Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.
In the original liner notes to Brian Eno’s founding document of Ambient music — 1978’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports — the artist explains that he named his genre after “an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres.”
In defining “environmental music,” Eno takes great pains to distinguish his new work from the makers of Muzak. Rather than recreating the familiar with instrumental schmaltz, and “stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty,” Ambient should stimulate listeners’ minds without disturbing or distracting them, inducing “calm and a space to think.” Rolling Stone at the time coined the derisive, but not wholly inaccurate, phrase “aesthetic white noise.”
Reverb Machine painstakingly shows in a deconstruction how Eno himself introduced as much uncertainty into the compositional process as possible. Music for Airports is not, that is to say, a composition, but layers of tape loops with snippets of recorded music. These loops he set running and “let them configure in whichever way they wanted to.” Acting as initial selector of sounds and engineer, Eno’s role as composer and player of the piece involved “hardly interfering at all,” he’s said.
How could such a composition translate to a traditional performance setting, in which musicians, elevated on a stage, play instruments for audience members who face them, listening intently? The situation seems antithetical to Eno’s design. And yet, somehow, the musicians who make up the Bang on a Can All Stars ensemble have made it work beautifully, performing Music for Airports‘s first track, the nondescriptly named “1/1,” in an arrangement by the group’s Michael Gordon, above, for an appreciative audience at the San Diego Airport Terminal.
Bang on a Can is a group committed, like Eno, to “making music new.” Since 1987, they have (unlike Eno) done so in a live performance-based way, holding 12-hour marathon concerts, for example. These performances have included their rendition of Music for Airports in full. The Village Voice described a 2007 performance in New York City for hundreds of attentive fans as “beautiful,” a word that often gets applied to Eno’s masterwork of randomness. Eno himself described the results as “very, very nice,” and he’s maybe the last person to be surprised that a live performance of the first so-called Ambient record works so well.
“The interesting thing is that it doesn’t sound at all mechanical as you would imagine,” he wrote of these early tape loop experiments. “It sounds like some guy is sitting there playing the piano with quite intense feeling. The spacing and dynamics of ‘his’ playing sound very well organized.” See a quintet of “guys” just above — on cello, bass, keyboard, percussion, and guitar — recreate the mildly disjointed mood of standing around in the liminal space of an airport, for a crowd of people who, presumably, came there for the express purpose of hearing background music.