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Ambient 1: Music for Airports

Brian Eno Ambient 1 Music for Airports


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  • Label:

    EG / Polydor / PVC

  • Reviewed:

    January 7, 2024

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we revisit a 1978 ambient masterpiece that helped launch the genre through its technological savvy and its soft heart.

By January 1975, Brian Eno worked like an electron. He bounded among projects and people, flitting into sessions only long enough to add what Peter Gabriel insisted upon calling “Enossification” to Genesis’ 1974 opus, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. A self-proclaimed non-musician, Eno would appear with his early EMS synthesizer in a briefcase, then wind others’ instruments through it or a panoply of tape recorders, augmenting their sounds with the excitement of the ineffable.

Then a free agent just shy of 27, Eno had already become a rock star with Roxy Music. He was the alien razzle-dazzle beauty, sashaying among his electronics and upstaging singer Bryan Ferry until the resulting tension prompted Eno’s exit. Other opportunities abounded, anyway: As he labored over his first two solo albums—obtuse hybrids of high-art idealism and glam-rock strut—he daydreamed about outré ensembles he might start but never did. Luala and the Lizard Girls, for instance, was his plan to pair his catholic sexual enthusiasms with his artistic transgressions. Like many other Eno hypotheticals, it never happened.

Though he couldn’t much play the clarinet, he lent his lack of skills (and budding imprimatur) to the Portsmouth Sinfonia, the amateur orchestra of composer Gavin Bryars that mutated the classical repertoire with uncanny allure. He even helped them secure an unlikely record deal. There were his foundational tape-and-guitar improvisations with Robert Fripp, sporadic dalliances with boyhood heroes Nico and John Cale, and his collaborative loyalty to the remaining members of Roxy Music not named Ferry.

Around the middle of January 1975, Eno was leaving a session with Roxy guitarist Phil Manzanera, daydreaming about what he’d just played and the sudden uncertainty of his career when he slipped on a drizzly London street. He fell into the path of a speeding black cab. Eno bled from the head and was badly bruised, but he soon returned home from the hospital to convalesce, an electron momentarily at rest.

What followed is now, nearly a half-century later, essentially the origin story of ambient music, as riddled with factual uncertainty as all good fables. On her way to visit Eno, Judy Nylon, his former roommate and confidant, bought a cheap album of antique harp tunes near the train station. As Eno lay in his living room, with the rain tinkling against the windows, Nylon put on the record and adjusted the sound to fit the ailing mood. Eno heard his new direction: He wanted to make music like this, sound that could enliven or enhance a space without overpowering it, like a faint stick of incense in the corner or a dim sconce glowing in the distance. Eno now wanted to render the antithesis of the preening rock’n’roll that had made him famous—no glory, only grace.

But first, he again worked like an electron. He would soon finish Another Green World, another ostensible rock album punctuated by opalescent instrumentals, and establish Obscure Records, a short-lived but crucial fountainhead for contemporary classical music. One of its first four records was his own, Discreet Music, an entrancing but halting attempt to re-create that living room calm with a 30-minute keyboard hypnosis and warped fragments of Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. Eno assembled a potpourri of brief pieces for movies and commercials, then expanded it. He courted Talking Heads and Devo as their potential (and eventual) producer. And he repeatedly jetted to Berlin to join David Bowie on what would become the Berlin Trilogy and to Cologne to commune with Motorik idealists Cluster on a series of less commercial but eerie and luminescent works.

That’s when it happened: Sitting among the gleaming steel fixtures and softly glowing concrete lines of the modernist Cologne Bonn Airport on a sunny Sunday morning in late 1977, en route to his homebase, the perennially nervous flier recoiled once again at the canned pop pleasantries mindlessly piped into such an inspired space. The music was not only an afterthought but also insulting to the idea that you would soon climb into a sleek metal tube and be propelled by engines through the sky at 40,000 feet. “I started thinking, ‘What should we be hearing here?’ I thought most of all you wanted music that didn’t try to pretend you weren’t going to die on the plane, ” Eno, laughing but serious, told Stephen Colbert 34 years later, much as he’d said to Lester Bangs in 1979 and repeated in his own published diary in 1996. “Let’s face facts.”

