Reflecting on David Toop’s Ocean of Sound

I don’t have any recollection of how I stumbled upon this. I was doing a series of non-event sonic wallpaper gigs as solo guitarist at local cafes and coffee shops around the Detroit-area and working crummy temp jobs during the day. There was no plan. There were no real goals except to not to have to get a full-time job not doing music. I was kind of in between colleges, but that infers I knew where I was going, but really had no idea where the next educational stop was to be. I had never heard of ambient music, and the closest I had gotten to exploring contemplative music was Pink Floyd and some of my own exploratory jams with my first band.

Around that time, I worked at a bank… I remember this only because it was very boring, and I had to be there all day. Because I only had about a half-hour of cumulative work throughout the day, they let me read on the job, so  I did a lot of reading. One of the books that I ended up reading was David Toop’s Ocean of Sound.

I was reminded of this book recently while doing some random perusing of my favorite Web sites and found a link to a PDF of David Toop’s Ocean of Sound… I didn’t think about it a lot, but I did quickly move to take a look at it, for old time’s sake. As I clicked on the PDF and started to look at a flood of memories came rushing in.

I remember the book as being odd, almost impressionistic. There were contemplative writings and impressions on John Cage, Terry Riley (this was where I discovered In C), and LaMonte Young, Brian Eno, and this was where I read about Satie’s Vexations and his ideas of Furniture Music.

I quickly realized that this book, that had consciously left me with the vaguest of impressions had actually left an indelible mark on all that followed my reading it. Ocean of Sound came to influence, rather subconsciously much of my work and my outlook on the sound, music and experiences that I strive for today.

I haven’t gone back and read it, except for a few brief passages, and parts of it are dated, as it preceded the 2000ish blow up of electronic music in the US, and was published near the peak of dance and rave culture in Europe, but, this book, that’s half treatise and half poetry on the experience of sound, is an overlooked classic.

I’ve dedicated a large swath of my life to thinking about music, sound and the experience of it. It’s curious to me now and worthy of investigation on my part, to  just how much of what I read in David Toop’s Ocean of Sound affected my worldview and my perspective on music. Anything and everything that I think about from the perspective of sound and music is touched on in this book.

Thinking of the experience of sound, I reflect on how sound, noise and acoustic ecology are not things that have caught on here in the United States… these things have caught on elsewhere, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, but not as much here; this is important, because central to what I’ve taken from Ocean of Sound, is that we’re living in an ocean of sound, and the more noise that is injected into our sonic lives the more we turn to our iPods or whatever to tune in to our own sonic environment and tune out the world’s. That’s just fine, but what’s lost is the ability to collectively tune-in to the soundworld around us, collectively, and focus on it, which is at the core of what David Toop writes about, being enveloped by sound and the experience of it.

Sound and music is not to just be heard, it’s to be experienced, whether in a performance hall, or standing under buzzing power lines or enjoying a busker doing a rendition of All Along the Watchtower on a city street; the idea of this came to me as I reflected after reading Ocean of Sound. I became more conscious of sound. I found a vocabulary and a context for things I had experienced and felt while listening to music, and also realized that I could make a music where this kind of music/sound experience wasn’t just serendipity, but was the focal point of the work.

All this is to say, reading Ocean of Sound changed me, and it changed the way I hear and listen. Discovering this book again reminds me of that, and it also reminds me that before I discovered this I was missing a large chunk of what was going on around me.

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