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Musical Exoticism in English Psychedelic Music, with Specific Focus on


the Music of Ott
The works of English music producer Ott are definable somewhere between the genres of
psy-dub and ethnic electronica, both of which incorporate electronic sounds with typical
stylistic musical characteristics that originate from other cultures. The implications this
poses for a listener are discussed forthwith, with reference to the concept of exoticism,
whereby characteristics of the East are viewed through the lens of Edward Saids notion of
Orientalism. This notion describes the reading of the East through the eyes of a Western
audience, often resulting in a prescribed impression of the East as different or
threatening or exotic (Palestine Diary, 2012). This essay will investigate the concept of
Orientalism in Otts music in which he alludes to traditional Eastern philosophies, such as
Zen Buddhism, and reveal the consequent implications of Self exploration and
antiestablishment this suggests.
Firstly, observable in Otts music are the consistent use of specific Orientalist musical
modes: sliding or sinuous chromaticism; elaborate vocal ah! melismas; use of the Aeolian
mode; repetitive rhythms; repetitive small compass melodies and more (Scott, 1998, p.20).
Quintessentially for the listener in the West, it is the use of both male and female vocal
lines singing nonsense syllables or in another language, the use of foreign instrumentation
(such as the sitar), and the conspicuous elements of dub (the bass line, drums and offbeat
accentuations) that give the music its exotic character.
To contextualise is to explore further musical endeavours of Ott, the most famous being his
involvement1 with the English psychedelic music project, Shpongle, whose music could be
described as a fusion of the world music, psy-trance and ambient genres. The music of
Shpongle is renowned for its aspirations to sonically illustrate or allude to altered states of
consciousness when under the influence of psychedelic drugs, a practice also endorsed
by followers of New Age philosophy2. Divine Moments of Truth, from the album, Are You
1

Ott is credited on many Shpongle albums for his editing and compilation of the music.

New Age spirituality originates from the Western mid-late 20th century, supporting traditional Eastern
ideologies, peace and environmentalism. It may have been popularised by The Beatles in the 1960s,
following their work with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and their subsequent interest in transcendental meditation
(Boyce-Tilman, 2000, p.159).

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Shpongled?, is a backronym for the drug DMT (dimethyltryptamine), which is associated


with the ancient and neo-shamanistic practices of ingesting ayahuasca3 for healing and
spiritual enlightenment purposes. The piece features what might initially be described as:
African chanting; Tibetan throat singing; Western religious chanting; nonsensical male
vocal samples, to perhaps simulate the commonly reported mysterious language one
hallucinates of when under the influence of DMT; and electronically synthesised sounds.
The overall effect is a composition of traditional cultural sounds shouldering their way
onto a futuristic and technological sonic landscape.
Amongst many of Otts musical works, there are two examples that may be considered
most remarkable in relation to exoticism and its implications. The first is titled Unit Delta
Plus, from the album Fairchildren (2015c). In addition to the Orientalist musical modes
included, such as melismatic female vocal riffs, snaking downward repetitively and vocal
nonsense syllables, the title of the piece alludes to the 1966 organisation founded by Delia
Derbyshire, Peter Zinovieff and Brian Hodgson, also named Unit Delta Plus4. According to
a 1999 interview with Derbyshire, the organisation was founded to bring it [electronic
music] to the public, in advertising, TV and film (Derbyshire, 1999). While maintaining the
usual downtempo meandering of Otts music, the piece is fundamentally comprised of an
entanglement of synthesised sounds, however, it is disputable whether this link would
mean anything outside of the artists intention and the perspective of an informed
audience. However, according to Eric Siday in 1969, in electronic music: the listener
has not only been expected to accept a new and strange sound - but to learn a whole new
musical language, (Taylor, 2012, p.389). Siday is proposing that electronic music does not
necessarily suggest certain musical connotations, though, in the 1960s was considered to
sound like nuclear war and at its tamest like outer space music, according to Raymond
Scott in 1962 (Taylor, 2012, pp.389-390). Contrastingly, electronic music today is generally
considered a normality, however, it is arguable that both views are still valid now:
electronic music is used to convey a sense of Other, because it is both malleable to
3

Originating in Peru, ayahuasca is an entheogenic brew made out of certain plants that contain
hallucinogenic properties when prepared in the correct way. The active ingredient is often dimethyltryptamine
(DMT), and is considered a traditional spiritual medicine.
4

Ott, in his book, The Book of Awesome (2015), that accompanies the Fairchildren album, accredits
Derbyshire and Zinovieff - along with Daphne Oram, Bob Moog and Alan Watts - under the heading, Ott is
grateful for the existence of.