Within a matter of months, Music for Airports was finished. Eno had struggled for years with the sessions that would become his de facto rock farewell, 1977’s Before and After Science, as he wrangled more than a dozen collaborators in two countries. But rock’s valence electron had finally found his perfect fit, coming to rest in the sound he’d been circling for years. This one—an act of near-complete self-reliance, informed by a decade of attentive listening, thought, and arguable artistic theft—arrived in a flash.

Alternately panned as a soporific joke or praised as a cathedral of escape, Music for Airports soon became Eno’s bestseller. And in the last half-century, of course, it has become so much more. Pragmatically and presciently co-titled Ambient 1, few albums have ever been more synonymous with the genre that followed, with the field of play they named. It is an ur-statement of scope and intent. “The listener, I felt, became the population of a sonic landscape,” he later wrote in the foreword to Mark Prendergast’s The Ambient Century, “and was free to wander round it.”

Systems had forever fascinated Eno. As an adolescent in a rural town near the Suffolk Coast, Eno was drawn to his grandfather’s player piano, which required no skill to activate and which he was soon modifying to render his own new melodies. As a budding teenage artist in Ipswich, he turned painting into performance art by trying to recreate someone else’s work by studying the pigmented drips they’d left on the floor. He loved Steve Reich’s early tape pieces, studied the groundbreaking ideas of David Tudor and John Cage, performed a La Monte Young composition that instructed him to repeat a sound as many times as he found necessary (three hours and counting!), and repeatedly installed a George Brecht piece in which water dripped from one container into another.

Synthesizers, tape recorders, and electronic circuitry at large allowed him to bring those propensities and experiences to bear on the rock music he also loved. He had magpied 30 secondhand tape machines by age 20, and, at 24, became the first person believed to be credited for “tapes” on a rock album, with Roxy Music’s debut. By the mid-’70s, writes David Sheppard in his authoritative biography, On Some Faraway Beach, Eno counted himself an apostle of Lee “Scratch” Perry and dub, particularly smitten by Perry’s 1974 rendezvous with King Tubby. The record’s back cover pictured their mixing consoles in striking chiaroscuro portraits, a secret handshake to anyone who believed in the endless possibilities of the studio.

Eno also found several kindred spirits among the German explorers that shaped the krautrock frontier. Chief among them may have been Conny Plank, a slightly older but no less adventurous engineer who had worked with Karlheinz Stockhausen and then converted a farmhouse outside Cologne into a cozy country studio. By the time he and Eno met there in 1977 for the first of two sessions with the duo Cluster, Plank had helped nurture that atmospheric vanguard through classics with Neu!, Kraftwerk, and Harmonia. He celebrated the value of craziness, especially in the studio. “Conny always seemed to enjoy the idea that something we didn’t yet recognize would appear,” Eno later remembered of Plank, who died a decade after their first sessions at the age of 47. “[He] wanted to be surprised, to hear something new.”

And then, thanks to Plank, it was Eno who heard something new. During a return trip to Cologne in early 1978, months after he’d had his airport epiphany, Eno saw the reels of tape that Plank and former Can bassist Holger Czukay had meticulously spliced together from samples of shortwave radio transmissions, disco drums, highlife guitars, and Arabic singing. Eno had been struggling to make yet another rock record as a lead singer, and these patchwork spools presented a way out: Someone else could sing, and the system could do the job for him.

Plank’s partner, the actress Christa Fast, typically fed the musicians, often baking sumptuous cakes. Now, though, Eno gathered her and two studio assistants, Inge Zeininger and Christine Gomez, to sing simple “aahs” alongside him, a little plainsong choir. He and Plank cut bits of tape from the results, spooling loops of slightly different lengths around the legs of the studio’s metal chairs, mixing the voices in real time. They thought it was beautiful, celestial—like flying, maybe? This was the start of the music for airports he’d imagined.

