Ambient 1: Music For Airports

Brian Eno


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.