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accompany many types of sounds and to many, still considered space age and therefore,
unfamiliar. However, electronic music is arguably a product of the West, perhaps helping a
listener to digest the exotic singing. Thus, electronic sounds, in accompaniment with the
Orientalist musical modes exhibited in the piece, persistently reinforce an inevitable sense
of Otherness, and thus strengthen the suggestion that the exotic sounds are used to
connote the East, be it in a metaphysical sense. Additionally, the international
postmodernist climate in the 1960s musical revolution was often realised in electronic
musical works, and is arguably done so similarly today, with liberal ideologies somewhat
akin to its predecessor. This may rationalise the implications of Unit Delta Plus,(2015c),
which will be re-examined later.
Another piece for consideration composed by Ott is titled One Day I Wish to Have This
Kind of Time, from the album Mir (2012). It features two Alan Watts quotations, featured
throughout the piece as follows:
[01:22]: Dont let yourself or your ears be offended by improper or unscheduled
sounds. If, for example, the record is scratchy, hopefully, you wouldn't object if
you were listening to it sitting by a fire, crackling logs. Simply close your eyes
and allow your ears to hear all sounds around you. Don't try to name or identify
these sounds, just hear them as you would listen to music, as when you hear a
flute or a guitar. Don't worry about what it means, your brain will take care of
that by itself. Just let your eardrums respond as they will to all vibrations now in
the air.
[06:20]: And because we simply cheated ourself the whole way down the
line, we saw our life by analogy as a journey with a pilgrimage which had a
serious purpose at the end. The thing was to get to that end, success or
whatever it is, or maybe heaven after youre dead. But we missed the point the
whole way along: it was a musical thing, and we were supposed to sing and
dance, while the music was being played.
Alan Watts (d. 1973) was a pioneer of tailoring Eastern philosophy for a Western
audience5. The first quotation nestles itself into natural wildlife sounds at the beginning of
the song, overlaid with electronically synthesised melodies and textures, whilst the second,
placed narratively at the end of the song, is accompanied by the mirthful main body of the
5

Perhaps worth noting is Alan Watts friendship with John Cage in the 1960s, though fleeting as it was. John
Cage (d. 1992), also a follower of Zen Buddhism, was an American experimental composer, famous for his
artistic innovations with indeterminacy, conceptual music and more importantly here, electronic music. This
may relate to the implications of Unit Delta Plus (2015c).

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piece. The origin of the first quotation is unknown, but could relate to an imminent state of
perception explored, for example, by Aldous Huxley as istigkeit/is-ness in his 1954
essay, The Doors of Perception (2004, p.7), which draws from his encounters with the
psychoactive drug mescaline, and in Watts essay, This is IT, written in 1960 (Watts, 1996).
Whilst derived from Eastern philosophy, this concept relates to the theme of selfexploration and consequently antiestablishment, to be discussed later. The second, more
transparent in its connotations, is from an audiobook titled Learning the Human Game,
where during a public speech, Watts analogises music with Western life, suggesting that
one is always striving to fulfil the next purpose. Watts utilises Zen ideologies to indicate
what is suggested to be a major fault in the capitalist societal systems of the West,
drawing on antiestablishment principles.
For further listening6, one might explore other particular works of Ott such as Jacks
Cheese and Bread Snack (2003). At the heart of the Buddhas teachings lie the four
seals, or axioms, of Buddhism, and when we summarize the essence of everything the
Buddha taught, we find that the basic framework is presented in the context of these
four, (Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, 2002) which is the lyrical quotation
featured twice in the piece:
[03:52/08:17]: One: all composite phenomena are impermanent.
Two: all contaminated things and events are unsatisfactory.
Three: all phenomena are empty and selfless.
And four: Nirvana is true peace.
The quotation is from chapter ten of Illuminating the Path to Enlightenment (Gyatso, 2002).
The piece begins - after a hidden intro - with an abstract montage of electronic and sitar
sounds (01:05-03:50) whilst maintaining a dub rhythm with accentuated offbeat reggae
guitar throughout. Again, the amalgam of electronic sounds with ethnic instrumentation
reinforces a sense of exoticism due to the alien nature of both. Alternatively, the
electronica may, however, again dilute the exotic sounds so they are more palatable for

Similar conspicuous examples to recommend for listening include pieces such as Rogue Bagel (Skylon,
2008) or Smoked Glass and Chrome (Blumenkraft, 2003a).

