[2 March 2009]
Brian Eno coined the term “ambient music” for a certain kind of complex environmental music (his own) that rewarded any level of attention. His liner notes for the 1978 album Music for Airports says “it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”. He was claiming his own section of a musical canvas stretching from Erik Satie’s “furniture music” at the high end to, at the most reviled (and popular) end, the sort of easy-listening pop discussed in Joseph Lanza’s brilliant book Elevator Music.
Ambient, in a field somewhere off to the left of New Age and a mile from the intersection of Mulholland Drive and Tangerine Dream, is timbral, seemingly formless, and characterized by a sound that is hypnotic, lulling and mesmerizing. It’s a compliment to say it can put you to sleep.
Bang on a Can All-Stars, consisting of musicians associated with New York’s Bang on a Can music festival, issued their own cover album of Music for Airports in 1998, in which they recreated or interpreted Eno’s work acoustically, and the following year they performed it live at the Holland Festival accompanied by a video projected overhead. Frank Scheffer made that video, a 50-minute work in four parts, and here it is. (I’m not sure if the soundtrack we’re hearing is the live performance or the album.)
Shot at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, it’s a work of avant-garde minimalism consisting entirely of slow, out-of-focus shots. Aside from the abstract aesthetic quality of the results, to which Scheffer ascribes a certain philosophical methodology that embraces the writings of Vassily Kandinsky and the chance-effects of John Cage, I can’t help observing that this choice also obviates the need for anyone at the airport to sign a release or sue the filmmakers.
Part One consists of people entering the sliding doors, with the unfocused aura making it all look like its shot through bevelled glass or under water. The camera goes up and down in a glass elevator. Some longshots of walking ectoplasmic elongated figures are run backward.
Part Two focuses on the planes as they taxi the runway. Part Three renders passers-by so abstractly that they no longer appear human but resemble walking raincoats, unless everyone has taken the veil.
Part Four may be the most beautiful musically and visually, though that’s an arbitrary judgment. The images of waiting crowds are especially dense in color and texture. Those who wear glasses may not have considered that their “alternative vision” could be a source of gnostic beauty.
I’ve often thought that if some of Andy Warhol’s minimalist epics, such as Sleep or Empire, were available on video, they would be ideal to project on a wall at a party as a background movie in the same way you have background music: something going on that one might or might not pay attention to or cast a glance at now and again, something restful to draw the eye as ambient music draws the ear. This Scheffer video fills that bill. It’s in no way necessary to sit down and watch it, although one might; having it on is good enough.
Of course, name any type of music and there are people who don’t like it, and many people don’t like this stuff. They don’t “get it”. Those who don’t recognize Eno’s album as a beautiful milestone will find this video counterpart a must avoid.
Next on the program: In the Ocean, an hour-length video documentary from 2000 that interviews the three founders of Bang on a Can (Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, David Lang) plus a festival of all-star talking heads: Eno, Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Elliott Carter, Louis Andriessen. The intellectual content of at least half the video can be summed us “blah blah postmodern, blah blah eclectic” as everyone talks about breaking down barriers. The heads are best when discussing the specifics of various works, such as when Carter says his string quartet tries to balance cooperation and individualism, or when Cage is praised for the discovery of sounds as music (not to mention silence), or when Andriessen’s work is praised for its hybrid of American and European patterns (he discusses how jazz influenced him), or when Reich describes certain works by the Bang-ers that he admires.
The real joy of the video is that it’s a kind of contemporary That’s Entertainment, anthologizing moments of over 25 works accompanied by more or less stylized shots of New York streets. Thus it fulfills what Eno calls the art of curatorship, grouping certain interesting things together to call attention to them. Some excerpts from the Music for Airports video are shown, and Eno declares that because they’re played by real people, they have a beauty he didn’t find in his own version. That’s a significant statement.
It’s exhilarating to be reminded (or informed for the first time) of Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain”, “Music for 18 Musicians” and the piercingly beautiful “Proverb”; Glass’ “Dance 3” and “Music with Changing Parts”; and Andriessen’s “De Staat”, all of which give this film and contemporary music a nervous urban propulsion extended by Wolfe’s “Lick”, Lang’s “Lying, Cheating, Stealing” and Gordon’s “Yo Shakespeare”. Nor are postwar masters of American “difficult music” neglected, which is why we hear Carter’s endearingly wiggy and mysterious “Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord” and Milton Babbitt’s “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra”. Despite all the talk of eradicating barriers between genres, it’s fair to say, without disrespect, that the music sampled here is much of a piece.
The back of the box mentions the legacy of Charles Ives but no one in the video mentions him. Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen are mentioned in passing, but not sampled, as examples of Euro-modernists (though I think of Stockhausen as a Texan!) that some misguided and unnamed Americans tried to imitate when they should have been finding a native voice. (I’m sure a whole discussion could be opened up there, as every real or imagined movement must be defined against something else.)
Other superstars, like Edgard Varèse and John Adams, aren’t mentioned either, but that’s no demerit, since this isn’t trying to be comprehensive. It functions best as an overview of a certain nexus of people who influenced the Bang-ers, and as such is sure to encourage some trips to the listening station.
I don’t know if these are proper extras, but there’s a weird little segment called “Ring”, an experimental collage anchored on a production of Wagner’s cycle, and 13 samples of other performance documentaries in the Allegri Film/Medici Arts catalogue, including works of Pärt, Stravinsky, Berio, Mahler, Carter, Tan Dun, Messiaen and Stockhausen.