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Turning Listening Inside Out: Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports

Author(s): John Lysaker


Source: The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 31, No. 1 (2017), pp. 155-176
Published by: Penn State University Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/jspecphil.31.1.0155
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Turning Listening Inside Out:
Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports

John Lysaker
emory university

abstract: Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports is a seminal album in the history of
electronic music. Using Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the assemblage, I explore the
album’s compositional structure as well as its ambient function, by attending to specific
tracks and locating the album in musical history, particularly relative to the work of John
Cage, La Monte Young, and Steve Reich. In an extended discussion of its ambient func-
tion, I argue that the LP offers music for reverie that is capable of initiating processes of
potential self-transformation.

keywords: Eno, ambient, Cage, assemblage, Deleuze

The courage is in letting go of something old that has been


successful and has its own momentum.
—BRIAN ENO

“As an assemblage, a book has only itself,” say Deleuze and Guattari. It
exists “in connection with other assemblages and in relation to other bod-
ies without organs. We will never ask what a book means, as signified or
signifier; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what

journal of speculative philosophy, vol. 31, no. 1, 2017


Copyright © 2017 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA

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156 john lysaker

it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not
transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and
metamorphosed, and with what bodies without organs it makes its own
converge” (Deleuze and Gauttari 1987, 4).
Europe’s nineteenth century drew upon the organism to bring to life
the linear lines of Newtonian mechanics and Galileo’s denuded bodies. In
doing so, and with the aid of an influx of Vedic thought, namely, Brahman’s
pervasive character, it also refound dialectics in the following touchstone
thought: everything is through what it is not. Deleuze and Gauttari flee
the organism as a founding figure and anarchize mechanics by remain-
ing nonteleologically dialectical. “The territory is the first assemblage, the
first thing to constitute an assemblage”—X can be X only through a cer-
tain range of interactions, which it must maintain, perhaps generate, pos-
sibly guard—“the assemblage is fundamentally territorial” (Deleuze and
Gauttari 1987, 323). But if that is true of any X, we are off and running: “But
how could it not already be in the process of passing into something else,
into other assemblages?” (Deleuze and Gauttari 1987, 323).
Unimpressed by the rose as an aspirational category, something com-
mon to Emerson and Rilke, Deleuze and Gauttari, like all ontologists, pur-
sue the roots of the matter, which lie, they hold, at least for the most part,
less among taproots or fibrous root systems than among rhizomatic repro-
ductive strategies, which displace the emergent “whole” (and its singular
telos) into the ongoing promiscuity of “parts”: “A rhizome has no beginning
or end; it is always in the middle, between things, intermezzo” (1987, 25).
According to Deleuze and Gauttari, an assemblage runs along two axes, one
horizontal (content-expression), one vertical (edges of ­reterritorialization–
edges of deterritorialization). The former involves elements and how they
are enacted; the latter, the stabilization and/or destablization of borders
(which are always bidirectional and thus sites of contact rather than simple
exclusion).

The Ambient Evolution

In 1978, Ambient 1: Music for Airports appeared on vinyl LP and cassette.1


Emerging out of a complex history of what we might call “music for
peripheral attention” (Telemann’s Tafelmusik, for example, Satie’s musique
d’ameublement, and Muzak, as well as background and mood music from

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brian eno’s ambient 1– music for airpor ts 157

the 1950s), Eno’s album made ambient a term of art, concentrating a thought


that continues to morph: ambient house, dark ambient, ambient industrial,
ambient techno, ambient dub, and so on.
Peripheral attention stands in contrast to focal attention, though not
as passive to the latter’s activity. As Christopher Case, a Muzak designer,
conveyed to Joseph Lanza: “Now it’s not cut and dry, whether you listen
or don’t. It [Muzak] is just something that doesn’t interfere. To think that
people don’t listen is stupid. People are listening” (1994, 165).
Ambient 1 is an album before anything else (though this is not to say,
in the first place). It should be handled as such. The cover, abstract at first
glance, appears to be a close-up of a map or a portion of a map (see Figure 1).
It charts a few lakes and several rivers as well as their forks, with forested
areas around most of the water. One might take it to be an airplane view, but
the image is clearly assembled, like Lichtenstein’s images, from benday dots.
It offers an aerial view that underscores that shaded colors and lines have
been assembled—what I termed “forests” are literally green spaces, and
there are ten or so whitish spots whose landscape referent is oblique at best.
The image drifts toward the conceptual. “This is not a map,” perhaps,
but one finds, instead, a capital T, underscoring that if this is a map, it
is a slice and thus not very orienting. Or rather, once we turn and think

fig. 1. Front cover of Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music


for Airports, 1978.

