Brian Eno – Ambient 1: Music For Airports

June 20, 2008

Brian Eno was not necessarily the founder of ambient music. I am not an expert on early ambient music so I cannot cite any earlier artists except perhaps Tangerine Dream and Cluster, but by the time Brian Eno created his first ambient album, Discreet Music, music as atmosphere was an idea that had already been toyed around with in modern music. In fact, even Brian Eno had experimented with ambiance before Discreet Music, in particular with his atmospheric instrumentals on his other 1975 album released two months earlier, Another Green World, and on his 1973 joint effort with Robert Fripp entitled No Pussyfooting.

However, it was not until 1978’s Music For Airports that people started taking notice of Brian Eno’s ambient music. I would even go so far as to say that Music For Airports was the breakthrough ambient album that skyrocketed the genre into the public conscience. Why, then, did Another Green World, No Pussyfooting, Discreet Music, or any of the other ambient works created before 1978 such as Evening Star and Music For Films do the same job? In fact, Another Green World might have. It reigns as Eno’s masterpiece, but it was not focused in one direction, and while it did experiment with ambiance, it was also a vocal pop/rock album. No Pussyfooting was a bit of a departure. It is the first known piece of “system based music” coming from Eno, as he and Robert Fripp pioneered the “Frippertonics” technique that involved bouncing recordings off of one another. Discreet Music was also created in a similar generative technique with minimal intervention from the musician.

All of the aforementioned albums are important, or at least quality recordings. It is hard to overshoot Brian Eno’s importance in most any of his early work, in either his solo releases or collaborative releases. But Music For Airports is often considered his definitive ambient statement because it was the first to ever be created for a practical purpose. It is in some ways generative, but unlike Discreet Music it is less of an experiment and has a stated goal that it pursues and fulfills (and unfortunately Discreet Music is occasionally impossible to be discreet). Yes, for many previous ambient pieces the practical purpose was to relax, but “relax” is a fairly general, subjective term. Music for Films may have been made for cinema, but this is also a pretty broad purpose. As he states in an old interview, Eno started to consider what it meant to make ambient music for a specific environment.

“So I thought it would be interesting to actually start writing music for public spaces…And I started to think; so what kind of music would that have to be? Obviously it must not interfere with human communications, so it has to be either higher or lower than voice sounds are. It should last a very long time, because you don’t want changes all the time. It should be possible to be interrupted by announcements and so on without suffering. So I started to imagine a kind of music that would work in public spaces.”

O’Hare International Airport in Chicago is hands down one of the most stressful places on the planet. The place is huge, and might be the busiest airport in the nation. If it isn’t, it’s a close second to Los Angeles. It is also extremely loud. If you are like me and only take flights once or twice a year, you enter off of the busy street not knowing where the hell you are. You most likely end up standing in line for an hour to get your bags checked and tickets cleared. Then, you go through security for what feels like another hour, being whisked in and out of lines. You take your shoes and belt off too, that’s always fun. If you are lucky, ethnic, disabled or otherwise funny looking, you get screened individually. Then you walk a lot to get to your terminal. It’s possible that you might start your flight anxieties by then. By the time I get on a plane in O’Hare, I’m drained and kind of angry at everything.

However, O’Hare Airport is one of my favorite buildings. I love going there. I love sitting in my terminal and watching people. It is also a gorgeous building. Most airports are gorgeous. High ceilings, walls and ceilings of glass, marble floors. Inside, we have a representation of our busy, fast moving, diverse world, and outside we have wide open spaces that are filled with some of our finest technology that will bring us essentially where ever we want to go. O’Hare International Airport is the kind of building that we will look back on one thousand years from now and learn a startling amount about people today.

O’Hare International Airport is missing two things.

1. Rows of public rocking chairs in front of big glass windows.

2. Music For Airports.

If the airport had these two things, the stress of flying would virtually disappear. Rocking chairs really are that comfortable, and Music For Airports really is that good.

Is it his best ambient work? Hell no. Ambient 4 kills it. Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks is also considerably more enjoyable. However, the album fulfills everything it works towards, while Ambient 4 and Apollo sometimes falter. Music For Airports is a work of art as well as a perfectly formed tool.

The album is divided into four parts. These parts are long, and only 2/1 dips under the ten minute mark. Each song consists of mostly repeating loops of something or other. Pianos, vocals, and synthesizers make up the entirety of the album. However, the songs are played slowly enough that the repeating does not show. This is also because different parts, such as the piano parts on 1/1, are looped at different speeds so that the parts intertwine at different intervals. Eno created each track according to the aforementioned rules, and thus we have a musical album of non music.

1/1 is played with both piano and electric piano, and is probably the most optimistic and well known piece on the album. It’s effect is the most readily felt. Even at loud volumes, the lead piano part somehow avoids being annoying. 1/2 and 2/1 are vocal tracks, the former comprising of only vocal drones and the latter vocal drones and piano. These pieces are somewhat more melancholy than the other two. The last piece, 2/2, consists solely of synthesizers.

Yeah, the pieces are excellent if you like ambient music. I am listening to the album very loudly right now, because it is just my kind of sound. But if you gave the album to a random person in an airport, they would most likely play it, be bored with it, and throw it out upon dismissing it as muzak or the kind of music that people played in documentaries in the 80s (1/1 was in fact used in the 1985 PBS Special “The Creation of the Universe”). Music For Airports was never intended to be an album for close listening. It was meant for Airports. It was meant to play softly in the back of your mind, for the listener to not notice it, and to act as a sort of relaxant for the stress that an airport can cause. The happier pieces, 1/1 and 2/2, are not so happy that they are unrealistic, which Eno claims that most airports end up being. The more melancholy pieces, 1/2 and 2/1, are less sad than they are tranquil.

It’s one thing to consider that these pieces actually work on their intended purpose with wonderful success. What really matters is that this is music for airports, and that is somewhat of a statement, or maybe a question, about what music does and is intended to do. This is the start of a beautiful series of albums and an ambient masterpiece.

One comment

  1. Hey, great blog and article on “Music for Airports.” I thought I’d comment, briefly, on my take on the looped aspect of this particular work and how I feel it molds the collective “de-tensioning” machina of “Music for Airports.”

    As the spiracle loops of Eno’s “Music for Airports” denigrate and evolve, a slight sense of comfort emerges. The irrationality of dramatic re-arrangement is spurned for finite and meandering progression. Sure, things change. But these changes occur in small doses, comprehensible and malleable increments that are cohesively altered. Therein, “Music for Airports” mimics our social conception of safety and sensibility. The routine of life breeds comfort; our homes, our families, our lives all change at a nominally restrictive pitch. Speaking from personal experience, the truly stressful periods of my life have always come when the speed of change was wrested from me: relocating, searching for a new job, worries about health conditions. My stress directly corresponds to the fact that I neither have control nor any understanding of the future’s looming pulse.

    And so, to me, Eno’s “Music for Airports” draws its efficacy from its slow burning evolution. Somehow, we feel in control of the pace and order of the oncoming change; it’s a small, simple familiarity in a greater and tempestuous chaos.

    Also, and interestingly enough, “Music for Airports” was looped in a terminal at la Guardia. I’m not sure how it turned out, however.

    Keep up the good work.


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