Eno had also been interested in another very different system, even before Roxy Music began at the decade’s dawn. Inspired in part by the casual classics of Bryars’ Portsmouth Sinfonia, he liked to assemble ad hoc ensembles, offer vague instructions (including his famous Oblique Strategies), and listen for resulting bits of intrigue. It was an extrapolation of John Cage’s indeterminacy, applied to rock settings. As Robert Fripp once put it, “He’s my favorite synthesizer player, because instead of using his fingers he uses his ears.”

Back in England, he asked old chum Robert Wyatt to hop on the piano, with audio engineer Rhett Davies on Fender Rhodes and the maverick Fred Frith on guitar. No one could hear anyone else, but, listening back, Eno spotted a synchronous moment when a six-note Wyatt phrase not unlike the French nursery rhyme “Frère Jacques” intersected with Davies’ electric piano just so. He cut the tape, built a loop, excised the guitar, slowed it all to a narcotized pace, and played along, augmenting the phrases where he saw fit. Music for Airports, for all intents and purposes, was finished.

Though it was the last piece to materialize, Eno smartly made that augmented 17-minute loop from the studio jam Music for Airport’s opening gambit, calling it “1/1,” or Track 1 on Side 1. On an album where the pieces are so amorphous they suggest Young’s ideas of music that would go on forever, it is the most recognizably shaped, with Wyatt’s trusty piano pattern recurring like mileposts on some desolate and enchanting highway.

True to Eno’s aviation intent, “1/1” suggests the feeling of being held aloft by a partner, parent, friend, mattress, or anything else that buoys you as you begin to sag. His synthesizer passes—faint at first, gradually growing bolder—reinforce that sensation by cradling Wyatt’s piano phrase, by lifting higher the very thing that is doing the uplifting. Sure, death had been on Eno’s mind at the Cologne airport, but the future feels suddenly limpid during “1/1.” A haze steadily dissipates, and the sky brightens, with something new now lingering on the horizon.

Both “1/2” and “2/1”—twin outgrowths of that vocal experiment with Plank and company in Cologne—maintain that sense of the future with vastly different instrumentation and implications. Though his voice is indeed nestled inside the quartet, Eno is nearly a phantom during “1/2,” letting the spools of tape move in and out of sync to create harmonies so soft and slow they almost feel inhuman, pillowing and billowing and collapsing and returning.

“As the piece progresses, what you hear are the various clusterings and configurations of these six basic elements. They stay the same,” Eno told a rapt San Francisco audience in 1996. “But the piece does appear to have quite a lot of variety.” This, then, is the sheet of clouds in the sky, the same few substances morphing in endless permutations. They suggest that there is an upper limit, that a ceiling has been reached; you can float in that state of grace for as long as you like but can go no higher. On Music for Airports, “2/1” lasts nine minutes. Eno has teased a 30-minute rendition, and you can spend much longer inside it during this radiant time-stretched take. It is music that seems to begin and end only because physical media has material limits.

Eno’s most overlooked stroke of brilliance here is to take those same vocals to the flipside, “1/2,” and push them further apart, like heavy clouds spreading into wisps. Where Wyatt’s piano on the opener is confident and breezy, Eno’s is tentative but exploratory on “1/2,” as if the “non-musician” is still trying to understand the way the keys function together. It’s easy to imagine the kid plundering his grandfather’s player piano, poking new holes in the rolls just to see how the results might sound. There is a delicate hopefulness to his phrasing, like a prairie dog poking its head up after a violent thunderstorm has passed or like an airplane passenger finally exhaling after moving through a tide of turbulence. The first three movements of Music for Airports are the sounds of continued belief, none more so than the faltering but perseverant 12 minutes of “1/2.”

If the first 40 minutes of Music for Airports are about being lifted and then remaining so, then “2/2,” its finale, is the comedown, the score for sinking toward some final destination. Eno cut these 10 minutes at Plank’s place in Cologne, improvising on an ARP 2600, slowing the tape to half-speed, and feeding it through a litany of delays. It is technically the simplest work here, an instrumental modified in post-production. But it is emotionally the most sophisticated and ambiguous, the reason that listeners sometimes leave the halcyon heights of Music for Airports feeling unsettled or vertiginous.

