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.

Arctic Ambient (or) Ambient House at 30,000 Ft

I’ve really been enjoying my copies of Gas’ Nah Und Fern vinyl set and the deluxe edition 9LP set of William Basinki’s epic Disintegration Loops. It seemed long-overdue that I retrace my musical steps to the summer of 2009 when I’d first crossed paths with a fellow music-lover and ambient guru who introduced me to Gas in the first place.

Gas - Nah Und Fern

He’d mentioned several similar artists which I briefly sampled but never fully-explored.  There’s no better time than the present to remedy that mistake.

This friend had a particular affinity for Nordic-based “arctic-ambient” music – frigid soundscapes of isolation and desolation. Still these recordings had a cerebral and meditative quality that really draws the listener in and that’s something I really need in my life at present.

So I began my re-visiting of 2009 with an artist whose name happened to surface in one of my online vinyl communities. (Call it a sign if you’d like.) Biosphere is Geir Jenssen – a Norwegian musician specializing in ambient electronic music. It was while researching him that I first-encountered the term, “arctic-ambient” and I just had to hear more. In 2001 users of the online rave community, Hyperreal voted his Substrata LP as the best all-time classic ambient album. It was this very album which surfaced in the vinyl community and inspired my rediscovery of the genre, and I was truly impressed by the transportive quality of the record.

Another artist I recalled as having worked with Biosphere was HIA. Higher Intelligence Agency is the music project of Bobby Bird of Birmingham, UK. I was instantly excited to learn that he had released two ambient glitch albums on Pete Namlook’s brilliant FAX +49-69/450464 label of which I make frequent mention.

HIA collaborated with Biosphere on two live recordings, namely the frigid Polar Sequences in 1996…

…and the more temperate Birmingham Frequencies in 1999.

These are wonderfully expansive, atmospheric recordings and make for excellent headphone listening.

But stripping things down to the very shell of ambient music I found the next half-forgotten memory of the summer long-passed.  Deathprod is Norwegian artist Helge Sten. (I envision Norway as being absolutely overrun with ambient laptop musicians.) If you only buy one Deathprod album, get the self-titled Deathprod box set. (Not cheating – box sets are okay in my book.) The 4-disc set comprises Morals and Dogma, Treetop Drive (a long-deleted album from 1994), Imaginary Songs From Tristan Da Cunha from 1996, and “Reference Frequencies” (a disc of previously unreleased, rare and deleted tracks). Better-still, Deathprod Collaborated with Biosphere in 1998 on the album, Nordheim Transformed.

Christian Fennesz (performing simply as “Fennesz”) of Vienna, Austria has produced a number of albums in the same stark, ambient-electronic vein. Highlights include his 2004 album Venice,

Endless Summer from 2001

and Black Sea released in 2008.

I also enjoyed his collaborations with ambient veteran, Ryuichi Sakamoto – Cendre (2007)

…and Flumina (2011).

Fennesz creates white-noise washes of modified guitar loops very much in the spirit of the Frippertronic tape works of Fripp and Eno and Sakamoto adds a refined touch of modern-classical solo piano.

Deaf Center is the last major piece of this dark ambient puzzle.  Norway’s Erik Skodvin and Otto Totland produce epic and theatrical minimal soundscapes.  To steal a beautifully-concise description from RYM user, Son_of_Northern_Darkness – Deaf Center is, “a nice soundtrack to the construction of your own snow-coffin.”

Neon City was an impressive first-outing for the duo, but their first full-length LP released the following year, Pale Ravine stands as their most cohesive work thus far.

Neon City

and the haunting, Pale Ravine

To close with something a bit more lively, Sweden’s own Carbon Based Lifeforms leans more in the direction of psybient music, with their heavy usage of melodic loops, echoes, and steady rhythms. This is ambient music with a vibrant pulse. Check out World of Sleepers

So thank you, my old friend for sharing such wonderful music with me.  I’m sorry it’s taken me all these years to really explore it, but better late than never!

The History of Modern Ambient Music: Part 2 – 1993-2014

The conclusion to my 2-part Ambient Milestones series is now published on YouTube!  The exciting final element to the feature arrived in the post just a few days ago and I am delighted to share it with you all.

