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Ocean of Sound by David Toop

carl recommended (and loaned) this book to me as a possible companion piece to Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise. He was absolutely right; it was a fine companion piece. The two books cover some of the same figures: Claude Debussy (same anecdote about his exposure to gamelan music at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition), John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Terry Riley. The subject of Terry Riley is one where the two books show their differences, however. Riley is a minor figure in Ross' book, which focuses more on Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams from the American minimalists. Riley is a major figure in Toop's book, and Reich and Glass are hardly mentioned at all. Toop also writes quite a bit about Edgard Varese, and I don't remember Ross writing much about him.

It's a bit difficult to synopsize Toop's book. The subtitle is "aether talk, ambient sound and imaginary worlds." You could say that the central topic is ambient music (and the central figure Brian Eno, referred to a bit cloyingly as "Brian" throughout). But beyond ambient music, Toop is concerned with the the opening of Western music to all kinds of different influences (including Asian music, as signaled by the anecdote about Debussy's exposure to gamelans) and to the related opening and dissolution of Western musical structures in various ways. I would say the book is focused on electronic music, but Toop is also fascinated by people like La Monte Young and Pauline Oliveros who compose avant garde music with acoustic instruments as well. He's basically interested here in any kind of music that's moving away from traditional compositional techniques or structures or sounds, although he's really not interested at all in serialism. Another thread is the fascination with natural or environmental sound as a source of music.

Toop's approach is appropriately digressory and associative. This is not a book of grand theory, but one of anecdotes and examples and dreams and tidbits and mini-interviews that strike chords without having an obvious logical connection to each other. It's not all about music and sound either. There's a fair amount of material about drugs and shamanism and rave culture. (Ocean of Sound was published in 1995.) The major weakness of the book, to my mind, is a certain hip, bohemian attitude that feels rather privileged and insular and economically detached. Perhaps it made me uncomfortable because that's the world I live in. These are my people, if only aspirationally. Some of my best friends are pagan hippies!

Unlike Ross' book, Toop is talking about a lot of music I've been listening to all along -- Eno, Harold Budd, Jon Hassell, Miles Davis, Robert Fripp, Frank Zappa, John Cale, David Byrne. When I was reading Ross' book, it got me thinking about the post-War period when things fell apart and a thousand movements blossomed, and I thought of it as the electronics revolution. That's very much what Toop is on about. Another way to look at it is that his central subject is the studio and how it became a compositional instrument in that period. I found it utterly fascinating, even if I personally could've done with a bit less shamanism. Highly recommended.



( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 3rd, 2013 06:45 pm (UTC)
I'll have to read this book. Next time I'm over the hill at Santa Cruz, which has it.

Does he discuss Lou Harrison at all?
Apr. 3rd, 2013 06:56 pm (UTC)
If Lou Harrison is mentioned, I think it's only in passing, although I may be misremembering. I did stumble upon a piece of gamelan music composed by Harrison that I had on my computer without realizing it, and it may have been because of reading Toop's book. I had actually heard the piece enough times on shuffle that I recognized it, but I had never realized it was something by Harrison. I think carl must've given it to me some time ago.
Apr. 4th, 2013 03:13 am (UTC)
Almost completely unrelated: My college advisor was a Terry Riley.
Apr. 4th, 2013 05:50 am (UTC)
I'm almost certain a better man than I could turn that into a joke about "In C".
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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