Adventures in Ambient

If ‘ambient’ has become one of the most overused words in music, it is also probably the most misunderstood, either a shorthand for any music which the user doesn’t know much about, or an unanswerable pejorative for ‘hippy music’. While such attitudes tell us a lot about the ignorance and laziness of these critics, it’s far from straightforward defining what ambient music is, far less understanding where it came from, how it’s developed and what – if anything – it represents.

That’s one reason why, for a 300-page paperback, this is one hell of a big book. Big ideas, big ambitions, but, above all, a big mess of a subject. Certainly, anyone who has read Rap Attack, Toop’s more or less definitive history of, and love letter to Old School rap and its prehistory, and is expecting a similarly neat essay, will be frustrated: where Rap Attack and, indeed, most music books, satisfy the typically anal-retentive fan with lists, definitions and confident musical family trees, “Ocean of Sound” provides few such comforts.

It’s hardly surprising, given Toop’s interest here, the breakdown of the division between sound and noise, music and not-music, and the response of the sound world to twentieth century technology, culture and communication. In doing this, he goes back as far as Debussy, Stravinsky and Marinetti, whose Italian Futurist movement celebrated the death of the symphony, to be replaced by ‘the noises of trams, of automobile engines, of carriages and brawling crowds.’

Running throughout this book, from Toop’s description of these desperate proto-fascists dancing on the grave of the Romantic Movement, to Sun Ra’s creation of a black sci-fi parallel universe, is the belief that ambient sound is deeply political. It is a facet he sees in, of all things, disco, noting that, in the work of groundbreaking DJs such as Walter Gibbons and Tom Moulton, this most derided of music became truly subversive. Not only did it erode the traditional hierarchy between producer and consumer, it also destroyed forever the idea of performance as a unique, or even valuable part of sound production. This notion of music as simply something to be used, sampled and remade has been strengthened by the emergence of digital technology, which places sound on a hard disc as data, existing without any frame of reference. Technology, it seems, has decomposed not just music, but musical composition as well. Compare this to the linear flow suggested and generally imposed by magnetic tape running over a recording head, or the order imposed on a stylus by the path of a vinyl groove, and the point is clear.

When you move into the realm of much of what is today called ‘ambient’, a fascinating contradiction emerges, that the ‘chill-out’ sounds heard in clubs across the world, reflect nothing so much as the disintegration of late 20th century culture. If this seems far-fetched, Toop points out that a key aspect of a society fearful of its future is the obsessive need to display, order, categorise and tame cultural exhibits. Is there really such a big gap between the rash of Expositions at the turn of the last century – at which Europeans could take comfort from the apparent order they had imposed on the world – and the breakdown of music into samples?

Maybe there is. What emerges here is a suggestion that if ‘ambient’ music is united by anything, it’s by a desire to build another world as an escape from this one. For Sun Ra, his sci-fi world represented a way of dealing with the racism and marginal status faced by black people in the ‘real’ US. He wasn’t making music for the world as it was, but a soundtrack for his own. In this, he anticipated such producers as Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and Lee Perry, all of whom believed (at certain periods of their musical careers and sanity, anyway) that music could incorporate a part of their own identity, existing as a soundtrack of them. Toop wryly notes that in the on-line world millions of people now accept that a part of their identity exists outside of them, in a Web.

This is not an easy book: at times, Toop’s style is sometimes overly obtuse; the structure is, well, deconstructed, which is wholly appropriate given the subject matter, but could frighten off the timid. Some passages are, to this writer, utterly opaque, while others introduce a bunch of musical also-rans who do nothing except break up the flow of his argument. In plain terms, he goes on a bit.

But these are minor criticisms: fast-forward, cut and paste, sample, and this book will give you a priceless collection of essay fragments, questions and connections. Admirable for its scope, its intelligence and its daring, this book is essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of modern music.