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158 john lysaker

“always in the middle, between things, intermezzo,” the cover assembles,


a cohesion of sorts after the slice (or splice) is made. A paradigmatic
“Lichtenstein” is a painting, not a page in a comic book.
An insert recounts “Ambient Music” in a different register, one con-
cerned more with choices than genesis. Distinguishing it from other kinds
of “environmental music,” particularly Muzak, Eno defines “ambience”
as an “atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint.” And because he
characterizes his rival as “lightweight,” “derivative,” and “canned,” one pre-
sumes that ambience manages to be thoughtful, original, and fresh—“the
assemblage is fundamentally territorial.”
A musical genre inhabits a range of tones (do-re-me, baby), patterns
of arrangement (melodies, harmonies), intensities of occurrence (tempos,
dynamics), sites of presentation (halls and hallways), and modes of recep-
tion (ears and earbuds). In proximity to any of these benday dots, other
possibilities suggest themselves.
In what is now a micro-legend, Eno found the notion of ambience in
1975 while convalescing. Julie Nylon had dropped by to give him an LP and
left it playing. The volume was low, one speaker kicking in and out (or sim-
ply out), and a light shower pattered outside. Too beat to get up and adjust
the volume, Eno let recorded harps mix with the rain and his own rising
and falling attention, ergo ambience. Julie Nylon recounts it differently.
They more or less intentionally set the music to play with the rain: “Neither
of us invented ambient music” (in Sheppard 2008, 189).
Flip the outer sleeve. As if to prove its weight (or its relative density),
Eno printed four diagrams (Figure 2), each corresponding to one of the
album’s four tracks and presumably explaining something of its composi-
tional structure or, less grandly, indicating that the consistencies one finds
in each are not completely accidental.
Back on the front cover, below “AMBIENT 1” stands “Music for
Airports” in a smaller font, and below that, “Brian Eno,” in a still smaller
font. The graphic is articulate. This is first and foremost a venture in ambi-
ent music, one somehow for airports, and only then a work by Brian Eno.
One should not expect authorial expression to be the principal goal there-
fore, or tracking it to be our principal task, and Eno makes this clear with
the sleeve and insert, which together function like program notes to be
read before the show begins. (Even the track titles, “1/1,” “2/1,” “1/2,” and
“2/2,” indicate that expression is not the task at hand, as do the back cover
diagrams.)

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brian eno’s ambient 1– music for airpor ts 159

fig. 2. Back cover of Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for


Airports, 1978.

The Composer as Gardener

Eno recalls:

About the time when I first started making records, I was also start-
ing to become aware of a new sort of organizing principle in music. I
think, like many people, I had assumed that music was produced in or
created in a way that you imagine symphony composers make music,
which is by having a complete idea in their head in every detail and then
somehow writing out ways by which other people could ­reproduce
that, in the same way as one imagines an architect ­working. . . .
In the mid-sixties, there started to appear some music that really
wasn’t like that at all. . . . [T]he music I was listening to then in partic-
ular . . . was Terry Riley’s “In C” and Steve Reich’s famous tape pieces
“It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out.” . . . What fascinated me about
these kinds of music was that they really completely moved  away
from that old idea of how a composer worked. . . . What the com-
poser had was a kind of menu, a packet of seeds, you might say. And

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160 john lysaker

those  musical seeds, once planted, turned into the piece.  And they
turned into a different version of that piece every time. (2012)

Eno’s theoretical path through the ensuing thickets was quite un-French:
cybernetics. The key phrase regarding composition is: “Instead of trying
to organize it in full detail, you organize it only somewhat, and you then
rely on the dynamics of the system to take you in the direction you want to
go” (Eno 2012). This is from Stafford Beer’s Brain of the Firm, which Eno
encountered in 1974, thanks to a loan from Joan Harvey, then his mother-in-
law. Eno had just left Roxy Music, unhappy with the performance demands
of rock stardom as well as the bounded possibilities of rock songs, from 4:4
time to clear if limited motivic development, and the book wormed its way
into his ambition and future: “But what I think about, I suppose my feeling
about gardening . . . is that what one is doing is working in collaboration
with the complex and unpredictable processes of nature and trying to insert
into that some inputs that will take advantage of those processes and, as
Stafford Beer said, take you in the direction that you wanted to go” (2012).
Cybernetics/Deleuze and Gauttari: What separates the two? First is an
appreciation that even ambient works are still constructed, often meticu-
lously, and thus “authored,” if not in expected ways. (At the level of a philo-
sophical proposition, I would say: There is no outside without an inside, nor
an in without an out. Deleuze and Gauttari say: “A book exists only through
the outside and on the outside” [1987, 4].) Second is the phrase “in the
direction you want to go,” which turns on the event of a want, which puzzles
even Aristotle, who insists that one does not deliberate about ends, which
are in fact matters of boulesis, “wishing.” (Why not Muzak?) Ambient  1 is
anything but raw accident, though Eno is quick to acknowledge that discov-
ering where one wants to go is more surrender than self-assertion: “What
we’re not so used to is the idea that another great gift we have [beyond the
ability to control] is the talent to surrender and to cooperate” (2012). But
even in surrender there is the matter of to what, when, how, and for how
long, and there it is: the question of agency, still crazy after all these years.2

Listen Down!

“I am deliberately constructing systems that will put me in the same posi-


tion as any other member of the audience. I want to be surprised by it
as well” (Eno 2012). Not quite. The audience will never have the chance

