Björk’s new album Utopia is threaded with samples of recordings by English author and sonic experimenter David Toop. What’s his relationship with the Icelandic icon’s work, how did his 1980 album Hekura – one of Björk’s favorites – come to be, and what’s his own vision of utopia? Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy finds out.
David Toop had an odd experience watching the 2009 adaptation of one of his favorite Cormac McCarthy novels, The Road. He didn’t think much of the film, but he found a horrific sequence involving a group of people imprisoned as a cannibal gang’s meals-to-be particularly powerful. Suddenly, a scream coming from the screen struck him, bolting him upright – Toop’s own recording of a Yanomami ritual were placed in the movie without his knowledge.
“My first response was to feel outrage,” he tells me. “Obviously they thought they would get away with it, that I wouldn’t notice because it was a fragment. But you know,” he pauses and chuckles knowingly, “I’m well-known in this field.”
Ethnomusicology isn’t the only field where Toop is well-known. Musically, he’s gone from playing Top of the Pops with avant-garde group The Flying Lizards to releasing intense found-music projects (last year’s Entities Inertias Faint Beings) and gnarled rock and roll (this past October’s Dirty Songs LP). He’s written books about hip-hop (1984’s Rap Attack), the history of ambience (Ocean of Sound) and pre-‘70s improvisational music (Into the Maelstrom) and contributed to magazines like The Face and Wire.
He’s also well known to one Björk Guðmundsdóttir. In an interview this summer for Dazed magazine, the Icelandic icon revealed that his album Hekura’s birdsong recordings would be prominently sampled throughout her new LP, Utopia (this time, with credit). Ahead of Utopia’s release, we spoke with David Toop for the lowdown on one of Björk’s favorite albums.
How did Hekura come together?
In the mid-‘70s, I got a job in a central London bookshop, there I met a Venezuelan guy called Nestor Figueras. We became friends and I had the same ambition to make a kind of journey [into shamanistic communities]. I was very interested in shamanism from my early 20s or so [and] was increasingly fascinated by all of these different musics from around the world. He was also very interested in the Yanomami [tribe] who lived in Venezuela and Brazil – we used to drink together and start talking about these possibilities and gradually it became a project. After the bookshop, he went to live in Venezuela with his partner Odile [Voisin, photographer for the Yanomami excursion]. Back in Caracas, he began to plan this whole expedition and met with one of the anthropologists working within a Yanomami community and that enabled him to make up a kind of rough plan.
In the early 2000s I visited an Amazonian community in Peru and travelled by boat for hours. I can only imagine how different it was making that journey in 1978.
It was three wooden boats lashed together by Warao Indians delivering supplies to missions on the Orinoco: they had a big fiberglass water tank, desks and chairs for children, filing cabinets. Plus there was a family, a dog and children – it took 15 days to even get to the first place but of course many things happened on that initial part of the journey. You know, hunting crocodiles and all kinds of stuff. [laughs] From there we went to the first Yanomami settlements and that’s when, you know, the real trip began. That’s where I began to record shamanistic healing ceremonies and the chanting and singing and so on.
What [Björk’s] used are the night time recordings of birds and insects between tracks. When I reissued the record [as 2015’s Lost Shadows: In Defence of the Soul], I included more of that material, partly because I had the space to do so. The original release was pretty much devoted to the Yanomami shamanistic stuff and their songs. But my ideas changed in relation to the material: I felt that these nocturnal recordings of bird and insect sounds were like a kind of framing, a context. Between the sounds of bioacoustic and environmental sounds and the Yanomami’s belief systems and the shamanistic imagery and so on, it is very important to include more. So I’m very happy that she wants to use that.
When did you first hear about the interest Björk had in your work? In the Dazed interview, it mentions that she felt this way about the album Hekura, not the Lost Shadows reissue.
She got in touch with me when Lost Shadows was released and said she was really happy it was out. That it’s referred to as Hekura suggests to me that maybe she has an original copy of it. And if she has, that’s extraordinary. I only pressed 500 and in the ‘70s, that was a very small run.
