The Souls in Our Bodies and the Souls in Our Walls
186 · 20 August 98
Brian Eno: Music for Airports
A progress report from my ongoing self-education in classical music could take many forms, but the most honest one begins with the reluctant admission that calling it "ongoing" has become basically untenable. It began with grand enthusiasm, an acquisitive winter of 1997 culminating in the complete transfer of the after-tax portion of a $1000 employee-referral bonus to the quiet room at HMV, and for a long time thereafter reassuring piles of classical CDs could be found arrayed around my player, the exact configuration a physical encoding of the various stages of assimilation through which they were passing. The new pop albums flitted by at their usual breakneck pace, while Bartók, Holst and Prokofiev looked on with tranquil amusement, content to wait for the stray hour of my attention I'd bestow upon them, and this seemed in keeping with the characters of both factions.
And to the extent that the exercise is taken literally, and the points were simply to know more things about classical music, and to better understand my own tastes in it, those were pretty productive months. I believe I can now read a description of a piece of classical music and guess, with about 35% more accuracy, whether I'm going to enjoy it or not. I know that Bruckner's structurally routine Mass No. 3 makes me dance (although it wasn't particularly popular as hold music, the week I took it to work), but Messiaen, who in principle ought to be classical music's equivalent of some of the experimental rock I like best, does nothing for me at all. I can tell Copland from Tchaikovsky, Bach from Stravinsky, Xenakis from Sibelius and Ives from Philip Glass, all of which are accomplishments on par with pounding the hexagonal plastic block into the hexagonal hole in the toy workbench after only two or three attempts to coerce it through other apertures, but you have to start somewhere. I know that Dawn Upshaw wasn't Tony Orlando's backup singer, that Dennis Russell Davies isn't a Monty Python character ("It's spelled 'Dennis Russell Davies', but it's pronounced 'Albino Thompson's Gazelle'..."), and that when John Eliot Gardiner says vintage instruments, he doesn't mean Mellotrons. I often joke, if you can call it a joke when I'm the only one who ever laughs at it, that my goal in life is to know three things about every subject, and there are now a number of additional subjects I know three things about.
But what I realize, a year and a half into this project, when it occurs to me that it's been on "temporary" hold for nearly a year of that, is that my ardor cooled because my efforts weren't changing me in any important way. Liking Bruckner wasn't a product of careful study, an intellectual response to his place in the concurrent evolutions of sacred and secular music, it was the same kind of visceral affinity that decides, according to its own meticulously private parameters, that I need to listen to the new Liz Phair album again right now, twice, while no amount of respected endorsements will keep Belle and Sebastian from making me yawn. I could keep working through the classical repertoire, three or four dusty historical figures each month, dutifully cataloguing my reactions, but that kind of desultory pass/fail analysis does me no lasting good, and probably annoys the busts. I'll be older, eventually, and probably this will be one of the many things I'll come to feel differently about, but for now I prefer to follow trails into the future, rather than into the past, in instrumental music as in just about everything else. A part of me acknowledges that there is something profoundly wrong with this blindered, headlong obsession with the new (I even gravitate to the "New Arrivals" bins in used LP stores, although the "New" there can't possibly refer to any dimension in my life), but you miss a lot of now if you wait until later to explore it, while the distant past recedes at a barely discernible rate. Perhaps I would be better served by internalizing Verdi, instead of trying to track down old albums by the Clouds, but Verdi will still be there when I'm fifty, and the Clouds, I suspect, will not. I learn history, like I clean behind things, only when there periodically threaten to become visible repercussions to not doing so.
The thing that keeps this from being quite as shallow as it sounds is that present threads lead deep into the past easily often enough to make the Norns' eyes twinkle. New books mention old books, old movies get remade; Claire Danes plays a character mesmerized by Anna Karenina, and suddenly it's unconscionable that I haven't read it (and I pour through half a dozen editions, in the store, looking for the one that gets the opening line right, the way she recited it in the movie); I read two novels in a row featuring Swedenborgians, and a week later I'm standing in the middle of the Swedenborg Book Store, more than a little disconcerted that such a place exists, trying to figure out a polite way of asking "Which of these books does the best job of explaining all the specific idiotic things you people believe?"
