Travelogue :: Music for Airports

This is the way the blog world works: Someone posts something; someone else likes it, then links to it. Third person likes it, links it, ad infinitum. And so it went with this video about Brian Eno's Music for Airports, which I learned from friends Drawer B (via the Washington Post) celebrated its 29th anniversary this year. One of Drawer B's curators asked the question if anyone had heard Music for Airports in an actual airport.


In a serendipitous coincidence, I just so happened to be going on tour with Brave Horatius in a few days. As I don't have a passport, I'd be unable to cross the Canadian border into Toronto — where the tour began — with Jordan. So I'd meet him in New York City, which would require a flight from Charlotte's Douglas International Airport to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. And while I couldn't rig it to where Eno's ambient masterwork would pipe over the airports' public address systems, I figured that I could do the next best thing: Listen to Music for Airports — completely uninterrupted — while within the confines of the airport. At the conclusion, I'd evaluate the piece — both in the context of Eno's intentions and its translation to the modern air travel experience.

I feel that I should mention at this juncture two things. Number one: I've always had a fascination with air travel, in particular airports. And while the 9/11 attacks have certainly made air travel considerably more difficult in recent years, I enjoy flying when I am able to do it. Number two: Prior to this little experiment, my exposure to Brian Eno's work was, at best, limited. While I was aware of his immense reputation, the only things in his ouevre I'd actually, you know, listened to were a handful of Roxy Music cuts and most of Here Come the Warm Jets, which my friend Matt had purchased for me a few years ago (along with, full disclosure, Rapeman's Two Nuns and a Pack Mule) as a Christmas gift. As for his ambient work, I was a blank slate.

Music for Airports: A Travelogue

"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." — Brian Eno, liner notes to Music for Airports.

As part of this little social experiment evaluates Eno's original intention for Music for Airports, it's important to glean exactly what those were.

In the above video, Eno talks about what he feels is, in essence, the duplicitous nature of airports — in particular their music. It's too happy, he says, citing that you shouldn't play happy music given that the possibility of plummeting to your death from thirty-thousand feet is very, very real. (Though unlikely: You're actually much more likely to be struck by lightning or die in a car crash, statistics show.) At heart, Music for Airports speaks to an idealized version of emotionless, disconnected and "ignorable" music that Eno speaks of.

From the above video (and the liner notes to Music for Airports), we can assume Eno's design as the following:

• It musn't interfere with human communication.
• It should last a very long time.
• It should be possible to be interrupted without suffering.
• It must be ignorable, but still be interesting.

We'll discuss this a little later, but it's again important to note the crux of Eno's "ambient" definition: It "must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular." If you do, as I did, listen to it intently at times, you will find true moments of real, human emotion in Music for Airports' synthesized facade. But that's not the point, is it? It's Eno's opus, to be sure, but does it work as he intended it to? Is it truly music for airports?

The parameters: Music for Airports must be listened to in its entirety while in transit to and inside Charlotte Douglas and while inside and in transit from JFK. Stipulations for interruption: Public addresses, and public addresses only, as per Eno's intention. Should the album be completed, it is to be listened to again, ad infinitum, until a stopping point is reached. The starting point was arbitrary; the stopping point(s) serendipitous.

Music for Airports: A Travelogue
Charlotte Douglas International Airport

"1/1" (17:21)
My parents live in Fort Mill, S.C., roughly 10 minutes from Charlotte Douglas, admittedly one of my more favorite airports. The thing about Charlotte Douglas is that it still adheres to the romantic ideal of air travel of Eno's time circa the writing of Music for Airports. Almost everything is immaculate in preparation and presentation — muted, calming colors; lots of brushed steel; intelligent design and architecture. Admittedly, I'm not a nervous traveler, but it's fitting that I'm at ease when I pop in the earbuds on my approach to the airport. I reassure my mother that no, I'm not being rude to her and yes, I will be able to hear any important announcement — so long as Eno accomplishes his goal of doing so, I remark. In turn, my mother reassures me that she thinks I'm kind of a strange bird.