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the Western ear. There are also many other international artists7 who characterize the
Orient as alien and to incorporate it schematically on a theatrical stage whose audience,
manager and actors are for Europe, and only for Europe, or in this case, only for a
Western audience (Said, pp.71-71).
The Orient, regardless of the location or temporal context that is signified in a piece of
music (e.g. Zen Buddhism, originating in China, Japan and Korea), is depicted via sounds
that do not actually derive from that culture (e.g. a sitar, originating in India and in
Hindustani music). This may be because a composer wishes to avoid limiting their creative
expression to the sounds of one culture; the scope of the worlds ethnic musics is as large
as the planet itself, and after all, the message is what is important, and the medium is the
massage, as Marshall McLuhan so eloquently put it. The sounds are nevertheless
received by the Western audience as Other, and arguably signify a vague kind of
spirituality or mysticismkeeping with the clear mission oftaking viewers away from the
here and now and toward an exoticised elsewhere, (Taylor, 2007, p.196). Here, the
elsewhere is arguably a metaphysical environment, because the musical interpretations
likely consist of signs depicting the concept of self-exploration, as opposed to dominant
popular musics which arguably take heed from the Western cultures of elitism, materialism
and commercialism (Boyce-Tillman, 2000, p.162).
According to Taylor, sampling and collecting world music is entangled with phenomena
such as travel, tourism globalisation and new consumption patterns, justified by the
discourses of collaboration, (Taylor, 2007, p.134). Thus, considering that most Eastern
cultures draw from socialist ideologies and Western cultures capitalist, the underlying
implication of antiestablishment principles in musics such as Otts are inherent: anything
that endeavours to disrupt our ordinary sense of practical reality (Watts, 1996, p.11) is
generally seen as subversive, and perhaps the depiction of the East as underdeveloped or
dangerous by the Wests mass-media is to discourage such subversion. Attali (1985)
supports this notion by considering theories of totalitarianism, arguing that demands for a

International artists of a similar persuasion to the music of Ott might include Androcell, Entheogenic,
Kaminanda or Desert Dwellers. A glance at such artists album art might also help to illustrate the suggestive
nature of the music.

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cultural autonomy, the primacy of melody, a distrust of new languages, codes, or


instruments and a refusal of the abnormal are all characteristic to such theories, which
are the direst translation of the political importance of cultural repression and noise
control, (Attali,1985, p.6-7). These ideas are as applicable to this music as much now as
they were to European 20th century avant-garde music, and most certainly in exoticised
world music due to its philosophical connotations of Self exploration. According to Watts, to
realise Zen ideologies8 is to realise that such societal Western normalities are a construct
of socialized conditioning and repression, a system of selective inattention whereby we are
taught to screen out aspects and relations within nature which do not accord with the rules
of the game of civilized life, (Watts, 1996, p.11). As mentioned previously, these ideas
relate to the 1960s contemporary music philosophies and the broken boundaries of
expression in electronic music, perhaps rationalising the amalgamation of traditional
Eastern sounds with electronic sounds. The same notion offers reason as to why the
music in question is considered outlandish, underground or even avant-garde; we are
conditioned to perceive the Orient as - if not glamourised - underdeveloped, dangerous or
inferior to our Western values.
For many, music that is characterised by ethnic sounds is enjoyable simply because it is
perceived to sound aesthetically pleasurable, in the same way that Ott cultivates nonmusical sounds for use in electroacoustic aspects of his music. However, it is not absurd to
suggest that the music is gratifying for other listeners due to distorted or glamourised
views of the East, as they subconsciously perceive the sonification of Eastern philosophies
as superiorly esoteric. This may be because throughout history, those in positions of power
or wealth have often been those who were able to afford the pleasures of exotic musics.
Eastern philosophies are also often weighted with what is perceived by the West as great
wisdom, perhaps also due to the depiction of such cultures throughout history as
mysterious and therefore, unobtainable. However, Ott has asserted on his online Reddit
and Fanbridge pages that he does not identify with any type of religion or spirituality and
does not have any specific methodical approach for composing music (Ott, 2015a), and
thus the exploration of these concepts is only speculative. The motivation to imply such
philosophies is speculated by Alan Watts - on the terms of philosopher-audience - to be to

Or cosmic consciousness, as Alan Watts terms it throughout his book, This is IT (1996).