In music, the threads are most often covers. "Covers", of course, is a telltale pop term; nobody in classical music says that Brigitte Engerer is "covering" Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. But Brian Eno and Bang on a Can hover near the border between classical and pop, where it's not totally clear which rules apply. How is Bang on a Can, a New York performance and composition collective that often writes its own music and is fond of performance touches like playing cellos through distortion pedals, not a rock band? How are Eno's careful pattern-compositions not a classical suite? If Bang on a Can records their rendition of Eno's genre-defining ambient record Music for Airports, is it like the Theatre of Voices doing Arvo Pärt, or like Laibach doing Let It Be? No way to know without finally breaking down and buying the original.
The first quaint thing I discover about Music for Airports, twenty years after its release, is that it is decidedly shaped, as I'm sure it didn't seem to be at the time, by its medium. You will search long and hard without finding a contemporary ambient record that is only forty-five minutes long, and broken up to fit onto two album sides; now they're all crammed to CD capacity, and Music for Airports, by comparison, sounds like either impeccable self-restraint, or an odd underachiever truculence. You'll also search long and hard without finding a late-Nineties "ambient" album that isn't cluttered with trip-hop drum loops, and although one could argue that trip-hop drum loops are prevalent enough now to qualify as background hum, they represent a concession to dance culture (albeit a profitable one) that is foreign to Eno's original conception of the style. His pieces were built from quiet pianos, tape delays, wordless and heavily-processed voices, and shimmery analog synthesizers. Each of the four movements has a single organizational scheme, and there are explanatory diagrams on the back cover, in case you have trouble deducing them: "1/1" is all slow, drifting piano runs, like "Frère Jacques" poised impossibly on the edge of sleep; "2/1" is built from thick slabs of legato, sighing vocals, and is one of the few pieces of music you'll come across that still sounds sensible if you listen to it with your finger on the Search button; "1/2" (first song, second side) is essentially "1/1" and "2/1" playing at once; "2/2", the movement most often imitated, is the synthesizer concerto, halfway between whale song and the Close Encounters theme. There is rarely anything you could isolate as a consistent melody in any of the movements, but experimental didn't always imply noise, and these pieces are unswervingly harmonic and elegant. As with sunsets, at worst you will be bored.
But Music for Airports wasn't intended to be just entertainment. The title is meaningful; this music sets out to occupy public spaces, aurally, like Calder mobiles occupy them visually. It is built to stand repetition, and to reach even people who only hear five minutes of it, or only hear it through the pauses in their payphone conversation, in institutional acoustics and over PA announcers. I've never actually heard it playing in an airport, but I've been in plenty of airports whose voice this is, whose architecture embodies the same dreams of geometric perfectibility, cultural neutrality, calm resilience and decisive efficiency. This is music born of the same socio-technical optimism as moving walkways, recessed lighting, international iconography, white courtesy telephones, retractable boarding-tunnels and articulated baggage-carousels. It is designed, like all those things, to be unobtrusive, but to embody (and elevate) the spirit of the environment. The difficult thing about listening to Music for Airports today, after what would be an eye-blink in classical terms but four or five generations on the time scale of pop, is in a way the same thing that is difficult about walking through airports. The aesthetics at play have been so persistently co-opted that it's hard to recall they ever had a spirit. Airport design has been pirated by supermarkets, shopping malls, intersections and magazines; the surface characteristics of ambient music have been wrapped around nature-special soundtracks, news telecasts, film climaxes and computer operating systems. Meandering synth washes have become the sound of space ignoring its inhabitants, and sanitized modernism has become the architecture of expedient indifference. Now that every place you go looks the same, it's hard to remember that airports used to constitute a kind of environmental hyperspace, a system of portals between one visual and cultural system and another, hard to remember that we once thought the future would look like 2001, not Blade Runner.
