“Music For Airports” Megamix: Here’s 6 Hours of time-stretched Brian Eno ambience

By on June 10, 2015

Recently it came to our attention that Thom Yorke has broken the record for recording the longest musical composition ever with his 432-hour “Subterranea,” which lasts for eighteen full days (and we assume that means no there are “repeats”), but we were disappointed to learn that there are no current plans to release the piece of music (and honestly, how could he?); instead, we’ll have to be content with this six-hour, time-stretched version of Brian Eno’s album Ambient 1: Music For Airports.

That’s right, it’s six glorious hours long. And six minutes, and 51-seconds. First, before we get to Eno, here’s a bit more about Yorke: Subterranea was composed and one presumes also recorded by Yorke, and according to Billboard, was “built from 25, 920 unique minutes of atmospheric, experimental sounds,” which was meant to accompany, and perhaps, enhance the experience you’d have if you spent all eighteen days at the the Carriageworks gallery in Sydney, Australia, where the Subterranea piece accompanies the installation by Yorke’s friend and longtime collaborating partner, artist Stanley Donwood’s latest exhibit, The Panic Office.

YORKE AND DORWOOD Thom York and Stanley Donwood

But we’ll never get the chance to hear even a portion of Subterrenea because Donwood’s Panic Office was only meant to last for eighteen days, and that came to an end on June 6, 2015. Suffice it to say that the sounds composed by Yorke — an “eerie mix of ambient textures, experimental sounds, and field recordings” says one review — sounded great in the exhibition’s cavernous space at Carriageworks, and maybe Yorke will find some way to release, we don’t know, a “greatest hits” mix or something so we can hear some of it. From what we’ve read Donwood’s exhibit featured his original album art paintings, from 1997’s OK Computer to 2007’s In Rainbows.

As for Eno, Music for Airports was the first of four albums released in Brian Eno’s ‘Ambient’ series, a term which he coined to differentiate his minimalistic approach to the album’s material and “the products of the various purveyors of canned music.”

As you can hear in this interview we’ve found, Eno was inspired by first being at JFK international airport, back in the summer of 1977, when he found he was particularly annoyed by the super-inane Muzak he heard playing over the PA system on that particular day, while he was waiting for his flight.

He began contemplating what would sort of music he would actually want to hear in that situation — being a kind of nervous flyer, he wanted something soothing, not annoying, something that would diffuse the tense, anxious atmosphere of an airport terminal itself — and began imagining a kind of background soundtrack that would have a calming palliative effect. But, the nightmarish moment passed, he boarded his flight, and then apparently set the idea aside.

Then, again, not too much later, he found himself waiting for another flight, this time at Cologne Bonn Airport in Germany, and the same type of thing happened, only, this time, he became aware that he liked the airport’s design, which was designed by a German architect named Paul Schneider-Esleben, who just happened to be the father of one of the members of Kraftwerk. The way it was designed, it seemed to Eno that it was a kind of cathedral, and began musing again on the kind of music it should have playing, which he imagined to require something that fit with the ergonomically-planned environment, and the idea began to take shape.

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Bahnhof Flughafen, Köln-Bonn Airport (Cologne, Germany)

His idea would eventually begin to take shape as a continuously-looped sound installation, and eventually Eno, who had already begun to dabble in what he was calling “ambient” music, when, in the early 70s, he had been in a car accident and was recuperating in bed and apparently barely able to move. A friend had come to visit and she had brought with her a vinyl LP of 18th Century classical music and she put it on the turntable, then put the needle on the record and left the room. However, she had lowered the volume on the receiver to the point where it frequently the music that was playing was totally inaudible, and would drop in and out of his hearing. Eno, being injured and well-medicated, struggled to get record playing, then collapsed back into bed, and the record player was automatically replaying the vinyl disc over and over, and soon he was enjoying the fact that the music itself had become part of the ambience of the room, and this led to creation of his first album of ambient music, Discreet Music, released in 1975.

