Brian Eno’s “Music For Airports”: a quiet revolution in both sound and form


Brian Eno the self-professed “non-musician” may or may not have been aware of the movement he began in 1978 when he coined the term “ambient music.” “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” was Eno’s sixth album and the first album ever to be explicitly labeled as such. Released forty years ago this month, it remains as influential as ever.

Eno had already explored the idea of textured, atmospheric music after leaving his band Roxy Music. His first three solo albums are peppered with instrumentals built upon texture and repetition in between more conventional songs.

“Discreet Music” (1975) Eno’s fourth album, was based upon Eric Satie’s idea of “furniture music”- – music meant to blend in as part of the atmosphere rather than drawing attention toward itself. Based on tape delays and altered timbres and textures, the album was more of an experiment that came across as ambient.

“Music For Airports,” however, was intended from the first as an ambient album. Eno conceptualized it specifically to be played in airports as a means of diffusing their busy, tension-filled atmosphere.

The album is divided into four parts, each focused on a specific set of tape loops that play different instruments to create generative music. “1/1” is constructed purely from short, repeated piano phrases punctuated by synthesizer chords played at varying intervals, however, the resulting 16 minutes draw the listener’s attention as much as it encourages them to zone out. All four of the album’s tracks are full of long, open spaces that, according to Eno, were done so as not to overpower the constant human communications that go on in airports.

Despite its overtly self-aware intent to create a new genre of music, “Music For Airports” as well as Eno’s further forays into ambient music legitimately helped other musicians view their own music in a new way.

Brian Eno, pictured here in 1974, first explored the ideas of ambient music in the mid 1970’s.

The most immediate musician influenced was David Bowie; a devotee of “Discreet Music,” he enlisted Eno’s help in his own “Berlin trilogy” of albums beginning with 1977’s Low, which featured lengthy instrumental passages on the album’s second half. All the way through to the 1990’s and beyond, any number of electronic musicians including Aphex Twin to The Orb can claim influence from Eno.

But perhaps even more influential was Eno’s original concept; creating a soundtrack specifically for an event or location. Smartphones allow people in transit to create their own soundtrack as they walk from terminal to terminal, be it Eno’s music or not. And just like “Music For Airports,” just as many people probably put music on as background noise as much as they want to actually sit down and listen to it.

To date, very few commercial airports have embraced Eno’s intent and played the album in their terminals. One of the more notable examples of its use was at New York’s La Guardia Airport in one of its terminals during a brief time in the 1980’s.

Music For Airports, however, is hardly glorified “muzak” but instead a carefully constructed piece of art that acted as a quiet, serene revolution in both sound and form.


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