Ambience

By Robb Todd

There’s no better microcosm of America than an airport.

Cologne-Bonn Airport, date unknown.

Cologne-Bonn Airport, date unknown.

“At this time… we are only pre-boarding our first class passengers, business class passengers, small business class passengers, business school grads, Platinum Club members, Diamond Deluxe members, Gold Medallion members, Captain’s Club members, Mile High Club members, and all other premium class passengers and club members that capitalize the names of their memberships, members of the armed forces — excluding the Coast Guard but including the National Guard — passengers needing special assistance, small children needing special medication, insomniac babies, billy goats, donkeys, flightless birds of any kind and any barky mongrels that fit securely into a purse, Internet moguls, oil barons, royal barons, all royalty, heirs and heiresses, anyone wearing leopard print sweatpants and fake designer sunglasses, anyone wearing a black turtleneck and wire rim glasses, as well as any of the other fashionable and unfashionable elite class who will have their choice of in-flight meals, which include lobster rolls, lobster salad, lobster bisque, lobster thermidor, or, for members of the eco-elite, a copy of the book Consider the Lobster, while they recline in leather seats and enjoy free wine, free Wi-Fi, free high-fives, low carbon footprints, hot-towel service, and deep-tissue massage, and, if you are not boarding the plane yet, please wait a little while longer — even though you already endured a snaking line of milksops who do not know how the tray conveyor belt works, and the humiliation of a cancerous full-body scan — while we fill the plane from the front to the back instead of the back to the front so you have to squeeze your way with your bags past people who never have to wait for anything, and if you are lucky enough not to get bumped from this overbooked flight, or forcibly removed, we will only allow you to sleep in steerage for a moment before we wake you up with a sharp slam to the knee from a beverage cart and spill coffee on your lap and sell you a bag of crushed potato chips at a generous markup while blocking the aisle to the bathroom for half an hour. Thank you for your patience. We will now begin regular boarding for women who snort when they laugh and men who won’t stop snoring and anyone who can’t fit her or his bag in the overhead compartment but won’t stop trying. We know you have your choice of airlines and, as always, we appreciate your business. Thank you for flying with us.”

There’s no better album to listen to in an airport than this one. 

Cover art for Brian Eno’s   Ambient 1: Music for Airports

Cover art for Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports

Brian Eno released “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” on cassette and vinyl a little more than four decades ago after spending too much time waiting at the Cologne-Bonn airport in Germany. For the four-track album, he coined the term “ambient music” and, with that, he established the genre — even though this wasn't the first time the prolific artist had released this type of music.  

Eno said he designed the album to prepare people for death. 

“I wasn’t joking about that,” Eno told Lester Bangs, a music critic, in 1979. “I meant that one of the things music can do is change your sense of time so you don’t really mind if things slip away or alter in some way. It’s about getting rid of people’s nervousness.” 

Bangs wrote that listening to “Music for Airports” provoked a waking dream in which he recalled a conversation he'd had with Charles Mingus — except that he had never that conversation with the jazz genius. 

“I had no memory of falling asleep and had in fact passed over into the dream state as if it were an unrippled extension of conscious reality,” Bangs wrote. “So I just lay there for a while, watching myself talk to Mingus while one-handed keyboard bobbins pinged placidly in the background. Suddenly I was jolted out of all of it by the ringing phone.”

The phone is ringing right now. 

Answer it. 

On the other end is the opening scene to every movie, novel, short story, essay, and poem that is horrible because it starts with a ringing phone. It is worse than starting with the weather. It is so horrible that you adore it forever but never reveal the secret. 

In the liner notes for “Music for Airports,” Eno reveals the album’s secret: the purpose of this music, beyond memento mori, is “to induce calm and a space to think” and to “accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

Robb Todd is a journalist and author in New York City. He has lived all over the country and was lucky enough to live in Hawaii twice. He also lived in Texas twice. And North Carolina twice. Actually, this is his second stop in New York City, too. He doesn’t do things right the first time.