But when I can switch myself into that obsolete frame of reference (and I wasn't there, so perhaps it isn't obsolete as much as fictitious), and hear this music as a dream of what might once have been the future, it metamorphoses from abstract to heartbreaking. These were the dreams of mathematicians and choreographers, prisms and levels, solid colors and immaculate textures, before the marketing buzzards started circling, and all the jingle bands bought their CDs full of pasteurized Marshall-stack samples. Was there really a time when we thought public spaces might sing to us of our accomplishments and our commonality, rather than shriek at us to eat more cheeseburgers and subscribe to newspapers that aspire to somehow give us all edges over each other? Did it ever really seem like the future was when we'd have transcended garrulous clamor, rather than imprisoned ourselves in increasingly labyrinthine dungeons ruled by our own most thoughtlessly crass impulses? So much calm, so much faith in rationality; the idea that this ever didn't seem ridiculous leaves me uncertain whether I feel sorrier for whoever once believed it, or for us, who made it never happen.
Bang on a Can: Music for Airports
The central conceit of Bang on a Can's new version is that where Eno assembled his in the studio, with razor blades and tape, theirs is performed by real people, in real time, each movement as a single continuous take. Bang on a Can principals Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe and clarinetist Evan Ziporyn each assume arrangement responsibilities for one of the four movements, writing for a six-piece core performance ensemble consisting of cello, bass, piano/keyboards, percussion, guitar and clarinet, augmented at points by strings, horns, a pipa, a flute and a four-woman choir. Translating Music for Airports to a human performance is, as they concede in the liner notes, vaguely perverse, but in my mourning for the vanished dreams of the original, recasting and recapturing the music for people seems inspiring and ingenious. If the echoes of our noble stories have been scrubbed out of the walls of our spaces, then what better way could there be to replenish them, and simultaneously chide them for their lapse, than to have people tell the walls the very story they were supposed to preserve for us?
Gordon's first movement, accordingly, stays extremely close to the original text. Sections of Robert Wyatt's old piano line are parceled out to other instruments, but all the players play as if they are pianos in their own minds, as if any difference between their telling and Eno's is only a logistical necessity. The second movement, the choral piece (Lang's), starts to elaborate on the source material, allowing nuances of the singers' voices to show through, streaking bits of feedback and oblique percussion through the background, pushing the dynamics in confrontational ways that Eno did not, as if aware that the what the piece most lacks, paradoxically, in a modern context, is intensity. Wolfe gets the showpiece, in a formal sense, the resolution of the first side's syllogism, and although she studiously resists turning it into a jam session, this is where the ensemble dynamics seem most evident, in a passionate testament to discretion and discipline. The most stirring triumph of resilience and readapted hope, though, to me, is the final movement, in which the players do start to stretch outside of the boundaries of the original, mandolin and vibraphone (?) flurries scurrying across the face of the synthesizers, Ziporyn's whirling clarinet solos circling over trembling violin vibrato. There were various ways to redeem and resuscitate the idealism of Eno's composition, but the one Bang on a Can arrive at is to claim that the original was only a chrysalis, and twenty years of silence wasn't death, it was merely gestation. Here, finally, is the sound of hope emerging, in which we can, for the first time, see how the old dreams of the future were only ever clumsy approximations of what we really wanted. The airports haven't betrayed us, they've just been waiting, all this time, for us to take the time to fill them, rather than just filing through. Our spaces can do nothing without us.
Aube: Substructural Penetration 1991-1995
Eno and Aube are polar sonic opposites, but just as Malevich's White on White and Pollock's enormous splatter paintings can be seen as formulations of the same arguments about the boundaries of visual art and the grammar of human expression, despite the radically different amounts of paint, so Eno's glassy environmental music and Aube's speaker-shredding processor experiments can be seen as facets of a single compound attempt to represent, in sound, the tension between the versions of ourselves that people carry with them in their souls and the ones we brick into walls as we build them around us. Substructural Penetration 1991-1995 (released on the Cornish label Iris Light) is a collection of excerpts from singles, tapes and assorted compilations, and a handful of tracks that were previously unreleased. Because so much of the Aube experience, for me, is a function of the sheer scale of the albums, a collection seems like a self-defeating proposition, like stacking up the best hundred yards of each of the world's twenty highest mountains and expecting the resulting Frankenstein's rock-pile to contain all the grandeur on the planet. The trick to Substructural Penetration, by which it escapes this doom, is that the pieces are arranged in chronological order, and Akifumi has tended to work with sources in series, not parallel, so although the components of this album were culled from various places, it sounds like this was done by filming a dispersal in reverse, and this is the order the pieces were always meant to go in.
