There is unassailable evidence of the avant-garde’s influence on popular music. Eminent experimentalist John Cage, for instance, was the most important musical figure of the 20th century—at least that’s what I contended in my Cage retrospective a couple weeks back. He was a radical palate of ideas from which others could dip and dab and fuse into their own. He gave musicians permission to take their art in directions that, without his groundwork, they may not have otherwise imagined.
Both minimalists (like Steve Reich and Philip Glass) and post-punkers (John Cale and the Velvet Underground) adopted various Cageisms and merged them with more popular streams, using outré techniques to make art music more accessible to mainstream listeners—or, depending on your perspective, to make conventional pop music more interesting. Cage’s most enduring concept, though, was that “everything we do is music.” Sound is always happening around us, he said, and that is music, too.
Brian Eno, the much revered experimentalist, musician, and producer, maintains a similar mindset. In the early ’70s, he left esteemed glam rock band Roxy Music to spearhead the emerging ambient music movement, another subset of the avant-garde. Eno proposed that ambient music, like the sounds happening around us often are, could (and should) be both “ignorable” and “interesting.”
It was at this time back in 1978 that Eno released the first explicitly ambient album. And to this day, Ambient 1: Music for Airports remains regarded as one of the genre’s landmark achievements.
Now, Music for Airports wasn’t actually the first instance of ambient music. Popol Vuh and Tangerine Dream were both predecessors, and the idea of background music had existed for decades (early 20th century composer Erik Satie imagined something called furniture music). Eno, too, had already released albums that have since been declared “ambient” (his 1973 collaboration with Robert Fripp, No Pussyfooting, for instance, and his 1975 solo LP, Discreet Music), but at that point the genre’s parameters were nebulous. There was no explicit intention for anything to be “ambient,” and so Eno used Music for Airports as an opportunity to delineate the music’s motives. “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,” he wrote in the album’s liner notes. Music for Airports was “intended to induce calm and a space to think,” an idea he concocted after spending several hours in an airport in Cologne, Germany, frustrated by its banal sound environment.
Eno composed all four songs on the record except the first, which he co-wrote with Robert Wyatt and producer Rhett Davies. “I had four musicians in the studio, and we were doing some improvising exercises that I’d suggested,” he explained in a 1979 interview for Downbeat Magazine. “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.”
Like Cage, Eno often genuflected to randomness, and he cited Cage’s consultation of the I Ching as a formative influence. Eno even devised his own Oblique Strategies, a deck of cryptic cards meant to overcome creative block, as a method for creating randomized sound solutions. Alongside Cage, Satie and experimentalist La Monte Young, the most radical of minimalism’s founding fathers, were among his other major influences.
Eno, then, may be best known for his work as producer—specifically for Talking Heads and David Bowie‘s seminal Berlin trilogy (Low, Heroes, and Lodger)—but he was also entrenched in various strands of New York’s John Cage-induced Downtown scene, for which minimalism was the crown jewel. In fact, with his production work on Bowie’s albums, Eno was keen on popularizing minimalism. And his short-lived experimental label, Obscure Records, released records from Cage and a number of minimalists, like John Adams and Michael Nyman.
All of this—minimalism, chance, his pioneering production methods—provides good context for the Music for Airports listening experience. Over nearly fifty minutes of music, you’ll find simple melodies that are sung, played on synthesizers, and hammered out on found items. Plush harmonies drawn out in seemingly interminable fashion. And as is the case with Bowie’s Berlin records, there’s an undeniable Eno presence that appears in this music. Some distinction unheard on anything else Bowie did. And at the core of the record are minimalist tendencies and a profound trust in manipulating randomness, both of which can be observed when interested or allowed to lie latent in the periphery, ignored. As he explained about one of the tracks in a 1996 talk:
“One of the notes repeats every 23 1/2 seconds. It is in fact a long loop running around a series of tubular aluminum chairs in Conny Plank’s studio. The next lowest loop repeats every 25 7/8 seconds…the third one every 29 15/16 seconds…they are not likely to come back into sync again. So this is the piece moving along in time. Your experience of the piece of course is a moment in time… 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.”
Music for Airports premiered as a sound installation at La Guardia’s Marine Air Terminal and it remains a seminal album in the genre, which has evolved to spawn such luminaries as The Orb, Aphex Twin, and Boards of Canada. At the time of its arrival, though, critics debated the music’s efficacy—often times with oversights in their discrimination. Of Eno’s record, Rolling Stone’s Michael Bloom wrote: “There’s a good deal of high craftsmanship here, but to find it, you’ve got to thwart the music’s intent by concentrating.” The fact that the craftsmanship of Eno’s album requires “concentrating” does nothing to diminish its qualifications as an ambient record. Concentration would be perfectly acceptable as one of the “levels of listening attention” and merely proves that MfA succeeds in being “interesting.”
And the chief complaint of notoriously irascible Village Voice critic, Robert Christgau, was that it “fared unevenly against specific backgrounds: sex (neutral to arid), baseball (pleasant, otiose), dinner at my parents’ (conversation piece).” This, too, does nothing to contradict Eno’s requirements; with his list, Christgau only bolsters Eno’s notion that ambient music, and specifically Music for Airports, is able to “accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular.” Simply put, it’s a music for all occasions. A non-judgmental kind of sound and an important component of Eno’s storied career.
When he first began producing, Brian Eno famously demonstrated that the studio could be just as much an instrument as anything else. He found a way to add musicality to the act of production, one that’s softly replicated in Music for Airports. And with his new idea of how ambient music should function, as a source both “interesting” and “ignorable,” he found a way to add musicality to the life happening all around us.
Image: Garry Knight