Wednesday, September 12, 2007

DAVID TOOP, Ocean of Sound : Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds
(Serpent's Tail)
Mojo, 1995

If Ocean of Sound has an argument, it's that ambient isn't a genre so much as a "way of listening". Almost any music can be used as meditational backdrop or
everyday aural decor, if you turn the volume to a whisper; conversely, almost any
music can become immersive, a medium in which the listener is suspended and
wombed, if it's cranked out through a massive sound system. Ambient, David Toop
notes, has become "one of those polysemous glue words which stick wherever they
land". Hence the proliferation in recent years of all manner of hybrid genres,
ranging from the likely (ambient dub, ambient techno) to seeming contradictions-in-terms like ambient jungle (soothing New Age synths over frenetic, jolting beats) and ambient grunge (the Sabbath-meets-Eno instrumental band Earth).

Ocean of Sound doesn't really proceed by argument, however, but by unfurling filaments of observations, anecdotes, quotations and insights. Each chapter traces one of the cat's cradle of historical threads that have converged to
constitute 'ambient' as we now know it. Toop looks at the fantasies of a subaquatic utopia that links Javanese gamelan, Debussy, Jimi Hendrix, whalesong recorder Roger Payne and avant-disco producer Arthur Russell; he explores the dream of a "One World" music pursued by Stockhausen, Miles Davis, Can and Jon Hassell; he considers the magical effects of echo, from prehistoric caves and Medieval cathedrals to dub reggae and Pauline Oliveros's "resonant music". Along the way, topics like shamanism, chaos theory, the studio-as-instrument and mass-media culture as an "information ocean" are probed; the Aphex Twin and Mick Harris of Scorn can be heard enthusing about the inspiration they gleant from the hum of power stations, fridges and radiators; lost innovators like Richard Maxfield, Basil Kirchin and Phill Niblock are plucked from history's dustbin.

A soundscape-creator himself, Toop shares the musician's distate for categories, bombastic judgements and over-weaning theories. In the spirit of his diffuse subject, Toop lets inferences and implications spread out in ever-widening ripples. Even individual sentences often proceed likewise, as a chain of supplementary clauses (freefloating ideas, imagistic metaphors etc) that gradually recedes into the horizon. Some may find the lack of narrative thrust or polemical punch slightly frustrating. But if you let yourself go with the flow, you'll find Ocean of Sound a scintillating read.


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