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brian eno’s ambient 1– music for airpor ts 161

to contract and record musicians playing or singing simple phrases. The


audience will never elect those bits that almost stand on their own and loop
them, asynchronously, pruning until one says: That’s about right. But there
are results that spring unplanned from the interaction of various elements:
instruments and their tones left undeveloped and harmonically unadorned,
more or less. So yes, at that point, Eno is composer and audience, although
seats for the latter can be configured in many ways as well. “There is no
ideal speaker-listener,” Deleuze and Gauttari opine, “any more than there is
a homogenous linguistic community” (1987, 7). On this view, listeners are
many, each an assemblage territorializing: playlists, collections, playback
systems, maybe playback rooms, actions such as reading or tidying, even a
misplaced gesture of adolescent seduction—“You have to hear this ambient
record. . . .”
One should be wary of second-order revolutions, ­however. “Assemblages”
remain cohesive sites of becoming and, like the weather, predictable across
a range.3 There may be no ideal listener in the strictest of terms, but then,
neither are there ideal eaters of the seventy-five or so hamburgers sold
by McDonald’s every second, presuming the accuracy of Business Insider
(Lubin and Badkar 2011). In and around 1974, Muzak was earning about
four hundred million dollars a year, serving over four-fifths of the fifty
biggest industrial companies, and grooving listeners on job sites in coun-
tries as diverse as Spain, Finland, and Peru—and not just on the hour but
for the hour. Beginning in the 1930s, Muzak (down to issues of timbre,
tempo, and dynamics) tied programming to the presumed ebb and flow of
listener energy and activity, as did FM guru Jim Schulke, the “Godfather of
Beautiful Music.”4
Critics are drawn to the following characterization of ambient music,
which also comes from Eno: it should be as ignorable as it is interesting.
Yet those terms are more applicable to what we might call “music for focal
attention”—one can attend or not. But with ambient music, attend or not,
something else operates: the surrounding influence, the tint, expanding,
morphing. Not that ambient is simply one or the other: “But how could
it not already be in the process of passing into something else, into other
assemblages?” (Deleuze and Gauttari 1987, 323). Still, one should come to
terms with both modalities.
Attend or not—a maxim for consumption? While the composer dissi-
pates into an assembled work, the listener seems to contract all the more into
a bundle of “preferences,” the catchall refrain of capitalist exchange. Henry

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162 john lysaker

Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts


and Education at the University of Southern California, says: “I often use
Eno’s music as a backdrop when I am writing and I like to listen to this
strangely familiar (and I do mean strange) music when I have trouble relax-
ing in strangely familiar hotel rooms while traveling” (2010).
Ambient or “Ambien”? The question arises, as a spectrum, particularly
given the rise of “Chillout,” a catchall for gentle-beat music designed to give
club-goers a more relaxing space than main floor attractions: “We will ask
what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does
not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted
and metamorphosed” (Deleuze and Gauttari 1987, 4). “Ambien” comes
to pass when music cancels the background noise of our minds, that is,
cognitive dissonance, and leaves focal attention unencumbered. “Ambient”
offers something more than a mild sedative.5

Listening to Listening

Selective emphasis is a rule of our organism (dare I say), as multiple, com-


plex, and unruly as it is. But selections are usually made in response to an
initial feel for the situation, which is also selective and beyond ­deliberation.
(Again, peripheral attention is far from passive.) Here, amid our more
basic sense of things (which is neither simply affective nor cognitive),
ambient music proves most interesting, arriving like a new variable in a
massively complex equation. It resounds amid asynchronous processes
such as heartbeats, the thirty- to forty-second pulse of core consciousness,
the quick track and prune of working memory, the sudden emergence of
a memory held long term, the intrusion of an appetite, the pace of our
breathing, our gait if we are walking, the intensity of this particular day of
the week, the circling helicopter, a hotel room, and so on.
For Heidegger, by the time we find ourselves in what he terms
Befindlichkeit, we are already in the grip of a Stimmung, a mood, which tunes
us in particular ways. Here, in both terms and the manifold they indicate,
ambient works and the listener converge. Not that listening to Ambient 1
need be solitary as opposed to social, and not just because solitary is a social
predicate. But that will not somehow displace a tuned Befindlichkeit but
only refract and in some ways distribute it, to pull from Anahid Kassabian’s
Ubiquitous Listening, which also approaches music through the thought of

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brian eno’s ambient 1– music for airpor ts 163

an assemblage. I will find you finding me finding Ambient 1 spreading


across a coffee shop, and we will giggle, or kvetch, or engage the woman
next to us listening in and leaning toward what will begin as a rehearsal of
Enoania. Or, maybe, all of us will keep to our solitude, which nevertheless
registers, like a rippling sigh of relief, something in common. And maybe
I will reopen A Thousand Plateaus: “We will ask. . . .”

Content: Sounds as Seeds

Musicians emerging in the 1950s and 1960s were flush with John
Cage’s example, a chunk of it recorded at the John Cage Twenty-Five
Year Retrospective at Town Hall, May 15, 1958. But, ironically, it may have
been his writings that drew others to Cage’s insistent effort to undermine
the distinction between music and noise, sound and silence. There are
always sounds, he insists, some intended, others not. Trying to push past
Schönberg’s twelve-tone rows, Cage, already in 1937, rethought music as an
“organization of sound” whose principle relationships were no longer har-
monic, which allowed for greater rhythmic possibilities, though the prin-
cipal task, as he recounted twenty years later, was to maintain “attention to
the activity of sounds” (2011, 3, 10).
La Monte Thorton Young loves the activity of sounds, their com-
ings and goings, their texture and reverberations. (A young Eno not only
knew Young’s work but performed it—“X for Henry Flynt”—in 1967.)
“Composition 1960 #7” contains just two notes, B3 and F#4, scored with
the non-instrument-specific instruction: “To be held for a long Time.”
(“X” is similarly constructed.6) But are we really talking sound, variations
of pressure upon the air resulting from vibrating objects? Or are we blend-
ing physics and psychology—psychoacoustics—without a satisfactory set
of middle terms, unless, like me, you are willing to assemble something
of the spirit and letter (perhaps just the dashes) of fundamental ontology?
Regardless, one does not need a geology degree to plant a garden. The more
local concern is where the music starts. Is there a B3 and F#4 independent
of the instrument that sounds it out, or are there only sounded sounds? I
would like to hear the argument for the former.
Famously (or infamously), Eno presents himself as a “nonmusician.”
Rather than playing an instrument in Roxy Music, he subjected his band-
mates’ performances to “treatments,” whether playing live or in the studio.

