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, it was the first album to be explicitly labelled as ‘ambient music’. Music for Airports was a continuation of Brian Eno’s experimentation with the tape machine as a compositional tool, a process he’d begun three years prior with 1975’s Discreet Music. It also saw Eno’s further exploration of generative, systems-created music, whereby Eno would focus on creating a system that would generate ambient music, something he continues to explore in the modern age with his range of iOS apps.
In this article, I’ll discuss how Music for Airports was created, and I’ll deconstruct and recreate the tracks 2/1 and 1/2. Hopefully, the article will demystify some of Brian Eno’s techniques, and give you some ideas about how to adopt some of his ambient music techniques yourself.
Brian Eno & Ambient Music
Brian Eno’s experiments with tape loops go as far back as 1973’s (No Pussyfooting), a collaborative album with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. For the recording of (No Pussyfooting), Eno employed an early experiment in sound-on-sound tape looping, where he would run Robert Fripps’ guitar into two tape machines, that were then fed back into each other.
Fripp’s guitar melodies were recorded and then bounced back and forth between the two tape machines, creating longs, fading delays that would build up to create a dense soundscape. The length of the delay was controlled by the physical distance between the two machines.
Brian Eno’s tape experimentations continued with Discreet Music in 1975. The album’s 30-minute long title track was composed by sequencing his EMS Synthi AKS synth and recording it into a similar dual tape machine system, with the 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 subtly change the sounds in real-time.
Discreet Music uses two separate loops, one of 63 seconds duration and another of 68 seconds duration. Brian Eno found that using two loops of different lengths created a phasing effect where every repeat would produce different variations as the two loops interlocked in different ways. I wrote a separate article going more in-depth on the recording of Discreet Music, available here.
Recording Music for Airports
Music for Airports was released in 1978, though Brian Eno started working on it while working on David Bowie’s Low, in 1976. Part of it was recorded at the recording studio of Conny Plank, a legendary Krautrock producer, where he started by recording single notes sung by a trio of female singers, which he would later loop via tape machines. At a 1996 talk, Brian Eno described the recording of Music for Airports:
Music for Airports, at least one of the pieces on there, is structurally very, very simple. There are sung notes, sung by three women and my self. 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.
Brian Eno had previously recorded Before and After Science and Cluster & Eno at Conny Plank’s studio, and would go on to record Devo’s Q. Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! there too.
To compose the music of Music for Airports, Brian Eno’s experiments focused on using small recordings of music – sustained notes or 3-4 note phrases – and looping them at different rates, determined by the length of tape they are recorded on. The difference in tape lengths between loops would cause them to intersect in interesting ways; on each repeat, new phrases and variations on existing themes would emerge. 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 Brian Eno himself. Not a trained musician, and unable to read or write sheet music, Brian 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.
Brian Eno also designed the cover art for Music for Airports, as well the rest of the ambient series: Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror with Harold Budd, Ambient 3: Day of Radiance with Laraaji and Ambient 4: On Land, each of which have map-like covers.
The first track on Music for Airports is 1/1, which features a serene sounding piano melody interspersed with ethereal textures. 1/1 has been used in the films 9½ Weeks and The Lovely Bones.
The piano in 1/1 was performed by Robert Wyatt, a prog rock musician who started as the drummer in Soft Machine before pursuing a solo career. The piano recording has been run through an echo unit, looped and then slowed down, a process that Eno would have done by manually joining two ends of a reel of tape, and then playing it back on a reel-to-reel machine at half speed. Slowing down a tape machine causes the pitch of the musical content to drop, with half-speed causing a drop of an octave.
The piano loop in 1/1 features interplay between a traditional piano and a Rhodes electric piano. Here is the loop, and then the isolated piano and rhodes parts, it may have sounded at the original speed, before being reverb’d and slowed:
- 1/1 Original Speed 00:00
- 1/1 Piano 00:00
- 1/1 Rhodes 00:00
Once slowed down, the texture of the instruments change, becoming bassy and less defined. The echo effect gets smeared and stretched, creating an unreal ambience that is emblematic of the sound of Music for Airports. And this was some 45 years before the popularity of reverb and slowed versions on YouTube were a thing.
- 1/1 Slowed 00:00
- 1/1 Piano Slowed 00:00
- 1/1 Rhodes Slowed 00:00
The performance is mostly in the key of D major, with the Rhodes piano holding down D bass notes throughout. However, the final Rhodes phrase contains a C natural note, leading the music into modal D mixolydian territory.
Mixolydian is a mode, or scale, that contains the same notes as the major scale with one difference: it has a minor 7th instead of a major 7th. The Mixolydian mode has a more ambiguous sound than major, as it features a major 3rd and a minor 7th. The sound is still major, but with a less ‘sweet’ sound than in D major. The use of the Mixolydian mode is another facet that gives 1/1 it’s rested, relaxing sound; it sounds emotionally ambiguous.
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 Brian 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 fluctuate throughout the piece, likely due to the way they were looped (the tapes were wrapped around chair legs). Some things to note here are:
- 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 D♭ loop has the longest length by a significant margin, and D♭ 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 Brian Eno, or the composition may have just come out this way through experimentation.
For the second track on Music for Airports, 1/2, Brian 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.
Click on the play icons below to start each individual loop. The dice button at the bottom randomises the loop times and the reset button reverts the loop times back to the original album times.
One way to get into this Music for Airports 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 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 loops described in this article. 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. William Basinski used a similar concept to Brian Eno, only the tapes he used rapidly deteriorated upon playback, causing the musical material to degrade over the length of the recording.
Thanks for reading! In the download button below you can find the WAV files of all the Music for Airports loops recreated for use in this article to play with at your own leisure. Experiment and enjoy!
Below is a list of interviews with Brian Eno as well as external resources for generative music:
- Music for Airports Liner Notes
- Eric Tamm: Brian Eno His Music And The Vertical Color Of Sound
- Brian Eno San Francisco 1986 talk
- Tero Parviainen: How Generative Music Works