Ambient 1: Music For Airports

Brian Eno
(1978)

music-for-airports1/1

First airport. Glasgow to Tenerife. 1976. It was our first proper holiday abroad as a family after my Nana won a sum of money in a competition she entered in my mother’s name. She was always doing that. Always winning competitions, often in someone else’s name. Always jetting off somewhere on a prizewinner’s package with her sister, my great-aunt Maxie. On my bookshelf there’s a photo that made the Evening Times of us being presented with the cheque. £1500 was a lot of money in 1976.

I don’t remember the airport but I do remember the clouds out the window. Nana and Maxie. Puerto de la Cruz. Hotel Majec. El Teide. Bus trips and buffets. 7Up and Kodachrome. Cine film memories.

I am having insomnia tonight. I managed 30 minutes sleep after an early night, then – boom! Wide awake and a head full of trouble. I already wasted the best part of an hour trying to still my thoughts back into unconsciousness, but I’ve given up. I used to fall asleep within seconds of closing my eyes. Now, not. This is partly the reason why I never have early nights. I don’t trust myself to stay asleep for long enough if I haven’t wrung out every last drop of energy from brain and body, till my eyes are crabbed and creased, till I’ve given myself the red-eye.

So here I am. Counting airports.

The Tenerife holiday figured large in family lore. We watched the cine films my dad took over and over, we retold our stories – my brother filling his buggy with the streamers he’d collected from the carnival, me pushing my Nana up the hill to make her go faster, the wobbly camel ride, the bus trip through the clouds to the top of the Teide. These stories lasted us for many years. After that, our holidays were a little less colourful, a little less exotic, but no less memorable or enjoyable.

Nana and Maxie were great playmates for my brother and I as children. They were always full of laughter and love and generosity. We went through a spell of renting a large caravan by the sea on the Salway coast, always around Easter time, at a place called Auchinlarie. It too entered family lore for years to come. The steep descent to the shingle beach. The Happy Valley amusements. Games of cards. Car trips. Easter eggs. Donkey rides. Clambering over rocks. Family albums filled with Instamatic moments.

The last time I saw my Nana was at an airport – Glasgow again – ten years later and leaving for a year in El Paso. She confided in my mother as I boarded that she thought this would be the last time she would see me. And she was right. I left in August; she died the following January. A long-term sufferer of angina – which I couldn’t have known as I was shoving her, breathless, up that hill in Puerto de la Cruz all those years before – she didn’t die of the heart attack she suffered after Christmas, but of the pneumonia that took hold in the new year.

1/2

I love the sense of life-changing possibility you can find in an airport. Even still, with the increasingly ludicrous demands placed on travellers – to remove shoes, belts, to empty pockets, to hand over liquids, to stand and be frisked, to have your retina photographed, the corporate state sponsored curtailment of movement and the usual freedoms – you still feel like you’ve put yourself positively in the way of fate that a trip in the car never does.

The closest I felt to being completely at ease in an airport was at the departure lounge in Glasgow (again) late one evening bound for Turkey to start a new job – new career, even – as an English teacher. I had been interviewed by phone three days before and was invited to come over as soon as I could. The next available flight that would take me the bulk of the way to Ankara (without having to go to London first) was for Dalaman, an airport that services the resort towns on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast – I was boarding a charter full of holiday makers. I felt like a spy in their midst.

If it was as step into the unknown, it was a familiar one. I was becoming adept at making that kind of step. I felt as if a whole new world was opening up to me, or rather, that I was returning to the world that had already opened up to me in the past year from my travels in Israel and Egypt. I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing with my life. I felt entirely myself, wonderfully complete.

2/1

I used to paint to this music, back when I painted. I had read a piece about Eno in a magazine and felt compelled to buy this album in particular as representative of his ambient work. It’s probably one of the oldest objects on my shelves. I picked it tonight I guess because I needed quiet music, but also because I’ve been listening a lot recently to Eno’s collaboration with David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Which puts into words that feeling I’m trying to get at here, where “nothing has changed but nothing’s the same”.

I wonder if it’s possible to ever regain that feeling of at-one-ness I felt that night waiting to fly to Turkey, that feeling of a life suddenly spilling over with endless potential. I sometimes call them “knee moments”, the point where you’re about to spring into the unknown and everything is flex and fluidity – but I wonder if the metaphor I’m looking for is less corporeal. Where we suspend the normal rules and mores and habits and customs and patterns of behaviour that bind our sense of identity, where we become more receptive to other ways of being – this is the gift that travel gives us. Maybe I should call them airport moments.

ALC AMS ARN ATH BCN BIO BRS BVA CAI CDG DFW DLM DUB EDI ELP EXT GLA GRO IST JFK LGW LHR LIN LTN MAN MLA PIK RYG SOU SSH STN TFN TFS TLV WAW YUL YVR YYZ

Listening again, I realise that what I love about this music, what I’ve always loved, and what I was looking for when I first listened, is its lack of reaching for an end. It’s like waves on a beach set to music. Not suggestive of airports so much as clouds forming, or of breathing.

