Brian Eno, Ambient 1/Music For Airports

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 05.18.11 in Reviews

Ambient 1/Music For Airports

Brian Eno

Brian Eno didn't invent ambient music; he drew much of his inspiration from Erik Satie's desire to make music that could "mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner," as he acknowledged in the liner notes to Discreet Music. But Ambient 1: Music for Airports, with its utilitarian title, codified the genre in the popular imagination for the first time.

Behold: the birth of ambient music

In the liner notes, Eno explained, "Over the past three years, I have become interested in the use of music as ambience, and have come to believe that it is possible to produce material that can be used thus without being in any way compromised." The "compromise" he meant was the "lightweight and derivative" nature of Muzak and its brand of elevator music. Rather than blotting out the surroundings with bland bubble-gum, he aimed to create music that would enhance a given environment — not so much "wallpaper music" as a tinted film to be projected over the walls. "Ambient Music," he explained, "must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting."

The album, divided into four numerically titled tracks ("1-1," "2-1," "1-2" and "2-2") offers just that: 48 minutes of limpid pianos, silken synthesizers and disembodied, wordless voices that hang in space, shifting like a mobile turning slowly in mid-summer air. Devoid of drama or even narrative, it moves even more aimlessly than Discreet Music's earlier ambient experiment; the sense of stasis is reinforced by the fact that "2-1" and "1-2" are variations upon a single theme, laying out angelic choral parts like stepping stones to a horizon far beyond the album itself. Only with the closing "2-2," the album's third-shortest track, does a sense of closure come over the music: a progression of reassuring major chords as irrefutable as gravity, as sure as a river carving its millennia-long signature.