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164 john lysaker

(The echoes and sustains at work in “Ladytron” from the band’s eponymous
debut provides a good, though not the only, example. Listen to Manzanera’s
guitar, though the way Ferry’s piano warbles toward the close of the song
also shows Eno’s hand.) The confession is provocative, even playful, par-
ticularly given the occasional snipe from musically trained collaborators.
“He can’t really play anything,” observes Gavin Bryars, “nor can he read
music; he always has other people to do those things for him” (in Sheppard
2008, 5). But Eno’s self-designation takes on conceptual importance given
the evolution of his work and his position as what Bill Martin has termed
“the John Cage of rock” (2002, 104).
“1/1,” the opening track, is nothing short of beguiling. It begins gen-
tly: two quick, mid-bass tones and then a third, which is held and allowed
to diminish. At the second, a synthesizer chime tone sounds alongside a
six-note piano phrase that peaks at the track’s highest tone. (The phrase
is deliberate, its pace slow to the point that it falls short of melody.) As it
climbs, two more bass tones sound, the second again lingering. The piano
returns with a descending line of uneven rhythm, and the sequence closes,
twenty seconds in, with a synthesizer chord that sustains for more than
twelve seconds, with a new cluster beginning, again with bass tones, before
the synthesizer chord disappears. Over the next minute or so, parts of these
patterns repeat, though never in the exact same way. Sometimes the piano
adds a single tone, or a few, and other sounds enter the listening field as
well, such as a background drone. About 1:20 or so, the piano drops a ding-
dang-dong . . . dong, seeming to quote “Frère Jacques” in what is the track’s
first clearly melodic line. Until then, tones and chords were sounded out
and juxtaposed (allowed a certain kind of coincidence), but the overall feel
is that of montage brought to a crawl. But the effect is calming, even boring
if one listens in expectation of developments. If anything unsettles it is the
track’s lack of any recurring rhythm, a feature accentuated by those tones
allowed to sustain beyond any obvious measure. But it only unsettles if one
insists on keeping a beat that is not there. Once one accepts its absence,
the track acquires a different kind of energy, elemental forces in eddies and
currents, neither still nor raging. Track “1/1” lasts for more than seventeen
minutes, and its ear feel is roughly the same throughout. It is expansive,
both in part and in whole—parts sound forth and cluster and then give
way to other blooms and fades. Dynamics are at a minimum, and the ding-
dang-dong (followed, after a slight pause, by another dong) is the track’s

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brian eno’s ambient 1– music for airpor ts 165

principal melodic feature, but not in a way somehow developed by the rest
of the track or even harmonically supported by the many tones that come
and go. Not that it is dissonant. All in all, “1/1” pleases; its gentle solici-
tation, polite. But harmonies are not the focus, to the point that it seems
partially misleading to think of the track in terms of traditional musical
notation.
“2/1” is built from four voices: Christa Fast, Christine Gomez,
Inge Zeininger, and Eno’s, which Eno recorded while visiting Harmonia
in 1976. Eno’s splicing and looping (and occasional synthesizer chord)
allows the seven tones to interact differently across the track’s 8:54 dura-
tion. Searching the result for some chord in the root position, Eric Tamm
observes: “Such music suggests a key, keys, or mode, but does not assert one,
unambiguously. The melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic cadences so import-
ant to the establishment of key in tonal music are completely absent here”
(1995, 137). Cage again lurks, although Deleuze and Guattari also think
of Debussy—“Music molecularizes sound matter and so doing becomes
capable of harnessing nonsonorous forces such as Duration and Intensity.
Render duration ­sonorous” (1987, 343).
During his eleven days in Forst, Eno worked with not only Harmonia
but also Conny Plank, an engineer equal (occasionally integral) to the
compositional goals of those he recorded. Eno also saw Holger Czukay,
the bassist from Can, splicing tape in order to extend multiple and dispa-
rate sequences from numerous sources into a larger composition. Back
in Britain, his turntable spinning, Eno had also been listening to dub reg-
gae, particularly King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry, who would drop out
recorded parts of a band’s performance in order to accentuate other parts,
which might in turn be subjected to delay in order to further expand the
rhythmic energies of the cut.7
Persons too are elements in Ambient 1. Eno picks his bits, their lengths,
how best to garnish, and so forth. And each election is oriented, in part,
through a certain inheritance, one often tied to other elections by particular
persons. Even in what might seem most elemental, persons persist. “1/1”
works with bits from improvising musicians, most notably, Robert Wyatt at
the piano, who provides the track’s most vital refrain.
For Eno the studio is a musical instrument, one made possible by
magnetic tape and advances in multitrack recording. Record the tones
and motives, find some that charm, cut, and massage away. “It puts the

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166 john lysaker

c­ omposer,” Eno says of the studio, “in the identical position of the painter—
he’s working directly with a material, working directly onto a substance,
and he always retains the options to chop and change, to paint a bit out,
add a piece, etc.” (ca. 1979).8 Think back to the cover of Ambient 1: it images
another aspect of the LP’s construction. Slices are made and acquire a
contour within the bounds thereby set. Set beside others, other contours
accrue. (“1/2” purportedly combines twenty-two tape loops.)

