Ambient 1: Music For Airports

Brian Eno
(1978)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Spirit of Eden

Talk Talk (1988)

imageI listened to this album a lot throughout the summer of 1990My cassette version had been copied, back-to-back with The Colour of Spring, from a couple of LPs belonging to the singer of a band I was in, who cited them as an influence. Love at first listen, I don’t think it had anything like the effect on him as it did on me.

I took the cassette with me on a month-long adventure, criss-crossing the continent on an InterRail pass. Sleeping in trains, in stations, in parks, the odd youth hostel. Getting on overnight trains to anywhere. I spent most of my time in Germany, or West Germany as it was still called. The GDR. I had several friends from my exchange year dotted about the country – in the north near Dusseldorf, another near Munich, another near Stuttgart – all of whom I planned to visit. My main objective was to see The Wall in Berlin – still, unbelievably, not part of the West; you had to get on a bus in Hanover to take you there.

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As much as I loved The Wall, and as momentous as that concert was, it long ago disappeared from my shelves. My memories of that summer are bound up with Talk Talk. I tended to listen to it late at night, very early in the morning. Whenever I hear Spirit of Eden I’m instantly transported to dawn sidings in Aachen. Grinding points. Reverse shunting. Midnight layovers. Coaches coupled and uncoupled. Sweaty compartments full of boozy Yugoslavians. Passport control. Your papers, please.

I was still listening to it a lot towards the end of the summer when a schoolpal, P-, suggested we do mushrooms. They were coming into season, his folks were away. He collected hundreds of them (in an old crisp bag) from the moist grass of a nearby park, and infused them in hot water and a sachet of mushroom flavoured Cup-a-Soup in his parents’ kitchen. There were three of us: myself, P- and his girlfriend at the time, L-. A fourth invitee, another schoolpal, had declined at the last minute.

It was quite late by the time I got there – a Friday night, probably around ten. I’d been rehearsing with my wind band in Glasgow. I had my bass clarinet, my lapelless suit jacket, and my walkman. Dressed to the 90s.

We drank the (somewhat less than magical tasting) soup and decided to go out for a wander. We walked to the swingpark along the road where things started to get interesting. Each of us retreated into our own worlds. Snowflakes – massive fucking snowflakes, of all colours – started appearing in the cloudless sky. Red berries popped out glowing from the trees. The grass had become a silent, stirring sea. If it hadn’t been so wondrous, so beautiful, it would have been terrifying.

We went back to the house, conscious we were drawing attention to ourselves. It was weird being indoors again, a little bit too real. P-‘s trip started to go bad. He was turning in on himself and L- started trying to bring him round. I was confused about what was happening. It seemed to come on suddenly, but it also appeared to be a pattern, something they had been through together before.

I felt clumsy and helpless, out of my depth. I knew about “bad trips”, had been reading psychedelic literature, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey et al. But I had no idea what demons P- was battling with, what the psychoactive ingredients in the mushrooms had unleashed that night, and which he continued to battle with for the rest of his life. There was something dark at work here. There was also something between him and L-, something intense and difficult that I had nothing useful to offer. I left and hoped they’d be ok.

That night was distinctly in two halves. First half with them, drinking mushroom soup and wandering the parklands, ending on the stairs in P-‘s house with L- soothing him, feeding him orange juice to bring him down. The second half was my journey home across town towards the dawn, bass clarinet in hand. Spirit of Eden on my walkman.

If the whole night was like being let in on a great secret, Spirit of Eden was the perfect accompaniment. It too has secrets to reveal, hidden dimensions, an underlying magical order. I walked home filled with wonder and amazement. I sat on a swing and played my clarinet for the longest time, in thrall to the sound. The sleeping world around me was properly alive in a very real way, faces in the undergrowth, patterns in the sky, beauty in stillness. It moved me profoundly and would change me forever.

I felt no need to repeat the hallucinogenic experience – once you know, you just know – but I have returned to Spirit of Eden often. Hearing it back again for the first time in several years, that very first note sounds like a nod to Miles Davis – a muted trumpet, his signature sound. But what else is going on? Those strings, that organ – could be something from Arvo Part, John Tavener – a kind of spiritual minimalism. There’s something of Erik Satie in the piano work. Something John Cage-y about the whole thing, especially where traditional instruments cede to silence, to the sounds behind the silence, the stillness between movements – metallic grinding, mechanical murmuring, stirrings in the dawn, dew dropping. Is that a railway axle turning? Are those creatures in the undergrowth?

P- took his own life last year. We didn’t really see each other much after that night. I went to the funeral, met other old schoolpals. We didn’t talk about P-, much: “He had his troubles”. Otherwise, we chatted kids, careers, catch-up stuff mostly forgotten by the time we all got back to our cars.

I frequently cross paths with L-. I played in her band for a time, even went to her wedding party. But I see her and feel the same awkwardness I had as a 19 year old in EK. Maybe she does too. But we have something unsaid between us, something unsayable, that exists because of EK, because of P-, because of that night.

Something I’ve only asked myself since starting to write this – and it’s been hard writing this. What is the spirit of Eden? The music is its own answer to that, I guess. But we all have our notions of what Eden might be like, where we might find it, and what we might find there.

I remember P- with great affection, as someone who allowed me to find the spirit of Eden right there in front of my eyes, under my feet, and between my ears.

Heaven bless you in your calm, my gentle friend.
Heaven bless you.