How Brian Eno Created Ambient 1: Music for Airports

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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.

frippertronics
Frippertronics Dual Tape 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.

Discreet Music Tape Diagram
Diagram from the ‘Discreet Music’ liner notes

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.

brian eno conny plank
Brian Eno, Dieter Moebius, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Conny Plank in Plank's studio, 1977 by Christa Fast

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.

 

Graphic Score

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 Music for Airports

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.

ambient music maps

Deconstructing 2/1

Eno Graphic Score 2 1

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.

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.

Choir 1
High A♭, 17.8 second loop
Choir 2
C, 20.1 second loop
Choir 3
D♭, 31.8 second loop
Choir 4
High F, 19.6 second loop
Choir 5
E♭, 16.2 second loop
Choir 6
Low A♭, 21.3 second loop
Choir 7
Low F, 24.7 second loop


Deconstructing 1/2

Eno Graphic Score 1 2

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.

Piano 1
17.1 second loop
Piano 3
23.2 second loop
Piano 5
29.5 second loop
Piano 7
31.1 second loop
Piano 2
20.8 second loop
Piano 4
28 second loop
Piano 6
30 second loop
Piano 8
38 second loop

Ambient Approach

  • 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!

Further Reading

Below is a list of interviews with Brian Eno as well as external resources for generative music:

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Comments on How Brian Eno Created Ambient 1: Music for Airports

52 thoughts on “How Brian Eno Created <em>Ambient 1: Music for Airports</em>”

  1. Hello,

    It’s nice to hear this separated out, so thanks for the work you put into this and especially the audio setup.
    The piece “1/2” is the first piece on the second side of the LP and so it is actually the third piece on the album.
    I was going to mention that the arpeggiated chord wouldn’t sound for me in the original or the random mode, but it now does. Don’t know why that happened earlier.
    Anyway, good stuff and I enjoy your explorations. Keep it up!

    Rod

  2. Pierluigi Castellano

    I likes this reflection but don’t forget Terry Riley’ role thinking repetition: the Revox that used Eno & Fripp was certainly Riley idea!

    1. You might even be able to get through the other Ambient series albums if you get hit with the delays at the moment

  3. Using b as a flat sign in this day and age is an abomination. ♭ and ♯ exist; use them, please.

    Otherwise, an excellent presentation!

  4. Huh, I’ve been kicking around a desire to convince someone to make a perpetual music for airports machine and here I find it’s been done for 3 years already. Very grateful that you made this, and I will be adding it to my “adhd-cancelation toolkit” along with HatNote and Rain.Today

  5. electricmusicbox

    I have listened this album over and over since I first heard it in the 90s. This deconstruction is very nice and great and clear explanation what’s happening in the song. Thanks you for this.

  6. Very inspiring article about very inspiring music and techniques. I shall now go and dabble with this in my VCV Rack, where the possibilities for this kind of music are endless.

    1. Pierluigi Castellano

      I likes this reflection but don’t forget Terry Riley’ role thinking repetition: the Revox that used Eno & Fripp was certainly Riley idea!

  7. Pingback: Looping in FL Studio | Lars Lentz Audio™

  8. This gives me a newfound appreciation for Eno. Also, does the 1/2 loop ever end? I feel like it’s been playing for 10 minutes now… ;0

  9. Michael Peters

    Great article and wonderful to have the loop players to experiment!! Eno continued to use this generative approach I think, his gallery installations during the 1990s, for example, used several minidisc players with different loop lengths, and even his more recent ambient albums (such as Reflection) are still "systems music" based. It would be interesting to analyze in what ways his approach evolved over the years

  10. This is great, and got me to become a supporter on Patreon! Thanks so much for putting this together. Like your previous commenter, some of this I knew, but not set out so clearly like this in a way that could be easily replicated, So I was messing around with this and tried putting the loops you provided onto different tracks of an Octatrack MkI, setting them to loop and not timestretch, triggered each sample, and I think it worked! Is that really all there is to it? Samples of varying lengths, looping continuously mixed together? Still not entirely sure about the "echo unit" part of Eno’s diagram. Is that just to say the original piano samples had a delay effect applied before they were looped? Or was the echo unit set up so that it re-effected the loop every time it looped, with the echo unit being "played" by Eno, manipulating settings slightly over time?

    1. Yes, as long as your Octatrack isn’t quantising anything, that’s all there is too it! I only have the Digitone, which doesn’t do sampling, but it seems the Elektron sequencers are really good for this kind of music. I think the echo unit in the Discreet Music diagram is more of a reverb effect, to create that big, spacious sound.

      1. This should all work the same on the Digitakt too. You can also do phase looping by taking the same sample, doubling it up, and then shortening one of the samples. This will move you into more of the Steve Reich types of loops.

  11. For me, Eno is one of the most important producer alive. You explained very well how he was working, some things I knew, others were completely new to me. Its great that you dive into the ambient pool. There is so much to discover. What I love about Enos albums from that time is the special sound they have, which probably owns a lot to the tape machines which where involved. Thanks alot, sir.

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