Brian Eno – Ambient 1: Music for Airports

Now what I intend to be a short review, although it inevitably won’t turn out to be all that short.

Brian Eno is widely credited with inventing ambient music with this release, although I reckon that’s a bit of a stretch. The concept of specially composed “background music” had been around since Erik Satie in the early 20th century, Stockhausen experimented with early electronic pieces, and obviously you have the minimalist composers emerging in the 60s, Terry Riley, Phillip Glass and the like specifically working in a framework of “less is more”. Influencing emotion or mood is core to the very idea of music, indeed that is the reason music exists in the first place.

That all being said, Eno’s work in this field, as with most of his work in any field, is wonderfully enjoyable and pioneering. In the liner notes to Ambient 1, he defines his idea of ambient music as being music designed for both active and inactive listening, interesting enough to be enjoyed, but not invasive or obtrusive. He explains the idea is to create an environmental soundtrack that will hopefully improve the experience of the environment it is intended for, whether absorbed consciously or subconsciously.

Music for airports is therefore supposed to provide a sense of calm and relaxation in an airport, an environment associated with rushing, queues, large groups of people, long walks, long waits, and all the other little stresses that make the airport something of an uncomfortable experience. Each track consists of slow, very simple musical compositions that feature very little in the way of harmonic or rhythmic tension. Through the use of limited instrumentation – namely synthesizers, piano and voice – the overall feeling of the album is uniformly relaxed. Its tracks do not rush anywhere; indeed they have nowhere to go. They simple exist.

There is a great deal of repetition of simple ever-resolving harmonic statements, and yet each track exists in a strange hovering state, never feeling like moving forward in time and yet never feeling like it’s standing completely still. It’s textural music, as though these pieces were designed to play infinitely – and knowing Brian Eno, this is almost definitely the case. As I understand it, several of these pieces use unsynchronised loops that drift in and out of direct temporal alignment thus avoiding specific repetition and instead emphasising particular harmonic intervals that remain constant despite their shifting time positions. You know, I wish I could think of less wordy way to explain that.

I think I listened to this in an airport once, but because it was on a personal mp3 player I had to keep taking my headphones out to listen for announcements somewhat increasing my stress and thus failing to achieve the intended effect. But I have had many successful experiences with this album – when my ears are tired and bored of my usual music, this is what I turn to. It is also a wonderful sleeping aid. Eno’s influence on me musically probably can’t be understated, this album was one the first that introduced me to concepts of music-as-texture, which might have been the single greatest musical discovery in my life.

Will you enjoy this album? Depends what you want from it, and from music in general. If your idea of background music is familiar tunes you can hum, then forget it. But if you believe in the power of music in influencing emotion (which should really be EVERYONE WITH EARS) and simply wish to relax then you’ve got this. Or one of ten million new ages CDs you find in health stores in the corner next to the horrible smelling dried things. But this is better. Really.

… See told you it wouldn’t be all that short.

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