City Pages NOVEMBER 17, 2004 - by Andy Beta


Brian Eno's ambient reissues turn on, tune in, fade out...

Last month, Brian Eno's attempt to deliver a talk about the recent reissues of his landmark ambient albums (most specifically, Music For Airports) at the old TWA Terminal 5 of JFK Airport in New York was terminated due to issues of national security. So while he still had two lovely assistants dressed as stewardesses to handle the A/V, the uprooted presentation at the Architecture Center felt somewhat disjointed. Perhaps a displaced lecture was the best way to hear him elucidate his processes in ambient music, though, with Eno himself loosed from familiar space, dancing about architecture, and, in some slight way, mirroring his approach to sound.

At the start of the '70s, Eno attempted to unlock the linear events and relationships within music. Separating beat from melody, singer from song, the microscopic events from the macro, he allowed nonsynchronous accidents to occur between these components, thus making new connections and focal points within the music. His ideas about dissociation were already in place due to his infatuation with composer Steve Reich's seminal 1965 tape piece It's Gonna Rain. Simply comprised of two loops of a street preacher's sentence slowly slipping out of phase with one another, it ripped the words into bewildering sound, exponentially increasing into more complex and hypnotic noise patterns.

Laid up in a hospital bed after a car accident in 1975, Eno was listening to a record of harp music at an extremely low volume, with one speaker cutting out on him. Unable to get up and change the situation, he was stuck with the poor playback. A funny thing happened: He could strain to make out the music, or else let his focus drift elsewhere, to a place where the harp would dissolve amid the outside patter of rain. Sound could be unimportant, nonattentive, transparent. In an almost unnoticeable state like light or air, it could hang like a painting, existing at the edge of perception.

Discreet Music, Eno's initial foray into what he would coin ambient music, came out 29 years ago - coincidentally, the same week that Lou Reed, another glam refugee and wannabe minimalist breaking free from pop pap, released his Metal Machine Music. Its release also ran parallel to the birth of punk in the U.K., and the album was critically perceived as equally offensive to mainstream sensibilities. Built from two compatible synthesizer melodies that ran through tape delay and two recorders, the lilting lines bobbed with little interference from Eno. The effect is similar to watching a city skyline at night, twinkling with the illusory appearance of movement due to the atmosphere that surrounds it. Here, it's somewhere between speakers and ears, and stars emerge in your head to lullaby you. Seemingly close, the sound is actually remote, and the distanc - not just in epochs, but of space itself - feels sonically tangible.

There remains the distinct possibility that you have heard Discreet Music's follow-up (and first nominally ambient piece) Music For Airports in an actual airport. During the '70s it was piped in at LaGuardia as well as the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, but said piece is probably disassociated from most international public places now. Instead, it pipes into your cluttered bedroom, work cubicle, or art gallery, where it can be intimate, indistinct, encompassing, evaporative.

Conceived while Eno was producing Devo's new-wave debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! at Conny Plank's studio in Germany, the original concept for Music For Airports was that music could be interruptive, blurry, yet still communicative in a nonnarrative manner. Working with Robert Wyatt's fragile piano lines as well as female singers who provided celestial intonations against synthesized loops, the static science of the diagrammed scores (see the glyphic album titles) gave way to something more sensual, tender even. Instead of communicating the subliminal message of Muzak playing overhead at the terminals - which Eno heard as Don't worry, you're not going to die on an airplane - he subverted that idea with his addendum: ...It wouldn't matter if you did.