Expression

“I should mention that you only have control of your studio composition to
the pressing plant—then the reproduction is completely arbitrary. So when
I mix . . . ,” Eno has said, “I mix on at least two speaker systems—and often
more than two—so I’m not just mixing for optimum conditions. . . . I mix,
really, for what I imagine most people have—medium priced hi-fi—and for
radio a bit as well” (ca. 1979). Eco-psychoacoustics—soundscapes without
taproot fantasies.
More than the studio may also be a musical instrument as far as
Ambient 1 is concerned. How the tracks are mastered and pressed for play-
back adds a variable: vinyl record (Japanese or U.S. pressing, original or
repress), CD (SHM?), MP3, FLAC, and so on. So too the playback system:
earbuds, proper headphones, two-channel systems, surround sound, a
Sonos room system, a mid-fi setup, or an audiophile-disease rig.
The content-expression axis can prove generative. In 1997, Bang on a
Can scored Ambient 1 for acoustic instruments and recorded it, transform-
ing it in the process, as one would expect when an assemblage is reassem-
bled. The album left the world of tape and entered the idealish realm of
notated music, thus reinserting Eno as the kind of composer he thought
he had ditched. Moreover, the LP became a piece open to many instances,
whereas, qua LP, it was only ever the reproduction of those recorded
sounds Eno recorded, spliced, and looped (though such a distinction—­
reproduction and performance—is somewhat unstable, as the discussion
of playback indicates). Third, Ambient 1: Music for Airports was replaced by
Music for Airports, which left the realm of peripheral music and asserted
itself, to some extent, as music for focal attention—a fact underscored by
later, live performances. And as those performances also indicated, what

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were initially tracks of uncertain relation became something like move-


ments in a larger composition.

The Prodigal Always Return

Attack and decay, duration—tones and chords dissipate. But the music con-
tinues, and only because the content all but exhausts itself in its expression.
Music reterritorializes itself in its unfolding. As an aggregate it requires a
certain consistency, Deleuze and Guattari believe, which Cage eventually
abandoned, to his detriment: “The claim is that one is opening music to
all events, all irruptions, but one ends up reproducing a scrambling that
prevents any event from happening” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 344).
These are matters of intra-assemblage occurrence. “1/1” has its recur-
ring piano phrase, which, if often nonidentical, resonates with something
like a consistency—“the ‘holding together’ of heterogeneous elements.
At first, they constitute no more than a fuzzy set” (Deleuze and Guattari
1987, 323). This is the “refrain” of “1/1” on Deleuze and Guattari’s terms,
buttressed in part by the absence of dynamics. It allows all of the tones
and tone clusters to sound forth without obscuring the variational rein-
corporation of those piano phrases, ding-dang-dong . . . dong. But the
refrain, which brings consistency to the assemblage, only exists in relation
to concurrent, deterritorializing operations, which ensure a kind of vitality.
The boldness of Ambient 1 lies in its deterritorializations. If one tries to
focus on a track from start to finish, most cannot. (I never have.) One’s
mind wanders alongside a refrain that never develops but unfolds without
a discernible rhythm and without the consistent accompaniment of other
instruments. “1/1” holds together no better (and no worse) than a cloud.

Ambient or Ambien?

“But how could it not already be in the process of passing into something
else, into other assemblages?” (Deleuze and Gauttari 1987, 323). This is a
question of interassemblage occurrences, but the same vertical axis applies.
The territory of an assemblage is often nested in the territory of another,
and the currents of one can stabilize or destabilize those of the other.

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168 john lysaker

In  refusing to distinguish noise from music, Cage abandons the ­latter,
­preferring to erect a temporary stage on which the cosmos might sound
in its passing (creaking chair, violin, lights humming, siren, wind in high
trees, etc.) and in which something like an image of nonviolent comport-
ment might shimmer:

FOR ANY ONE OF US CONTEMPORARY MUSIC IS OR COULD


BE A WAY OF LIVING. (2011, 45)

Eno is often “credited” with popularizing avant-garde currents. From


time to time, he even describes himself in these terms. Yes and no, if only
because Eno has somewhat different ends in view than Cage, who wishes to
dissolve music into the broader coursings of nature. When asked about the
purpose of his experimental musical, Cage replied: “No purposes. Sounds.”
And a bit later, he said impatiently: “Why don’t you realize as I do that noth-
ing is accomplished by writing, playing, or listening to music?” (2011, 17).
Eno wishes to break down the barrier between art and everyday life, open-
ing the edges of the former to the latter, but without erasing the purposive
trajectories (and strivings) of either. As he told Paul Merton: “So, very much
the message of ambient music for me was that this is a music that should
be located in life, not in opposition to life. It shouldn’t be something for
blanking things out, or for covering things up” (Eno 1995).
In Eno’s hands, ambient music is a venture, one that cajoles and
negates. Quite a bit is accomplished. His compositional practice, which
he terms “generative music,” initiates asynchronous sequences toward
unexpected ends, and when released, it continues to generate, initiating
sequences toward incalculable (though not unimaginable) ends.

Sit Back, Relax . . .

