Brian Eno carefully distinguishes his art music, which is also his pop music, from his gebrauchsmusik, or utilitarian undertakings. Ambient 1 Music for Airports is as utilitarian as they come: it’s conceived as background sound for airport lobbies, hopefully to replace the usual piped-in saccharine strings and smooth MOR frosting.
As aesthetic white noise, Ambient 1 Music for Airports makes for even more dissipated listening than last year’s similarly unfocused Music for Films. Film scores, accompanying the unraveling of a screenplay, still relate to some sort of time frame, but the new material — having already abandoned conventional notions of melody, harmony, rhythm and personality — strives to dispense with even that. As environmental sound, it works quite well, better than the earlier Discreet Music, which it superficially resembles.
Moreover, there’s a good deal of high craftsmanship here, but to find it, you’ve got to thwart the music’s intent by concentrating. The first of four untitled pieces is assembled from a childlike, Robert Wyatt piano phrase. Eno adds sparse accents on bass and bells, makes a tape loop, then pinpoints different facets of the loop with his synthesizer. This procedure proves easier to see (on the musical score, reproduced on the back of the record jacket) than to hear: there are several partial repetitions to contend with, as well as the overall miasma of inattention.
Other “songs” are simpler in concept. Several repeating tones or patterns of different lengths drift in and out of phase. In theory, none of these pieces end: the loop’can continue, with eternal variation, as long as the airport is standing. But whether or not they ever play this stuff over the loudspeakers at La Guardia, Brian Eno has succeeded once again in provoking his fans.