Brian Eno, Music for Airports

Welcome to Pete’s Posts! This is where I will post my random musings on various topics: usually related to music, but in other areas as well.

For my first entry, I would like to make special mention and give special praise to one of my favorite recordings of all time: Ambient 1: Music for Airports, by Brian Eno, released 44 years ago today, on March 1, 1978.

You can listen to the entire album on YouTube by clicking on this link:

There are four long tracks on this album, with no lyrics; but we can’t say that this is an “instrumental” album, because two of the four tracks feature the sound of human voices singing long wordless “aah” sounds in various pitches.

Brian Eno was already known by this time in 1978 as one of the founding members of British progressive/new wave band Roxy Music before embarking on his own solo career. Eno was also known by 1978 as a renowned producer, who had already worked with David Bowie, and who would go on to produce albums for U2, Talking Heads, and many other artists. Eno has always been known as one of the most innovative forward thinkers in modern music, and with this 1978 album Music for Airports, he officially invented the genre of “ambient music,” which has become one of the most globally popular forms of electronic music today. Eno had done some recordings of instrumental minimalist music before this, but the general consensus is that Eno “officially” invented ambient music with this album, because for the first time on any recording the word “ambient” itself was actually used in the title to describe the music. Ambient 1: Music for Airports.

This album has been played as background music in actual airports around the world, including La Guardia in New York. Eno felt that airports needed a calmer and more abstract form of background music to enhance the experience of travelers going through terminals and waiting at gates. But the use of this album in actual airports was only a small part of its true character and quality. These four tracks continue to stand as real music for many settings: for meditation and prayer, for relaxation or concentration, or simply for pure listening for enjoyment.

The four tracks were composed by Eno to be melodically abstract to where the music does not impose itself upon the listener with emotional peaks and valleys, and does not necessarily demand the listener to pay attention. These four pieces of music on the album move through the air like clouds, and the listener can choose to focus on the movement of the music, or simply drift with the sound at will.

This is also exactly why Eno did not assign any specific song titles to these four tracks, because he did not want to attach any specific narrative or connotation to the music. Because the album was released as a vinyl LP, with two tracks on each side, Eno simply gave the tracks numbers: “1/1” and “2/1” on side one, meaning “first track on side one, second track on side one”; and “1/2” and “2/2” on side two, meaning “first track on side two, second track on side two.”

“1/1” is in the key of D major, and is almost structured like a 16-bar blues, played on grand piano with other discreet synthesizer tones and sounds. Eno composed the piano melody of “1/1” with engineer Rhett Davies, and Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt. It is Robert Wyatt who plays the grand piano. Wyatt plays the piano theme for a segment that lasts 90 seconds. This 90-second performance is then copy-edited and repeated ten more times, for a total of eleven repetitions, with the entire track lasting 16 minutes and 30 seconds. Each time this piano melody repeats, Eno adds subtle and discreet sounds that make each repeated theme slightly different.

This opening track, “1/1,” somewhat evokes the feel of a John Lennon piano composition such as “Oh My Love,” or “Love,” or even “Imagine” or “Because.” And at times, “1/1” also evokes the feel of a Pink Floyd piano theme by Richard Wright, such as “The Great Gig in the Sky.”

Eno understood that much of his audience at this time was still a rock audience who knew his work with Roxy Music, David Bowie, Talking Heads, David Byrne, and his collaborative work with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. And so, Eno was quite creative in giving this groundbreaking album of ambient music a flavor that listeners might recognize from other innovative rock artists such as John Lennon or Pink Floyd. In doing so, Eno touched upon a style of music that would find a very large audience around the world, and would help make “ambient music” a well-known genre unto itself.

There is a side note of interest worth mentioning here. For those who know the life and music of Robert Wyatt, his appearance on Music for Airports as a co-composer and pianist is a testament to Brian Eno’s kindness and generosity. Five years prior to the making of this album, Robert Wyatt suffered an accidental fall in 1973 that broke his spine and paralyzed him from the waist down, rendering him a paraplegic. Wyatt remains bound to a wheelchair to this day. And so, of course this meant that Wyatt’s career as a world-renowned drummer in the British experimental rock band Soft Machine was at an end, for he was never able to play a full set of drums again. However, Robert Wyatt has carried on his solo music career in a most honorable fashion, with an acclaimed series of solo albums that feature Wyatt on keyboard and vocal, and Brian Eno has contributed to some of Wyatt’s solo albums from time to time. But, there is no question that Music for Airports has been a consistent source of support for Wyatt for the past four decades in terms of royalty income, because Airports remains to this day the benchmark recording of ambient music, reaching a much wider audience than Wyatt’s own catalog would ever likely approach. And as Eno has always been a person who looks to the future, he must have known that Airports would be a godsend for Robert Wyatt as a co-writer. It remains a significant and lasting gesture of friendship between the two artists.

