The Independent APRIL 26, 1998 - by Phil Johnson


The idea of music that you don't actually have to listen to is a remarkably attractive one. But until Brian Eno's album Music For Airports was released twenty years ago, it was an idea largely restricted to the banalities of muzak. Eno's "ambient" music, originally released on the aptly named Discreet label, created a wonderfully reassuring nursery-world - a womb with a view, even - in which, inspired by the "furniture music" of Erik Satie, the banality of muzak was transformed into luxe, calme et voluptee, and the confines of the lift became the comfort of Matisse's easy chair.

What the music was about - inasmuch as music is ever about anything - seemed to be the shifting patterns of light in space, and the shifting focus of the subject who was perceiving them. This was the perfect low-attention-span music: the sound of a piano heavily laden with melancholy reverb echoing in an empty room, with synthesizers providing delicate colour-wash effects over the top.

Twenty years on, and Music For Airports has just been recorded again, by the New York new-music group Bang On A Can. The sounds originally produced - at least partially - by synthesizers are duplicated by what the group describes as "living people in real time". As no score existed, the music was painstakingly transcribed from the record and then rearranged for the six members of the group, plus additional musicians. On Friday afternoon, the egghead music press and guests were bussed out to the cool, calm and collected architectural space of Sir Norman Foster's Stansted Airport terminal to hear BOAC (the group are apparently unaware of their acronym's old upwardly-mobile associations) perform live in the departure lounge. "Cor, this is an ambient airport isn't it?" said Robert Wyatt, who arrived with Brian Eno, and who was credited as a co-writer of one of Music For Airports's four tracks. Eno also had time for a quick word with me: "Do you mind moving?" he said. "I'm afraid these seats are reserved." BOAC then performed the music from the album.

Eno, via a record-company spokesman, had encouraged us to walk about the airport, which was exactly the kind of place the piece was composed for in the first place. Most opted, however, to sit and watch the incredibly delicate movements of the group as they performed on piano, keyboard, cello, double bass, guitar and percussion. The quiet burble was occasionally overlaid by the ringing of mobile phones and the rumble of passing flight announcements, along with the ambient squeak of the odd luggage trolley. On the airport concourse, further away from the source of the music on the airport concourse - deep, you could say, in the very belly of the ambient beast - what remained of the sound was a lovely kind of aural phosphorescence, a glass harmonica hum that added immeasurably to the beauty of the building and the calm and order necessary to the airport routine of waiting around. All your senses seemed keener. You watched with wrapped attention as a blue-clad bevy of stewardesses glided across the floor in strangely synchronised movements, and listened intently as a Becky Furness-Cook was asked to please contact the airport information desk. Even the hubbub of everyday conversation seemed to be transformed because of the music's faint presence at the edge of consciousness; it was almost like being in church. Only a school party of children en route to Belfast seemed immune to the music's spell. But then, they seemed entirely oblivious to the mood of the airport itself. The last of the four pieces was so moving, it almost ceased to be ambient at all. The clarinet and mandolin textures summoned up a kind of Celtic twilight, pushed ever eastwards by the Indian-sounding glissandi of the cello and double bass. A photocall followed, with the musicians and Brian Eno standing under the silent tick of the digital clock. Then came the genuine surprise of an encore, Everything Merges With The Night from Eno's album Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy.

But the final verdict must come from the men who were filling the cash machines by the smoking area. "There's some music over there and it's actually very pleasant," said one. "I think they're using a synthesizer," said his colleague. "No," said the first man with an air of authority. "It's a xylophone, actually."