Deconstructing Brian Eno's Music for Airports
In 1978, Brian Eno released Ambient 1: Music for Airports, a landmark album in ambient and electronic music. Although it wasn’t the first ambient album by any means, it was the first album explicitly released as an ‘ambient music album’. The album was essentially a continuation of Eno’s experimentation with the tape machine as a compositional tool, as well as his exploration of generative music, music created by systems. In this article I’ll discuss how Music for Airports was created, I’ll break down and recreate the tracks 2/1 and 1/2, and hopefully give you some ideas about how to adopt this approach yourself.
Eno’s experiments with tape loops go as far back as 1973’s (No Pussyfooting), a collaboration with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp that employed an early experiment in sound-on-sound tape looping. For the recordings, Fripps’s guitar was run into two tape machines feeding into each other. The musical material runs back and forth between the machines, creating longs delays akin to modern loop pedals. The length of the delay was set by the physical distance between the two machines.
Eno’s tape experimentations continued with Discreet Music in 1975. The album’s 30 minute long title track is composed of Eno’s EMS Synthi AKS run into a similar dual tape machine system, with simple musical phrases repeating over a long period of time. This system utilised an EQ and delay effect before the tape machines, allowing Eno to add variations to the sounds in real time.
For the recording sessions of Music for Airports, Eno’s approach involved using several small pre-recorded snippets of music; single notes or 3-4 note phrases, mostly piano, choir and synth. The phrases are all set to loop at different rates, determined by the length of tape they are recorded on. The differing tape lengths played simultaneously cause the relationship between the musical phrases to constantly shift. On each round, phrases will intersect differently, sometimes appearing to coalesce into new phrases and variations on existing themes. Eno himself puts it best:
“The particular piece I’m referring to was done by using a whole series of very long tape loops, like fifty, sixty, seventy feet long. There were twenty-two loops. One loop had just one piano note on it. Another one would have two piano notes. Another one would have a group of girls singing one note, sustaining it for ten seconds. There are eight loops of girls’ voices and about fourteen loops of piano. I just set all of these loops running and let them configure in whichever way they wanted to, and in fact the result is very, very nice. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t sound at all mechanical or mathematical as you would imagine. It sounds like some guy is sitting there playing the piano with quite intense feeling. The spacing and dynamics of “his” playing sound very well organized. That was an example of hardly interfering at all.“
Music for Airports liner notes contains a graphic score designed by Eno himself. Not a trained musician, and unable to read or write sheet music, Eno instead used graphic symbols to denote each musical phrase, or loop. Look closely and you can see individual symbols on each row, each spaced apart differently, reflecting the recording technique used to craft the album.
Music for Airports second track, 2/1 consists of a choir singing shapeless harmonies. There are no real melodies present, and the voices occasionally form chords, but there is no discernible structure. This song is composed of seven loops, all of different lengths, with each loop playing back a single, sung note. In the graphic score, you can see Eno’s use of rectangles to represent looped tracks, with the spaces between them varying.
These loops have been recreated below, along with the approximate times that each loop repeats. Note that these times aren’t perfect, and the timings actually fluctuate throughout the piece, likely due to the way they were looped (the tapes were apparently wrapped around chair legs). Some things to note here are that:
The C and high F loops are very close together to each other in duration (20.1 seconds and 19.6 seconds, respectively). They start out with the notes playing separately, and over time the notes gradually get closer together until they play back at the same time, almost as a chord.
The Db loop has the longest length by a significant margin, and Db is also the most dissonant of all the notes in the piece, as it creates a semi-tone clash with C every time the two play together. The longer loop length for this note may have been a conscious decision by Eno, or the composition may have just come out this way through experimentation.
Click on the play icons below to start each individual loop.
For the second track on Music for Aiports, 1/2, Eno uses eight short piano phrases recorded to tape to create the sense of a bigger composition, one that is again shapeless and without structure, but one that continually evolves as the piece progresses. Some of the loops are just single notes, and others consist of simple 3 or 4 note snippets, with one loop being an arpeggiated chord. These loops overlap in different places upon each repeat, creating the illusion of new phrases and melodies, which are simply different combinations of the eight snippets. Looped for long periods, like the tracks 11:36 running time, allows for many variations and themes to emerge.
The best way to get into this style of composition is to start using tape. If you can’t commit to getting big reel-to-reel machines, you can always start with cheaper cassette players. Some great online resources for this cassette tape loops are Amulets, Hainbach, and Gemini Horror.
If you want to work with this style in your DAW, turn off the grid and start creating loops in seconds/milliseconds instead of bars/beats. In Ableton Live you can press ⌘ + 4 (Ctrl-4 on Windows) to turn off the grid, allowing you to create unquantized loops that work in a similar way to the tape technique. Create several clips of different lengths, set them all to loop simultaneously, and record the results.
To dig deeper into this style of tape loop ambient music, check out William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops. Basinski used the same concept as Eno, only the tapes he used rapidly deteriorated upon playback, causing the musical material to degrade over the recordings length.
Thanks for reading! In the download button below you can find the WAV files of all the loops created for use in this article to play with at your own leisure. Experiment and enjoy!