It seems as if every book title has to have a subtitle these days and Ocean of Sound is no exception: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds provides a useful clue to Toop's wide-ranging interests. The book discusses ambient music in passing, touching on Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, The Orb, Mixmaster Morris, Jon Hassell, Harold Budd, Scanner, Paul Schütze, Pauline Oliveros, Thomas Köner and others. It also explores more wide-ranging musical points of reference, such as John Cage, Claude Debussy, Luigi Russolo, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Terry Riley, Derek Bailey, R. Murray Schafer and John Oswald.
But it's also about virtual reality, shamanism, semi-mythical invented instruments, science fiction, post-modernism, environmental sound, the digital revolution, and more. One moment Toop will recount a dream, the next he'll be discussing post-modern philosophy, and then it's on to an autobiographical episode or an interview with a musician. Trivia, theory, anecdote: it's all here.
Ocean of Sound is a survey of the disintegration of all music and sound in the twentieth century, taking Debussy's encounters with gamelan music as a possible point of departure. For Toop, it has become increasingly difficult to tell music apart from background noise, and increasingly unnecessary to differentiate. Music has lost the plot: narrative and structure have been replaced by decentring and formlessness. Space has become more important to music than time.
I'll admit to having in the past found Toop's writing opaque: shoe-horned into a record review or magazine interview, speculation of the sort that fills Ocean of Sound often seems irrelevant. Here, however, everything coalesces, everything makes sense.
It's easily one of the best music books I've read in years, articulate and enlightening. This is true however much I disagree with Toop's generally positive attitude towards the musical trends he surveys.
At one point he writes: "Blankness - at best a stillness which suggests, rightly or wrongly, political passivity; at worst, a numbness which confirms it - may be one aspect of losing the anchor, circling around an empty centre or whatever the condition is. But openness, another symptom of the condition, may be more significant." I find his willingness to promote post-modern escapism and ignore the "political passivity" which these musical trends breed to be a little disagreeable, but it's a mark of Toop's ability to deal with such substantial issues that his ideas are so provocative. Recommended.