David Toop

Ocean Of Sound

Published in 1995 Ocean Of Sound is David Toop’s exploration of the concept of ambience and the world around us. It’s an extraordinary work of sonic history that travels through hundreds of years of music whilst dipping into a rare wealth of knowledge and experience on the topic. It’s quite difficult to really describe the breadth of this book from interviews, criticisms, history and memory, Toop cycles through worlds to be discovered and appreciated. There are also many short biographies of some of the most influential musicians and their contribution to modern music. It’s an encyclopaedic piece of work and is a stimulating read from start to finish.

‘This past hundred years of expansiveness in music, a predominantly fluid, non-verbal, non-linear medium, has been preparing us for the electronic ocean of the next century.’

As the world has moved towards becoming an ocean of information, so the music has become more immersive. Listeners float in the ocean of sound as musicians have become virtual travellers, creators of sonic theatre and transmitters of signals received across the aether.

The line between music and sound has been blurred during the 20th century and continues to be tested to its limits in the 21st century. From the influence of gamelan music on Debussy, Sun Ra’s travels into the outer imagination and Brian Eno’s focus on functionalism, contemporary music is an amalgam of eclectic ideas transformed in such a way that genre becomes limiting and the boundaries become limitless.

Toop defines the word ambient as meaning anything around that affects you in some way, so it could be soft and smooth but also tense and sometimes stressful. He explores the nature of ambience as something that is not only related to music but every part of the world around us. Sound is fundamental to our own perception and the feelings we get from them are for the most part inexplicable. Music has been transformed over the last few centuries by musicians who have attempted to explore the limits of what this means. To quote Edgard Varèse:

‘Deserts mean to me not only the physical deserts of sand, sea, mountains and snow, of outer space, of empty city streets...but also that remote inner space no telescope can reach, where man is alone is a world of mystery and essential loneliness.’

The second half of the book has six chapters titled ‘Altered states’ exploring different aspects of the world that have an underlying role in the formation of modern music. Toop goes over the story of John Cage’s 4’33” and the origins of prepared piano whilst dissecting parts of society and cultural oddities that can be paralleled with changes in music, from Javanese myths to the way people view buying goods.

‘I imagine people would like to have a rich life by buying or using some goods to make their life rich. When I use the word rich, it’s not only for physical things but mental and spiritual.’

The exploration continues into Fourth World Theory which Toop refers to quite a lot as he gives anecdotes to his experiences across the rainforests of Amazonas and his encounters with various tribes. His focus is on the way shamanism attempts to find a higher consciousness through music.

These chapters are scattered with interesting interviews from Brian Eno, Aphex Twin and David Lynch to biographies of underrated artists such as Edgard Varèse, Angus Maclise and La Monte Young. There is so much to enjoy across this book and the digressions are fascinating, even as they jump about from topic to topic. In this case it works really well and feels as if you’re inside Toop’s brain as he jumps from different ideas and thoughts that explore the nature and history of ambience and sound.

It’s hard to comprehend the breadth of this book, I feel like I learned so much and it touched on so many things that I want to explore in more depth in the future. It caused me to look at different pieces of music in a broader context and explore their historical background. However, more fundamentally it was just a fascinating read and really enjoyable from start to finish.

‘I always felt that music took off where words stopped.’