"1/1" is built upon a simple, repeating-yet-not-quite-repeating looped piano figures and fleshed out with warm synthesizer swells. It's early on that I notice: Music for Airports is deceptively warm, breathable music. For all it's machinated tape loops and synthesized trappings, the tones on Music for Airports are remarkably warm and the record has a decidedly open feel to it, which makes the hustle and bustle of the drop-off seem remarkably slowed-down, as if I'm in the slow-motion opening credits to a Wes Anderson movie. (Indeed, as I remark to fellow indierocketeer Tug upon returning from tour, I almost felt as if I were high the entire time.) As I step out of the car and get my bag, a brief, cold wind snaps through the portico, and my eyes scan the horizon. It's a feeling that will return to my mind often.

My least favorite experience — and hey, let's be honest, everyone's least favorite experience — of modern air travel is the hassling, nigh-authoritarian check-in screening process. In that regard, "1/1" is remarkably calming and an interesting contrast to the authoritarian overtones of airport security; its simple loops twinkling and harmonizing in my ears. Then again, with it's dark, low, heavy piano notes, there's a foreboding air about it, and that feeling of the cold snap of the chilly wind comes back again.

I make it through the security checkpoint and into the concourse, itself abuzz with commuter traffic. Whatever usually insipid music the airport plays is blocked out by my earbuds. It's time to test Eno's first key tenant. I walk up to the information kiosk and — without removing headphones — where the ATM machine is. I'll freely admit that she could have been talking louder than usual, but I still heard her loud and clear. I jaunt over to the ATM, pick up some cash and head back to the concourse.

"1/2" (8:54)
Time does not exist in airports — especially not major international hubs. It caters to the idealized comforts of common travelers — were I to, say, fly overnight, yet want a steak when I land, there's a good chance I can get one, more than likely from the national chain that's set up a twenty-four-hour location inside the concourse.

I'm not surprised then, when I am able to walk into a bar circa nine a.m. and order a White Russian. (Full disclosure: While the bartender's name wasn't Gary, he did, indeed, make a hell of a Caucasian. I told him so, but I don't think he got the reference. "1/2"'s effectiveness at soundscaping missed jokes: High.)

I pull up a barstool close to the awning that separates the bar from the concourse and point myself outward. "1/2" is built on soft vocal samples, looped and swelled at incongruous intervals. (The idea, Eno said, was to have the samples impossible to resync with one another in order to explore how the samples interacted. It's a genius idea, really, and it works — the samples repeat, but it's only discernable if you strain hard enough.) "1/2" passes Eno's biggest functional criterion: Several public addresses were made during my resting period, and although I could have, I refrained from pausing or turning down the music, and I was still able to clearly comprehend the announcement. (I was also able to hear the SportsCenter anchors talk about the Colorado Rockies very clearly.)

My flight was in Concourse C, the easternmost concourse. Charlotte Douglas provides moving sidewalks for such trips; I board one and make my way there. While "1/2" is the shortest piece in Music for Airports, I'm still slightly surprised when it ends abruptly. But I suppose that's the idea, isn't it? The last criterion — It must be ignorable, but still be interesting — is satisfied.

"2/1" (12:06)
"2/1" is the piece in Music for Airports that comes closest to having a noticeable key signature. (Ed.'s Note: I haven't actually dissected the notes or the chord structure, so it's inherently possible that "2/1" could be in a major key. Regardless, I think the important aspect is that the minor key is somehow implied in the songs's structure — most notably when it ends on a slow, sad single-note run.) The piano chords and melody lines are decidedly minor and the vocal-loop swells play up the somber mood. Again, Eno plays with the traveler's emotional dynamic — it's soft and soothing, but oddly unsettling in its minor key, subtly reinforcing the ever-present (yet rarely thought about) danger of air travel.

Still, it's strangely appropriate for the trip on the moving sidewalk. Though I'm not a nervous traveler, there is that inherent trepidation felt when making your way toward a plane. As the sun continues its nascent rise to its apex, it alights the taxi area in an warm, golden glow that's as eerie as it is heavenly. I scribble in my notes that I wonder if I'd feel the same if "2/1" weren't so dark.

As I step off the moving sidewalk, I hear the beeps of an airport cart, one of the ones airports use to transport handicapped passengers. Its Doppler swell provides an organic and interesting ambient quality — its unexpected and wholly separate from the musical intention of the track, yet fits snugly as if it were intended.

