How Brian Eno Helped Travelers Check Their Emotional Baggage

Brian Eno's idea to make the airport more bearable was a real departure in 1978. It arrived 30 years later with the iPod.
Brian Eno's idea to make the airport more bearable was a real departure in 1978. It arrived 30 years later with the iPod. (Rykodisc)

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By Chris Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 2, 2007

Can anything soothe the cranky air traveler, that wretched soul suffering in the purgatory of a 14-hour holdover at O'Hare?

Xanax? Cinnabon?

What about music?

In 1978, Brian Eno thought so.

So he penned a few meditative compositions designed to keep the blood pressure down when the nice folks at United would accidentally send your luggage to Dallas instead of Dulles. Those four slices of sublime sonic vapor make up Eno's now-legendary "Ambient 1: Music for Airports," an album that taught an entire generation of musicians to consider music as a texture. But as a summer of historic airport delays reaches its tangled climax this Labor Day weekend, the album's legacy still resonates at the terminal.

Eno's name might be fuzzy, but you know his work. The 59-year-old British musician has produced big albums for David Bowie ("Low," "Heroes") and colossal albums for U2 ("Joshua Tree," "Achtung Baby"). But Eno's artistry is even more ubiquitous than those musicians': He's the guy who composed that cascading trill for Microsoft back in the '90s -- the one you hear when you turn on your PC.

Before all that, he was just a refugee from glam rock troupe Roxy Music who found himself curiously drawn to Muzak. Eno embraced the idea of sound as part of one's physical environment, but balked every time he paused for a closer listen. ("Feelings?" Blech!) He wanted to hear Muzak of a higher caliber -- innocuous aural atmospheres that could pacify the eardrums without turning the brain to marshmallow. In the liner notes of "Airports," he asserts that "ambient" music "must be as ignorable as it is interesting."

Prophetic words, dude.

To the iPod generation 30 years later, nearly all music has become ambient music. Our commutes, our house chores, our cardio routines all demand their own respective soundtracks, leaving little time to actually sit and listen to much of anything. Isn't Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" really just "Music for Afternoon Dog Walk"? Or Spoon's latest "Music for Dishwashing?"

The idea makes sense to the marketing gurus at Nike. Last year, the sneaker behemoth teamed up with iTunes to launch "Nike+Original Run," a series of workout mixes designed for joggers by electronica duo the Crystal Method, dance-punk group LCD Soundsystem and rapper-producer Aesop Rock.

But where those recordings aim to raise your pulse, "Music for Airports" aims to lower it. The recording itself still sounds weightless and untethered, as if Eno discovered a way to translate sound into perfume. The album's first cut, "1/1," layers separate loops of a simple piano phrase for 16 blissful minutes. The other tracks are just as serene, creating a slow-motion soundscape populated by women who sing like synthesizers and synthesizers that murmur like timid horns.

There's little evidence that it ever caught on at airports, though it was played for a month at New York's La Guardia in 1981. Today, most airports are too busy broadcasting a steady stream of security warnings, maybe with a few gurgling pop hits between announcements.

"Music for Airports" was composed in an era when air travel was still a romantic affair -- a far cry from today's paranoia drill, where getting through security becomes a shoeless, beltless, helpless exercise in humility. In this light, Eno's ambient breakthrough feels more vital -- and functional -- than ever.

Next time you find yourself stuck in line, stuck in security, stuck in Atlanta -- break out the iPod and let "Music for Airports" provide some sonic succor.

They can take our shampoo, but they can't take our ear buds.


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