tapes and other things. There was a famous recording that John Peel had made of archive recordings, but Madeau was a bit contemptuous of that: she just thought he’d pulled out things that he thought were amusing.

A Zulu wellington boot dance was one of the tracks. Another was a live Jew’s Harp beetle in Papua New Guinea. It’s just somebody with a live beetle on a blade of glass, changing its mouth to change the shape and sequence of the drones.

A photo of a series of tapes from the BBC sound archive created by David Toop at Wysing Arts Centre
© Photo: Paul Allitt
I ignored all the conventional stuff and speech recordings. They had English church bells, Scottish folk tales and superstitions. It was so rich. In the exhibition there are Hindu tongue spearing ceremonies, beetles burying a fieldmouse, things like that.

In the 80s it goes more into mixtapes when I was buying 12” singles of dance music and putting those onto cassette for when we went into the van as musicians. I started working seriously as a music critic in the 80s. I donated most of the interviews to the British Library three years ago, but there were some that slipped the net – Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Pauline Oliveros, La Monte Young.

A photo of a series of tapes from the BBC sound archive created by David Toop at Wysing Arts Centre
© Photo: Paul Allitt
I remember La Monte vividly – we did it at the Almeida Theatre in the café. It was him and Marian Zazeela. I came with some prepared questions, which I don’t normally do. I took in all the recordings I had of him.

He looked through them and was impressed. I think he talked for something like 45 minutes in reply to my first question. I was thinking, ‘how am I going to break into the flow?’ The thing I hadn’t remembered was the music in the café was operatic.

A photo of a series of tapes from the BBC sound archive created by David Toop at Wysing Arts Centre
© Photo: Paul Allitt
He wrote these notoriously long song titles – a paragraph long – and there’s one moment where he says the whole title with this operatic music rising to a crescendo in the background. It’s just a picture of megalomania, fantastically funny. And I’d forgotten that, it just doesn’t come through in the text.

I’ve thought more and more about how all the different elements of my practice and research connect to each other. When I was younger I kept some things secret because I didn’t want them to affect the way I was thought about in that world I was in at the time. But that’s obviously not a good idea for your mental health.

A photo of a series of tapes from the BBC sound archive created by David Toop at Wysing Arts Centre
© Photo: Paul Allitt
I was building a web of relationships through the medium of the cassette and that was very important. I could only afford to buy one or two cheap cassettes and everything got put together on the same C90 cassette. It was bringing all the ideas together into one technological format.

I’m always very conscious of duration. People have this crazy idea in galleries, now, that you’re going to go and watch a three-hour film. That’s not going to happen. I’ve made the mixtapes a reasonable length.

A photo of a series of tapes from the BBC sound archive created by David Toop at Wysing Arts Centre
© Photo: Paul Allitt
I tend to be a very quick decision maker. I just go to a spot on the recording and very often it throws up something that’s good. You assume that you’ve picked the best thing. You could be really methodical and log everything but I’m not sure you’d come up with a better combination of elements in the end. People get assistants in and I think once you do that you lose the connectedness to the material. I never paid anybody to transcribe my tapes because I thought it was important to listen.

I’ve lost some things through domestic turbulence over the years, but I’ve kept the cassettes. I think there’s a problem of getting very settled and complacent about things once you get professional about them. I do things to try to frighten myself, really, and get unsettled.

To some extent technology is against you: there are all these apps that supposedly help simplify things, but really they just rigidify it, and so you’re constantly fighting that. There’s a temptation to make your whole setup more complicated.

I’ll do anything to get people intrigued, engaged and thinking about what they can contribute. If I go back to the first radio programme I did for Stewart, I said I didn’t want to speak in the programme. She said, ‘we can’t allow that, you have to say something.’

The programme was called Crossroads, which was her name, but in a way it was very applicable to all the work I’ve been doing. I wrote these four very cryptic sentences. They probably made it more baffling than it would have been if I’d said nothing.

My idea was to make this programme of ethnographic recordings and birdsong and animal sounds and so on. I wanted it to be confusing. I wanted people to just listen to it and take whatever they wanted to take from it.

She got one letter from a guy in Africa who’d presumably listened to it on the World Service. He said he’d been sitting there with his dogs and had been very confused by it. I loved the idea that this guy had picked up this weird mixtape with some confusing message buried within it.

I do this thing with Evan Parker called Sharpen Your Needles where we play ethnographic recordings. We don’t talk very much. Some people say we don’t talk enough about the music, but that’s not the point – it’s to hear it in a public space with strangers listening to music that you can’t hear in any other circumstance. That, to me, is an extraordinary thing.

To be asked to do things like this exhibition, and then to see people’s reactions, is a surprise, because they’re things that I’ve taken for granted. It represents the beginning of something which turned into quite a complex system and practice. So when someone says, ‘why don’t you just do this?’ I say, ‘yes, I hadn’t thought of that.’ It’s very nice."


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The Sharpen Your Needles events DT does at Cafe Oto is with Evan Parker, not Edwin
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