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reveal and celebrate the eternal and purposelessness background of human life, as if
philosophy was an art form (Watts, 1996, p.19). This is as opposed to endeavours to make
the audience better, or present spirituality as rarified, otherworldly, and loftily religious
outside of ordinary material life which is simply practical and commonplace. Much like
Watts essays, the point of the music is to show the fallacy of this opposition, to show that
the spiritual is not to be separated from the material, nor the wonderful from the
ordinary, (Watts, 1996, p.ix).
To conclude, in much the same way that the great art movements of the 60s liberated
artistic expression, these musics may endeavour to liberate individual listeners from what
they feel is a repressive and un-enriching Western society. However, there is plenty of
conflict in the East, and native folk do not live without material or commercial influence
entirely. To present the East in such ways as this would be to glamourise, distort and
disembody it entirely. Taylor (2007) recognises how the role of the imagination in our
increasingly globalised late capitalist world is central to such musics of ethnic amalgam,
and it is probable that the musics of Ott and company are intended to draw on Eastern
philosophy as opposed to reality, knowing that their intended audiences are of Western
origin. To implement such philosophies in the West would be artificial, encouraging
another of the numerous cult organizations with their spiritual claims, vested interests,
and in-groups of followers, with the additional disadvantage of snob appeal of being a
very esoteric form of Buddhism. Perhaps artists like Ott endeavour to let Zen soak into
the West informally, like the drinking of tea. According to Alan Watts, we can digest it
better that way, (Watts, 1996 p.65).

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Bibliography

Boyce-Tillman, J., 2000. Constructing a Musical Healing: The Wounds that Sing. London:
Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd.

Derbyshire, D., 1999. Interviewed by Sonic Boom. [online] Surface, December 2000.
Available at: <http://www.delia-derbyshire.org/interview_surface.php>
[Accessed: 24.11.15]
Gyatso, T., 2002. Illuminating the Path to Enlightenment. [online]
Available at: <http://www.lamayeshe.com/article/chapter/chapter-ten-perfection-wisdom>
[Accessed: 28.11.15]

Huxley, A., 2004. The Doors of Perception. New Ed. London: Vintage Classics.
Ott, 2003. Jacks Cheese and Bread Snack. In: Ott, Blumenkraft, [CD]. s.l.: Twisted
Records. Track 01.
Ott, 2003a. Smoked Glass and Chrome. In: Ott, Blumenkraft, [CD]. s.l.: s.n. Track 09.
Ott, 2008. Rogue Bagel. In: Ott, Skylon, [CD]. s:l.: s.n. Track 03.
Ott, 2011. One Day I Wish to Have This Kind of Time. In: Ott, Mir, [CD]. s.l.: s.n. Track 01.
Ott, 2015. The Book of Awesome. [pdf] s.l.: s.n.
Available at: <www.ottsonic.net/wp-content/uploads/.../Ott-The-Book-of-Awesome.pdf>
[Accessed: 03.12.15]

Ott, 2015a. [Fanbridge]


Available at: <http://ottsonic.fanbridge.com/fan_questions/>
[Accessed: 24.11.15]

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Ott, 2015b. Hello, My name is Ott and I have a compulsion to answer questions frankly
and candidly. Ask me stuff. [Reddit] Available at: <https://www.reddit.com/r/listentothis/
comments/2jfroh/hello_my_name_is_ott_and_i_have_a_compulsion_to/>
[Accessed: 24.11.15]
Ott, 2015c. Unit Delta Plus. In: Ott, Fairchildren, [CD]. s.l.: Ottsonic Music. Track 05.
Palestine Diary, 2012. Edward Said on Orientalism. [video online] Available at:
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVC8EYd_Z_g>
[Accessed: 04.01.16]

Said, E. W., 2003. Orientalism. 5th ed. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Scott, D. B., 1998. Orientalism and Musical Style. [pdf] Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Available at:
<http://www.jstor.org/stable/742411?origin=JSTOR-pdf&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents>
[Accessed: 06.11.15]
Shpongle, 1998. Divine Moments of Truth. In: Shpongle, Are You Shpongled?, [CD]. s.l.:
Twisted Records. Track 06.
Taylor, T. D., 2007. Beyond Exoticism. London: Duke University Press.
Taylor, T. D., 2012. The Avant-Garde in the Family Living Room: American Advertising and
the Domestication of Electronic Music in the 1960s and 1970s. In: Bijsterveld, K. and
Pinch, T., eds. 2012. The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. New York: Oxford University
Press. Ch. 16.
Watts, A., 1996. This is IT: and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience. 2nd ed.
London: Rider.

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