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.

Transformative Soundscapes – The Latest from Innerspace Labs

This week arrived two absolutely astounding additions to our library.  Each is a milestone in its own right so I’ll waste no time getting right to them.

The first is a modern classic from the legendary NinjaTune label.  Originally released in 2004, Skalpel’s self-titled double LP was repressed through beatdelete in 2013. The DJs behind Skalpel, Marcin Cichy and Igor Pudło were dissatisfied with the humdrum music of their native Poland.

Skalpel Polish Jazz

“The Polish music scene is very poor at the moment. Nothing really interesting happens. The majority of music on TV and radio is kind of ‘World Idol’. Very little individuality – just copies of American music.” (interview, R4NT.com)

Their response was to create their own sound – “resurrecting the dusty & smokey spirit of polish jazz of 60s and 70s, re-imagined for 21st century audiophiles.” (NinjaTune.net)

I’d nearly pre-ordered the 2013 180g 2LP beatdelete reissue when it was announced, but had let the opportunity pass.  Thankfully, a member of one of the vinyl communities I frequent recently posted a shot of the album which inspired me to give it a second listen.  I was camping at the time, but came prepared with my Sennheiser circumaural studio monitors.  Around 11pm I laid back, closed my eyes, and lost myself to the album.  The 5-wheel camper and fold-out mattress was instantly transformed into something more like this:

Dimly-Lit NightClub

By the middle of the third selection, I’d already tracked down a sealed copy and processed my payment – certain that this was an essential for my library.

Mr Tim G – my sincere thanks for re-opening my ears to this album!

Skalpel - Skalpel

 

 The second (and equally-outstanding) recording is a selection from minimalist composer, Terry Riley’s catalog.  I already have A Rainbow in Curved Air, The Church of Anthrax (with John Cale), The Ten Voices of the Two Prophets, and know very well that I need his most-celebrated work – In C.

But this particular record – Persian Surgery Dervishes, had escaped my radar.  It was only after I saw numerous copies surface among members of a social network that I decided this was something I needed to hear.

Terry Riley

At first listen, I was completely enveloped in a wash of pulsing electric organ loops.  Each side-long track sounds as if it were an exercise in the tape loop technique developed by Riley and Pauline Oliveros (later popularized by Fripp and Eno).  However, the rapid, cyclic melodies heard on each side of the album are in reality two LIVE solo performances of Riley in LA and in Paris performing on a just-intoned Yamaha organ.  Even more astounding is that the second performance sounds far different from the first, but is simply Riley demonstrating the importance of improvisation.  The two recordings are each of the same composition.

Terry Riley - Persian Surgery Dervishes sm

Dervishes is beautifully meditative and is really an album you can loose yourself in.  Like most great minimalist compositions, the listener loses their sense of time and the piece becomes the atmosphere of the room.

Special thanks to all of the users who posted their copies of this exceptional record – Andrew G, Tintin E, Andrew T, Luke B, Chris A, and likely many others!

Now get lost.

New Year’s Concert – Music of Terry Riley

Ladies and gentlemen – it has been an outstanding start to the new year.

I received an invitation this morning from the Music Director of the UB Symphony Orchestra to attend a local musical Happening.

Daniel Bassin conceived and organized the event which took place this afternoon, January 1st at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo.

The Happening united a number of musicians, some natives of the city and others from around the country.  Together they performed Terry Riley’s iconic piece, “In C” in this, the 50th year since its composition.

The first recording of “In C” was produced with Riley and The Center of Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY-Buffalo in 1968 so it was a fitting selection to kick off the local Happenings series.

From Mr. Bassin’s event summary:

Part composition, part improvisation, never the same twice, and beautiful to experience in person in a fine acoustic like our church’s sanctuary, this piece was composed in 1964 and first recorded by the composer alongside Buffalo’s Creative Associates in 1968.

“In C” consists of 53 composed musical melodies and gestures which players are to perform sequentially with one another, but each individual only moves on from melody to melody on their own, thus creating musical textures which are alternatingly delicate and dense, lush and hypnotic.

In the spirit of the original Happenings of the 1960s, audience participation was encouraged, and several children in attendance enthusiastically manned tambourines and standing drums adding a free and youthful energy to the performance.

Terry Riley In C Daniel Bassin Buffalo NY

Children were happy to lend a hand!

The UUCB was a fantastic acoustic space for the event, and Bassin encouraged listeners to roam freely about the church to experience the various changes in sound perspectives.  One guest was delighted to discover an inviting bass-pocket sensation by hanging her head between the church’s pews.

Overall the Happening was a great success.  We joined the performers for lunch following the event and discussed Bassin’s plans for future Happenings, one of which will feature the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

I am honored to have been a part of the first of what I’m sure will be many successful performances.  Mr. Bassin is providing a valuable contribution to the local music scene and I can’t wait to see what else 2015 will bring.

Happy new year everyone!

Experimental Music Haul 2.0

I’ve started volunteering at the Bop Shop and they let me browse the special collections section (items for sale on the website) and I’ve found some remarkable LPs.

The first item I picked up was Morton Subotnick’s The Wild Bull.  I asked, “so is it true that I can pick up just about any release on the Nonesuch label and know that it will be fantastic?”

Moments later, I had my answer.  I found a double LP boxed set titled, The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music by Beaver and Krauss.  It was composed on one of the first Moog synthesizers built by Bob Moog and includes a syllabus to guide the listener through a collection of sound concepts and the language of electronic music which was altogether new to the world when the record was released.

One of the 20th century music experts working in the shop smiled and told me that the Guide was an essential starting point for my early electronic library and that had the album been produced in a more limited run, it would be considered a holy grail.

Click on the back cover shot for a high-resolution photo and check out the track listing for a better idea of what this collection offers.

Next I asked if by chance the store had a copy of George Harrison’s noise record, Electronic Sound.

Sure enough, in the special collections area there were not one but three copies!  The first was $25 but had needle wear and audible surface noise.  The $40 copy was a Japanese import in NM condition and it played magnificently.  I opted for the second disc and after researching the recording I learned that Krauss actually composed and performed an entire side of the album but was never credited on the release.

The final treasure came when I inquired about a collection of experimental releases from the French label, Prospective 21e Siècle from the 60s and 70s.  I was surprised to hear that the owner of the shop recalled the label and remembered seeing a few discs come into the store at one time or another.  We searched through the “to-be-filed” shelves and to my absolute surprise found FOUR of the label’s releases tucked away on the top shelf!  Most were $50 apiece and in excellent condition.  After quickly sampling these discs I picked out three and added them to my pile.

I plan to rip these rare albums to FLAC just as soon as the McIntosh pre-amp and power amp arrive.

Prospective 21e Siècle – Boucourechliuv

Prospective 21e Siècle – Clavencin 2.0

Prospective 21e Siècle – Ohana

I made two additional discoveries this week as well.  The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble has released two albums, each in the area of New Music.

The first was a performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.  It was an excellent performance of the classic piece, but the second release is what really grabbed me.

In C Remixed is a 21st century re-imagining of Terry Riley’s groundbreaking minimalist composition.

Below is a sample – Jad Abumrad’s mix

And the other discovery was the work of Pauline Oliveros.  I began exploring her tape music from the 50s and 60s but was most impressed with her work with The Deep Listening Band during the 1990s.  The album, Ready Made Boomerang was recorded in a two million gallon cistern which has a reverberation time of 45 seconds!

I’m hoping for a vinyl re-issue of this release.

I’ll be heading back to the Bop Shop this Saturday so stay tuned for more!