In what sense is Ambient 1 “for airports”? It has been installed in airports,


even performed there, but the LP seems far from site-specific. If you
want to fill airports, why release it on LP and cassette? That seems closer
to music for whatever rooms (in 1978) had speakers. But maybe an air-
port qua assemblage, in content (passengers) and expression (waiting for
flights), is territorialized in a manner in which Ambient 1 can resound?
Writing for the New York Times, Jon Pareles remarks: “Airports are places

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brian eno’s ambient 1– music for airpor ts 169

for anticipation, for awe and for suppressed dread. In ‘Music for Airports,’
the slowly ­circling patterns seek calm while alluding to other times and
places” (1998). This is on point, and not just because some remarks from
Eno more or less concur while adding specificity. What reterritorializes
Ambient 1 as a musical assemblage also allows the airport to reterritorialize
through the currents of each track. Again, regarding “1/1,” (a) no significant
dynamics disrupt or agitate; (b) a simple, slightly shifting refrain pleases—
it neither sets one’s foot tapping nor, thanks to incessant if subtle variation,
becomes monotonous; (c) unlike Muzak, it does not recall originals against
which it disappoints; and (d) its beatlessness allows each tone to linger and
spread, which keeps it atmospheric. One chills. (Of course, if one is amped,
say, on a dance floor, or coming down [or heading up and up], a simple 4:4
may have similar effects and prove even more lulling. Ambient functions
are relative to the functionary.)
Alongside Beer, Eno is a “student” of Morse Peckham, who considers
art from the standpoint of biological adaptation thought in terms of drives.
Peckham holds that phenomena such as selective emphasis indicate a drive
for order that, because it trades in generalities, ignores large swaths of expe-
rience and risks monotony—“the drive to order is also a drive to get stuck
in the mud” (1965, xi). Art, he argues, indicates that something contrary (if
less grand than the death drive) is operative: “There must, it seems to me,
be some human activity which serves to break up orientations, to weaken
and frustrate the tyrannous drive to order, to prepare the individual to
observe what the orientation tells him is irrelevant, but what very well may
be highly relevant” (1965, xi). Art creates a space—a safe space, Peckham
thinks—in which marginal and ephemeral facets of the world can appear,
and with enough intensity that we find ourselves between our normal ori-
entations and an emergent sensibility. Like all views, Peckham’s quotes and
reforms named and unnamed others. (It is hard not to think of Schiller
in this context.) But I do not recall Peckham in order to set him or Eno or
Ambient 1 into the history of philosophy but, rather, to follow Peckham back
into Ambient 1 in order to hear it outside the context of airports.
In writing about Another Green World, Geeta Dayal (2009) pays a great
deal of attention to Eno’s “Oblique Strategies,” a stack of cards, to be picked
at random, that carry phrases designed to reorient creative activity. Here
are three, chosen at random: “Slow preparation . . . fast execution”; “Honor
thy error as a hidden intention”; “Allow an easement. (An easement is the
abandonment of a stricture.)” Such cards, as well as the use of such cards,

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170 john lysaker

tells us a great deal about Eno’s approach to composition and production (if
there is a distinction). To my mind, ambient music is also an oblique strat-
egy, and along Peckham’s lines. It arrives as an easement into the current
order of our Befindlichkeit, which I translate (freely) as finding-oneself-in,
as when we ask: How did you find the movie? And it eases us in at least two
ways. It carries with it a certain Stimmung (or mood, a kind of attunement),
and it tweaks how we find ourselves according to the intensities of its own
occurrences. In his liner note, Eno says: “Ambient Music must be able to
accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in
particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” With more space,
I would love to unpack this final, oft-cited line, focusing in part upon the
as and relating it to an intriguing account of mood music from the 1950s:
“It is very difficult to define. . . . I imagine it’s meant to entertain without
being obtrusive, to put you in an easy frame of mind. In other words,” and
here Norrie Paramor, who is being quoted, sounds like Milhaud recounting
Satie, “perhaps it is music be heard, but not necessarily listened to” (in
Lanza 1994, 69). For now, however, I want to rephrase the claim to capture
one of the ways in which Ambient 1 works, one different from though not
discontinuous with its Ambien function. Ambient 1 is too interesting to be
ignored and too diffuse to be followed. There just isn’t any compositional
structure into which we might be forced. And if we submit to what does
unfold, if we surrender, we submit to a kind of general easement in a site
of relative safety. Our attention is drawn away from the habits and orders
of the day, and we find ourselves before the horizon of that suspension
but amid relatively pleasant, even calming musical successions. Ambient 1
resounds in airports and leaves them airports. It deterritorializes us, how-
ever, and precisely through its more deterritorializing moments: (a) tones
sustained without measure, (b) asynchronous and looping base tracks, (c)
occasional unrepeated tones that we would call ornaments if there were a
motivic development to ornament, (d) no underlying rhythm, and, essen-
tially, (e) that sneaky, captivating piano phrase, recurring like a thought,
continuous if nonidentical.
Is there a name for this result? Reverie, perhaps, from resver, rever,
“to wander,” “to be delirious,” with connotations of daydreaming, even
woolgathering, as in wasting the time that we all know is money. I do not
mean this in a technical, psychoanalytic sense, which, from Bion, names a
mother’s loving openness that safely enables the fluctuating condition and
demands of the infant, although the connotations of a safe, enabling scene