"2/2" (9:38)
Whatever unsettling feelings — real or otherwise — imparted by "2/1" are washed away by the thirty-five seconds of silence that separates it from "2/2," which begins with a slow droning buzz (a low-frequency note) that gives way to soft, sustained synthesizer notes that individually recorded but sampled into implied arpeggios. If "2/1" is the darket is Music for Airports' four pieces, "2/2" is the lightest — it's stoic and reserved, to be sure, but there's an undeniably triumphant and elegaic quality to "2/2" that's incredibly soothing and uplifting. Its a welcomely reassuring contrast to the doom-and-gloom minor key of "2/1."

I check in at the gate — again without removing my earbuds, which this time gives the ticket taker apparent cause for consternation — and slump down into a seat. The man to my left is a businessman of some sort; he's talking about the price of lumber. The girl on my left is younger, probably a student; she's listening to rap music much louder than I'm listening to Eno. Another beeping cart passes by.

I take a trek to the men's room, pick up a bottle of water in the gift shop and return to the gate to find my seat filled. I plant myself on the window ledge and stare off into the distance. I'm still clearly able to hear the boarding call for my zone — which is apparently how airlines board these days — and I take my seat: Middle of the cabin, next to the window. Even though it's Music for Airports, it's hard to believe that Eno didn't take into account the actual airplane itself, and the last trilling notes of "2/2" mesh well with the constant sigh of the fans, the bings and bongs of the Fasten Seat Belt sign turning on and off and the general clamor of pre-flight preparations. As we taxi, the stewardess taps me on the shoulder, telling me that I must turn my iPod off. As she tells me this, the last arpeggiated notes of "2/2" fade softly yet quickly. I nod, smiling at the pleasant happenstance.

Music for Airports: A Travelogue
John Fitzgerald Kennedy International Airport

"1/1" (17:21)
We touch down at JFK earlier than expected. As I fire up Music for Airports for a second full run-through, the pilot informs us that we are, in fact, half-an-hour early — Aside: Such a feat has never happened, ever, in the history of everything — and that the outside temperature is sixty degrees. The first lilting, reverbed notes of "1/1" seem warmer with the delivery of the good news. I glance outside the window — the skies are completely gray and overcast. "1/1" immediately adopts a gloomier tone.

Terminal 7 at JFK is broken and bruised — it's undergoing a major facelift, and, as such, many things are closed and/or roped off. Still, it's a major internationl wing of the airport — many of the travelers are of East Asian descent. They all look exhausted after a long journey. "1/1" is equal parts calming and depressing music for the experience.

In the interest of full disclosure, I also took a dump while listening to "1/1." As far as I can tell, it neither helped nor hindered my movement.

"1/2" (8:54)
JFK has a number of duty-free airports in Terminal 7. I debate purchasing a bottle of scotch whiskey — you know, just because — but ultimately just wander about the terminal for a few minutes. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau has a song on his Places record called "Airport Sadness"; something about "1/2" makes me think of that phrase here. Perhaps it's "1/2"'s distinctly lonely fell — the soft, swelled vocals loops don't ever sync up again. I could be overwrought and make a half-baked metaphor about the "alone with everyone" air travel experience, but Fight Club did it first and better. I think, rather, that it's a product of the music adapting to the environment. Just a few hours ago, "1/2" was calming and soothing as I was drinking a White Russian in a busy Charlotte airport. Now, alone in a near-abandoned wing of JFK, "1/2" is much colder and much more alien.

My hypothesis of the three most-purchased items in airport shops: Chewing gum, cold medicine, magazines. I buy the first two — again, mostly ignoring "1/2" aside from recognizing its existence — and continue wandering.

"2/1" (12:06)
Admittedly, my notes for the second listen of "2/1" are lacking. I remember, though, being shooed away from a construction site by two JFK employees — one Hindu, the other East Asian, reinforcing the internationality of the airport — and sitting in a small, open coffeeshop, drinking some Airborne-infused water, eating a Snickers bar while staring out of the window at the overcast and watching the employees on the loading docks scamber about.

I remember being calm, yet distinctly ill at ease, which is, again, partly due to "2/1"'s minor key. This is not aided by the fact that my call to Mr. Blackmon reveals that he is nowhere near the city limits, and won't be for some time. I make my way out of the airport — literally alone in the city.

"2/2" (9:38)
JFK is connected to Queens by the AirTrain, an extension of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Not knowing, per se, where I'm headed, I arbitrarily choose the train that takes me into Queens; Jamaica Station in particular.

