The Telegraph JANUARY 5, 2016 - by Ivan Hewett


Brian Eno invented ambient music as a result of being hit by a car. It was a seismic moment in musical history says Ivan Hewett.

What are the defining musical statements of the past sixty years? That was the question put to five BBC Radio 3 presenters, including me. Each of us was invited to give a fifteen-minute talk on a "Seismic Moment" of our choice, to be broadcast this week in a series called The Essay.

We think of a seismic moment as something noisy, something that suggests the earth is moving, sending out shock waves down the decades. John Cage's famous "silent" piece 4'33", chosen by Robert Worby, wasn't noisy but it certainly sent out shock waves. Sarah Walker opted for Music For Organs, Steve Reich's piece of headbanging minimalism that caused a near-riot at a New York performance in 1973.

I went for Brian Eno's 1978 album, Music For Airports. This might seem an odd choice - no one would feel the earth move while listening to Eno's muffled, looping sounds that spawned the genre of ambient music, and there was no riot when it was first performed, because there was no performance.

But this gentle music was actually born out of something violent. One dark and drizzly January evening in 1975, Brian Eno was on his way home after a recording session. At that time he was at the height of his fame as an eccentric glam-rocker, collaborating with such luminaries as David Bowie, Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music and David Byrne of Talking Heads.

Eno crossed the road in a preoccupied state, not noticing the black cab bearing down on him. He was knocked down, and the top of his head was sliced open on the bumper of a parked car. Bleeding copiously, he was carted off to A&E. He had to take several weeks off to recover, and to amuse him an old girlfriend took an LP of harp music round to his flat. She says that she put the record on and they adjusted the sound so that it merged with the gentle sound of drizzle on the windowpanes.

Eno remembers the event somewhat differently. "After she had gone, and with considerable difficulty, I put on the record," he recalls. "After I had lain down, I realised that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn't the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music - as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and sound of the rain were parts of the ambience."

This insight came back to him later, when he was spending boring and anxious hours waiting in airports - Eno has always been a bad flier. It gave him the idea that making ambient music to soothe the soul while waiting for a flight would make an interesting project. What he needed was some pleasantly neutral recorded material to play with.

He got some while on a trip to Berlin, where he was working on Low, his second project with David Bowie. Eno went to the studio of the famed German producer Conny Plank and recorded some single notes sung by a trio of German female singers.

Back in England, he gathered some more material in a recording session with a couple of old chums: guitarist Fred Frith, one-time member of cult '70s band Henry Cow, and Robert Wyatt, one of the founders of Soft Machine. Wyatt was a drummer but on this occasion played piano. Eno then turned all this material into tape loops, which could be set in motion simultaneously to create cycles of repeating notes and phrases.

All this sounds like a recipe for boredom, and for many people that's exactly the result when they listen to Music For Airports. For others, the fact that the music is so quiet and so content to circulate such thin little scraps is the secret of its appeal. Eno himself describes the album as being "as ignorable as it is interesting".

Like all influential ideas, this was the final breaking through to daylight of an idea that had long been maturing out of sight. It's rarely the first attempt at something that goes down in history as the turning point; the ground has to be prepared in advance.

The earliest precursor I can think of for Eno's concept is Furniture Music, or Musique d'ameublement, by Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud, premiered in 1917. This is the first piece in history expressly designed not to be listened to. Apparently, Satie ran around among the audience at the first performance crying "don't listen, don't listen", a difficult instruction to follow as the piece is quite interesting, and it is hard to ignore music being played right in front of you.

Satie's gesture fell flat, because the time wasn't yet ripe for it. A proper "furniture music" had to wait until the invention of recorded sound. This made possible a new form of listening, which Eno's Music For Airports embodies to perfection. Recorded music is infinitely repeatable, and subject to the listeners' will. We can ignore it or pay attention, as we choose. Ambient music celebrates this special form of listening like no other genre. As Brian Eno said: "I wanted to make something you can slip in and out of." The shock waves of his invention continue to ripple out, forty years after the release of the album, as is shown by the emergence of new forms of ambient music. We've seen the rise of industrial ambient, drone music, dark ambient, ambient house. But there's a puzzle. If we think of seismic moments in music in the past, they've all been embraced by the thing they once attacked. Punk was a rebellion against pop, but is now part of pop. The Rite Of Spring was a shout against the rules of classical music, but is now part of that tradition.

So which tradition has embraced Brian Eno's Music For Airports? I would say none. It's designed to be unembraceable, and that's what makes it so remarkable.

The Essay: Five Seismic Moments in New Music can be heard daily on BBC Radio 3 at 10.45pm until Friday. Ivan Hewett's contribution will be broadcast on Tuesday January 5.