Or click here for the HD version.

The Sound of a Barking Dog on a Loop

I took a few days off this week and dove deep into a pool of ambient exploration.

The ambient kick was jump-started by my discovery of several William Basinski releases I found which were missing from my collection.  After tracking down copies of these albums and split seven inch records, I now have the following in my library: (please let me know if I’m missing anything)

1998 & 2007 – Shortwavemusic
2001 – Watermusic I
2002 – The Disintegration Loops I
2002 – The River
2003 – The Disintegration Loops II
2003 – The Disintegration Loops III
2003 – Untitled 7inch [w Andreas Martin & Christoph Heemann]
2003 – Watermusic II
2004 – Silent Night
2004 – The Disintegration Loops IV
2004 – Variations – A Movement In Chrome Primitive (Die Stadt)
2005 – Melancholia
2005 – The Garden of Brokenness
2006 – Variations For Piano and Tape
2007 – El Camino Real
2008 – The River (Alternative Mix)
2008 – The River [Alternative Mix]
2008 – Untitled 1-3 [with Richard Chartier]
2009 – 92982
2010 – Vivian and Ondine
2011 – A Red Score In Tile

There is also a new album pending release, titled Hymns of Oblivion.  You can preview a full track on the label’s website, but I implore you – do not look it up.  Basinski has changed his sound significantly and sometimes… change isn’t a good thing.  I’ll sum up his new project in a few short words which should effectively dissuade you from pursuing it any further.  Dreadlocks.  Leather pants.  Shirtless.  And High-Pitched Wailing.  He had a solid 10 year run, and we’ll leave it at that.

William Basinski - Hymns of Oblivion
Fortunately a newer artist was there to pick up the torch with some impressive drone work I discovered from an ambient blogger.  Black Swan has recorded two full length LPs to date.  Black Swan (in 8 Movements) in 2010 and The Quiet Divide in April of 2011.

Black Swan (in 8 Movements)

Black Swan - The Quiet Divide
Both were released by Experimedia and make for a most satisfying listen.  A word of caution, however – this is not blissful easy-listening ambience.  Black Swan is dark and melancholy, but hauntingly beautiful.

Another collection I’d been meaning to acquire for a few years now is the Dark Side of the Moog series.  Pete Namlook, Klaus Schulze (and Bill Laswell on select albums) collaborated to produce 10 albums between 1994 and 2005, each with a title playing off the recordings of Pink Floyd.

After securing the 10 album set, along with The Evolution of The Dark Side of The Moog (a “best-of” disc) I discovered that in 2008 Namlook released an 11th volume of the series.  It is available in both stereo and 5.1 surround formats.  I picked it up immediately.

Pete Namlook & Klaus Schulze
I also watched three of the KLF’s films – Waiting, The Rites of Mu and The Stadium House Trilogy.  I’ve watched The White Room before and will get to Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid in the coming weeks.

Waiting was a 42 minute ambient recording venture on the Isle of Jura.  It was filmed in 1990 and was available via mail order from the K Foundation.  Elements of Chill Out and their other recordings are clearly audible all throughout the film.  A ltd. ed. soundtrack was available (mis-labeled as Waiting For The “Rights” of Mu) which features the audio from both films.  After watching the movie I dug through my KLF archive and was surprised to find I already had a copy.

If you dig minimal ambient electronic music you should definitely pick up a copy of this last album.  The minimal cover art intrigued me so I queued it up and instantly fell in love.  The LP is available from Discogs for under $15 so I’ll have it soon enough.  Listen to Pantha du Prince’s album, This Bliss.

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro vs Audio Technica ATH-M50

Early this summer the cable of my Sennheiser PMX 200 headphones became frayed and rendered them unusable.  I could have spent $40+ to have the manufacturer service them, or I could save up for an upgrade.  The latter was much more appealing so I began to research a suitable replacement that would work well with my set up.

I wanted to find a fold-flat pair of circumaural headphones with a travel case so that I could use them at home and at work.  Passive noise attenuation would be a plus, to dampen or drown out the Backstreet Boys playing in the break room.  They should also have a thick clothwound or otherwise reinforced detachable cable so that I wouldn’t end up with the same problem I had with the PMX 200s.