The motion of all the music is spectacular, akin to watching the moonlight shimmer from the ocean’s surface at night. Water, however, is the last thing anyone wants to contemplate in an airport or airplane, and that image makes for unease as “2/2” lumbers forward like some pipe organ dirge, guiding you finally to an end that does not begin again. These are those facts that Eno wants us to face, that death is always hovering nearby. Maybe it is true that this stunning building in Cologne—that happened to be designed by the father of the kid from Kraftwerk—may be the last splendid thing you ever see. Of all the possibilities Music for Airport’s first three pieces frame, they never preclude that certainty. If the beginning of this album feels like an ellipsis, its end is a period, as clear and absolute as mortality itself.

These days, Eno is a frequent guest at creativity conferences, with Music for Airports brandished as one example of his technological advances in music. But it wasn’t that, really. There were already synthesizers more advanced than the relatively common ARP 2600 by early 1978, and the tape tricks Eno deployed for these tracks were not altogether new. His own innovations in that field with Fripp years earlier already owed debts to Terry Riley’s psychedelic meditations a decade prior.

What’s more, a bevy of artists, from Popol Vuh in Germany to Éliane Radigue in France, had touched on so many of these sounds and circumstances. The delays, reverbs, variable speeds, and philosophical understanding of the studio as perhaps the greatest instrument of all were exclusive neither to Eno and Plank nor white rock’n’roll at large. Music for Airports was the result of Eno’s longtime interests and enthusiasms, suddenly given the right name and context. He had enough sense to recognize it, enough restraint to leave it alone.

But Music for Airports has become a wellspring for a now-sprawling genre and an essential record unto itself, its machines turned into a score played by the likes of Bang on a Can, ragtag rock experts Psychic Temple, and insightful pianist Bruce Brubaker. There’s more than restraint and synthesis at work. Instead, Eno—forever the systems man, more devoted to process than product—stumbled upon a true emotional center here. Perhaps it was because he was working to address his own anxieties through sound, but these four tracks radiate a kind of warmth and care that his sometimes-cold art had rarely embraced—and, for that matter, would often eschew in the future. At its core, Music for Airports moved to meet worry with relief, a response that lasts longer than any cutting edge ever can.

One no longer needs to wrap magnetic tape around leg chairs to make something that sounds like Eno’s 1978 masterpiece. These sounds are now matters of software, of templates, of common course. The generative machines of our AI future will likely understand Music for Airports like the alphabet. But it’s the beating human heart at this record’s center—palpitating at first, steadying as the record spins—that distinguishes it after so many decades. As you lift and fall with it, you remember how it is to feel.

After all, the moment he conceived the concept behind Music for Airports, Eno had a specific enemy in mind: Muzak, or music that didn’t allow anyone to feel much of anything.

Amid the Cold War jitters and political upheaval of the ’60s, the idea of piped-in pleasantry became a very big business, not only priming the sales pump in stores globally but also setting a pleasantly productive mood in workplaces. Founded in the wake of World War I by a high-ranking veteran of a particularly tech-driven Army wing, Muzak even found a home in nuclear submarines. By the time the Vietnam War shuddered to a halt, or as Eno’s head encountered that fast black cab, Muzak generated $400 million per year and soundtracked 43 of the world’s 50 biggest businesses.

Eno bristled at these pillow-soft pop arrangements and schmaltzy jazz standards, in and out of airports. His four tracks were not only intended as an architectural accompaniment but also as a replacement for what he heard as commercial drivel. To those ends, Music for Airports has actually enjoyed very limited success—a 40th-anniversary loop at London City Airport, an eight-day stint at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International soon after the album’s release, and a brief broadcast in Brazil’s São Paulo/Guarulhos that was so loud and distorted Eno demanded it be turned down.

