Bang On A Can All-Stars:
Music For Airports

by Louise Gray

From the June 1998 issue of The Wire - Adventures In Modern Music, kindly supplied and typed by Robert Phan

UK: Stansted Airport

"Ambient Music," proclaimed Brian Eno, "must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." The statement comes from his sleevenotes for Music For Airports, the 1978 album that effectively launched Ambient (even if it took another ten years to really take off). And so it was that a coachload of journalists were bussed through London, past the toxic waste ground from which the Millennium Dome stretches skywards, and into the luminous glass cube of Stansted Airport to listen, as deliberately as possible, to the UK's first live airport performance of music based on one of the most misunderstood record of the past 20 years. Eno, present alongside Robert Wyatt and Rhett Davies, his co-composers of the first of Airports' four tracks, may have sensed as much. As Bang On A Can All-Stars, the New Music troupe that grew out of New York's Bang On A Can festival created by David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, settled into position, he urged people to move around during the performance. But if Eno put his feet where his mouth was and went walkabout, only a few followed his lead.

Most significantly, it was certainly the hypnotic power of the music which kept us in our seats, which was simultaneously Eno's/not Eno's. The three BOAC composers, joined by the ensemble's clarinettist, Evan Ziporyn, had transcribed Eno's original music, effectively converting an electronic composition into an orchestral one. In the process, they highlighted a real space for Eno's pendulant harmonics. Percussion parts, mostly performed on a glockenspiel sounding like a glass harmonica, highlighted the timeless, modal quality of the pieces. Different aspects of each composer shone through their transcriptions. As someone who delights in unusual sound sources, Lang added analogue tape noise to his chosen piece, "1/2". For his take on "2/2", Ziporyn introduced solo woodwind that threatened, at times, to break into a klezmer tune. Gordon's version of "1/1" and Wolfe's "2/1" both widened Eno's original space dramatically. Indeed, it sounded like they'd measured the airport especially for its acoustics. Arguably, Lang et al had engaged in a homage, both playful and perverse, which in its execution had negated the premise of Ambient Music. Others might argue that BOAC had created something breathtakingly lovely that underlined the emotional capacities of Eno's electronic original. Eno himself spoke afterwards of how Airports had grown into a full being as a result of BOAC's intervention. A magnanimous remark, perhaps.

As a large scale sound installation with orchestra, or a concert where listeners were encouraged to wander, either literally or mentally, it was an odd event by any reckoning. Hidden deep in the hollow of the Essex countryside, Sir Norman Foster's airport building seemed to be in a place of its own: another green world? The audience was joined by passengers, hurrying to and from their flights; mobile phones trilled discreetly; airport announcements informed us that someone was late for an Oslo flight. Outsiders were curious - the spectacle of them watching us watching BOAC was mildly disorientating - but it was striking how little fuss or diversion the event caused. Maybe international air passengers are regularly greeted with musical ensembles of various hues. As it was, we were wondering what to do next, inured as we were (punk experiences not withstanding) to the sit-still-and-pay-attention procedure of concert etiquette. In the end, I wandered off to peruse the 'Ambient' section of Stansted's record shop.

For his part Eno professed his disinterest in what passes for Ambient in clubland. Ambient music, he stressed, was something that became part of your environment, without being debased in the process. The self-effacing nature of Ambient music means that it has no insistence beyond an environmental function. Yet in the ears and imagination of the listener, music is always rewritten and personalised. BOAC finished with a surprise transcription of "Everything Merges With The Night", from Another Green World. Eno looked faintly flushed yet rather pleased - even when sections of the audience sang along quietly, under their breaths.

© Louise Gray