Read an extract from David Toop’s seminal ambient history Ocean of Sound
On 2 August, David Toop’s landmark work Ocean of Sound: Ambient Sound and Radical Listening in the Age of Communication will be republished with a brand new foreword by Michael Faber.
First published in 1995, on the cusp of a new, digital age, Ocean of Sound feels eerily prescient. Even the modest speeds of dial-up promised a new, hyperconnected, globalised space that collapsed boundaries and distance. When Toop states that, “Music in the future will almost certainly hybridise hybrids to such an extent that the idea of a traceable source will become anachronism,” the accuracy of the prophesy is startling.
Most notably of all is Toop’s approach to telling the sprawling, fascinating story of 20th century music. Here Toop, a respected journalist and composer, defies easy categorisation, blending criticism with subjectivity, history and memory to create an expansive, poetic rumination. It remains, some three decades on from its publication, an indispensable work.
In this extract, Toop traces the pervasiveness of minimalism – its various symptoms and how silence is present in every aspect of our lives. Furthermore, he unpacks the myriad of influences that’ve seeped into 21st century ambient music. From Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence to Balinese gamelan and Javanese pop via Hong Kong atmospherics, unfold the layers through Toop’s extract below.
In a 1989 essay entitled “Why Minimalism Now?”, Claire Polin paralleled the emergence of the minimalist musical genre, particularly La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, with minimal American painting of the late 1950s and early 1960s exemplified by Mark Rothko’s huge slabs of muted colour and Ad Reinhardt’s black canvases. She quotes Reinhardt’s outline of the new aesthetic: “… no texture, no drawing, no light, no space, no movement, no object, no subject, no symbol, no form … no pleasure, no pain.” She goes on to say: “Followers, like Olitsky, produced works of unnameable luminous mixed colours that appeared to float in infinite space, or in a spaceless infinity, recalling Pascal’s words: ‘the silence of infinite space fills me with terror’. One feels a weariness of the human spirit, a desire to escape into an enfolding quietude from the pressures of a frenetic, discordant world, a world which, according to Carl Andre, ‘contains too many objects, and now requires some blankness, some tabula rasa’.”
The trance of blankness can invade us in supermarket aisles, waiting in queues, stuck in traffic, driving fast on a motorway, watching television, working a dull job, talking on the telephone, eating in restaurants, even making love. Jack Gladney, narrator of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, hears “an eerie static” emanating from plastic food wrap in his freezer. The sound makes him think of dormant life, moving on the edges of awareness. He searches for certainties, despite fearing them, in a sea of shifting, irrelevant information. In the evenings he watches from the overpass as a drama of spectacular, toxically provoked sunsets unfolds. “May the days be aimless”, he tells himself. “Let the seasons drift.”
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. Musicians have always stolen, borrowed, exchanged or imposed influences, but for the past one hundred years music has become voracious in its openness – vampiric in one respect, colonial in its rabid exploitation, restless, un-centred, but also asking to be informed and enriched by new input and the transfer of gifts.
[H]yper-artificiality, through which design is enabled to approach more nearly to the natural, is a condition at once super-technological and poetic, a condition of whose potential we are still too little aware. Endowed with quasi-divine powers – speed, omniscience, ubiquity – we have become Telematic Nomads, whose attributes approximate ever more closely to those of the ancient gods of mythology.
– Claudia Donà, “Invisible Design”
Ubud, Bali. A mist of fat raindrops. I shelter under a wooden platform in the tropical darkness, listening to a rubbery lattice of frog voices warping in the rice fields. Some distance away, the lighting for a gamelan performance glows in a magic arc. Wind flurries throw slivers of gong overtones and buried drum beats across the water, whipping them in then out of earshot. Rain and humidity, insects and frogs, darkness and quietude.
I had seen Balinese and Javanese gamelan performances before: in a tent at the first Womad Festival in Somerset and, rather more formally, in two London concert halls. In 1977 I previewed a Sadler’s Wells Theatre season of Gong Kebyar from Sebatu, central Bali, for Time Out magazine. My Venezuelan friend, Nestor, accompanied me. We stopped for a drink after the show, as always, and the delay awarded us the privilege of seeing a group of Balinese musicians and dancers gathered outside a hole-in-the-wall Chinese takeaway on the Clerkenwell Road. Not a delicate rice offering in sight.
During his Balinese sojourn shortly before the Pacific war, the Canadian-American composer Colin McPhee experienced ambivalent feelings on hearing the newly developing gamelan music called kebyar. “Forever changing,” he wrote in his beautiful little book A House in Bali, “brilliant and sombre by turn, the moody music seemed to express a new spiritual restlessness, an impatience and lack of direction, for it was as unpredictable as the intermittent play of sunlight from a clouded sky.”
In his time, McPhee was a pioneer among musicians who had fallen, or were to fall, under the spell of Indonesian music. Varying degrees of gamelan influence can be detected in the work of John Cage, Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Philip Corner, Olivier Messiaen, Steve Reich, Gavin Bryars, Terry Riley, Peter Sculthorpe, Wendy Carlos, Don Cherry, Jon Hassell and, in very recent times, Australian composer Paul Schütze and London sampling band Loop Guru. A sound akin to Javanese and Balinese gamelan filtered through dense layers of contemporary sources suffuses feature-film scores such as Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Maurice Jarre’s The Year of Living Dangerously and Shoji Yamashiro’s Akira. This last, a Carmina Burana for the electronic, post linear, folk-digital age, hypnotically counterpoints a relentless dark rush of Manga apocalypse imagery with hyperactive percussion, electronics and “Balinese Tantra” (whatever that may be), courtesy of Ida Bagus Sugata.
The CD cover hypes the score as “music for the 21st century”. Perhaps this is not as trivial as it sounds. Music in the future will almost certainly hybridise hybrids to such an extent that the idea of a traceable source will become an anachronism. On a 1993 Japanese recording of Detty Kurnia, the daughter of a Sundanese (west Java) gamelan player, the entwinement of Javanese pop, traditional and neo-traditional styles, modern Asian pop and Hong Kong atmospherics, Japanese studio technology and quasi hip-hop drum programming can becalm the listener in an uncharted ocean. The experience is entrancing and disturbing, like trying to follow a map that changes its boundaries before your eyes.