Ambient music must be able to adapt to many levels of listening attention without imposing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.
In the original liner notes of Brian Eno’s founding document on ambient music – 1978 Atmosphere 1: music for airports — the artist explains that he named his genre after “an atmosphere, or an surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce ostensibly (but not exclusively) original pieces for particular times and situations in order to build a small but versatile catalog of environmental music suitable for a wide variety of moods and atmospheres.
In defining “environmental music”, Eno strives to distinguish his new work from the creators of Muzak. Rather than recreating the familiar with instrumental schmaltz and “removing any sense of doubt and uncertainty”, Ambient should stimulate listeners’ minds without disturbing or distracting them, inducing “calm and space to reflect”. rolling stone at the time coined the derisive, but not entirely inaccurate, phrase “aesthetic white noise”.
Reverb Machine painstakingly shows in a deconstruction how Eno himself introduced as much uncertainty as possible into the composition process. music for airports is not, i.e. a composition, but layers of tape loops with excerpts of recorded music. These loops, he turned them on and “let them set up however they wanted”. Acting as the initial sound selector and engineer, Eno’s role as the piece’s composer and performer involved “barely interfering at all”, he said.
How could such a composition translate into a traditional performance setting, in which musicians, raised on a stage, play instruments for spectators facing them, listening intently? The situation seems contrary to Eno’s conception. And yet, somehow, the musicians who make up the Bang on a Can All Stars ensemble have made it work beautifully, performing music for airportsThe first track from, the nondescript “1/1,” in an arrangement by the band’s Michael Gordon, above, for a grateful audience at the San Diego airport terminal.
Bang on a Can is a group committed, like Eno, to “making new music”. Since 1987 they have been doing this (unlike Eno) in a live performance-based way, holding 12-hour marathon concerts, for example. These performances have included their interpretation of music for airports full. The Voice of the village described a 2007 performance in New York for hundreds of attentive fans as “magnificent,” a word that is often applied to Eno’s random masterpiece. Eno himself described the results as “very, very good”, and he may be the last person to be surprised that a live performance of Ambient’s so-called debut album would work out so well.
“Interestingly, it doesn’t sound mechanical at all like you’d imagine,” he wrote of those early tape loop experiences. “It looks like a guy is sitting there playing the piano with a pretty intense feeling. The spacing and dynamics of ‘his’ playing sound very well organized. See a quintet of “guys” just above – on cello, bass, keyboard, percussion and guitar – recreate the slightly disjointed vibe of standing in the liminal space of an airport, for a crowd of people who, presumably, came there for the express purpose of hearing background music.
Brian Eno explains the origins of ambient music
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, North Carolina. Follow him on @jdmagness.