To The Best Of Our Knowledge JUNE 5, 2012 - by Jim Fleming


Brian Eno biographer David Sheppard talks to Jim Fleming about Brian Eno's groundbreaking 1978 album, Ambient 1: Music For Airports. Sheppard is the author of On Some Faraway Beach: The Life And Times Of Brian Eno.

JIM FLEMING: Do you use your iPod to listen to music while you are waiting around at the airport? If so, do you have a favorite kind of music to listen to? How about Brian Eno's groundbreaking 1978 album, Ambient 1: Music For Airports. Biographer David Sheppard once tried listening to Eno's airport music in an actual airport. This was back in the '80s when the Walkman was the only way to listen privately in public. Unfortunately, Sheppard discovered his Walkman wasn't really loud enough to be heard above all the airport hubbub. Sheppard is thwe author of On Some Faraway Beach: The Life And Times Of Brian Eno.

DAVID SHEPPARD: Music For Airports was inspired by two sort of strands of influence, the first of which was when Brian Eno was at JFK International in the summer of 1977. Always a sort of nervous flyer by his own admission, he was particularly aggravated on this occasion by what he described as super-inane Muzak that was being pumped over the PA system at JFK that particular day. And it was actually designed to sort of be a calming palliative sound. but it just had the opposite effect on him and he was becoming increasingly aggravated by the inanity of Muzak. I think is was a quote in Harper's & Queen magazine that he said the music actually made his feel more nervous and the sound system was so bad and the music so worthless that you begin to think that if this is the standard of the music, what must the airplanes be like?

FLEMING: A little frightening when you think of it that way, isn't it?

SHEPPARD: It's a bit of a leap, perhaps, but you kind of understand what he meant, so I think his mind was already attuned, shall we say, to the idea of environmental music on that very sort of pragmatic level. That was one element. The second major element was at another airport, this time in Europe - the Cologne Bonn International Airport. Around the same time: mid-'70s. At that particular airport he actually had quite the opposite experience which was one of calm tranquility; and his usual pre-flight nerves were soothed not by music but by they architecture of that particular airport, which is very graceful - almost church-like in some way's, but modern. It had a kind of restful ambience and it's actually designed by the architect, Paul Schneider-Esleben, a German architect who is the father of one of the members of Kraftwerk. And I think that particular piece of happenstance may have had some influence. But basically, he was so impressed by this building and this unusually calm experience of aviation that he sort of purposely started to think about music which would fit this environment. So the combination of the JFK nightmare and the restfulness of Cologne Bonn International.

FLEMING: I think a lot of people have probably shared his antagonism to the sound systems, especially those which purport to be telling you something that you can't understand most of the time. And then when you try to put music through them it becomes more irritating than helpful. But for most of us, we don't make that next leap. In the Cologne airport I think that he said that he wanted music that didn't pretend that you were going to die on the plane.

SHEPPARD: That's right. I think one of those things that he's spoken about on a few occasions and it's actually related bizarrely to film music. They spend an awful lot of time and money on the architecture of airports; and its ergonomically planned, it's computer-modelled to the Nth degree and so on and so forth. And then, probably a day before the airport opens, someone will say 'well we better have some music', and so a library album is purloined for that purpose or whatever. And so it's very like the experience of people who make music for films, which is a film can take four or five years in production; and with two weeks till opening there's no music and a composer gets dragged in - so it's kind of analogous with that.

FLEMING: Well, the next step for him was to try to figure out what music he would like to hear and, of course, then, for him, what kind of music he'd like to create. He coined the term 'ambient music' to describe his own efforts, didn't he?

SHEPPARD: Well, ambient music was really the result of several years of Brian deconstructing rock music as a recording artist. As a solo artist, he had gradually removed the narrative foreground from songs. That had been a process whereby where he became more interested in the backing than the foreground. So, in effect, he began to think of things which would normally be ephemeral elements in music as the focus of music; which would mean things like keyboard lines, string lines - backing vocals, particularly. In this process - a rather painterly process, really - of scraping away the foreground of pop music - to use its broadest sense - he had slowly moved towards this beatless mood-music which was closer to a sort of perfume than it was to music. In a sense, it was something which tinted the atmosphere sonically; and he coined the term 'ambient music' around the same time as these very different airport experiences. And the album that resulted in all of this thought and purposeful music-making was called Music For Airports and subtitled Ambient 1. It was the first of the series of ambient records - and by ambient in, this context, he meant environmental records; albums that were to be used in an environmental sense: a utilitarian music, if you like.

FLEMING: Let's talk about the creation of that first album, Ambient 1: Music For Airports. It was an unusual process, wasn't it? He brought in different musicians to play different things and didn't let them hear each other play?

SHEPPARD: That's right. His basic idea was an idea he'd gone back to in his art school, which was the creation of "happy accidents". It was a sort of credo of John Cage's and a number of other modernist composers. The idea that you set up a number of parameters, set them in motion and allow collisions of things to happen that you wouldn't put there if you were thinking logically, perhaps. So, it's a way of surprising yourself as a composer. This was very much the process of Music For Airports, most of which was recorded in a converted chicken-farm, just outside of Cologne. What he did was record voices - female voices - and he just had them recording wordless ahh's and ooh's and made loops, tape loops: remember, we're talking way back in the days before digital recording.

FLEMING: This is the 1970s?

SHEPPARD: This is very much the 1970's. And something that would probably take you a half-an-hour on the Pro Tools or Logic music programs today was incredibly laborious back then. It involved creating - literally creating - loops of tape. And the random element I mentioned before was in the lengths of the loops which were anything from four or five feet of tape to, I think, thirty feet of tape

FLEMING: And it has, in fact, been played at airports, hasn't it?

SHEPPARD: It has. The album was installed at LaGuardia, New York, in 1980, for a whole month. So, in a sense, it's an art installation piece that was very much the proof that it worked, if you'd like. It was also later installed at Minneapolis-St. Paul, I believe, for a while and it has subsequently has had other airings. Brian did tell me a very funny story about a later installation in the airport at Sao Paulo in Brazil, where he had a piece in an exhibition there. And he went to go to the opening of this exhibition and he arrived at the airport. In his honour they were playing music Music For Airports; but, as he recalls it, they were playing it at excruciating volume - which was kind of antithetical to the idea - and he said it sounded like really bad heavy metal. And so it obviously didn't always work.

FLEMING: David Sheppard is the author of On Some Faraway Beach: The Life And Times Of Brian Eno.