"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Stylus SEPTEMBER 28, 2004 - by Matthew Weiner & Tom Burns
BRIAN ENO AND THE AMBIENT SERIES, 1978-82
Part 2: Transit Soundtracks And 'Serious Music': Music For Airports
In retrospect, Discreet Music and the Another Green World had made it increasingly clear that Eno was falling out of love with the song as a means of expression. Not that he'd abandoned pop; over the next thirty-six months, Eno would collaborate with German group Cluster; produced albums for Ultravox, Devo, Talking Heads and David Bowie as well as recording his fourth and final pop album, the masterful (and not a little ambient) Before And After Science. But with the release of 1978's entirely instrumental Music For Films (assembled largely out of Science outtakes), his interest in pop, insofar that it was anything more than a reliable paycheck that kept him constantly in the studio, was in obvious decline.
When Eno wasn't in the studio, he could often be found flying to one, often across the Atlantic. Languishing one day in a Cologne airport in 1978, Eno found himself appalled by the nervous and tingly music being piped in through the PA. Doing little to put him at ease, he wondered what music might best replace it, realizing it would have to be something that could withstand constant interruption and mishearing. For the increasingly frazzled producer, preferably something calm and uplifting.
The Cologne episode arrived at a time when Eno was becoming increasingly aware of the effects music had on an audience's mood. He was fascinated with how people in the '70s were beginning to make choices about what they played in their homes and places of business based on stillness, homogeneity [and] lack of variety. To that point, such music had been the dreaded Muzak - as he put it in his next release's sleeve notes: familiar tunes arranged and orchestrated in a lightweight and derivative manner. But what Eno was envisioning wouldn't be finding its way into dentists' offices, not anytime soon anyway. Rather, he hoped to placate the potential airport dweller into a calm state that would accurately represent the wonderment of being propelled into flight - an antidote to the disturbing, intrusive noise he endured in the Cologne airport. Music For Airports - it virtually titled itself.
Instead of regulating environments, as Muzak did by conforming them to one particular standard, Ambient music could enhance them, weaving in and out of the listener's consciousness, as suitable for close examination as it was unconscious listening. Discreet Music had, by and large, functioned this way. But where that record had used equalization to draw out hidden melodies and textures, on Music For Airports, the technique was also used to enhance the low bass and high treble frequencies to allow airport patrons to carry on their conversations at normal volumes. This new music would be customized.
The idea of stretching music's purpose beyond pure enlightenment had been kicking around for years in Eno's head, as had different methods of creating it. Such notions had begun when he was still in school; where his pop music had been most obviously influenced by '60s royalty - The Velvet Underground, The Beatles and so forth - Eno had long drawn on his years in art-school for many of his ideas. Perhaps surprisingly to some, the future non-musician had, in fact, studied avant-garde composition. It was in college that Eno was first exposed to serious composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich, whose minimalist tape-loop piece, It's Gonna Rain, showed the young student that variety [could] be generated by very, very simple systems." There, he had performed La Monte Young's X For Henry Flynt, where the performer is instructed to produce an unspecified sound over and over for an unspecified interval of time. In fact, in his very first public performance in 1967, Eno performed the Flynt for an hour, pounding piano clusters with his elbow, realizing how the slightest variance was magnified by reiteration. It would later inform one of the most cherished axioms in his Oblique Strategies set: Repetition is a form of change.
Though the ideas of Young, Reich and Riley had certainly contributed to No Pussyfooting and Discreet Music, it was Music For Airports on which Eno would debut a systematic approach to composition that consciously mimicked the composers' methods. One track, 1/2, was composed of twenty-two tape loops of varying lengths, set to run in the studio for the duration of the piece. The tape loops, each of a length between fifty and seventy feet, essentially composed the track for Eno as he stood by and recorded the results. By virtue of constructing the tape loops beforehand, he had a general idea of what the result would ultimately sound like, at the same time allowing chance to enter into the picture as well. Though the academic establishment might not have approved of Eno deleting one stray piano note which didn't quite sound right (he was a pop musician, after all), it didn't change the fact that 1/2 and the rest of Airports were easily among the most avant-garde creations in pop to date - and barring perhaps only The Beatles' Revolution #9, probably its most widely disseminated, ultimately selling a quarter-million copies.
Despite its commercial success, five years of near- unanimous critical adulation came to a crashing end with Music For Airports, with more than one past champion calling his new ideas unoriginal and the resultant music a bore. In fairness, they weren't wrong on either count; for the first time, Eno was wearing his pretensions on his sleeve (literally, considering Airports's dry liner essay). Musically, the record was equally arid - overlong, brutally repetitive, much of it sounding like the cutting-room floor scraps from a rejected Paul Bley ECM release. Only album-closer 2/2, with its synthesized saw wave trumpets lapping at one another, did Eno achieve his goal of creating music as interesting as it was ignorable.
Still, possibly for the novelty of it all, Music For Airports was ultimately piped into New York's LaGuardia airport for a spell during 1980. And the record's real achievement was considerable. For all its theoretical unoriginality, Airports represented the most fully realized appropriation yet of avant-garde sensibilities and methods by a pop musician - a fact that did not go unnoticed (consciously or otherwise) by other pop musicians, particularly those looking to make their own mark in punk's wake during 1978.
In any event, Ambient 1: Music For Airports was but the first in a series. My intention, Eno wrote in the record's liner notes, his nose presumably facing north, is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres. He would soon discover prescribed forums for listening were somewhat impractical to the casual listener who, it should be remembered, remained his target audience. And so Eno's idea of Ambient would transform once again, this time from soundtracks for specific places to imagined ones - inarguably, a much better fit for his conception of the genre. Once more, he realized that being a pop musician traveling in academic circles had its advantages.
PART 1: AIRPORT ACCESS-ROADS / Stylus SEPTEMBER 2004
PART 3: ETERNALLY PRETTY MUSIC, NEW AGE AND IMPRINTS / Stylus SEPTEMBER 2004
PART 4: ON LAND, FOURTH WORLD AND IMAGINATION ON TAPE / Stylus SEPTEMBER 2004
PART 5: AN ENDING / Stylus OCTOBER 2004