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brian eno’s ambient 1– music for airpor ts 171

are on point. Nor I am thinking with Bachelard, who ties reverie, more
or less, to originary image generation, even mythic consciousness, though
also to artistic activity (poetic reverie).
The ambient context is much less determinate at its inception and
with regard to its end than these two senses of reverie, which also distin-
guishes Eno’s venture from the deep listening practices of composers such
as La Monte Young, Pauline Oliveros, and Stuart Dempster. Deep listen-
ing effects a cosmic integration into a field of vibrations. “Music can be a
model for universal structure,” Young intones, “because we perceive sound
as vibration and if you believe, as I do, that vibration is the key to universal
structure you can understand why I make this statement” (in Toop 1995,
178). Ambient 1 proceeds without any such metaphysics. Instead, it accepts
the terrain of its delivery: bedroom, airport, earbuds on a walk around the
block. But by retuning us, it frees us to that scene as we find it on our
way. And once dislocated from an everyday absorption, several possibilities
emerge. One might return with a fresh take on the task (or time) at hand.
One might drop the matter altogether, struck by the tedium of what for-
merly held (more or less) one’s attention. The options multiply, and no one
is keeping score.9

Where Do We Find Ourselves

In a smart, short study, Anahid Kassabian initiates a study of the various


musics that surround so much of what we do. Studying, writing, televi-
sion shows, the radio, shopping, driving—what doesn’t have a soundtrack?
Terming the result “ubiquitous musics,” she further claims that it more
or less scores ongoing performances of identities that flow through the
varied and shifting character of the performers, a somewhat aggregate
phenomenon that she calls “distributed subjectivity.” “Identity,” she writes,
“doesn’t reside within a single subject; rather, it is a flow across a field,
which constantly morphs into different shapes and contours, depending on
the circumstances” (2013, xxvii). Calling to mind the general stage of nar-
rative self-theory, inflected with Butlerian performance, I am more or less
amenable to this characterization of how we are often positioned in various
sociohistorical situations, namely, along lines of ethnolinguistic, gender,
and sexual identity. (Class positions in other ways.) But does the reach of
“ubiquitous music,” art more generally, and ambient music in particular

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172 john lysaker

stop at the performance of identity, or are other ­deterritorializations (and


­reterritorializations) at work? The question arises in two registers. Is
Ambient 1 locked in a staging of identity, or, less strictly, is that what it pri-
marily accomplishes—pretty dry for a white guy? Is the reverie it can pro-
duce still, more or less, affectively traversing the topography of broad social
scripts? Second, to the degree that musical works dislodge extant identities,
one immediately wonders, for whom (or what, to recall Nietzsche’s ques-
tion in Beyond Good and Evil). Kassabian asks: “And since so much of what
we know about power and the political is based on identity in some form or
another, how do we imagine the political as a realm when identity is seen
differently?” (2013, xxvii). She asks the question, a welcome and instructive
one, because trends in ubiquitous listening chart different possibilities for
different persons. But I am less certain about the centrality of identities
in the interanimation of certain assemblages, including musical works,
albums, and performances.
Given the political importance of “identities,” one should clarify the
stakes of the question. Where, when, and how are identities operative, and
where, when, and how, if at all, is there more to recount (which is not to
deny that reference to ethnolinguistic, national, gendered, and sexual iden-
tities may always be germane)? This is not simply a matter of reflective ver-
sus prereflective life; identities operate in both zones. (La-la-la-la-Lola need
not be a “he” in order for a man to lose [or gain] his lust within her crushing
embrace.) But presuming that no human being is univocal (something I
have argued elsewhere) but, rather, an interanimating ensemble of trans-
actional capacities such as biophysical systems, social roles, and ongoing
self-assessments, one becomes more than the sum of one’s parts even as
each capacity is always more than a part of the whole.10 And for such a
being, there are, I think, times when Ambient 1 finds it, finds us, “always in
the middle, between things, intermezzo” (Deleuze and Gauttari 1987, 25).11
In a somewhat longer hand, it finds us in-the-world within an intrapsy-
chic and intersubjective constellation, which is not completely other to
our many identities, but also not merely distributed among them given we
must continually negotiate the between in its dissonances and harmonies,
sudden emergences, and simple continuance, even when we do not find
ourselves up to it all.
I think that we have returned to Befindlichkeit and its range of attune-
ments or moods, its Stimmungen, the latter particularly open to music, like
(perhaps) memory is to smell. As to what sense of self, if any, accompanies

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brian eno’s ambient 1– music for airpor ts 173

such disclosures, I am unsure. We are somewhat outside the connaissance


of self-concepts and the strong-fingered savoir of social roles. I know how to
raise my voice like a man, and I can turn a blind eye like a white guy. I also
know that my being Norwegian American is more or less an abstraction,
even a put-on, given that it holds forth a distinguishing term that cannot
make good on the partitions it promises to raise. And I know that wealth
has paved my way. But when these factical determinations float before me,
ringing like the extra “dong” of “1/1,” their nearness and farness, strange-
ness and familiarity, prove palpable, and they loosen. In reverie, they enter
the field of possibilities open for a being whose existence lies, in part, in its
disclosedness. And here moods make much of the difference that eventu-
ally makes a difference—hope, melancholy, excitement, serenity, a trickling
anxiety.
Beat-driven ambient music is somewhat associated with chill rooms.
The buzz of dancing and/or X can slacken to 4:4 as one’s attention finds
solace in simple melodies and/or drifts with the long draw of sustained
tones. Ambient 1 seems to work differently, less chill than cheer, one of
Emerson’s cardinal, scholarly duties. “Cheer” once denoted the face and
then a state of mind or heart, as when one is “of good cheer.” But cheer
now indicates, more or less, two operations, both of which seem operative
in Ambient 1: to dispel gloom and to infuse life. Ambient 1, even in (or possi-
bly due to) the absence of a base rhythm, cheers us to essay anew whatever
arises in the reverie it occasionally sparks. Outside any obvious savoir, it
sews a diffuse “I can” into the possibilities it helps dislodge without erasing
(and its own example is a kind of needle to these threads). Between you and
me, this may be why, after almost forty years, Ambient 1 remains less iconic
than exemplary for a certain kind of possibility.

