August 6, 2020
The Music Beneath Music for Airports
The hidden sonic curriculum of a modern classic
Be prepared to turn the volume up loud, very loud, because the sound is quiet, very quiet. The sound is surface noise from a vinyl record, and nothing else beyond that. Specifically, it is the surface noise — in the recording artist’s words, the “isolated crackle and surface noise” — of one of the classics in ambient music: the first track, “1/1,” off Brian Eno’s 1978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports (“the original vinyl release,” we’re told).
What this is is the ambient beneath the ambient, the hidden sonic curriculum of a modern classic, all almost 17 minutes of it. It’s a piece titled “Vestigial Ambient 1” by the musician Ben Ponton. Listening to the sounds of the album provides not even a just-hovering-above-subaural hint of the source. There are simply clicks, tiny little pops, bits of aural dust, the sonic signature of vinyl, as the needle makes its circular course.
Filling the near void are thoughts about ambient music, its origins in the mid-1970s, and what “silence” meant then, both literally and metaphorically, versus what it does now, more than four full decades hence. I’ve long been of the mind that the arrival of the CD contributed greatly to the rise of ambient music, because the technology provided ready access to a silence that other formats, such as tape and vinyl, couldn’t dependably provide. Eno noted this himself, from a different angle, opting to put Thursday Afternoon out only on CD, so as not to interrupt its 61-minute runtime.
There is ambient music today that is sonically of a piece with the detritus that Ponton has unearthed. Music by Steve Roden and Alva Noto, among others, has aspired to this atmospheric, pointillist mix of rhythmic precision and ambiguity, generally under the label of “microsound” or “lowercase” music. It’s helpful to remember, however, that when ambient was young, these sounds Ponton has shared were the backdrop. Ambient music eventually brought these sounds to the foreground, as subsequent generations of music explored the artistic potential, but first these sounds had to be relegated to the background.
Marc’s original post on Disquiet: The Music Beneath Music for Airports
The Disquiet blog: https://disquiet.com/
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Sous les pavés, la plage!: origin
Photo: Newcastle International Airport, 2 December 2010 (© Ben Ponton)