Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports book by John T. Lysaker

Brian Eno's Ambient 1 - Music For Airports by John T Lysaker 06-30-19

When I learned that Oxford University Press had just published a volume of its Keynotes series wholly dedicated to examining Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports, I raced to secure a copy.

The keynote was written by John Lysaker, the William R. Kenan Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department. Researchgate.net reports Lysaker’s project goal with the book was to provide “a 30,000 word study of Eno’s seminal album. This short study will explore the nature of ambient music, situate the album in 20th century avant garde music practice, and consider multiple forms of listening.”

Lysaker outlines the origins of this exploration in the Acknowledgements:

I test-drove some early thoughts at a meeting of the American Philosophies Forum. This was a great prod in the right direction, and comments from other participants proved useful as the project developed, as did the opportunity to concretize those remarks in an article, “Turning Listening Inside Out” which appeared in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy.

(He also acknowledges) the writings of Geeta Dayal, David Sheppard, Cecilia Sun, Eric Tamm, and David Toop (and included) the titles of their books alongside others in the section called Additional Sources for Reading and Listening. (He also thanks) the tireless laborers that maintain two websites: MORE DARK THAN SHARK and EnoWeb. Each has gathered numerous interviews that are resources for scholars and fans alike.

The Introduction quickly frames the tasks undertaken by the book:

This short study is for listeners who want to think and reflect on what Eno’s LP has to offer, and in a way that deepens future listening rather than replaces it with scholarly prose.

Five chapters and an afterward follow. They blend musical and historical analysis with occasional philosophical reflections on what “music” means in a context as provocative as the one convened by MFA.

Chapter 2: Music for Airports and the Avant-Garde touches upon a number of pivotal composers and works which paved the way for MFA. David Toop’s Ocean of Sound is discussed, as are Debussy, Ives, Schoenberg, Luigi Russolo, Pierre Schaeffer, Edgar Varèse’s Poème électronique, Michael Nyman, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room, David Tudor, Cage, and Riley’s In C. Lysaker demonstrates how each of these predecessors provided an environment for Eno’s composition and he concludes the chapter by succinctly identifying the properties and musical concepts embraced by Music for Airports:

…in a short book, one is forced to make choices, and I elect to provide what I consider MFA‘s most immediate context… …Rather, I’ve been marking conceptual, technological, and sonic shifts that helped make a record like MFA possible, and we’ve encountered several.

  • Music can be built around something other than a motif, or basic musical phrase.
  • Microtones and the dissonances they introduce can be musical.
  • Traditional harmony (and even harmony altogether) neither exhausts nor is required for a musically legitimate arrangement of sounds.
  • Any sound is suitable material for a musical composition.
  • New technologies for the generation and reproduction of sound are not only welcome but necessary.
  • The presence of unintended sounds, i.e. noise, is an acceptable (and inevitable) part of a musical work.
  • Musical works can productively interact with the sonic environment in which they are produced.
  • Single tones and chords are musically complex and interesting, particularly when sustained for lengthy periods of time or subjected to extended repetition.

Chapter 4: Ambience explores the nature and function of the general umbrella of various ambient musics. Satie’s musique d’ameublement (“furniture music”) is examined, as is divertimenti music of the eighteenth century. Lysaker goes on to contextualize Cage, La Monte Young, Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening album, Moby, Aphex Twin, Thomas Köner, Wolfgang Voigt, Robert Scott Thompson, Max Richter’s Sleep, William Basinski, Stars of the Lid, and FSOL, as well as a brief history of Muzak and the 1950s Capital Records “Moods in Music” series.

Lysaker quotes Eno’s description of MFA‘s movement “away from narrative and toward landscape” and says that “MFA‘s somewhat amorphous and discontinuous sonic material seems to suspend its listeners somewhere in the space between hearing and listening.”

He describes the state of reverie induced by MFA, and suggests that it “enters life differently – obliquely, gently, but nevertheless, at least on occasion, transformatively.”

The final Chapter 5: Between Hearing and Listening – Music for Airports as Conceptual Art effectively summarizes the conceptual nature of MFA:

At one extreme, futurists like Russolo tried to humanize those sounds, creating compositions that strove to translate the sounds of the world into an expanded but nevertheless fully realized musical idiom. At the other extreme, Cage sought to let sounds be sounds through compositions that removed as thoroughly as possible his taste, judgment, and skill as a composer.

When interpreted conceptually, the approaches of Russolo and Cage create an opposition: either (a) art absorbs nature in the self-enlarging process, versus (b) art exposes nature in a self-effacing one. The former offers us culture over nature, whereas the latter labors to displace human activity from an emerging culture-or field-of sounds. MFA eludes this opposition, seeking neither a denatured culture nor an ascetically cleansed field of sounds. Instead, it enacts itself as one aspect of the world operating on another. By working with its world, and by clarifying itself with theories that naturalize the human desire to make art, it presents itself as nature unfolding, taking nature, cybernetically, as a dynamic system of interactions that includes its (and our) own efforts.

Lysaker presents and describes various forms of listening, including background listening, foreground or performance listening, aesthetic listening, adequate listening, and regressive or narcissistic listening. He then offers a metaphor for the reader to consider the type of listening warranted by MFA through a different “lens” of prismatic or immersive listening.

He goes on to observe the subtle differences between listening to MFA across different media formats, from compact disc to vinyl, and then explores the vastly different texture, spaciality, and sonic palette offered by the instrumental realization of the album by Bang on a Can which displaces the monochromatic character of “2/2,” effectively enlivening and humanizing the track.

The book concludes with an Afterward framing the enduring influence of MFA, and the author closes with a brief list of further reading and listening materials. Additionally, Oxford University Press created a website to accompany the book that features audio clips of many musical passages discussed over the course of its chapters.

The short text was a delightful and engaging read, and the philosophy explored by the author is never lost to overly-academic pomp. The book is a thoughtful and knowledgeable reflection on a critically influential work of music which continues to influence and inspire musicians and listeners alike over forty years after its release.

Generative Music in the palm of your hand

In the 1950s, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop used tape loops to create bizarre sounds for special effects.

In 1964, Terry Riley composed “In C,” the penultimate minimalist composition.  Many would agree that John Cage trumped it a year later with “4’33.”

Terry Riley - In C

Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out” from 1965 were early experiments with tape loops phase shifting to create a new sound that evolved throughout the piece.

Brian Eno later coined the term “generative music” and has employed it in one way or another in each album he’s released from Discreet Music in 1975 onward.

Brian Eno - Discreet Music

Three years after Discreet Music, Eno produced Music For Airports, the first self-declared ambient album.  It will forever be my favorite ambient recording.  The album was so compelling that it has been covered in its entirety by Bang on a Can and in 2010, The Black Dog recorded a reinterpretation called Music for Real Airports built from 200 hours of field recording.

If you’re unfamiliar with ‘Airports,’ you can listen to it in my previous post, Elvis on the Radio, Steel Guitar in my Soul.

Since the early 50s technology has transported generative music from engineer’s studios and art installation spaces into our homes and our mobile devices.

In 2008 Brian Eno developed Bloom, a generative music app for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Since then, he developed two similar apps – Trope and Air.

These are unquestionably the greatest apps ever created in the history of mankind.

To quote Eno: “Air is like ‘Music For Airports’ made endless – which is how I always wanted it to be.”

Being that iPods are my personal kryptonite I’ll have to wait for the eventual (read: ‘inevitable’) release of these apps for Android.

Check out Bloom in action.