This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden.
It’s early 1975, and Brian Eno strains to hear the recording of 18th century harp music a friend has given him.
Eno is in recovery after being hit by a car and can barely get out of bed. After putting the record on with great difficulty and lying back down, he notices the volume is too low, and that one channel on his stereo is blown.
The sheer pain of moving forces him to listen to the record at a volume that barely eclipses the background sound of the room around it.
“This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music — as part of the ambience of the environment, just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience.”
Later that year, a healthy Eno would release Discreet Music. The title track, a full album-side long, is a series of slow-moving, delayed drones that wash into each other. It’s like spending an afternoon watching a harbor full of tugboats from a cloud above. Eno suggests that the listener play it at low volumes, even “to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility”.
In 1978, Eno would give his experiments in sound both a name and a purpose. In response to a particularly unnerving trip through an airport, he devised Ambient 1: Music For Airports, a collection of four languid instrumentals meant to induce calm in the weary and uptight air traveler.
Eno, who felt that the Muzak played at airports grated rather than soothed, wrote in the album’s liner notes that “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
Talking Loud and Saying Nothing
“It used to be said that a lot of English rock ‘n’ roll bands went to art school. We went to Brian.”
-U2’s Bono on Brian Eno
Music for Airports is 36 years old this March. It, and years of subsequent ambient releases have established Brian Eno as godfather to the genre. He has even made the claim that he “invented ambient music.”
This statement has irked academics, who rightfully assert that droning music devoid of any defined melody, rhythm or structure existed long before Eno came on the scene.
It’s unclear whether Eno actually believes this statement, or if he intends to express what is true: That he shone a spotlight on this music, spoke about it in more intellectual terms than anyone before or since, and brought it into the cultural consciousness. He may not have invented ambient music, but he is perhaps its greatest marketer.
Eno’s power had long come from provocation. In the early 70s, he was a gender-bending champion of glam rock, a mixture of outsized libido and pretension. In a now infamous 1974 interview with Chrissie Hynde for NME, Eno waxes poetic on the high art of pornography, casually gives Hynde a glance at his shaved pubic region, then ends the interview abruptly around 1:00am when a redhead covered in parakeet feathers informs him that a guest known only as “The Carpenter” has arrived. The Brian Eno of 1974 played up the “eccentric” rock star angle. By 1978, he was rebelling against the very idea of the rock star.
In ambient music, as defined by Eno, the composer, performer, and even the audience become irrelevant to an extent. Song structures, hooks, and chord changes are similarly useless, indicative of how a human being would try to create music, and therefore too predicable. A piece of ambient music could—and should, he thought—loop itself in perpetuity. A listener could choose to pay attention or not. It was a brilliant bait and switch: Eno let us know that the artist wasn’t important, as long as we remembered that it was Brian Eno, the artist, making the remark.
It isn’t much of a stretch to accuse Eno of artistic grandstanding. By his own admission, he is a man who values the concept behind a piece of art as much, or more, as its execution. But even this itself is a form of posturing. In Ambient 1: Music for Airports Eno, who had made efforts to paint himself as something of a charlatan, reveals himself as a skilled technician, and has crafted music that’s melodically appealing and memorable in a way that pure randomness could never achieve.
The Music-Making Machines
If you go in search of sheet music for either Discreet Music or Music for Airports, you won’t find any. Instead you will find a series of diagrams that look more like the hieroglyphs of an alien language. These diagrams represent the systems used to make the music, which Eno found far more important than any individual notes.
Eno drew much of the inspiration for this from composers of experimental and “generative” music like John Cage, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley.
Riley’s 1964 composition In C, for instance, consists of 53 melodic patterns played in order by a variable number of musicians. There is basic notation, but the musicians are allowed to rest in between phrases or repeat them as they see fit, as long as they don’t rush too far in front of or fall too far behind the general pace of the ensemble.
Similarly, Eno gave the musicians on Music for Airports instructions such as ‘play the note C every 21 seconds’. The result of systems like these is music that is never played the same way twice, but which never strays very far from its core ideas, a sort of ‘controlled randomness’.
Unlike Riley, Eno introduced new technology into the equation, increasing both the controlled elements (with selective tape editing) and the random ones (with pre-set tape delays that moved independently of the musicians’ patterns).
“I had four musicians in the studio, and we were doing some improvising exercises that I’d suggested. I couldn’t hear the musicians very well at the time, and I’m sure they couldn’t hear each other, but listening back, later, I found this very short section of tape where two pianos, unbeknownst to each other, played melodic lines that interlocked in an interesting way.
