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Brian Eno’s Music for Airports 40 years later

Forty years ago, Brian Eno released Ambient 1: Music for Airports and Virgin-EMI has just given it a deluxe vinyl re-issue. The first work to formally identify itself as “ambient,” it garnered modest attention and a bit of derision; Rolling Stone referred to it as “aesthetic white noise.” But over time, it has become the work in the evolving genre of ambient music, topping lists of the most important ambient works, and receiving acoustic and electric performances from artists as varied as the new music ensemble Bang On A Can and the jazz-rock troupe Psychic Temple. It has even been subjected to a musical rebuttal, Music for Real Airports, by The Black Dog. By 2016, Ivan Hewitt, writing for the Telegraph, could describe Eno’s ambient venture as a “seismic moment in musical history.”

Music for Airports is a curious album. None of the music it presents was written and then recorded. Rather, it was composed or assembled from tape loops of previously recorded material manipulated by Eno and overlain with various synthesizer tones. Moreover, it does without lyrics, melodies, motive developments, evolving harmonies, or rhythm. Press play and one finds clusters of sounds – short piano phrases, four voices singing “ahhhh,” barely dynamic synthesizer tones – repeating at irregular intervals. And the tracks carry the barest of names: 1/1, 2/1, 1/2, 2/2. How are we supposed to listen?

But maybe that is the wrong question. A mini-manifesto accompanying the album imagines a music that adds an atmosphere or tint, an ambience. In fact, Eno takes his rival to be Muzak. He is offering music to accompany activities other than listening to music such as reading or tidying up. And that is one function the album can play. Instead of commanding our attention, it unfolds into life, collaborating with other sounds and activities, inducing, as Eno says, “calm and a space to think,” something he thought particularly welcome in airports.

Image credit: Brian Eno live remix at Punkt 2012. Joerundtp. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But the album is more than that. In fact, even as background music it proves too interesting to ignore, despite Eno’s insistence that it “must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Sometimes a piano line (or two) catches our ear, as in 1/1 or 2/1, or, after a long silence, we’re caught by an “ahhhh” in 1/2 or 2/1. And because no track ever settles into rhythmic patterns, it never really settles into the background. Instead, Music for Airports is arresting. But, unlike canonical classical music, it never takes one anywhere, that is, if you give it your full attention, one’s mind wanders (and wonders). The music is coy. It catches our attention and then leaves it, suspended. Sometimes, we’re just caught between hearing and listening. Other times reverie results. Whatever we were doing becomes slightly strange, something to think more about, perhaps pursue differently. The album thus accomplishes something that a lot of powerful art accomplishes. It dislodges the familiar. But rather than replace it with some new vision, it leaves us to ponder what might yet be.

To really get Music for Airports, I think you need to fall into this space between listening and hearing, and to begin listening in different ways, say to what John Cage, a decided influence on Eno, terms the “activity of sounds.” (The album is, in fact, a self-conscious heir of many avant-garde efforts, including Erik Satie’s “musical furniture,” Cage’s chance compositions, LaMonte Young’s experiments with sustained tones and drones, and Steve Reich’s phase works.) No longer searching for what isn’t there one can focus on sounds and their textures, whether the sustain of a piano key in 1/1, the strangeness of the voices in 2/1, which sound strangely affectless, or the lapping, horn-like tones in 2/2. In traditional music, a note is a part of a larger whole. Here, each might prove a thicket.

Interestingly, a change in technology —CD to FLAC to vinyl, or speaker to earbud— offers variations on the album’s textural themes. (Digitized, the affectless voices on 1/2 some even less human without thereby becoming angelic.) But that is how Eno wants it. The album belongs to the tradition of experimental music, which initiates processes in order to produce unintended results. Since his art school days, Eno has been interested in cybernetics, the study of regulatory systems, such as tape loops running asynchronously and thereby generating novel interactions on a master tape. But playback systems are also regulatory in their differential emphases across a sonic field. The album invites listeners to keep the experiment going, and playing with different technologies is one way to do, as is scoring it for acoustic instruments in the manner of Bang On A Can, or taking its tonal outlines into an improvisational scene in the manner of Psychic Temple.

As you can tell, the album can be approached in many ways, which calls for yet another approach. Not only does it function as background music, music for reverie, and an experiment in the activity of sounds, it also stands as a piece of conceptual art, prompting reflections in the nature of music, the composer, and listening. (It even provides background music for such reflections.) Music for Airports is thus very much, in Evan Ziporyn’s words, a “multifaceted masterpiece” that deserves its forty-year journey from “aesthetic white noise” to a paradigmatic piece of ambient music that continues to surprise and inspire, or simply accompany.

Featured image credit: Larnaca International Airport, Cyprus: departure area, 2017 by A.Savin. FAL via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Adam

    Thank you for this great essay on Brian Eno! I am very excited to read more about it in your book.

  2. Roy

    It still is a most beautiful piece(s) of music. I went to kennedy airport back in the day to listen and observe…. Eno is blessed.

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