The second track, “2/1,” is ostensibly in the key of F minor, but drifts through various keys. This track is entirely comprised of three different voices, belonging to Christa Fast, Christine Gomez, and Inge Zeininger. These three singers simply intone the wordless “aah” sound in various pitches, and Eno moves the voices around in various patterns, always coming back to pauses of silence. This track is the purest example of what I would call “angelic voices” that gently hover in the air like clouds, with the silent pauses between the notes always bringing us back to the vast emptiness of the sky around and beyond the clouds.

The third track, “1/2,” is also ostensibly in the key of F minor, but often shifts to its relative key, A flat major. This is the most “improvisational” track on the album, as it combines the same “aah” voices of Fast, Gomez, and Zeininger heard on “2/1,” with the return of grand piano, this time played by Eno himself. There is no repetitive pattern in this track. It is more of a free-ranging piece of music, where the piano interacts with the “aah” voices, and at times the voices disappear and the piano is heard on its own. “1/2” is the epitome of how Eno could always find a beautiful balance between natural sounds and electronic sounds, combining the cutting edge technology of synthesizers and computers with the familiar sound and feeling of acoustic piano. There are many other examples throughout Eno’s vast catalog of these stunning duets between grand piano and synthesizer, and it is always refreshing how Eno could retain such an organic human quality and sound in his electronic music. This is crucial to Eno’s art: his music is never mechanical, but always has a soul. To me, “1/2” is the centerpiece of Music for Airports. It is so delicate and ethereal, and so calming in the textures of the piano and voices, that I often pray and meditate to this track, because the sound and feeling of this music seems to be at such a high frequency that it sounds like the Voice of God. Of course, Eno created this music to be completely abstract in order to suit anyone’s purpose in hearing it, without any specific religious or spiritual context. But, I do feel that one can actively sit and listen to this album in the act of prayer. And once again, the piano on this track “1/2” evokes the feel of John Lennon in certain respects. It’s almost as if Eno was imagining the kind of ambient album that Lennon might have made.

The fourth and final track on Music for Airports, “2/2,” is in B flat major, and is quite unique from the previous three, because there are no longer any voices or grand piano. “2/2” is comprised entirely of long tones played on an ARP 2600 synthesizer by Eno, in such a way that suggests that perhaps now the listener has gone above the clouds of the lower atmosphere into the uppermost exosphere. This music is the sound of vast empty space, without the “human element” of acoustic piano or voice. And yet, “2/2” is the perfect closing track of the album for exactly this reason: at this remote altitude, there is nothing to perceive but open space and light.

Although Music for Airports was released in 1978, I didn’t discover the album myself until 1984, when I was in high school. As I mentioned, like most others I was aware of Brian Eno through his work in progressive rock. But I must say that Music for Airports was the most spellbinding music that I could imagine being released on a vinyl record. It seemed so otherworldly, that it was actually quite amusing to watch this record spinning on the turntable, while such ethereal sounds came through the speakers. I’ve been in love with it ever since, usually hearing Music for Airports at least a couple of times a week. When I find myself in stressful or challenging times, either for myself or for the world around me, I often listen to Music for Airports on a daily basis, whether at home or driving in the car, or in any other setting. It is certainly one of the albums that I have heard most frequently throughout my life, because the music is so open and abstract, so welcoming and calming and yet so mysterious and intriguing, that it never gets tiresome, never fatigues my ear or my spirit, and always seems to be exactly what I want to hear every time I hear it.

And so, I join my hands together and bow in gratitude to Brian Eno for giving the world this beautiful, groundbreaking album, Ambient 1: Music for Airports, 44 years ago today on March 1, 1978. Hearing it on a very regular basis has enhanced and improved the quality of my life, and I wanted to share it with anyone reading this, as I hope that this music will do the same for you.

Again, here is the link to the full album on YouTube:

Thank you for stopping by to check out my new place for random musings, “Pete’s Posts,” and I wish you the best of everything until next time!

© Peter Lavezzoli, All Rights Reserved.

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest