Divergence Press is an online, open access, peer-reviewed journal for contemporary music, published by the Centre for Research in New Music (CeReNeM) at the University of Huddersfield. The journal examines current practices in composition, performance, sonic arts, musical multimedia, creative uses of music technology, and multidisciplinary work engaging with sound, space, listening, & performance.
The basic premise of this paper is to briefly speculate on a philosophical paradox concerning Brian Eno’s use of the word ambient in relation to his compositional work between 1975 and 1982 and indeed, what ambient has come to mean in a broader cultural sense in 2018.
To begin with, three important definitions of the word are considered for this argument:
1) The Latin root of ambient (ambire) is discussed with particular reference to Eno’s various press statements c. 1978 that Ambient music is intended to produce calm and a space to think.
2) Music for Airports is identified as an example of monocratic composition (one that subtly reinforces borders) within an historical timeline beginning in 1975 and is juxtaposed with Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, which is considered as a parallel (albeit unintended) Ambient experiment and identified as a mutable composition (one that subtly annihilates borders).
3) The broader, philosophical implications of ambient are addressed in particular reference to current notions of dark ecology.
With a touch of irony, Brian Eno tells a story about waiting in Cologne airport where awful piped music provoked him to compose Music for Airports. Prompting reflections on mortality, the forcefully happy melodies he heard in the departure lounge and aeroplane comprised music designed to inoculate against panic. “I thought it was much better to have music that said, ‘Well, if you die it doesn’t really matter’ … I wanted to create a different feeling that you were sort of suspended in the universe and your life or death wasn’t so important”.
By playing and discussing vinyl records that attempt the instrumentation of airborne death I will treat Music for Airports as Eno intended—as music to die to. These are examples of ‘bad music’, records whose motivations and sometimes tasteless musical ideas can be hard to fathom. D.O.A. (1972), is Bloodrock’s, first-person narration of dying after crashing. Jupiter Prophet’s 35,000 Feet: Challenger’s Theme (1986), a Terry Rileyesque synth memorial to the Space Shuttle disaster, blithely croons “a candle in the sky … no stopping to let them cry”. On his LP ‘In Search’, Chance Martin features two flight songs, Too High to Land and High Test, singing “747 started to twirl / Out of control / Look out the window at your own dead ready world”. Merrill Womach’s LP ‘I Believe in Miracles’ gives holy thanks for surviving his own plane crash, while the bizarre Flight F-I-N-A-L…a dramatic comparison to death, enacts a trip to heaven on hymn-filled Inter-World Airlines.
Brian Eno’s Music For Airports presents to us the destruction the familiar, the removal of expectations. The album attempted to avoid the classification of Muzak and brought to us another world completely. Background music often adds a stimulus that has a polarising effect. It’s often assumed that, once forgotten, the music should merely exist as ambience ; the quality or character given to a sound recording by the space in which it occurs. The opposing effect is that it offers to us a dislocation or diffusion of the norm; in that it allows to be transported to a place where the mundane is bypassed and replaced by something that’s meditative and completive.
This paper attempts to address such issues while examining the albums role in establishing a forum for the use of ambient music in public spaces. It examines the role of the environment and what musical stimulus can provide within this space.