Monday, May 30, 2011

Brian Eno- Ambient 1: Music For Airports

The liner notes for Brian Eno's quietly revolutionary Ambient 1: Music For Airports make note of Muzak and his dissatisfaction with music designed as background ambience. There is also the rather famous story of how he was inspired to make this sort of music after being stuck in an airport with bad music playing. One imagines that Ambient 1 is still in use in some airports and other locations today, a rare instance of commercial and creative interests intertwining in a non-exploitative way. None of these things, however, are what interest me most in this ethereal music.

On first listen, Ambient 1 seems to represent music of the most basic and simplistic sort, one of those creations that makes people say "my five year old could do that!" with contempt. As someone who has recently begun to create similar music as a personal challenge, I can tell you that it's not as basic and simplistic as it seems. Certainly anyonecould noodle on a piano for 17 minutes and put some sparse echoes and synth textures under it ('1/1'), but creating something that holds the attention of listeners at multiple levels of concentration is really very difficult. Too minimalist and it becomes unbearably boring on a close headphone listen; too busy and loud and it becomes an obtrusive nuisance which draws too much attention to itself to be used as background ambience.

Creating music that hits the perfect Goldilocks-esque "just right" between the extremes requires patience, control, discipline, trial and error, and imagination. This style of music has many obvious antecedents, from Eno's own prior instrumental music as solo artist and especially with Robert Fripp; minimalist composers like Terry Riley and Erik Satie; film soundtracks; and even to something like Miles Davis's In A Silent Way, which has retroactively been argued as being 'ambient jazz.' Even if this record wasn't the first of its kind, its influence has been the longest lasting. Indeed, the mixed-gender wordless vocals of '1/2' and '2/1' are practically recreated for Tortoise's 'The Lithium Stiffs', while also being an ancestor of the ambiguously gendered vocals on My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. Still, if for nothing else, Ambient 1 deserves the full five stars and all its other praise for being both the first purpose-built ambient album as well as for being arguably still the best of its kind.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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