Even now, 15 years on, this is a book that makes me feel pleasantly like I’m living in the future. It’s sort of like a William Gibson novel, a constant stream of semi-bewildering cross-cultural syncretic references, in a fascinating poetic style. Appropriately enough, it’s a great book for browsing around in, which is what I did with it for all these years until just recently I decided to read it all the way through at last.
I once told a friend that it was a book about ambient music, and saw his interest instantly disappear. It was the wrong choice of words. Ambient music was still a hip concept back when the book came out, but the book is more about the concept of ambience in general, environment as art, and ranges very widely outside the marketing category of “ambient”. John Cage and minimalism, Miles Davis and Sun Ra, the Velvet Underground and Kate Bush, as well as Brian Eno and Aphex Twin. And that’s only the music of the West. The parts about then-contemporary rave and ambient culture, all rainbow-clothed kids taking ecstasy and talking about digital psychedelic shamanism, tend to be the most dated bits; but then, it’s now an intriguing time capsule, and they do say that the 90s are coming back. I have an abiding nostalgic fondness for that 90s cyberpunk aesthetic, and Ocean of Sound is a hell of a lot less embarassing than that movie Hackers.
There are some weaknesses here and there. Most of the book is in short vignettes, but there is one extended narrative of Toop’s visit to Amazonas in Venezuela, visiting the Maquiritari and Yanomami peoples, which started to drag. But the real problem is that heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. It’s almost impossible, for me at least, to accurately imagine what music sounds like, based on a description. Toop’s way with words makes everything seem amazing and compelling, but actually hearing the music is often a disappointment. For me it’s usually the stuff that Rolling Stone used to call “electronica” that lets me down; for you it might be John Cage or Sun Ra, but it’s sort of inevitable one way or another. Nowadays it’s not as big of a deal–you only lose a few minutes on YouTube, where in 1997 you spent hours searching through used record stores only to be disappointed when you got home–but it’s still sort of a drag. I don’t want to blame Toop for this, but I can’t help it. I blame William Gibson for making Steely Dan sound interesting too.