notes
For Kevin Karnes, with gratitude for his generous listening with and to me.
1. A Thousand Plateaus first appeared in 1980. Music is a recurring concern.
I would thus caution against any simple explanans/explanandum assessment of
the relations hereby established. At the turn of the twentieth century, Debussy
already sought a “music . . . entirely free from motifs,” while the midcentury
found Edgard Varèse struggling to “capture emergence in complex phenomena”
(Toop 1995, 19, 82). It is no surprise, therefore, that Deleuze and Guattari (1987,
343) invoke both with approbation.

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174 john lysaker

2. As with all things, comparing cybernetics and A Thousand Plateaus is more


complicated than my quick distinctions acknowledge. While happy to speak
of organisms and their “inner workings,” Beer also insists that “the controller
is part of the system under control,” hence immanent, and he even speaks of
assemblages: “We define an assemblage of entities as a system because those
entities are observed as acting cohesively” (1981, 25).
3. As Rick Lee suggests in “The May Day Machine: Assemblages in Nineteenth-
Century Chicago” (this issue), even in assemblages certain forces (he suggests
“structures”) carry more weight than others.
4. The history of Muzak and similar approaches to music production is
wonderfully surveyed in Joseph Lanza’s Elevator Music (1994). The information
just recounted is taken from his study.
5. David Toop (1995) finds aligned but distinct trajectories in ambient music,
namely, the chill of soothing tones and the cacophony of the world’s ambient
sounds captured or recast by the work. In a larger frame, I would set his
modalities and mine along a circling continuum, beginning with works that try
to frame the world’s ambience (Cage), moving into those that try to complement
the world’s ambience in varying ways (ambient and Ambien), and moving in turn
toward assembled tones that aspire to match the cosmos at a vibrational level
(Young and Riley).
6. Mark Alburger explains: “With [“X”], Young introduced the most
characteristic component of minimalism—repetition, but in a (what would later
prove to be uncharacteristic) dissonant context, where a loud and constant sound
is repeated at evenly spaced intervals for any length of time. While the score
indicates that the piece is for piano or gong, in practice any sound has been used,
typically a dissonant or unpitched one. Young has performed the piece by striking
a bucket full of nails amplified with contact microphone, and beating a large
frying pan with a wooden spoon” (2003, 6). Eno’s version gave him a thematizable
feel for the creative implications of repetition. “This was, for me, a new sense of
the error principle,” he recalls, “and led me to clarify a little law that has since
informed much of my work—‘Repetition is a form of change’” (Eno and Mills
1986, 43).
7. With a gift for narrative, David Sheppard’s On Some Faraway Beach (2008)
gives one access to many of Eno’s musical influences, including those I cite here.
8. As David Byrne observes, studios were already inflecting musical works as
soon as they started recording: “Early recording technology was limiting not only
in terms of what frequencies one heard, but also in terms of which instruments
were actually recorded. The music was already being edited and shaped to fit the
new medium” (2012, 82).
9. Eno’s differences from Reich are no less interesting. While exploring musical
repetition and structure (and thus process and its generative capacities, something
Reich began to think about while working with Terry Riley), “It’s Gonna Rain”

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brian eno’s ambient 1– music for airpor ts 175

also attempts to make vocal music that begins with the voice rather than some
marriage between music and text that the voice must navigate. Instead, Reich
loops and edits Brother Walter’s voice, allowing it to fall out of phase with itself,
thus releasing its music. (Listen to the interplay of the front end of “rain” and
the severed phrase “it’s gon—” from about 0:45 to 1:05.) And part II has clear
(and powerful) expressive goals—“the piece is expressive of an extremely dark
mood.” Reich elaborates: “It goes further and further and further out of phase
until it is reduced to noise. The emotional feeling is that you’re going through
the cataclysm, you’re experiencing what it is like to dissolve.” Even Brother
Walter’s text is apropos: the desperate knocking of those shut out of Noah’s Ark,
which rung true to Reich’s sense in 1964 that “we might be going up in so much
radioactive smoke” (2002, 21). I note this because these often aligned composers
sound very different when their artistic goals are kept in view.
10. The first general presentation of the view is “Being Interrupted” (Lysaker and
Lysaker 2005), with an expanded view occurring as chapter 3 in Schizophrenia and
the Fate of the Self (Lysaker and Lysaker 2008). A reformulation and revision of
the view will appear as chapter 4 in my forthcoming Where Do We Find Ourselves:
Essays After Emerson (in press).
11. In a 2016 meeting of the American Philosophies Forum, Cory Wimberly
observed that this sense of being between resonates with Anzaldúa’s notion of
nepantla, the subject of the essay by Charles Scott and Nancy Tuana published in
this issue.

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