Boston Globe JULY 22, 2005 - by Richard Dyer


Brian Eno created Music For Airports in 1978. It was one of his first exercises in "ambient music" - music meant to "accommodate many levels of listening attention, without enforcing one in particular," he wrote in his now famous liner notes to the album. "It must be as ignorable as it is interesting."

Eno used tape loops, a piano, and a synthesizer to create the work, which existed only in electronic form.

Over the next twenty years, Music For Airports became a cult classic, and the composers of New York's Bang On A Can musical collective decided to create a version that could be performed live. In the last five years, the collective's performing ensemble, the Bang On A Can All-Stars, has presented it about thirty times; one performance was in London's Stansted Airport. Tomorrow night at 8, they bring it to MASS MoCA in North Adams, the second half of a characteristically wide-ranging program. The group is currently in residence there, running its annual summer institute for young musicians. (Boston pianist Stephen Drury will sit in for the group's regular keyboardist, Lisa Moore, who is on tour in Australia.)

The idea to do Music For Airports came from Michael Gordon, one of Bang On A Can's composers.

Eno's music was carefully crafted, but his intention was to create something that would remain in the background," Gordon said. "In that respect, he failed - the music is more interesting than that." MIT's Evan Ziporyn, composer and clarinetist, recalled that after the first live performance, in New York's Lincoln Center, someone came up to him and said he had listened to the album every night for three years.

Artists in other fields were particularly attracted to the record. Composer David Lang remembered, "It was on the heavy rotation list in every painter's studio - you could listen to it and still keep working."

Gordon admitted he was baffled when he first heard the record.

"I thought it was terrible and self-indulgent, but over time I got rid of all of my other Eno records and kept this one." Composer Julia Wolfe had a contrary experience. "I just melted into it."

Ultimately, each of the composers took on the task of arranging a movement of Eno's piece; each got his or her first choice. The idea was to feature the six players of the All-Stars but to create something expandable - it can be performed by only six musicians, but at some concerts there have been as many as thirty. The composers prefer it with only six, which is how the ensemble will perform it tomorrow. Each found that the work was a kind of Rorschach test - each heard something of him- or herself in it that comes out in the individual movements and that differentiates them. Each movement has a different agenda - there is an improvisational element in Ziporyn's, for example.

The piece is therefore not a literal transcription of Eno's work, which in any case would be impossible, but a reimagination of it. The human element necessarily moves everything Eno intended to be background music into the foreground, although many of the other original qualities remain. This is still music deliberately without drama, development, or destination.

Before performing Music For Airports live, Bang On A Can recorded it and sent a copy of the Point Music CD to Eno, who listened to it only after a friend's urging.

He responded by sending a two-page, single-spaced letter of praise, and he's described his own recording as a "kind of demo tape" for the Bang On A Can version. Performing music that in one sense is not meant to be listened to presents special challenges. "We have to project a different kind of energy, not at all like the dramatic qualities we bring to our normal concerts," Ziporyn says. "We have to slow down our metabolism to create an atmosphere of stillness and contemplation." Bang On A Can's residency continues through July 30 and concludes with a six-hour marathon concert, featuring music by Steve Reich, guest composer-in-residence.