G. J. STRENGHOLT
|(DAVID TOOP) Ocean of Sound, aethertalk, ambient sound and imaginary worlds London 1995 ISBN 1-85242-382-x English text 306 pp £ 10.99 review by GEERT J. STRENGHOLT|
|Rainy day, somewhere in the early eighties. After spending an hour or so at Staalplaat, the main independent provider of real independent music on tape-cassettes at the time, I returned home with my catch of the day. Among the hundreds of cassette-releases I found an issue of Touch magazine. Touch was one of the first curated music/sound compilations, a collaborative project in a package designed by Neville Brody. This particular issue was themed Travelogue. So after hitting the play button on my tapedeck I found myself criss-crossing the globe to a seamless aural mix of music and environmental sounds. Immediatelystruck by a powerful field-recording of a Yanomami shaman, I was lured into full immersion by the sounds of the Amazon rain forest.
Some fifteen years later I came across the same recording on another curated compilation - this time on cd and released by major label Virgin - called Ocean of Sound. The double cd jumped back and forth among new and historical material and genres. A musical travelogue exploring confrontations as well as unexpected congruencies in what seemed to be my very own collection of records. Reading the liner notes, the cd turned out to be the companion to a book by the same title, written by journalist/musician David Toop.
|Ocean of Sound (the book) is a loosely
composed collection of disparate essays and references, diary-entries and interviews, travelnotes and hallucinations. It comes across as a collection of samples, rearranged, reshuffled and remixed, temporarily frozen in this particular order. Through a variety of subjects and frequent diversions it explores the role of (ambient) sound in twentieth century music and the faculty of listening, the 'focused attention' to sound that inevitably surrounds us. Toop observes an almost mainstream acceptance of ambient music and traces the changing attitude towards (environmental) sound through a hundred years of musical genres. From Debussy's encounter with Gamelan music, through Pierre Schaefer's discovery of the studio as instrument in Musique Concrete, to the virtual electro-jazz of Miles Davis and Teo Macero, and more recently the machinistic and artificial sounds of hyperythmic drum'n bass.
Among the myriad of threads in Ocean of Sound - some merely touched upon, some discussed in more detail - there are a few topics that have proven to be recurrent themes among both musicians , music-critics and media-theorists . Toop's exploration of the immersive quality of sound - music as space - has coincided with a widespread discussion of possible music in imaginary sound space. British music mag The Wire has featured a complete series on the subject of imaginary soundscapes and soundtracks. Belgian filmmagazine Andere Sinema followed its duo-review of Ocean of Sound with several discussions, interviews and articles covering similar ground. Throughout the book Toop describes the capability of sound to narrate and describe space which allows musicians to create strange new worlds, alternative refuges and temporary autonomous zones. Gimme two records and I'll make you a universe states DJ Spooky (Tha Subliminal Kid) in one of the many forum discussions following the publication of Ocean of Sound. In another, close collaborator and composer in his own right Paul Schütze describes these imaginary soundscapes as landscapes of sound with visual narrative resonance. Soundscapes as spatial representations of memory, sonic architecture charting memory. As other writers and certainly many musicians/DJ's have done in recent years Toop partly roots of these forays into musical space in the otherworldly experiments of Sun Ra and Miles Davis. Sun Ra's Afro-futurist space adventures and his quest for an essentially alien, black world, have been seriously reappreciated by TripHop DJ's and studio-composers alike. The same goes for Miles Davis' electronic cyberfunk from the early seventies. Davis teamed up with producer Teo Macero, to explore the advanced possibilities of the sound studio. Based on a collection of live takes they created artificial universes of sounds based on overdubs and special effects. The 'live-albums' from this period - from Bitches Brew to Dark Magus - are really artificial improvisations that have no place in actual space and time, but conjure up mythic civilisations on lost continents like Agharta and Pangaea.
|Toop is well aware of the political connotations of buried deep in the musical ventures of Sun Ra and Miles Davis. Surprisingly he seems little concerned with the almost neo-colonial strains running strongly in presentday music. From ambient house to so called 'realworld' music sampling and (eurocentric) remixing play havoc with ethnic music without much regard for its intrinsic value. This 'steal and mix' attitude of exotic sounds sometimes closely resembles the attitude of people like Les Baxter and Martin Denny who coined the term exotica in the fifties. Like Baxter and Denny, Toop seems naively surprised at the unlikely combinations arising in these global, recombinant mixes. At times this turns his book into a superficially exotic travelogue. Hopefully his next book, which will be entirely devoted to the exotica genre, will deal with this in more depth. In Ocean of Sound Toop touches only briefly on these matters. He prefers to focus on utopian projects like Jon Hassel's 4th world music. Toop's own musical aspirations parallel Hassel's version of worldmusic in seeking to create a hypertechnological sound space where different cultures coexist without blending. Both book and audio CD seem to serve a similar purpose.
Although viewed by the general press as a history of ambient music, Ocean of Sound offers no such thing. There is no chronology, no lineage on who influenced whom, no clear definitions or fixed labels. Toop's writing at times grows dense, larded with references and digressions - like his lengthy diary report on his travels in the Amazonas. Ocean of Sound simply beckons you to immerse yourself in Toop's sea of information. Maybe this combination accounts for the reception in the USA where it was considered to be a difficult book. My experience reading the book - pleasantly enveloped by the music on the CD - left me with the feeling that the open associative structure of Ocean of Sound would have made a great website. Updated regularly to include new directions in music it would allow the reader to hubskipp through Toop's sonic universe. His writings might feel more at home in the 'ocean of data' for which, he says, people have been so thoroughly prepared by this century's sound-music.
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