Sennheiser PMX 200

Sennheiser PMX 200 – note the thin cable.

I consulted head-fi.org, where one member suggested the Beyerdynamic DT 1350 closed supra-aural monitoring headphones, priced at $300.  I had my heart set on a circumaural design for better noise cancellation and reduced sound leakage so I continued looking.

Bowers & Wilkins P5s came highly recommended by the salespeople at Best Buy, but I don’t look to big box stores for pro audio solutions.  One of my best friends, with whom I worked for a local home theater specialist provided a personal critique of the P5s.  Put simply, he said that they reproduce the sound of a recording “accurately, and do nothing more.”  Sound without emotion, if you will.

I finally narrowed my selection to two models: The Sennheiser HD 380 Pro and the Audio Technica ATH-M50.  Both are marketed as professional studio monitors.  I phoned the eight major retailers in my area and only one had both models available and offered to let me compare the two with my own lossless audio.

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro Headphones w Case

Sennheiser HD 380 folded in case

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro headphones

Audio Technica ATH M50 headphones

Audio Technica ATH M50 headphones

After carefully assembling a playlist of my favorite artists and genres of music, I put the two pairs of headphones to the test.

First and foremost – these two sets are not for bassheads.  (But what basshead shops for monitors to begin with?)  If you want bass, buy Dre’s Beats and call it a day.

The bass of the 380s is smooth and natural.  With a portable media player and no portable amp they sound just fine, but hook them up to a solid home receiver and dial up your EQ and you’ll feel them pulsate against the side of your head.  I was perfectly satisfied with the way they handled early house music. The M50s have more pronounced bass, but at a cost.  (More on that in a moment.)

A feature of the 380s that instantly gained my favor is the cable.  It is 1 meter long coiled and stretches to approximately 3 meters.  The end of the cable is threaded to ensure a solid connection with the included 1/4″ gold plated adapter.  Best of all – there is a 3.5mm plug on the other end of the cord that snaps into a jack hidden in the left ear cup.  All these features preserve the life of the cable.  Like all the other parts of the 380s, the cord can be replaced should anything happen to it.  The M50 cable is available coiled or straight (the straight model is called the M50s) and also features a threaded adapter.  The end of the cable is covered by a spring to prevent fraying, but the detachable feature of the Sennheiser cable won me over.

Sennheiser Cable Unplugged

The detachable cable of the HD 380

After thoroughly testing the Sennheisers I tried on the M50s and instantly noticed the difference.  As I stated, the bass is slightly more pronounced in the Audio Technicas but the soundstage is significantly smaller/narrower than on the 380s.  Members of head-fi.org have stated that the term “soundstage” was invented by Sennheiser’s marketing department to push a particular model of their headphones, but the term accurately describes what you experience when comparing the two sets.

I particularly noticed the larger and more open soundstage from the Sennheisers when listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo delicate vocal harmonies.  I felt closer to the performers, and the echoes of their voices hung in the air longer than with the M50s.  Also, the wall of sound created by J Spaceman and his band Spiritualized backed by a full orchestra and gospel choir had a much bigger impact when listening to the 380s.  Finally, the immeasurably faint decay of the notes in any of William Basinski’s recordings, (such as The Disintegration Loops I) were reproduced with greater precision by the Sennheisers than by the ATH-M50s.

Both headphones have rotating, collapsable earcups for easy storage and each come with a travel case.  The M50 case is a simple black vinyl drawstring bag, while the Sennheisers come with a hard shell zipper case with a felt inner lining and an embossed Sennheiser logo across the center.  This scored several more points for the 380s for both style and function.

The Sennheisers were a clear winner, and I ordered them immediately.  The MSRP is $299.95, though you can find them for $187 with shipping from Amazon.  I ordered a refurbished like-new pair from a licensed supplier for $79 and they arrived in just a few days.

I’ve also worked out the dimensions for an Easter Island head headphone stand which my girlfriend will sculpt out of clay.  Photos to come!

Easter Island Headphone Stand