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For Music For Airports, he struck upon the additional idea that it should sound “as ignorable as it is interesting,” and “intended to induce calm and a space to think.” If you were focusing on it, it would be interesting to listen to, but if you weren’t, it needed to be a kind of benign presence in the airport that didn’t distract you, if you were reading a book or having a conversation with someone. Also, it needed to be something that would and could be interrupted by public announcements over the PA system and not require hearing from beginning to end. It just needed to flow, organically and naturally as possible.

BRIAN ENO 1

Eno then experimented further by bringing in different musicians into the studio to play different things and he didn’t let them hear what any of the other musicians were playing, an idea that went back to something he’d learned in art school, the creation of what was called “happy accidents,” something that composer John Cage and other contemporary composers were already doing.

Most of what ended up being recorded for the album was actually recorded in producer Conny Plank’s studio on converted chicken farm just outside of Cologne, and also at EG studios in London. Something that would probably take a half hour on Pro Tools or Logic program today was incredibly laborious back then, and involved creating literal loops of tape, of various lengths, so that the sounds would drop in at different points and mix together randomly. Some of the tape loops were four or five feet, and others were as much as thirty feet in length. They were given numbers instead of titles — one for the sequence on the album’s side, and one for the side, and there were four pieces total — “1/1″ “2/1,” “1/2,” and “2/2.” The music tracks were composed by Eno except “1/1″, which was co-composed by Eno with former Soft Machine drummer and vocalist Robert Wyatt and with producer Rhett Davies.

BRIAN ENO 2

Wikipedia has some interesting quotes about the recordings themselves. Talking about the first piece, Eno has said: “I had four musicians in the studio, and we were doing some improvising exercises that I’d suggested. I couldn’t hear the musicians very well at the time, and I’m sure they couldn’t hear each other, but listening back, later, I found this very short section of tape where two pianos, unbeknownst to each other, played melodic lines that interlocked in an interesting way. To make a piece of music out of it, I cut that part out, made a stereo loop on the 24-track, then I discovered I liked it best at half speed, so the instruments sounded very soft, and the whole movement was very slow.”

“2/1″ and “1/2″ each contain four tracks of wordless vocals which loop back on themselves and constantly interact with each other in new ways. Subtle changes in timing occur, adding to the timbre of the pieces.

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Eno has also explained of the vocal-only piece: “There are sung notes, sung by three women and myself. One of the notes repeats every 23 1/2 seconds. It is in fact a long loop running around a series of tubular aluminum chairs in Conny Plank’s studio. The next lowest loop repeats every 25 7/8 seconds or something like that. The third one every 29 15/16 seconds or something. What I mean is they all repeat in cycles that are called incommensurable they are not likely to come back into sync again. So this is the piece moving along in time. Your experience of the piece of course is a moment in time, there. So as the piece progresses, what you hear are the various clusterings and configurations of these six basic elements. The basic elements in that particular piece never change. They stay the same. But the piece does appear to have quite a lot of variety.”

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Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia

Music For Airports was later installed at the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport, in New York, for a period of months in the 1980’s, and also installed in the airport at Minneapolis/St. Paul, in Minnesota, and also in the airport at Sao Paulo in Brazil.

Now, about that six-hour length. The original LP split up the two tracks to each side, so that wasn’t too preferable when the album was first released, and it was corrected once the CD was reissued. The CD pressing adds 30-seconds of silence after every song, including one after “2/2″ has completed. But still, the album is just not quite long enough (approximately forty minutes) if it’s something you want to put on to relax to, and so the producers at Slow Motion Radio selected it as an album that would sound pretty great if time-stretched with a computer program called Paulstretch. It doesn’t sound odd at all, like a lot of recordings might being stretched out like that.

This is now our favorite way to listen to this album, and probably fits in best with what Eno intended in the first place, an ambient background sound to play in beautiful airports around the world, soothing your senses before you board your plane.

We’d recommend using a clip convertor like this one to rip the audio from this Youtube clip, if you want to save the mp3.

If six hours is too much, here’s an hour-long (61 minutes to be exact) of Eno’s “Thursday Afternoon”:

About Bryan

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide and a dozen other websites and zines, most of them long gone. He’s also worked for over twenty years at reissue record labels, and penned scads of liner notes -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He is now somewhat reclusive and bides his time quietly in his dusty Miracle Mile hermitage in Los Angeles, CA.