Records Revisited: Brian Eno – Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978)

With »Ambient 1: Music For Airports« Brian Eno gave his name to a genre. When we talk about »Ambient« today, we don’t use the term in the sense originally intended though. So what did the British musician have in mind?
Terms and their meaning can make epic journeys over time. Ambient is one such term. Today Ambient stands first and foremost for chillout, for coming down after a hard night of raving, for esotericism, for intoxication, for expanding one’s consciousness. Brian Eno meant this in no way at all in ‘78 with his work »Ambient 1: Music For Airports«. And actually it goes back much further – long before the discovery of electronic music.

But back then there were slightly different priorities

In fact, one could even go back to ancient times, when great celebrations were not only accompanied by culinary excess and lots of feathers, but also by the gently lilting lyre. For mass consumption, however, a step back to 1922 is enough for the time being. Then the American radio engineer George Owen Squier developed a system through which customers could be supplied with non-stop music via cable. For this purpose, several sequentially arranged turntables ran in a central studio, playing music daily for around 18 hours without a break. Before the DJ was even conceived, George Owen Squier had already automated it. For one thing, the cable connection allowed for a high sound quality (compared to terrestrial radio), and for another, it allowed for customised music broadcasting. Initially, these customers were mainly grocery shops that wanted to sweeten the shopping experience for their visitors with a mixture of special offers and enticing music. Nothing much has changed in this regard until today. In den 1940er Jahren weitete Squiers Firma, die mittlerweile genredefinierend »Muzak« hieß, sein Portfolio auf Fabriken und Büros aus. Dort liefen nach dem Prinzip der Stimulus Progression 15-minütige Musikblöcke, die sich von Anfang bis Ende in Geschwindigkeit, Dynamik und Lautstärke steigerten. Den Lebensmittelgeschäften und Arbeitgebern ging es damals keinesfalls um Bewusstseinserweiterung. Es ging knallhart um die Steigerung des Umsatzes und der Produktivität.

To Be Heard But Not To Be Listened To

In the ‘40s, Squier’s company, which by now had been given the genre-defining name »Muzak«, expanded its portfolio to include factories and offices. There, according to the principle of stimulus progression, 15-minute blocks of music were played, increasing in speed, dynamics and volume from beginning to end. At that time, the grocery shops and employers were not at all concerned with raising awareness. It was all about increasing turnover and productivity. Brian Eno continued this tradition of background music in the mid-’70s, but at the same time rethought the concept. While his album »Discreet Music« from ‘75 still revolved around a purely technological problem, in ‘78 Brian Eno presented a holistic concept for his enhanced Muzak with his four-part »Ambient« series. Instead of being designed to improve the GNP, he positioned his Ambient as architectural concept music to accompany and soften certain settings in public spaces. Brian Eno exchanged the profit-driven instrumentalisation of sound for the needs of the listener. On the way to the hedonistic Ambient of the ‘90s, he wrested the capitalist roots from Muzak and initially replaced them with the common good.

Inspiration: Cologne-Bonn Airport

The decisive factor for the concept was Brian Eno’s sojourn at Cologne-Bonn Airport on a Sunday morning in the mid-’70s. »The light was beautiful. Everything was beautiful except for that awful music they were playing,” Brian Eno later recalled in an interview. »There’s millions of dollars being spent on airport architecture. But when it comes down to the music, which then occupies the whole space, it boils down to one guy who slots in this cassette playing his favourite music.« For Brian Eno, it was the most inappropriate and mendacious music to play given his nervousness about the flight ahead. »When you walk into an airport, they always play this happy music that says to you, You’re not going to die‹.« In contrast, Brian Eno had no interest at all in this veneer. He was not concerned with Muzak’s stimulation, but with a Buddhist emptying of all expectations and needs. He wanted contemplation. »I thought it would be much better if they played music that said, Well, if you die, it’s no matter‹.«