“To make a piece of music out of it, I cut that part out, made a stereo loop on the 24-track, then I discovered I liked it best at half speed, so the instruments sounded very soft, and the whole movement was very slow. I didn’t want the bass and guitar – they weren’t necessary for the piece—but there was a bit of Fred Frith’s guitar breaking through the acoustic piano mic, a kind of scrape I couldn’t get rid of. Usually I like Fred’s scrapes a lot, but this wasn’t in keeping, so I had to find a way of dealing with that scrape, and I had the idea of putting in variable orchestration each time the loop repeated. You only hear Fred’s scrape the first time the loop goes around.”
This may seem like a lot of work for music that people are supposed to “ignore”. But throughout his career Eno has let discipline and chance duel in this way. In 1975, Eno and artist Peter Schmidt created Oblique Strategies, a series of flash cards with aphorisms printed on them, designed to break musicians out of creative blocks. Examples include “State the problem in words as clearly as possible.” And “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” It’s a sentiment that comes into play throughout Music for Airports.
Speaking about the construction of the dense choral pieces on the album, Eno explains:
“One of the notes repeats every 23 seconds. It is, in fact, a long loop running around a series of tubular aluminum chairs in [engineer] Conny Plank’s studio. The next lowest loop repeats every 25 seconds or something like that. The third one every 29 seconds or something. What I mean is they all repeat in cycles that are called incommensurable — they are not likely to come back into sync again. Your experience of the piece, of course, is a moment in time, there. So as the piece progresses, what you hear are the various clusterings and configurations of these six basic elements. The basic elements in that particular piece never change. They stay the same. But the piece does appear to have quite a lot of variety.”
Despite Eno’s tinkering in ways both conscious and not, Music for Airports sounds more organic than worked over. It lives up to its promise as soothing and engaging music that you shouldn’t pay any attention to. It’s good for studying, general relaxation, and, in my personal experience, as a soundtrack for sleep. There is of course, one place you’re unlikely to hear it.
Why Isn’t Music for Airports Played in More Airports?
Music for Airports’ “1/1” (as in “First track/first side”) begins with the gentle loops of Robert Wyatt’s piano, later joined by Eno’s long synth pulses. It’s the sound of early morning light, cut in sharp angles by wings and tails of planes, seeping through large windows to awaken a traveler asleep in a chair, on a long layover after a red-eye.
“2/1” and “1/2” introduce those clusters of choral swells—the kind that later made Enya famous—and call to mind the duality of air travel: the hope and fear, the hellos and goodbyes, the lives ending and beginning again. In “2/2” Eno’s synths float by themselves with as much air beneath them as a 747 at 30,000 feet.
The album is the perfect match of concept and execution. Or not.
“It sounds like funeral music,” at least one terminal worker remarked during a brief period in 1980 when Music for Airports was installed in LaGuardia Airport’s Marine Air Terminal.
This was one of only a handful of instances in which Music for Airports has played in an actual airport. (Airports in Minneapolis and Buffalo also briefly had the music installed).
While Music for Aiports seems to soothe in every other scenario, it sits differently when rushing to make a connection, or saying farewell to a loved one. In this context, the vocal-heavy pieces do have a certain sadness and heavy air to them (the funeral tone the worker heard).
Perhaps the album is just mislabeled. It’s not so much music for airports as it is the music of them—a soundtrack to the tangled web of emotions and anxieties one feels when traveling great distances in huge metal machines that always have some small chance of arriving at a Final Destination other than the one we hoped for.
In an interview with Jim Fleming, Eno’s biographer, David Sheppard mentions a time that Eno became the victim of his own creation:
“Brian did tell me a very funny story of a later installation in the airport at Sao Paulo in Brazil. He had a piece in an exhibition there and he went to go to the opening of this exhibition. When he arrived at the airport, in his honor they were playing ‘Music for Airports’ but as he recalls, they were playing it at an excruciating volume, which was kinda anti-physical to the idea. He said it sounded like really bad heavy metal. So it obviously didn’t always work.”
Interesting, just not ignorable.
Coming full circle, Eno has recently created works for Montefiore Hospital in Hove, England. It’s music expressly for the relaxation and recovery of patients, the kind Eno dreamed up in his own debilitated state all those years ago.
Health officials confirm that Montefiore Hospital will be the only place to hear these pieces, making this music that most of us would want to be in a position to ignore altogether.