In 1978, the Village People had a hit with “YMCA”, Meatloaf with “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”, and Donna Summer with “Last Dance”. The disco era was in full bloom, and fringe hits were things like Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise”, or “Werewolves of London”, by Warren Zevon.
Against this backdrop, Eno’s quiet, meditative Music for Airports came out, and made little impact. It is a sound sculpture, designed to be ignored as much as listened to. It has no easily discernable rhythm, and no hummable melodies. Yet 25 years later, ambient music has grown to be a busy category of music, and countless musicians name Eno and his ambient music as an inspiration.
Ambient 1 is simply one of the most important pieces of electronic music ever created.
Eno put a great deal of thought into Music for Airports. The compositions are very simple, yet his approach creates a constantly shifting soundscape of infinite variety. The album packaging is equally well thought out, with an intriguing illustration on the front, and strange little diagrams on the back that represent the score of the album tracks. Eno even included an essay that defined his idea of ambient music.
In it, Eno places ambient music as an alternative to Muzak. Eno felt that Muzak had created music that was so lightweight and derivative that it had effectively eliminated environmental music as a subject for composer’s attention, or for that of serious listeners. His use of the term “ambient music” was to create a distinction between his music and the canned background music that was available at the time.
Most importantly, Eno wanted to make music that would support reflection and space to think. Eno did this by creating music that was beautiful, but did not have a center of focus to demand your attention. In his liner notes, Eno puts it this way: “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.”
There are four parts to Music for Airports. They are labeled simply 1/1, 1/2, 2/1, and 2/2. Each of the parts was created by selecting short, compatible musical fragments, and using them to create tape loops of various lengths. Each loop repeats at a regular interval, but the loops are not synchronized. As a result, the fragments shift against each other; every time you hear a fragment, it is in a slightly different context than the last time you heard it. Some fragments will align to create a longer melodic phrase, and then the next time you hear the fragments they have shifted again.
The effect is like watching moving clouds. Each time you glance up at the clouds, you recognize the shapes, yet they constantly shift, forming new patterns.
The sounds on Ambient 1 come from piano, synthesizer, and female voices. 2/1 is an especially beautiful piece. Eno uses loops of several women gently singing “ahhh” on various notes of the scale. These notes float by you in a way that seems both random and perfect. The slow melodies that the voices create never repeat, so the piece seems infinite and angelic.
The compositions on Ambient 1 build from Eno’s strengths. In all of Eno’s work, there is rarely any sense of the music progressing, building to a climax, or even having any direction. This works against him in some of his other work. However, here the pieces create a feeling of timelessness and a sense that the sound is floating by you.
On Ambient 1, Eno set out to create something new, music that could be ignored as well as listened to. He succeeded wildly, and spawned a generation of imitators, inspired by the timeless beauty of Music for Airports.