Ambient 1: Music for Airports is a willfully perverse musical statement, one of unlimited contradictions and no small genius.
Perverse? Well, it’s an album that was released in 1978, but largely imagined at the whip centre of anarchy in the UK. At a time when music was undergoing a shift of seismic proportions, when punk in all its raw fury was changing the musical landscape — when the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks was the most important new record released and when successive seasons of loud, vitriolic punk bands, post-punk bands, and new wavers were preparing to crash the music culture party — Brian Eno was closeted away dreaming up sounds that were diametrically opposed to that ethos: if the whole point of punk was that it operated at gut level and was impossible to ignore, Eno set about creating music that was fully intellectualized and utterly translucent — sounds that disappeared completely.
With the series of ‘Ambient’ recordings made in the late ’70s, Eno was exploring, among other things, the notion of ‘passive’ music. The sounds on Music for Airports possess an endless mutability of mood, which is to say that rather than inspiring a specific set of emotions, they instead reflect the inherent emotions of the listener. One of the ways we select music to listen to at any given time is by seeking out something that amplifies our emotions, our state of mind. We want empathy, so that when we’re feeling spiteful and anarchic we listen to the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”; or else we play Radiohead’s “Creep” because we’re wallowing, feeling a lack of romantic self-worth. When we’re feeling bloody but unbowed, the world plays “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, or at least many people do. And the nature of these songs — most songs, in fact — is that they suggest the same emotions in whatever context you listen to them. Whether you’re home alone, or packed like a sardine on your way to work on a rush-hour train, your sense of being as a result of the music is unlikely to vary significantly. The intensity of those feelings might shift, depending on circumstance (you just broke up with your girlfriend, you’re more of a creep), but the essential core of that feeling won’t change greatly. So it’s fair to say that most popular music has a small, extremely finite emotional register, and one of Eno’s great accomplishments was to broaden that register, not by suggestion, but by reflection.
The success of Music for Airports can only be appreciated by listening to it in a variety of moods and settings. Then you are likely struck by how the music allows your mind the space to breathe, and in doing so, adapts itself to your mood. The notion of ‘space’ is key in these compositions, though it requires a musicologist of considerable virtuosity to break down the precise mechanics of how it works. Perhaps no other artist of comparable stature or impact has taken such a deliberately intellectual approach to music as Eno.
In his original liner notes, he wrote: “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.”
Eno’s vision of Ambient Music both suggests and accurately reflects the place of fine pictorial art in public or private space. When we hang a painting in a room, we are not focused upon it at every given moment whilst occupying that room. Sometimes we might pause to focus on the picture, seek out new and different ideas from it; other times we may glance at it in passing, or ignore it completely. But even when we block it out of our consciousness entirely, we have a subconscious awareness of it. The room and our feelings within that room would change if it were absent, and this is the effect that Eno imagined for Ambient Music. Present when present; present when absent.
Eno has largely been given credit for inventing ‘Ambient Music’, most specifically through the release of Music for Airports. Certainly though, the likes of John Cage, Steve Reich, and Phillip Glass explored similar terrain, and no one person ever invents an entire genre of music by themselves. And with the electronic music explosion of the late ’80s and early ’90s, Ambient gained a new and unparalleled currency, and by common consensus the greatest Ambient work of that era is Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, a confection produced by Dr. Alex Patterson under the moniker of the Orb.
Yet the differences between Music for Airports and Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld are striking. Both are masterworks, yet the former is without question a more purely Ambient Music. By way of it’s many samples, Adventures… offers an associative ambience. It encourages your mind to wander (the album is, quite literally, ‘a trip’), but also provides suggestive direction as to where you should go. For example, the sampled sound of a car or motorcycle repeatedly passing from speaker to speaker automatically limits your field of reference and association. It grounds you in a contemporary civilization. The area of suggestion may still be vast, but it is clearly finite. In contrast, there is nothing on Music for Airports which is so specific. Not to suggest that one work is ‘better’ than the other, only to point out an evolutionary aspect of the music.
One measure of greatness for works of art is whether they meet the goals set by their creator (providing, of course, the goals were meretricious enough to begin with). The English journalist Paul Morley, who has written about as well as one can write about Eno’s Ambient works, suggests:
“…the music can evoke deeply personal reactions in different listeners: a sense of alienation, an expression of pure energy, a feeling of panic, of being wrapped in warm blankets, of flying through heaven or a melancholy made even more touching by it’s restraint and control.”
Which, again, confirms the intended effect of the artist. The individual pieces themselves are, by necessity, minimalist in composition (which is not to say that they are simple compositions), and Modernist in manner. But could there be a broader encompassing of emotion from a single source than that described by Morley? It is as though a blank page awaited only a series of authors to write upon it.
And so to another measure of artistic greatness: how well a work ages. It’s here that an irony reveals itself, since to most appearances Music for Airports began life radically out of step with its own time. As it turns out, this was simply a result of it being out in the stratosphere, waiting for time to catch up — and who were we to know that? Not all of us are born music prophets. All that can be said with any certainty is that having passed its 25th anniversary, Music for Airports, as both an album and a concept, shows little sign of aging yet.