High Life MARCH 2018 - by Liv Siddall


In the mid-1970s, in a gleaming German airport, Brian Peter George St John de la Salle Eno had a problem - and it wasn't fitting his name on a boarding card. Liv Siddall marks the fortieth anniversary of the sonic pioneer's Ambient 1: Music For Airports in a rare interview with the architect of ambient sound.

Recording an album that people aren't supposed to listen to could be considered quite unusual. But then again, Eno's never really done what we have expected of him - he left Roxy Music in their prime, preferring to spend his time in the studio experimenting with the likes of David Bowie, Talking Heads and German electronica oddities Cluster. Eno's radical Music For Airports project was arguably the most revolutionary of that time. It was the first of a four-part Ambient series in which Eno explored the possibility of creating music that was intended to be ignored.

Back in 1978, the album charts were favouring New York punk, Düsseldorf robot pop and the death throes of disco. To put it bluntly: things were noisy. Unless, that is, you found yourself in a public space, in which case you would have noticed that the rise in twinkly background 'Muzak' was reaching its peak. In development since the 1920s, this audio wallpaper had the ability to subtly alter human experiences in public areas: calming passengers' nerves on long lift rides, or speeding up shoppers in busy supermarkets. This inbuilt functionality factored into Eno's inspiration.

"I was aware that the world was getting filled with music and that it was generally not the right type," Eno says. Now aged sixty-nine, he remains as professorial as a pop icon can be. "I'd find myself in elevators early in a morning, listening to testosteronic power ballads, or sitting on a shuttle bus late in the evening with pounding four-to-the-floor disco beats: music in the wrong place and the wrong time," he says.

"I thought it was time that artists and composers started thinking they had a social responsibility to attend to all the new possibilities of reproducing music in public spaces, and stopped pretending that people were always sitting perfectly positioned between two high-quality loudspeakers," he says.

Eno decided to create a composition that would serve as perfect ambient background music to suit a range of different spaces. Music For Airports is a collection of four ambient tracks lasting just under fifty minutes in total, designed to work when listened to on a loop. Listening in 2018, it is an album that is still incredibly difficult to concentrate on: a sleepy, twinkling haze of meandering sounds.

It's wonderfully uncatchy: you can listen to it ten times and still not be able to hum it. It's sort of magic in that way, you just have to hand yourself over to it and let it take charge. Eno describes this sensation far better than anyone else, obviously. "I think opening up - what I call 'surrendering' - is the key to new and deep experiences," he says. "For something really good to happen to you, you have to move beyond the place where you're permanently in control. I think of the way a surfer is always alternating between being in control (getting on the crest of the wave) and then surrendering (being taken by the wave). I feel that is a good analogy for a happy life: the combination of focused ambition with optimistic surrender. Surrender characterises lots of the pleasurable and meaningful activities we engage in: sex, art, religion. In all of those we set ourselves up to lose control, to be 'taken' or 'lifted', to transcend where we are normally."

But even those who refuse to 'surrender' to the music are not impervious to its effects. Eno knew this - hence inside the record sleeve of the original American release (decorated with a detail of an Ordnance Survey map picked by Eno himself) he wrote that: "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."

Forty years later, he stands by this statement. "I think you need to make something that seduces people to listen, but which changes at a sufficiently slow and graceful pace that they stop expecting rapid stimulus and start enjoying the space it offers," he says. "It's the opposite of the trend that has ruined television: the dread that you might lose the viewers' attention for a split second and the resultant panic to fill every microsecond with action. I encourage the idea of people drifting away from the music and knowing that it's always there to drift back into."

The big question is, why airports? Why didn't Eno choose to create music for other public spaces: lifts, train stations or shopping centres? The answer dates back to an experience Eno had one sunny day in a Cologne airport in the mid-1970s, when he realised the difference in airports compared to other spaces of transit. "In airports you often don't hear the various sounds of transport. That all happens outside the windows. Airports are modern spaces, and this one was spectacularly bright on a sunny day, and large enough to feel relatively quiet. It had the feeling of a modern cathedral. It seemed like a place that would benefit from, and flatter, the right kind of music."

Eno's ambient album broadened horizons on what background music could - and perhaps should - sound like, and the purpose it could fill. In a sense it revealed Eno to be not just a composer, but a designer. He was using music to offer a creative solution: to inject a feeling into spaces that needed it most.

Nowadays there is a stark lack of spaces where people just sit and think. It's not as if parks, airport lounges and public benches don't exist any more, of course - but perhaps largely due to the incessant draw of the smartphone, people are much less inclined to relax and just be in a specific area. As Eno recalls, back in the 1970s, airports were much less busy and, with no one on devices, the lounges really were just cavernous, airy spaces in which people would calmly wait, with only their brains, a paperback and the enormous windows for company. "I dislike the tendency of airports to become shopping malls - I used to enjoy the absence of everyday distractions. Now every attempt is made to grab your attention and get into your wallet. It's a pity - that little moment of public space where people could sit and dream is now largely lost. I also used to like it when all airports had observation decks, and on a nice day I would go early to sit and watch the planes taxiing and taking off."

It's a hard notion to swallow, but the more Eno speaks of why he created Music For Airports, and the culture it was designed to fit within, the more it becomes apparent that maybe something as elegant doesn't really fit in our world any more. Or at least not for the reason it was originally created. Eno himself still very much enjoys travelling, especially when alone. "I like getting to the airport very early," he says. "I enjoy it most when I have plenty of time to find interesting corners to hang out in. I don't often listen to music while travelling, but I often work on music on my computer while I'm waiting in the airport. As a result I can sometimes be made very happy by a delay in take-off." And does he think that three decades on Music For Airports is still suited to the modern air travel experience? "I hope so," says Eno.