The foundation of my love for ambient music.
Brian Eno // Ambient 1: Music for Airports // E.G. // 1978
Let’s be honest here, most people my age by now have had the sacred “A-ha!” moment where they realized there was “more to life than this.” But what? For some, to see and explore the world; others, to become serenely connected with nature; for me, to find that special, niche interest in something—anything, and see the seeds of my interests become the redwoods of my livelihood. Regardless of when that puzzle piece fell into place, I hope everyone can look back and remember the time and place they first thought it. That moment, albeit fleeting, represents a massive divide between complacency and commitment, and opens the door for you to truly experience what is beautiful in the places you devote your time to finding them.
For me, this moment occurred in the Spring of 2013. I had just eaten lunch after finishing classes for the day and remembered I had a copy of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports on my iPod. Sure, I had listened to it a few times, but it never really stood out to me. Come to think about it, at that time I had devoted more time to reading about its influence than I had listening to the album itself. It’s as if this album was a tidal wave of influence and my mind was the floodgate holding it all back. I knew all the potential was there and if I could just listen to the album the way it was meant to be listened to, then I would hear what was meant to be heard. My thoughts were racing that day and I damn near sprinted to the bus so I could listen to it in peace. I remember rushing to the back of the bus and frantically digging for my headphones and iPod so I could give it my first real listen. Reflecting back, I looked like an idiot, and the confused look on the girl sitting across from me made me realize it. All of that was okay though, because I was about to make a major breakthrough.
The bus always took about twenty minutes on Tuesdays, so I definitely had time for the first track. I clicked play and was immediately greeted by the two famous looping pianos. As they slowly begin to intertwine with each other, the bus took off from the station. I was jerked back in my seat a little bit and had to readjust myself. This happened three times before we even hit the first red light. By the time we were halfway down the three mile stretch of stop-and-go 5 o’clock traffic, I was beginning to wonder whether the cause of my troubles was being 25 pounds short of finding a comfortable position on a bus seat or if the person who sat before me ate nothing but butter and decided to leave half of his last meal in his spot. Those side-facing seats always gave me trouble anyway. I had a sobering realization when I looked down to see that the first track, “1/1” was already halfway over. “It’s only two piano melodies looping at alternating intervals, how hard can this be?” With half of my energy focused on not sliding around in the seat and the other half on digging deeply into a track that was most likely made as a joke, I suddenly realized I was looking for something that wasn’t there—I let myself down.
I arrived at my apartment defeated in a way that really tore me apart. I didn’t listen to music for a week after that. I’m always the first person I blame when I can’t figure something out. Understanding why I fail at anything is a major stepping stone towards succeeding at everything. “Why is this not working?” becomes “What am doing [or not doing] that’s causing this not to work?” This frame of reference will show you the way faster than any other approach, even if you must allude to your shortcomings in doing so. Researching the album a bit further, I ran across the most famous quote in all of ambient music by Eno himself: “Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Reading a bit further, I learned that the tracks on Music for Airports, which mostly consist of long, intermittent piano and synthesizer, were actually made to contrast the hustle and bustle of an airport. Even though it would be over a year before I got to listen to the album in an airport, just reading the juxtaposition between the two opposite ends of the spectrum set a fire in myself that continues to burn even now. Over the next several months I was too scared to listen to Music for Airports again. There’s nothing daunting about it, but if I couldn’t comprehend one of the most seminal works in all of ambient music, how was I suppose to progress further into the genre?
