Guilty Non-Pleasures: Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports

Eno's ambient masterpiece isn't so much art as it is industrial design.

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Guilty Non-Pleasures: Brian Eno's <i>Ambient 1: Music for Airports</i>

Guilty Non-Pleasures is a new column featuring essays on albums and artists we’re supposed to love, but don’t. Written begrudgingly by the Paste Music Team. Read the first installment, on Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, here.

Some people say they can’t meditate. I can’t listen to Brian Eno. I do like ambient music, in general, and don’t get me wrong: Here Come the Warm Jets, his pop debut of 1973, has some jams on it. When I say I can’t get into Brian Eno, I mean I fail to appreciate Ambient 1: Music for Airports, which amounts to flunking Ambient 101. I mean, it’s titled Ambient 1. I have failed to appreciate it repeatedly and consistently. Every few years I put it on just to see, and almost immediately tune it out. Since it turned 40 this year, I tried again recently with the same results as always. After I tune it out, I get annoyed with myself. Then I get annoyed with him. I’m not sure if I’ve technically ever heard the other three tracks after “1/1,” or even much of the first one.

In the liner notes to Ambient 1, Eno coined the term “ambient music” and issued the maxim that his new style should be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” I find the album is a little too ignorable, in the sense that I find it impossible to pay attention to it. Additionally, I’m not sure if I can really say it’s interesting. For an art rocker/experimental musician to make utilitarian music that’s meant to be heard in the background of some dreary place like an airport is an interesting idea, even an appealingly perverse one. (Maybe it should be called Music for Sociopaths.) But he probably meant it should be interesting to listen to.

Most music we call ambient now is not made to be ignorable in quite the same way that Eno intended. In this sense, very few of his followers are his equal. They inevitably stray from the path, sully their work with feelings, succumb to humanly intelligible moods. Few have Eno’s titanic capacity for simplicity, for adherence to a concept, for boredom.

I recognize that Brian Eno is good and Music for Airports is a study in a type of perfection. I do want to like his stuff. I have bought into the Brian Eno brand/mythos. I love him as a figure. I even downloaded the Oblique Strategies deck as an app on my phone. But my attention span isn’t having it. I find myself asking, am I listening wrong? Is it supposed to fade so completely into the background, an odorless, colorless presence? Am I supposed to enjoy it subliminally?

I have to admit that being so completely pale and unobtrusive while still technically being music is a fantastic achievement, and it’s a strange experience to appreciate what something is without being able to say you liked it. It possible that I enjoy that experience somehow and that’s why I keeping coming back to reckon with it. Still, I don’t think that’s the same thing as enjoying an album.

My suspicion is that his music is just too restrained and sophisticated for me, but, like, on a neurological level. On the other hand, what I’m really saying, is that I find him incredibly boring, and Music for Airports especially so. In fact, it’s so dull, that it becomes irritating. After 20 minutes or so I will say to myself, “Didn’t I put some music on?” Then I’ll listen and hear some wonderfully attenuated, but sort of cloying, tone that is the only confirmation that, yes, I did.

The problem is that I like ambient music on a creature level. I like to crawl around in the alien sensual worlds constructed by the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never. For example, 1982’s Ambient 4: On Land is a little more like my idea of a good time, but still pretty tedious, even as background music. Eno makes music from an intellectual starting place and, while in theory I love intellectually challenging music, I hope to find something to like about an album on more than an academic level. Music for Airports isn’t so much art as it is industrial design, the type that wins awards even. That’s the stated idea, which is … cool.

Still, I would much rather listen to Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, even Matmos. They’re fun. Most of Eno’s followers are more pop than him, more beholden, whether they all realize it or would like to admit it, to the pleasure principle in music and, perhaps, to the ego. Most music we call ambient now is not made to be ignorable in quite the same way that Eno intended. In this sense, very few of his followers are his equal. They inevitably stray from the path, sully their work with feelings, succumb to humanly intelligible moods. Few have Eno’s titanic capacity for simplicity, for adherence to a concept (minimalism, randomness, true experimentation), for boredom. Neither do I, apparently.

Incidentally, I have listened to his less unobtrusive 2018 album Music for Installations and all I could think by the third track, “Five Light Paintings,” was “are you quite done yet?” In my defense, that was easily 30 minutes into the album.

As for Music for Airports, maybe I should try listening in an airport sometime, maybe in another few years.

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