WACKY composer David Toop doesn’t just think outside the box – he uses one when he’s making music.
Cardboard boxes will be among the array of unusual items the acclaimed sound artist will be using at Bangor Music Festival, along with components from hearing aids and old fashioned cassette players.
Toop will also be using more conventional instruments like a guitar and flute when he stars at the event, which takes place on February 17 and 18.
The theme for this year’s festival, now established as a highlight on Wales’s cultural calendar, is Improvisation.
According to co-founder and organiser Guto Pryderi Puw, there will be a host of workshops and educational projects as well as the usual concerts.
He said: “The 2023 festival promises to be an event that offers a wide variety of music with something for everyone. A prime example of this is David Toop’s concert and talk during the festival’s Improvisation Day on Friday, February 17.”
Since the early 1970s David Toop has been a significant presence on the British experimental and improvised music scene, playing guitar and flute in the duo, Rain In the Face.
During that time he has collaborated with many other musicians including Brian Eno and been a member of the experimental new wave band, the Flying Lizards, who had a top 10 hit in the summer of 1979 with their version of Money (That’s What I Want), which had also been recorded by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
In recent years David Toop was professor of audio culture and improvisation at the London College of Communication until his retirement in 2021.
Describing the forthcoming performance, he said: “I’m an artist who works with sounds in some way or another and as a category it’s very broad so it’s impossible to give a proper description but it’s someone whose primary material is sound or listening. I always include the listening bit because I think that’s really important. You’re not just thinking about the sound but about the way we listen.
“I play the guitar and the flute as well as electronic instruments. I took up the guitar when I was a young teenager and then I started playing the flute in my late teens. I started making my own instruments in the early 1970s and over time moved over more towards electronics. These days I’m working with a really odd collection of materials so it’s impossible to say what I might play on the day. It depends how I feel really.
“One of the things I use are bone conduction speakers, the kind of things you get in hearing aids. Basically, the idea is that sound is conducted through the bones of your skull but the way I use them is to connect them, or place them close to, resonating chambers, which is a very grand way of saying a cardboard box or a tin can and each of those amplifies in a different way.”
David’s material for those speakers are stored on cassette tapes that he’s had in his possession for half a century.
“These are very much part of my personal history and I use cheap cassette players and play these very old cassettes of very different kinds of music and amplify them by using different surfaces, very humble materials like cardboard boxes,” he said.
The story of how David came to have the tapes follows a letter he wrote to the BBC.
“With the arrogance of youth I told the BBC it had a duty to play more traditional music from around the world, more nature and wildlife sounds because habitats for animals were threatened and a lot of traditional musics were dying out and people needed to be made aware of this music and sounds.
“Obviously I just got a reply saying thank you for your inquiry, but a couple of months later I got a really interesting letter from a producer who was a BBC sound archivist for Radio 3 and she completely agreed with everything I’d said and asked me in for a chat. And she invited me to make a programme which was a huge thing for me as I was very young.
“They allowed me to go into the BBC sound archives and listen to what they had. Later, when they had got to trust me, they let me borrow these records. Everything was on ten inch vinyls and I took them home, which was incredible.
“Of course, and I shouldn’t have done this, I copied these records onto cassettes so I’ve got this collection of very rare music from all over the world.”
Guto, who works as a music lecturer at Bangor University’s Department of Music, Drama and Performance, said he was looking forward to hearing David Toop’s performance.
“He has been a leading practitioner of experimental and improvised music making for many years and I am delighted he will be at the festival this year. I’m sure his performance, and the workshop he will lead and the keynote speech he will deliver, will be amongst the highlights of the festival this year,” he said.
In addition to the improvised music concert by David Toop, there will be a concert that features new works by Richard Barrett, the Swansea-born composer who is a leading exponent of improvised acousmatic music.
Many of his works will be performed by Barrett’s wife, the talented Serbian harpist Milana Zarić.
The concert in Pontio’s Bryn Terfel Theatre on February 18 also features the innovative Electroacoustic Wales and also includes a performance of a piece by Bangor University PhD student Sara Pinheiro. It will also feature new commissions by Robin Haigh and Poumpak Charuprakorn as part of the William Mathias Composition Prize.
Earlier that day there will be live performances at Pontio with Marie-Claire Howorth introducing music to children aged six months to three years old and later with four to seven year olds. These sessions are staged in collaboration with Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias (CGWM).
Guto said at lunchtime there will be a concert by the Tern ensemble in the Studio at Pontio that focuses on group improvisation with Phil Wachsmann on violin, Martin Hackett on keyboards and Emil Karlsen on percussion.
“At Bar Ffynnon from 2pm young talented performers from CGWM will be performing an eclectic mix of music for soloists and ensembles.
“The Bangor New Music Ensemble will present a work from the Codex series by Richard Barrett and pieces composed by composition students, including Toghill’s Map by Joel Pike, Sensitivity by Scott Wearing, Crystaline by Archie Alexander and The Lake by Anastasia Zaponidou.
“There will be an improvisation workshop open to the public with Phil Morton and friends in the Pontio Siop before a pre-concert talk with Richard Barrett, Milana Zarić and the other featured composers, in the company of festival chairperson Rhiannon Mathias,” he added.