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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Brian Eno: Music For Airports

BRIAN ENO: AMBIENT 1: MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS (1978)

1) 1/1; 2) 1/2; 3) 2/1; 4) 2/2.

The biggest problem with Music For Airports is that it is not really music for airports. It was briefly used at one of the terminals of the LaGuardia Airport as an experiment, but I assume that people complained too much, or perhaps the airport personnel just went crazy after a while, and the idea fell through. Ironically, it was actually thought of by Brian as a pragmatically oriented therapeutic measure against the tense, stuffy atmosphere of your average airport. But could you imagine being stuck out there, waiting two or more hours for a delayed plane while the soft piano tinkle of ʽ1/1ʼ gets looped and re-looped and trans-looped and be-boop-a-looped into your ears? Eventually, you'll begin wishing for twenty crying babies at your side instead.

That is the biggest problem with Eno's ambient experiments: no matter how much he may insist that the music is not to be focused upon on its own, but merely taken in as a side dish next to whatever else it is that your are consuming or producing, it is difficult to do so. Sooner or later, you will want to say, "okay, does ʽ1/1ʼ really have to be 17 minutes long?", and once you say that, the carriage turns back into the pumpkin, Snow White bites the apple, and Brian Eno drops the sheepskin and is exposed for the big bad wolf that he really is, duping poor credible art lovers into believing that they were presented here with a masterpiece.

Technically, these four recordings are not the simplest pieces on Earth, but there is also nothing radically challenging about them — ambient minimalist pieces that owe their structures to Steve Reich, and mostly just exploit the idea of incommensurable cycles, with different loops repeated under different time patterns, creating infinite variety out of a minimal amount of sounds, but this is not something you'd notice until you were paying very close attention, and you're not supposed to do it — you're supposed to be biting your nails at an airport terminal, wondering about whether you'll be able to make your connection rather than wondering whether the distance between oc­cur­rences of loop A is really 23 seconds and the distance between two instances of loop B is really 27 seconds. So it's a little confusing this way.

Indeed, the little piano melody on ʽ1/1ʼ (co-credited to Robert Wyatt and producer Rhett Davies) is very impressionistic and pretty. The holy-ghostly vocals on ʽ1/2ʼ, recorded by Eno with three additional female vocalists and sounding very much like the heavenly overdubs on 10cc's ʽI'm Not In Loveʼ three years earlier, are a little creepy. Then ʽ2/1ʼ puts the minimalistic piano and the ghostly vocals together, and then ʽ2/2ʼ yields the field to synthesizer tones, brightly announcing a new dawn (for the tired traveller who finally had to cuddle up and spend the night on the hard, unwelcoming airport bench, lulled to sleep and called to reveille by the all-pervasive sounds of Ambient 1). They're all nice, they just don't have to run for... oops, sorry.

Any additional writing on the subject would cause either excruciating pain or embarrassment; you would not really want to find yourself in the shoes of the AMG reviewer, for instance, who wrote that «these evolving soundscapes... can hang in the background and add to the atmosphere of the room, yet the music also rewards close attention with a sonic richness absent in standard types of background or easy listening music», as if the reviewer were an active specialist in all types of background music and immediately knew how to distinguish the «sonic richness» of Music For Airports from... umm... Forest Sounds With Soft Rains & Gentle Winds: For Deep Sleep, Meditation & Relaxation (yes, they sell these on Amazon, too). Even if there is «sonic rich­ness» in the way the loops meet each other and then go on their merry way at different rates, it is not clear how that translates into an awesome spiritual experience. So let's just cut the crap — instead of thinking all the wrong thinks, just imagine you're an airport and then decide whether this one's for you, or if you'd like to pass it on to Pyongyang Sunan International.

5 comments:

  1. No; definitely not airport music. However, I've found this (and other Eno ambient recordings) to be perfect soundtracks for writing code and thinking about/doing mathematics. They are just complex enough to channel your thought in productive direction without being too complex to demolish your concentration.

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  2. Perfect music for airports...if you're laid over and are trying to fall asleep on the hard metal bench, waiting for dawn and your long-awaited flight home.

    As far as a study aid, I'd believe it -- but the one time I attempted the experiment it didn't really work out. I plugged it in while reading a couple of chapters for Property Law. Inevitably my interest wandered from the text and I found myself concentrating on the pieces. The first few minutes were pleasant -- the next few bored me out of my skull. I'm sitting there for 15 minutes, waiting for something to happen (surely sound master Brian Eno is going to throw a twist at me) -- the next thing I know I'm waking up, a puddle of drool on the desk.

    Granted, Temple's Law Library is perpetually climated at a cool 85°, so that certainly wasn't helping -- better exterior conditions may make for better results. But so far Eno's first attempt at background soundscapes strikes me as a curious failure. I'll stick with any of the numerous nature ambience loops you can find in YouTube -- birdsongs and babbling creeks are much more conducive to deep thought.

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  3. For Eno's musical purpose his first big mistake is the usage of a grace note. That's very distracting.
    After 6 minutes I'd say this is rather music for ironing clothes, repairing bicycle tires and other stuff that don't demand 100% concentration.

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  4. I love having this play at a low volume while I am reading. Also, I find 2/2 absolutely blissful.

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  5. Have to disagree, "Music for Airports" is an excellent album, beutifully executed and deeply rewarding.

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