Life belt for waves of rock

OCEAN OF SOUND by David Toop, Serpent's Tail pounds 10.99
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THE taxi driver who knocked Brian Eno over on the Harrow Road in 1975 has got a lot to answer for. Recovering at home after the accident, Eno noticed that only one channel of his stereo was working, and adjusting his way of listening to cope with that fact prompted a revelation without which this fine book - and a lot of beautiful music - might never have existed. "Rather than standing out from the environment, like a ship on the ocean," David Toop reports, "the music became a part of that ocean."

Maritime images abound throughout Toop's investigation of "aether talk, ambient sound and imaginary worlds", and readers can be forgiven some difficulty finding their sea-legs. In describing the kind of music that he is dealing with, Toop observes that "Structure emerges slowly, minimally, or apparently not at all, encouraging states of reverie and receptivity in the listener that suggest (on the good side of boredom) a very positive rootlessness." Substitute "reader" for "listener" and the same could equally well be said of Ocean Of Sound.

The liquidity of this book's organisation (its 13 chapters could probably be read just as effectively in reverse order) is not a fault. In fact it is entirely appropriate, especially given that Ocean Of Sound's ultimate ambition seems to be to establish the erosion of rigid musical structures - "the shattering of graspable narrative" - as a cause for celebration rather than anxiety.

From Claude Debussy hearing Javanese music at the Paris Exposition of 1889 to the roots and reality of "the oxymoron of ambient house - dance music for sitting still", Toop traces the emergence of a new image of music, "as a shifting conglomerate of manipulable bits rather than a finished entity". Some people find this idea rather alarming, but Toop is not one of them. Hence his reaction to the discovery that James Brown's cornerstone of heavy funk authenticity, "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag", was originally played at snail's pace after a hard day on the tour bus and then speeded up in the studio: "What a privilege to be so easily deceived."

Ocean Of Sound manages something which has proved to be beyond some of this year's more highly touted pop books, and that is to be personal without lapsing into self-indulgence. From intriguing, impressionistic passages of fragmented sound memory to a thrilling journey into the Venezuelan jungle; from a dream he once had about Elvis to excerpts from interviews with Sun Ra, Lee Perry and Kraftwerk's Ralf Hutter, David Toop succeeds in staying intimate with his subject matter without forcing himself upon the reader.

In the novel and happy position of being equally respected as a critic and a musician, Toop does well not to be smug. His writing can be intimidatingly dense - whole musical dynasties are sometimes heard to rise and fall in the space of a single sentence - but there is no surplus fat. For all his quarter of a century of involvement in a succession of different avant- gardes, Toop is no slave to modernism either. His vision of one possible future for the internet - "A high-tech campfire with people plugging in to remind themselves of life as it was when they were plugged out" - looks bleak even to the hardiest technophobe.

Overall, though, this is a hugely optimistic book. When music writers fish in esoteric pools of anthropology and literature, as Toop does extensively here, it is often a sign that enthusiasm for their original feeding ground is waning. But for all the talk of scents and shades, perfumes and tints, it is the capacity of sound to thrill the senses that comes across most clearly in these pages. Dive into Ocean of Sound too recklessly and there is a slight risk of drowning, but let it lie around the house a while and it will seep into your brain by osmosis.