When Brian Eno almost single-handedly birthed the ambient music movement with 1979′s Music for Airports, he made tape loops of piano, voices and electronic sounds; staggered their entrances; and let them run. It was not meant for people to play and, in fact, Eno felt that it couldn’t be played by human musicians. (“They’d never allow the long gaps that occur,” he once said.) But Eno didn’t reckon with Bang on a Can. The oddly-named composers collaborative is now a mini-empire of new music, with an annual series of concerts, a record label and its own electro-acoustic house band, the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Founding composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe decided to arrange Eno’s spare, moody soundscapes for real musicians to play in real concert spaces. And in airports too when the occasion arose. They each took one of the four parts and enlisted Evan Ziporyn, clarinetist, composer and the All-Stars’ primus inter pares, to do the final part. The result is a subtly glittering piece, with Eno’s long, flowing tones distributed among acoustic instruments (cello, clarinet, even Chinese pipa in the last part) and electric ones (guitar, sampler).
Eno wanted his “ambient music” (his term) to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” Music for Airports is both. With a stillness that belies the fact that its minimal musical materials are constantly cycling through, the piece serves to tint the sonic atmosphere but also reveals unexpected juxtapositions of sounds — especially in the BoaC arrangements. A studio recording by the All-Stars was released 10 years ago. This is a live performance from 1998, and demonstrates that even with humans playing it, Music for Airports still does what Eno originally wanted it to: it challenges our most basic notions about what is or isn’t music, and it creates a spare, contemplative inner space.