Exotica: Fabricated Soundscapes in a Real World
ALTHOUGH DAVID TOOP'S nominal subject is music, it might be more apt to call him an armchair travel writer. Both 1996's Ocean of Sound and the new Exotica are explorations of interior soundworlds, the type that recluses make for themselves from sonic artifacts. Perhaps the most curious book about music written in the Nineties, Ocean found Toop mapping a history of ethereal sound, from Claude Debussy's introduction to Balinese gamelan music at the Paris Exposition in 1889 (the beginning of 20th-century music, by Toop's timeline) to such music-as-environmental-furniture genres as dub, ambient, and jungle.
Among the styles that figured into Toop's Ocean taxonomy was "exotica," a term that refers to cheesy Hollywood misappropriations of indigenous musics from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Reconfigured within an easy-listening framework, the music was popularized by musicians and bandleaders like Les Baxter, Esquivel, and Martin Denny (whose 1958 album gave a name to the genre). Starting from this point, Toop's new book feels less like a sequel to its predecessor than a chapter of it writ large. It's also a heady, enjoyable read that roams widely: Just as Ocean didn't begin and end with ambient music, Toop's new work explores exotica as a journey into otherness.
The author's treatment of the Hollywood fabulism that birthed the term is often brilliant: On one side, he avoids kitschmongering, while on the other, he never seems mockingly dismissive. Instead, Toop finds a clear-eyed middle ground: "[Les] Baxter's music was visionary without being revolutionary," he writes, "as if he had consciously seeded the future with daring ideas disguised as cocktail froth....His work was a crucible for unique skills, fabulous inventions, and chronic lapses of judgment." Toop also indulges personal obsessions like surf guitar instrumentals ("His approach to the electric guitar," he writes of Link Wray, "seemed unfettered by precedent."), the self-conscious New Orleans hoodoo of early Dr. John, and the raga-influenced space jazz of Alice Coltrane. In addition, he paints vivid portraits of some of the century's storied exotics, such as expatriates Josephine Baker and Carmen Miranda.
The book's organizational strategy can be disorienting: As with Ocean, Toop creates a sort of print equivalent of a mix tape, eschewing straightforward narrative in favor of a series of fanciful segues and jump cuts. He also liberally sprinkles his painstakingly researched tome with tongue-in-cheek fictional diversions, such as a brief history of bio-acoustic sound co-narrated by Lassie. These jargon-laden cul-de-sacs feel intrusive at times, but once you adjust yourself to the formatting, Exotica proves a colorful map and tour book to a fantastic musical world.