Writing in his 1995 diary about his seminal ambient album Music for Airports, Eno remembered his initial thoughts going into it: “I want to make a kind of music that prepares you for dying--that doesn’t get all bright and cheerful and pretend you’re not a little apprehensive, but which makes you say to yourself, ‘Actually, it’s not that big a deal if I die.’”
Created in 1978 from seconds-long tape loops from a much longer improv session with musicians including Robert Wyatt, Music for Airports started the idea of slow, mediative music that abandoned typical major and minor scales, brought in melodic ambiguity, and began the exploration of sounds that were designed to exist somewhere in the background, beyond the scope of full attention.
For those who think 50 minutes is too short and those piano notes too recognizable, may we suggest this 6-hour, time-stretched version of the album, created by YouTube user “Slow Motion TV.” The tonal field is the same, but now the notes are no attack, all decay. It’s granular as hell, but you could imagine the whole piece unspooling unnoticed in a terminal while a flight is delayed for the third time. (Maybe that’s when the acceptance of death happens, when you’ve given up on ever getting home?)
Unlike Music for Films, which featured several tracks Eno had given to filmmakers like Derek Jarman, it took some time for Music for Airports to be realized in its intended location: being piped in at a terminal at La Guardia, New York, sometime in the 1980s. And that was just a one-time thing.
The album seemed destined for personal use only, but then in 1997 the modern ensemble Bang on a Can played it live, translating the randomness of out of sync tape loops into music notation. Over the years they’ve performed it at airports in Brussels, Holland and Liverpool, and in 2015 the group brought it to Terminal 2 of San Diego International. Writing for KCET, Alex Zaragoza reported that “crying babies, echoes of rolling suitcases and boarding passes serving as tickets to the concert failed to remind anyone that they were, indeed, at one of the busiest airports in the country. Even the telltale announcements were there: Airport security is everyone's responsibility. Do not leave bags unattended.”
And then in 2018, London City Airport played the original album in a day-long long loop for the album’s 40th anniversary.
As site-specific multi-media art builds popularity in the 21st century with increasingly cheaper and smaller technology, we might hope to hear ambient drones, and not classic rock or pop, in more and more landscapes.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.