Brian Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’ Adds Sweetness To Din

Live in Terminal 2, Brian Eno’s ‘Music for Airports’ gets underway, performed by the Bang On A Can All-Stars.
(Performance photos courtesy San Diego International Airport)
By Richard S. Ginell

SAN DIEGO — We all know airports too well – those bustling, noisy, confusing, and impersonal structures filled with varying degrees of excitement, boredom, anticipation, and anxiety. But on Oct. 27, the ArtPower program at UC San Diego succeeded in turning a corner of Terminal 2 at San Diego International Airport into a musical performance space, if just for one night, by booking the Bang On A Can All-Stars to play Brian Eno’s pioneering ambient work Music for Airports It was the first time that the piece had ever been performed live in a U.S. airport, and overall, it was an effective match.

San Diego's Terminal 2 was a performance space, if just for one night.
San Diego’s Terminal 2 was a performance space, if just for one night.

It’s not often that a composer gets the opportunity to define a whole musical genre and make it stick, yet Eno is one of the select few who did. He came up with the term “ambient music” to describe works that could be overheard casually or listened to intently – “as ignorable as it is interesting,” he wrote.

Although Music for Airports is his most famous piece in that vein, his first full-blown ambient work, Discreet Music (1975), is even better – a haunting half-hour of molto adagissimo electronic tape loops pitched barely above the threshold of audibility. But Discreet Music was almost as invisible in the record shops as it was inaudible on the turntable, shoved in between his series of four wonderfully noisy electric rock solo albums on the release schedules of the mid-1970s.

Brian Eno - Bang On A Can Music For Airports CD jacket
‘Music For Airports’ helped to popularize Eno’s ambient music genre.

So it was left to the better-distributed Music for Airports to establish the genre in 1978. Eno originally conceived the piece as a response to the mundane aural surroundings in the Cologne Bonn Airport  as he waited many hours for a plane. This music would blend in with the whole airport ambiance and hopefully make it more bearable.

It was an ironic antidote to the clamor of the times; its repetitive, baby-simple tunes, soporific in effect and looping in slightly different combinations, crossed the boundaries of genre with ease. It came along at the right time, just as minimalism was establishing itself as the hot new trend in classical music, just as synthesizers were embedding themselves permanently in rock music, and just ahead of the now-derided New Age phenomenon of the 1980s. Its influence multiplied from there: The recording of the piece was even installed in New York’s La Guardia Airport for a short time in the 1980s.

Composer Brian Eno (Knitting Factory Records)
Composer Brian Eno (Knitting Factory Records)

But Music for Airports only existed as a recording until Bang On A Can came along in the 1990s and got the idea that this music could and should be performed live.

Bang on a Can composer members Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Evan Ziporyn each took one of the piece’s four movements and transcribed Eno’s recording with piano, synthesizer, and voices into a written score for cello, double bass, two keyboards, percussion, clarinets, and electric guitar. The results are pretty faithful to the low-key spirit of Eno’s recording, with the voices in Parts Two and Three now simulated by the choral button on one of the keyboards. The transcription was recorded twice by the Bang On A Can All-Stars; the second one was taped live in 1998 but not released until 2011 on their Cantaloupe Music label.

Doing its part to create the right atmosphere, ArtPower completely took over the extreme left end of Terminal 2’s vast ticketing room, hijacking the video monitors of Hawaiian Airlines to display their logo, even issuing simulated “boarding passes” to members of the audience.

Music for Airports, performed live by Bang On A Can, gets underway. (San Diego International Airport)
Canned and live announcements mingled with Eno’s own sounds in ‘Music for Airports.’

They made no attempt – probably couldn’t have even if they’d wanted to – to silence the ubiquitous canned and live announcements booming through the terminal (“Security is everyone’s responsibility …” “All passengers must have a boarding ID” … and so forth.). These were welcomed in Cagean  fashion as part of the performance, as was the occasional wailing of a baby far down the hall. Members of the audience were sort of encouraged to applaud between movements (they did) or get up and walk around during the performance (hardly anyone did). You could doze off if you felt like it and still know that you were respecting the intent of the composer, though the stiff, tightly-spaced portable chairs made that not too desirable an option.

In any case, the performance itself by the six All-Stars (Ashley Bathgate, cello; Robert Black, double bass; Vicky Chow, keyboard; David Cossin, percussion; Mark Stewart, electric guitar; Ken Thomson, clarinets and keyboard) was vivid enough to discourage catnaps. The opening of the piece made a much bigger impact live than on CD or LP, with the bass fiddle and a huge gong producing a massive, impressive darkness in timbre, unfortunately succeeded by droning bass feedback that persisted throughout the opening movement. The tempos were even slower than those on both the Bang On a Can recording (with a different cast) and Eno’s, but there was enough tension and concentration to see them through. The conclusion of Part Four had a depth in this performance that recalled the most sublime passages of Eno’s collaboration with David Bowie on the latter’s Low album. Acoustically, the terminal was not a bad space for music with glacial tempos and long, sustained tones; it worked fine.

Some chairs were set up for the event, but the sound resounded throughout the terminal. (Richard Ginell)
Missing in this quiet hour – the crowds of passengers, the roar of airplanes. (R. Ginell)

If there was something missing from the experience, it was a complete engagement with the ambience of an airport terminal, since the performance space was located far away from the central hubs of activity – the active ticketing terminals, the security barriers, the shops and waiting rooms, even the roar of aircraft. Also, it was a quiet Tuesday night at San Diego International; few passengers were in the terminal and fewer stopped by to eavesdrop on the performance. One wonders what the experience would have been like if this had been done at a bigger, busier, more frantic airport like JFK, LAX, or Chicago’s O’Hare.

Some new music mavens and unsuspecting passengers may get the chance to find out. One of the Chicago airports is reportedly considering hosting a performance of Music for Airports, and others have also expressed interest.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.