2/2

Around the time of finding out about Eno and ambient music and all that, I was very into Zen and the writings of John Cage, particularly the stuff about all sound being potential music – that all you have to do is frame sound as music, a slight shift in perception. I was travelling with a friend to the USA. He was very deep in a “knee moment”, a new career, a new life beckoned; I was just going on holiday. We had travelled overnight to London from East Kilbride by bus so both of us were tired, a little bit wired. As we loitered around Heathrow’s vast spaces, sprawled out across the soft banks of semi-reclined seats in the waiting areas, I closed my eyes and tried to frame the sound, to find the music in the ambient noise of the departure lounge. I listened deeply for the faraway sounds of the distant ends of the terminal building, past the attention-grabbing pings and pongs of tannoy announcements, the beeps and trills of baggage carts and other devices, tried to hear the ebb and flow of voices like surf on shingle, tried to layer all the audible sounds, to look for connecting strands, sequences, fluctuations in dynamic – then suddenly I stopped trying. I had succeeded and learned what Eno probably knew all along, what Cage had always known, which is that airports make their own music.

Rendezvous Houston

Jean Michel Jarre
(1987)

Jarre Houston Jarre was on the radio one morning, promoting his new record and tour. I liked the sound of him and I felt moved to dig this out. It’s sitting in the corner of the CD shelf that sees least light, gathers most dust. When I play it, instantly I’m back in the summer of 1988, fresh from my year in El Paso, drawl intact, an honorary Texan.

But the CD and the intervening decades pose one question the interviewer didn’t ask: What on earth, exactly, is Jean Michel Jarre for?

In the 70s and into the 80s, it was for for filling unlikely public spaces with massive sound and light shows for one-off gigs that played to millions. How he got into that racket was never obvious to me but it seemed to point the way for one-off gigs in unlikely places by lots of other big-name bands looking for a quirky backdrop to shoot the video for their live ‘best of’ record.

The Rendezvous Houston concert film played on TV one night and I fell in love completely with the whole mythology of the event – much of it captured in the various voxpops and bulletins that are bundled in with the concert footage – as well as the sheer scale of it. I’d never seen anything like it. I don’t think anyone really had.

The show is a tribute to the space age, in many ways, when we were still innocently impressed by things like rockets and lasers – god knows the gig had enough of them, including that big Star Wars-y laser harp. Later, movingly, there’s a song dedicated to the memory of the astronauts lost in the Challenger disaster earlier that same year, and the piece that was written to be played on board the shuttle in orbit by Jarre’s friend Ron Macnair is here played with elegance and passionate intensity by Houston saxophonist Kirk Whalum.

I wanted to have been there. I’d been a massive Jarre nerd all through high school. I was a fan of all that stuff. Mike Oldfield. Vangelis. Tomita. The Penguin Cafe Orchestra. If you asked me what music I was into then, I’d have told you “instrumental music”. I remember toting my library copy of Concerts in China round all my classes one day in second year, to a mixture of curiosity from fellow nerds and the usual slights from the usual snides, because I needed to take it back after school to renew the loan. I’m pretty sure it was that album that got me into his music generally.

If Britain in the 70s was dressed in beige and smelled like coal and fag smoke, it probably sounded like analogue synth. Everything on telly was scored by BBC Radiophonic Workshop which meant that everything from children’s maths programmes to family quiz shows to gritty suburban dramas sounded like a scary Doctor Who horrorscape. Jarre, on the contrary, managed to make music in the 70s that sounded like a future where everyone was nice to you. And in 1987, and probably later, it still sounded like the future. A nice future with nice tunes and nice men in nice suits.

I loved Oxygène, in fact, I still have the LP – which might have belonged to my brother. We both listened to it a lot when we were kids. Hearing it again, it has fared better with time than the execrable Live in Houston CD with its one-finger melodies and one-dimensional pomp. Oxygène‘s Moog-y atmospherics are 3D sound, they seem to come out into the room at you, probing the space around you. There’s a comfort to his blend of easy melody and ambient electronics. Nothing’s being challenged here. It’s music for a utopia, not a dystopia. Music you can paper your dreams of tomorrow with. Music that maybe takes you on a bit of an adventure.

Listening back to the Houston album, I’m rapidly bored. I try to watch the concert footage on youtube but it’s really only the sax solo that compels me to listen – interestingly, it’s the one acoustic instrument in the whole gig. The bombast and hype and 1.3million-people-shut-the-freeway-longest-tailback-in-history schtick wears very thin very quickly and is clearly of its moment. These days, stats like that just make you think of climate change and the dreadful inconvenience of it all.

Nonetheless, undeterred and still inspired by the radio interview I go digging and I’m curious to see that, far from playing in whatever unlikely places there are left for him to play in, Jarre has downsized considerably and is playing a tour of regular venues, including one they built in my hometown a few years ago, two miles away from where I’m writing this. I contemplate going, but I ask myself who I would most want to see Jean Michel Jarre with – and it’s obviously my brother. Who I seldom see. Because he lives in Paris. Which is the last gig on the tour.

I’m still not really sure what Jean Michel Jarre is for. Lots of people make electronic music that’s more interesting to listen to. Some do ambient electronics you never tire of. A few imagine possible futures you want to live in. Jarre’s latest couple of CDs sound like a desperate attempt by an aging star to get radio play by partnering up with a few hip hitsters, a bit like Sinatra once did with Duets.

But if all Jarre does is give me a reason to go hang out with my brother and talk about our own forgotten futures as we go to our first gig together for over 20 years then that’s reason enough for me: Rendezvous Paris.