It's on this brief jaunt that I realize Eno's masterstroke in full. A young Korean family stands toward the back of the car. It's obvious they're new arrivals, and each takes the city in differently. The man gazes in wonder at the not-so-distant skyline; the woman nervously rubs her arms and furrows her brow; the baby is amazed at every little thing. Yet "2/2," in all its resplendent glory, is the perfect musical touchstone for all of their sweeping and dichotomous emotions. Music for Airports, at heart, is music of contrast. It encapsulates both dread and wonder with equal aplomb. It's emotional, yet disconnected; warm, yet entirely disinterested. It is, for lack of a better phrase, entirely and utterly human.

And, seemingly as soon as it began, it's over. As I hit Jamaica Station, the last synthesized swell fades; fittingly, all I'm left with is the whine of the AirTrain as it lumbers toward the city.

Music for Airports: A Travelogue
Appendix: New York City Subway System

As I had some time — and money on my MetroCard — to kill, I decide to take the subway from Jamaica Station to Penn Station, on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Though the title of the work is Music for Airports and not Music for Subways, I figure the gist is the same — it's music for a mass transit system that while once romanticized is now claimed by hustle, bustle and the gripping paranoia of 21st Century terrorism. Unremarkably, the results are the same — "1/1" serves equally well as incidental music for a chatty Latino teen as well as an elegaic background for a sleeping transient. "2/2" is no less triumphant when I exit Penn Station as when I boarded my flight back in Charlotte.

Perhaps Music for Mass Transit could have been the more appropriate title — it's equally suited for the epic mundanity of Gotham's subways as it is the romantic grandeur of air travel.

Music for Airports: A Travelogue
What Have We Learned?

This is all Linda Kohanov of allmusic.com has to say about Music for Airports:

"Four subtle, slowly evolving pieces grace Eno's first conscious effort at creating ambient music. The composer was in part striving to create music that approximated the effect of visual art. Like a fine painting, these evolving soundscapes don't require constant involvement on the part of the listener. They can hang in the background and add to the atmosphere of the room, yet the music also rewards close attention with a sonic richness absent in standard types of background or easy-listening music."

Truthfully, little else can be said about Music for Airports, and little criticism can be lobbied against it. If I were to have one complaint, it's that there's often times too much empty space in between movements. But that's splitting hairs — and, in all fairness, such silence is more than likely deliberate — and Music for Airports is what it is: An absolute masterpiece, and a masterpiece the listenability and impression of which is ultimately dependent on context and listener emotion. Music for Airports isn't Ride of the Valkyries or even "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" — it's music designed specifically to be devoid of casually imparting any emotion on the listener. But I disagree with Eno: Music for Airports can be "happy music"; it can also be markedly sad and at times even incredibly foreboding. It functions perfectly as incidental music for a large, bustling crowd; it can also be a poignant touchstone for painfully alone moments. It wasn't intended to be beautiful music — it just so happened that it came out that way.

That said, one must ultimately evaluate Music for Airports based almost solely on the artistic intentions behind it. It doesn't interfere with human communication; it is, indeed, very long, clocking in at exactly forty-eight minutes (which can't be unintentional); it is able to be interrupted without suffering. Most importantly, though, it passes Eno's ultimate definition of "ambient" music — it's entirely ignorable, but, for the sonically studious, is richly engrossing, unfolding and developing in interesting — and oftentimes remarkably revolutionary — ways. Its greatest strength, ultimately, is its flexibility, as what can sound at one point as the darkest point of the record can at another point sound like the lightest. It's incredible, really, that Eno was able to create music that's one-hundred percent incidental and one-hundred percent contextual.

From Roxy Music to Here Come the Warm Jets to his production credits, Brian Eno's done a lot of things right. But with Music for Airports, it's possible that he's created something nearly perfect. It might not soothe the most cantankerous of travelers, but I think the world would be a lot better — if not a lot calmer — place if Music for Airports was airing where it was intended to.

1 comment:

Jordan said...

hey, i got you "here come the warm jets"... matt did get you rapeman, though. and we did purchase them at the same time and give them to you at the same time. and since i am almost always completely broke, the mixup is very much understood.

i liked the music for airports writeup a lot. i have actually been checking the blog every few days since watching you eagerly jot over your notes in the car in october.

what writings will come from indiana? "Music for Cornfields".