Later in the year I found out that an ex-girlfriend of mine had just started dating someone else. Staying friends with an ex is one of the most emotionally complex quagmires a single person can be in. It was great to still be able to talk to each other and share a part of what we had, but it would be a lie for me to say I was satisfied with that. Sure, I dated around, but part of me believed I could use her as a fallback if things went awry on my end, which made it sting worse when even that fell through. She told me—I got angry and said and did a lot of things I really regret. I acted foolishly to a person that showed me only compassion. Later that night, I found myself going through my computer and rearranging files. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is one of the many nervous habits I’ve developed over the years, and it certainly shines when my emotions are unchained. After roughly an hour, I found myself deleting artists from my music library. It was well over 3,000 artists at the time, so I couldn’t blame myself for doing a little spring cleaning, but what I saw next made me wish I hadn’t. “Of course, Music for Airports… It just had to show its face tonight, didn’t it?” I stared at the cover for a solid minute before turning my gaze to the track listing: 1/1, 2/1, 1/2, 2/2… Here I was an hour from sunrise and through the dim light of my monitor, this album was a source of power and I was fully subservient to it. So I put on a pair of headphones and dove in.
For those of you who are unacquainted with the album, the opening track, “1/1,”consists of two independent piano melodies that were tied together in a stereo loop and played at half speed, resulting in a minimalistic yet variable sound that would define ambient music for generations to come. Every time one of the melodies looped, I felt an strengthening entrancement unlike anything I had ever experienced with music at the time. The volume of the loops never changes and they don’t even fade in or out, but by the time the track was halfway through I was taken aback by just how present it had managed to make itself. Each loop took a thought, memory or burden from my mind and desecrated it, replacing it with a perspective that was much more ethereal. These two melodies meandered back and forth, barely playing at all, but warmly embracing each other in the most delicate way. My mind felt free and my heart felt fragile.
“2/1” and “1/2” consist of looping wordless vocals that were made by three women and Eno himself, with the former vocals being isolated and the latter laying gently atop two looping pianos. One of the most incredible things about all of the tracks on this album is that loops are played back at incommensurable intervals, ensuring that they are unable to loop the same way twice within the confines of the track length. Each of these tracks consists of just a few 20-30 second loops on piano and synthesizer yet could go on for weeks before you heard the exact same thing twice. This idea is well disguised on “2/1,” where the repeating vocals seem to loop in such a way that gives you a full, warm sound one second then bitter, cold silence the next. It’s almost like Eno spent years on the math and science behind it all just to throw our emotions for a loop. “1/2” extends this effort, but adds two familiar piano loops to back up the vocals. I wish I knew what emotions Eno was trying to elicit when someone sits down to listen to this album. I still don’t, but if I had to guess, I would say he isn’t trying to draw out one emotion in particular, but rather, individually, the ones we are most susceptible to. Whichever emotion teeters on the edge of its breaking point will surely erupt under the gentle guidance of “1/2”. Eno is well aware of what humans are vulnerable to, but instead of forcing it out with clear intentions, he draws it out with ambiguity.
The closer, “2/2,” encapsulates all of the emotions the previous three tracks surfaced and paints a beautiful portrait of them. I’ve seen the sun rise with a cup of coffee while listening to this track several times, and it may very well be the most beautiful way to spend a morning as far as I’m concerned. Those emotions have surfaced and are more vulnerable than ever, but the warm, soothing synths envelop them, gently nudging them forward with a soft touch. Over the course of 9 minutes and 38 seconds, my emotions, thoughts, struggles, burdens and anything in between, are gently bounced around, high in the air where I have no control over them. During this time, I’m honestly not positive what the track is doing with them or for me, but I know that I won’t be the same once it’s done. Just when you begin to think the track will never end, it comes to a rather abrupt close, leaving you with slightly less than you had before… Silence. I looked outside and saw the sun was shining. At that moment and on that day, so began my love for ambient music and my profound appreciation for silence.
I felt cleansed. My problems had not been solved but the motivation sparked within me was more than enough to get past them. In the years since that night, a lot has happened. I’m more inspired now than ever to seek out music that reaches to the depths of my soul and reawakens a part of me that I had lost hold of. I was fired from my first full-time job in a position that weighed me down and stumbled upon an amazing new position with work that inspires me and people who make me feel loved. I’ve held love gently in the palm of my hands and watched it slip away several times. Thankfully, Music for Airports will always highlight the path for me to overcome these challenges, and see the beauty that lies beyond them.