Studying: Brian Eno’s airport soundscapes

Good study music is a contradiction. It has got to be heard, but not listened to. Present without attracting any attention. Yet it isn’t to be ignored, or none of this would matter. This riddling genre asks for a special kind of music. Lyrics are out of the question. Like trying to count while someone shouts out numbers, the heard words and the written words can’t help but mingle, and you have the first line of the chorus written in the last line of the introduction. However, any instrumental peaks can also be distracting; a homogenous structure, without “distinct melodic or harmonic development[;] no highs or lows” will maintain a steady focus. These are the words of Brian Eno, describing Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Although any album in the genre might fit our requirements, this one holds a special position, being the first self-proclaimed album of ambient music.

This is the album I unfailingly turn to when in need of some help concentrating, or ordering my thoughts. The amazing thing about this album is its creation of space. When a deadline is looming and the words aren’t forming, the room can start to shrink. But with the gentle swell of the synthesizer and the definitive low notes of the piano, the walls recede again, giving your thoughts the liberty to form. Airports evoke wide airy glass buildings, full of light. The people wander around a little aimlessly, poking at the duty free. People have time in airports (if you’ve got there in time), idly waiting for their flights. From the first note of the plinky-plonky 1/1, I too have time. Each line of inquiry is allowed to be brought to its conclusion, and sentences are formed with grace. The brightness of these big spaces is what Lester Bangs, a critic at the time of release, called the album’s “crystalline, sun-light-through window pane quality that makes it somewhat mesmerising even as you half-listen to it”. The main danger of this album is its ability to induce a daydream state. So relaxing is it that the work can become a pastime.

This music is totally unintrusive. As you don’t listen carefully, the notes sound unschematic, giving it a raindrops-on-the-roof infrequency to accompany Bangs’ sunlight. Perhaps it is this impression of lack of melody that allows you to so effectively ignore it, as your ear doesn’t have a tune to latch onto. However, as the songs stretch on for 10+ minutes slow patterns emerge, more like remembrance than anything, and familiarity and comfort are introduced. I’m sure this is not particular to this album, but I have listened to it so often in conjunction with the same activity that I now associate the two so closely. It is like stepping into a study. A study filled with light.




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