New York Times MARCH 9, 1998 - by Jon Pareles


Brian Eno didn't compose Music For Airports for concert performance. It is a recording-studio assemblage, made from tape loops and synthesizer tones and never written as a conventional score. It was also the first of what Mr. Eno designated as "ambient" works, background music that would repay attention but could also be ignored, akin to soundtracks and elevator music. The album Ambient 1: Music For Airports, released in 1978, named and spawned a genre of half-heard, amorphous music.

But Music For Airports has its own austere grace, and the Bang On A Can All-Stars, the contemporary chamber ensemble, got the quixotic idea of arranging it for live performance, as well as a new recording on Point Music. Music For Airports was the centerpiece of the Bang On A Can All-Stars' concert on Saturday night at Alice Tully Hall, the beginning of a national tour. The All-Stars, a sextet, were augmented by strings, brass, flutes, pipa (Chinese lute) and eleven singers.

Music For Airports is a somber and richly consonant work. Built from resonant, slow-moving bits of music, the four stately movements of Music For Airports present a series of suspended cadences that hover on the edge of resolution but never seem final.

Airports are places for anticipation, for awe and for suppressed dread. In Music For Airports, the slowly circling patterns seek calm while alluding to other times and places. The opening 1/1 (credited to Mr. Eno, Rhett Davies and Robert Wyatt) uses a few phrases of Mr. Wyatt on piano amid bell-like synthesizer tones, tolling like gamelan music; 2/1 gathers wordless female voices, akin to plainchant; 1/2 combines voices and keyboards. The fourth movement, 2/2, builds chords from synthesized tones suggesting a brass choir.

The new Music For Airports is not a reproduction but a transformation. Like Stokowski's transcriptions of Bach, Bang On A Can's Music For Airports finds a latent Romanticism amid the mathematical structures. It also pulls the music away from Mr. Eno's rock background and claims it for an orchestral tradition. Michael Gordon's arrangement of 1/1 puts a halo of horns or flutes around various notes; in Julia Wolfe's arrangement of 2/1, notes move across the group like slow-motion frogs hopping to lily pads. Evan Ziporyn's version of 2/2 takes the most liberties, inserting a cadenza with marimba, pipa and clarinet invoking Asian music. (The encore, Mr. Eno's Burning Airlines Give You So Much More, turned the song into a world tour.)

Bang On A Can has made Music For Airports much less ambient. Mr. Eno's Music For Airports had an impersonal serenity, with its parts intersecting through mechanical coincidence, while Bang On A Can's live musicians bring out the drama in every near-resolution. Yet despite a few misguided ideas - David Lang's arrangement of 2/1 destroyed the silences between phrases with hissing percussion - Bang On A Can did well by Music For Airports, finding a remote grandeur behind its self-effacement.

The other half of the program featured invented or reworked instruments and unconventional tunings. The Manufacture Of Tangled Ivory, by Anne Gosfield, used de-tuned piano sounds as it shifted between Russian-Romantic angst and motoric patterns; its weakness was that each new passage was immediately repeated. Arnold Dreyblatt's Escalator took drumbeats based on the rhythms of malfunctioning Belgian escalators and topped them with chords in untempered tunings, sounding both ramshackle and jaunty. The most fascinating work was the world premiere of Glenn Branca's Movement Within, played on his uniquely tuned keyboards and stringed instruments. While much of Mr. Branca's work has used high volume to produce hallucinatory sounds, Movement Within created cavernous resonances without bedlam. Its sustained, shifting tones seemed to open one sonic abyss after another, pealing and howling. It was ambient music for lost souls.