"Ocean of Sound"
by David Toop
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 4th April 2009I've had this book for a long time and I was afraid that it was going to be hard work, mainly because I haven't heard a lot of the music that David Toop writes about (that said, it didn't stop me reading a biography of Miles Davis back in 1998). But in fact it turned out to be a very interesting and very readable tour around the many and various facets of "ambient music". The book takes its starting point as Debussy's first encounter with Javanese music at the Paris Exposition in 1889, and the influence of non-European music on the work of European composers at that time - but from there it moves onto electronic music, dub, sampling, jazz, performance art and many others.
Somehow all these are linked by having some kind of "ambient" influence. However, Toop doesn't try to offer any definition of what ambient music actually is. Instead he in each chapter he considers different ways in which the environment is expressed in music - from the overt use of direct samples, through recorded "environmental" sounds, dialogue and so on, to more subtle ways in which music expresses something more to do with the psyche. Along the way he takes in everything from prehistory and "primitive" imitative music to modern electronica.
It's an interesting if somewhat meandering journey (one of my favourite parts of the book is an almost hallucinary description of a trip to the Amazon to record various rituals of local tribal peoples), and once which prompts various fundamental questions. For example, if background noise can be considered to be music, then what is music anyway? Who decides - the musician, or the listener? (Illustrative of this is an anecdote about the composer Philip Glass, who saw no problem listening to recorded music in his apartment mixed in with the noise of roadworks outside - to him it was all the same.) Why is sampling in music seen as plagarism whereas in literature referring to parts of an existing canon is perfectly acceptable? And, what is the function of music? In modern Western society it's very much seen as a form of entertainment, but in other times and cultures music served other more ritual purposes.
I'm not sure that this kind of musing is to everyone's taste, however I really did enjoy reading it in the end, and clearly I'm still mulling it over now. It may have taken a while to get around to but it was definitely worth the wait.