JIM FLEMING: Do you use your iPod to listen to music while you are waiting around at the airport? If so, do you have a favorite kinda of music to listen to? How about Brian Eno's groundbreaking 1978 album, "Ambient 1: Music for Airports." Biographer David Sheppard once tried listening to Eno's airport music in an actual airport. This was back in the 80's when the Walkman was the only way to listen privately in public. Unfortunately, Sheppard discovered his Walkman wasn't really loud enough to be heard over the airport hubbub. Sheppard's the author of "On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno"
SHEPPARD: "Music for Airports" was inspired by two sort of strands of influence, the first of which was when Brian Eno was at JFK international. the summer of 1977 always a sort of nervous flyer by his own admission, he was particularly aggravated on this occasion by what he described as super inane Muzak. that was being pumped over the PA system at JFK that particular day. and it was actually designed to sort of be a calming palliative sound. but it just had the opposite effect on him and he was becoming increasingly aggravated. by the inanity of Muzak. I think is was a quote in "Harper's & Queen" Magazine that he said the music actually made his feel more nervous and the sound system was so bad , and the music so worthless that you begin to think that if this is the standard of the music, what must the airplanes be like?
FLEMING: A little frightening when you think of it that way. isnt it?
SHEPPARD: It's a bit of a leap, perhaps but kinda understand what he meant, so i think his mind was already attuned,shall we say, to the idea of environmental music on that very sort of pragmatic level. that's one element. the second major element was at another airport this time in Europe the Cologne Bonn International Airport around the same time mid-70's at that particular airport he actually had quite the opposite experience which was one of calm tranquility and his usual pre flight nerves were soothed not by music but by they architecture of that particular airport which is very graceful almost church like in some way's but modern. it had a kind of restful ambience, and it was actually designed by the architect, Paul Schneider- Esleben, German architect who's the father of one of the members of Kraftwerk. and i think that particular piece of happenstance may have had some influence. But basically he was so impressed by this building. this unusually calm experience of aviation that he purposely started to think about music which would fit this environment so the combination of the JFK nightmare and the restfulness of Cologne Bonn International. so
FLEMING: I think a lot of people have probably shared his antagonism to the sound systems especially which purport to be telling you something that you cant understand most of the time and then when you try to put music through them it becomes more irritating than helpful. But for most of us we don't make that next leap in the colon airport i think that he said that he wanted music that didn't pretend that you were going to die on the plane
SHEPPARD: That right i think one of those things that he has spoken about on a few occasion and it's actually related bizarrely to film music they spend the awful lot of time and money in the architecture of an airport, and its ergonomically planned, it's computer-modelled to the enth degree and so on and so forth. and then probably a day before the airport opens someone will say well we better have some music so yeah, a library album is purloined for that purpose or whatever. and so its very likely that you experience of people that make music for film for which film could take four or five years in producing with 2 weeks till opening theres no music and a composer gets dragged in its kind of analogous.
FLEMING: Well, the next step for him was to try to figure out what music he wouldn't like to hear and of course for him what music he kind of like to created. he coined the term ambient music to describe his own efforts.
SHEPPARD: Well, ambient music was really the result of several years of Brian deconstructing rock music as a recording artist as a solo artist he had gradually removed the narrative foreground from songs that had been a process in where he became more interested in the backing then the foreground so in effect he began to think of things that would normally be fhe ephemeral elements in music as the focus of music which would mean things like keyboard lines string lines and backing vocals particularly in this process of rather painful process of rather scraping away the foreground of pop music to use a brooded sense he had slowly moved towards this beat less mood music which was closer to a sort of perfume then it was to music it a sense it sort of tinted the atmosphere sonically and he coined the term ambient music around the same time these very different airport experiences, and the album that resulted in all of this thought and purposeful music making was called "Music for Airports" and subtitled "Ambient 1," the first of the series of ambient records and by ambient in this context he meant environmental records and albums mean to be used in an environmental sense, utilitarian music if you like.
FLEMING: Let's talk about the creation of that first album "music for airports: ambient 1" it was an unusual process wasn't it? He brought in different musician to play different things and didn't let them hear each other play?
SHEPPARD: That's right. His basic idea was an idea he had gone back to in his art school which was the creation of "happy accidents." it was a sort of credo of John Cage and a number of other composers. the idea you set up a number of perimeters set them in motion and allow collisions of things to happen that you wouldn't put their in logically its a way of surprising yourself as a composer. this was very much the process of music for airports most of which was recorded in converted chicken farm just outside of Cologne what he did was record voices, female voices and he just had them recoding wordless ooh's and ahh's and made loops tape loops were talking way back when before digital recording
FLEMING: This was the 1970's
SHEPPARD: This is very much the 1970's and something that would probably take you a half an hour on Pro Tools or Logic program today was incredibly laborious back then involved creating literally loops of tape and the random element which i mentioned before was in lengths of the loops which were anything from four or five feet of tape to i think thirty feet of tape
FLEMING: And it has in fact been played at airports, hasn't it?
SHEPPARD: it has, the album was installed at LaGuardia new york in 1980 for a whole months so in a sense its an art installation piece that was very much the poof that it worked. if you'd like it was also later installed at Minneapolis-St. Paul for a while and its subsequently has had other airings. Brian did tell me a very funny story of a later installation in the airport at Sao Paulo in Brazil. He had a piece in an exhibition there and he went to go to the opening of this exhibition and he arrived at the airport in his honor they were playing music for airports but as he recalls they were playing it at the excruciating volume which was kinda anti physical to the idea and he said he sounded like really bad heavy metal. so it obviously didn't always work.
FLEMING: David Sheppard is is the author of "On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno."