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.

The Sound of Noise

Last night’s music-related film was The Sound of Noise (2010).

Sound of Noise

It’s a French film by writer/director Ola Simonsson who you likely know from the film short Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers (2001)

Here’s the original short:

The feature-length film unites the concepts of anarchism, Luigi Russolo’s classic manifesto, and the spontaneous performance art of Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1 from 1952 and the Happenings which followed throughout the 1960s. The result is an engaging and enjoyable film.

Here is the film’s trailer. Enjoy!

Readings in Modern Music

Anyone who follows this blog with any frequency knows how much of a stretch it is for me to dig a contemporary recording, let alone a modern track by a “band” instead of a composer.  Even scarcer still are the selections I enjoy which contain lyrics and any sort of verse structure akin to rock.

The above is particularly applicable at present as I’ve spent the past week delving deep into the masterworks of musique concrete and electroacoustic composition – recordings which not only abandon contemporary pop structures like lyricism and melody, but forgo the entire tonal system itself, instead favoring abstract and atonal plunderphonics!

So it is with immense surprise and satisfaction that I state the following – A user contacted me on last.fm this week and shared  an unsigned band’s recent video… and I absolutely loved it!

They call themselves Museum – four gents from Berlin who self-released their album, Traces Of on their own label – beat is murder.

museum band
Traces Of followed the release of two EPs – Exit Wounds and Old Firehand but the 2012 single “The Law” is the fan-recommended track which introduced me to their work.  (They actually do the whole lowercase-sentence-fragment thing but I’ve capitalized their releases here for the sake of readability.  Sorry lads.)

Their official site is inactive, simply stating that the album’s release is scheduled for Jul 6, 2012, however the band appears to be active with a performance scheduled at FiestaCity 2014 on Aug 29th – Place du Martyr, Verviers, Belgium.

This recording came onto my radar at quite an opportune time.  The first thing I noticed from the first 20 seconds of the tune’s music video was that the band had incorporated elements of tape music and musique concrete as the very foundation of the track.

The lyrics did not detract from the layering of minimal, looped sounds, as they too were cut up in a fragmented presentation which would have made Burroughs proud.  And while the kaleidoscopic video effect is nothing new, it works well with the track.

Check it out for yourself – “The Law” from Museum.

I began the week with the discovery of a historic jazz release in the Netherlands which should arrive in the post in the next 10 days (Stay tuned for a special feature with high-res photos once it arrives!)

I had been compiling data on the milestones of free jazz and was very happy to find one of them re-issued by Impulse! Records in 2011 – the same label which released the original recording in 1968.

Archie Shepp - Magic of Ju-Ju

The psychedelic cover art commanded my attention when I found it in a local record shop, and while I had never listened to Archie Shepp before I knew I had to check out this record.

I previewed it for a mere 30 seconds – whetting my sonic appetite with Shepp’s free jazz psychedelic tenor frenzy accompanied by five (count ’em – FIVE) talking drum percussionists.  30 seconds was all I needed.

I instantly purchased the record and added it to my jazz collection, delighted by my discovery but slightly irked that there was no mention of this album by any of the free jazz essentials lists I had compiled.  That’s just further evidence that you’ve really got to get out there and dig.

But on to today’s theme – Music Lit.  I knew it was going to be an intellectually stimulating week when I found Julian Cope’s legendary music crit, Krautrocksampler offered up on the Web in PDF format.  As you’re probably aware, this title is long out of print and the author has sworn never to reissue it.  Copies surface on various marketplaces for hundreds of dollars.   Thankfully, a dedicated fan painstakingly scanned every page of the book, and while it is hardly archival quality, it is the only way most of us will ever see the book.

Krautrocksampler

This will be a pleasure to peruse over the coming weeks, even in its crudely-photocopied form.

I picked up another jazz book from a local used bookshop as it was only a few dollars and I was curious to see what a writer would have to say about jazz in the middle of the era. The bulk of the text was written in 1962, with the “jazz-rock” chapter at the end likely added for the 1975 and 1979 printings.

What Jazz is About
Erlich’s perspective of jazz is hardly academic, and clearly it is not intended to be. The book’s approach is that of a simple love of the genre and acts as a guided tour through the history of its greatest influences, from African drum music to field hollers all the way up to the Third Stream and jazz-rock era.

From a historical context the book successfully builds a fundamental framework of jazz’s legacy. The language is elementary and makes for an effortless read, with a circular structure of artist introductions, childhoods, development, and lasting impacts.

However there are many titles available which better-examine what will soon be a century of jazz culture. There are very few references to What Jazz Is All About anywhere on the Web, and even fewer reviews. I’ve since moved on to better-known resources for further exploration of the genre.

History of Jazz

The History of Jazz by Ted Gioia is Amazons’ best-selling jazz text.  I’m enjoying it thus far, and was happy to see that it included a Recommended Listening index at the end of the book.

I also ordered two highly-acclaimed guides to 20th Century avant-garde music – The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century and Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music.

The Rest is Noise and Audio Culture

The Rest is Noise was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist and cracked the New York Times’ Top 10 Books of the Year.  Audio Culture is a compiled volume of manifestos and writings from every music theorist from the first discussions of noise by Jacques Attali and Luigi Russolo to a piece about post-digital tendencies in contemporary computer music by microtonal composer Kim Cascone.

Best of all, Audio Culture includes a hefty index with a chronology of noteworthy recordings, a glossary and a Select Discography.

I also enjoyed watching a documentary film this week titled, In the Ocean – A Film About the Classical Avant Garde which sparked my further exploration of musique concrete.

One of the interesting things I took from the film was the discovery that Cage was really interested in Finnegans Wake (his 1979 mesostic composition, Roaratorio is entirely based upon the novel both in structure and in content.)  And by delightful coincidence – what very title arrived in my mailbox just one day earlier?

Finnegans Wake

The Law of Very Large Numbers is a beautiful thing in practice.

All these new music books inspired me to print up some appropriate bookmarks, so I made these… (extra points if you can name the jazz record which featured the Jackson Pollock print.)

Bookmarks 06-14-14 sm

So pick up the music books I’ve featured, check out Magic of Ju-Ju and I’ll be back next week with a fantastic new box set!