The first time she ever contacted me was when she was working on the Lars Von Trier film [Dancer In The Dark]. I think for her, it was very dispiriting because she’d written this music she wanted people to be talking about and instead they were talking about these ridiculous made-up stories of what was happening between her and Lars Von Trier [editor’s note: since this interview took place, Björk has alleged Von Trier sexually harassed her during the film’s making for the first time publicly, accusations Von Trier has denied]. So she asked me if I would write something about the music she’d written for that film. I think she just wanted a kind of serious reflection because her role as somebody who composes or works in the studio has always been underestimated.
Björk samples birdsong on Utopia, so there may not be that question of where the credit lies with the samples, but in the instance of The Road filmmakers using your shamanistic field recordings, where did the credit lie with you? Obviously, you recorded it.
I felt very conflicted by it, to be honest. But at the same time, I didn’t feel it was my music. I could end up spending years chasing money and then what would I do with it? It would not be morally right, I think, to then take that money… maybe I could do something for the Yanomami? I don’t know. It just felt like a massive headache. So I just left it and it still actually preys on my mind a bit really. But I think it’s a complex issue and I think maybe one of the things you’re implying a little bit is the difficult issue of the relationship with the recordists to somebody else’s music. But to a certain extent I think if you release a record, you be can’t be naive about it. You’re releasing material into a world of copyrights.
What I should say about this part of the conversation – as far as I know, Björk is just using the birds. That’s what she said to me, she said “I want to use your birds”, heh.
You’ve written about in the past that nature and humanity aren’t truly separate, and that’s a big part of Björk’s music. Did you find a lot of her music is about that relationship?
I was trying to think about an ecology, a kind of network of relations so that we understand it’s all nature. You know, we were not separate from nature and nature is all of the objects that surround us. There’s a flow between us as human beings and everything else in the world. And I personally never saw the objects outside of myself as inert or dead things, I thought that everything has life.
It’s a very strong part of current thinking. And if you read somebody like Timothy Morton – who did this exchange with Björk [in her book Archives] – he talks a lot about this kind of thing. So yeah, I do feel a kind of resonance with a lot of the things that she’s doing, even though what she does and what I do are very different in our respects. If you look at her videos, you get this idea of the softening of boundaries between human and non-human, it’s very strong in her work.
In an interview with The Quietus you mentioned that you had writer’s block and what helped bring you back to that creative resonance was birdsong.
I spent some time alone on a mountain called Tambourine Mountain in Queensland as a kind of writing residency but couldn’t write a word. Mainly what I did was listen to birdsong in the daytime which is just extraordinary. It’s incredible. Just listening and sometimes whistling along, trying to imitate them and trying to remember them – because I didn’t have any recording equipment there. So just trying to really implant in my experience the richness of the birdsong. Not so long after that, I started to put [Entities Inertias Faint Beings] together.
I’d love to hear your opinion on Björk and Arca’s own birdsong recordings for Utopia.
I gather that they’ve done some themselves, so that’s going to be interesting.
Do you know what technology they used?
No, I don’t. But she knows [contemporary field recording artists] Chris Watson and Jez riley French, she’s very up on all this stuff. She knows what she’s doing.
In Ocean of Sound, you describe ambience as “aether” throughout, and I was wondering if it is odd to become – for lack of a better word – the aether in another artist’s vision?
I don’t think so because I think that’s how it works. You know, there’s a kind of fluency that operates between people that have sympathetic understandings and I think it’s one of the ways that ideas progress.
There was a quote from Ocean of Sound I want to read to you: “A problem with utopias is that they tend to be closed systems, frozen in their supposed perfection and therefore, boring, imprisoning and fanatical.” Björk’s new album functions as a “blueprint for a utopia”. In regards to what you wrote in your book and especially now, what do you think of the idea of utopia?
I was very interested when I read what she was saying and in many words, I agree with it. I think that this is the time that really needs some kind of utopian, visionary thinking. We really need to push it in that sense to kickstart ourselves out of this nightmare. And I think as practical propositions, utopias exactly conform to what I was saying in Ocean of Sound. But that’s not what she’s talking about. I think it’s just finding out new ways of thinking: to resist what’s going on, and all of that coming through the work we do – the music and the writing and performing and so forth.
Finally, are you prepared for the Discogs resale price for Hekura to go through the roof?
Yeah, but good luck finding a copy! I’ve only got one copy myself.
Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy is a freelance writer. Find him on Twitter.