In 1980, he installed Music for Airports in LaGuardia alongside four screens showing rudimentary footage he’d filmed from his apartment window after moving to New York. He called the piece 2 Fifth Avenue; airport employees complained about the racket. Still, for Eno, Music for Airports and such installations were breakthroughs, flinging the doors wide to the generative music and multimedia exploration that continues apace even as he nears 80.

In the years since, Music for Airports has become something of a daydream that has backfired in slow motion. By the end of the ’70s, when the record finally began attracting earnest attention stateside, Eno was already seen as a serious artist. He countered seemingly pretentious dalliances with contemporary classical music, cryptic notecards of vague instructions, and interviews that lasted nine hours with transformative popular albums alongside the likes of Bowie, Talking Heads, and Devo. He was a pop guy with a theoretical underpinning, an intriguing comment always at the ready.

But Music for Airports helped to erode the walls between sound designed to lubricate commerce and music made because it was beautiful, meaningful, personal, or powerful. From the jump, most critics did not distinguish between corporate background Muzak and Eno’s auteurist version of it: “Avant-garde Muzak?” The New York Times review began. “Doktor Eno investigates the possibilities of Muzak,” The Los Angeles Times quipped. “Eno’s version of Muzak for our age,” GQ reasoned. These ingenious and heartfelt symphonies of machines were just another dude’s take on background pablum.

That seems like a crucial development on the path to our modern music economy, where the vast majority of recorded music is valued at $10.99 per month, when it is valued at all. Most everything has become background music, and multiple playlists of “music for…” most every imaginable task—baking, fucking, crying, studying, even birthing another human being—abound. “I should think by now I’ve met about 60 or 70 kids who came out of the womb listening to [Discreet Music], which of course, is any marketing department’s dream,” Eno once quipped about his sound’s functionality. “Get in there right at the beginning, you know?” As he completed Ambient 1, Eno actually designed a cover for Ambient 2: Music for Healing. That record never materialized, Eno perhaps sensing his own future disdain for the coming New Age.

“It must be as ignorable as it is interesting,” Eno wrote in conclusion of Music for Airport’s oft-quoted liner notes, a Holy Writ of ambient. Less than a half-century later, it seems like a permission slip to ignore most everything, no matter how interesting. Music is now a utility, a tool to be used for doing something else. Eno, of course, is not to blame for this sea change, but his fortune and reputation were made in large part through the cultural frameshift he helped ferry into being.

I am a first-rate offender when it comes to Music for Airports, a habitual user for whom the record’s sprawl has become a crutch. I put it on nearly every time I write something of any real length, this piece included. The telltale mind of Apple Music informs me I’ve played it nearly 200 times in the past year.

And yet, when I actually stop to listen, to hear Music for Airports as more than a background balm, these four tracks remain wondrous and transformative, able to rearrange the air in a room. Just a few weeks ago, I visited a favorite aunt whose husband had recently died. He had left behind decades of accumulated records in a basement crowded by a lifetime of hobbies and collections. She needed to know what to do with those thousand or so LPs, each cover inked with his name in blue ballpoint pen.

As I sat on the floor scanning the spines, she flitted about the room, trying not to cry as she busied herself with arcane errands but failing. It was the first time I’d been in that room in 20 years, and it was a fraught scene, weighted by thoughts of a kind man of a million passions who died too young. Wedged between a few Magazine records and a Nick Cave single, I spotted the familiar blocky black capital letters: “AMBIENT #1 MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS.” I pulled it from its place and asked my aunt if she knew it. She’d never heard of Eno, let alone the record.

Minutes later, Robert Wyatt’s lullaby-like piano chimed from speakers wedged among busy rows of books. And then it repeated, of course, seeming to tug itself and the entire room skyward even the second time around. My aunt stopped her busywork, looked up, and finally let the tears flow. We stood there in silence for a while, like electrons coming to rest, held aloft by this music. In those quiet moments, we did exactly what Eno had hoped Music for Airports would allow people to do, in or out of an airport—to not pretend we too weren’t going to die, and to go on ahead, anyway.

Additional research by Deirdre McCabe Nolan

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Brian Eno: Ambient 1: Music for Airports