This two-disc, two-and-a-half-hour ordeal is divided into three sections. The first, occupying the first six tracks of the first disc, consists of manipulations of the sound of water, made between 1991 and 1994. In the earlier, shorter ones it is sometimes possible to hear recognizable snippets of liquid, gurgling and plopping in some vague likeness of its natural state, but by "Torrent" and the twenty-two minute monstrosity "Undercurrent I/II", the sound has reverted to pure roar, and any variation can be attributed to the fact that the various layers of your brain squeal slightly differently as they're being chewed off by the blades of Hoover Dam turbines. The second section, the rest of disc one, consists of three 1994 glow-lamp mutilations and one companion piece made from lung noises, and is Aube's idea of soothing New Age mood music: "Luminous 1 Minute" almost sounds like wind chimes, albeit wind chimes getting pulped with a circular saw; "Compressed Radiant" sounds like a muted carillon, although after a couple minutes the bell ringers become possessed by incendiary demons and their internal organs catch fire; "On the Blink" sounds like a modem plugged directly into a wall socket; and "Breath Hard" turns out to be an instruction given by an alien medic, whose horrifically painful exploratory micro-surgery evidently goes more smoothly for him if the victim's body is well oxygenated.
The second disc is markedly less frivolous. Mostly 1995 VCO pieces, with a couple based on steel wires and one on magnetic resonance spectroscopy tossed into the middle (this violates Aube's usual one-source-per-suite rule, but you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the sources without the credits' help), the third stretch is the magic seventy-four minutes of unremitting torture. The safest way to appreciate it is to get a pair of professional musicians' earplugs, attach one to the end of a pool cue, and use the pool cue, protruding through an airtight waldo socket from where you are, inside a soundproof box, to hit the stop button on your CD player. Note that this won't necessarily prevent your stereo from being reduced to molten slag while you move the cue into position. As with most Aube recordings, I realize that not very many people will think this experience sounds desirable. If the two versions of Music for Airports amount to a portrait of an idyllic harmony between human compassion and automated serenity, though, Aube's noise-gales represent every hidden ugliness required to maintain the orderly facade. Like taking a vacation to an exotic island but staying in a generic chain-resort, the constrained view of our options may be substantially more pleasant than the surrounding reality, but if you never leave the compound, don't claim you've really traveled anywhere.
Nostalgic fondness for Aube's blistering racket is probably even more insane than liking it the first time around, but part of the charm of Substructural Penetration 1991-1995 is that Akifumi's recent works have been edging into different territory. Evocation, a five-part, hour-long 1998 ambient hiss based on electroencephalogram noises, released by the Bochum, Germany label AufAbwegen, has no blasts of skull-liquefying cacophony at all. Instead we get twitters, beeps, nearly-inaudible bass pulses, a little throbbing like the headache you might get from leaning the back of your neck against a florescent hospital light for an hour, the sound of a frog croaking inside a large galvanized wash basin, the sound of a struggling copier into whose paper intake somebody has fed plastic wrap, the sound of an alien spacecraft idling outside the emergency entrance while one of its crew-members is treated for a fractured fifth ankle, a few brief siren-ish whines like a dot-matrix printer spitting out the discharge paperwork, a long interval during which the alien ship gets sonar-pinged by a flying submarine while they wait for AAA to come give them a jump-start, and an anticlimactic finale in which the alien ship and the flying submarine flirt briefly, via Morse code, but get bored and fall asleep before anything comes of it. I still enjoy the album, in the sense that I think it's cool for this to be how my house sounds for an hour, but I'd have liked it even better if the flying submarine, the hospital, the alien ship, or all three, had exploded at the end.
Aube: Pages From the Book
The entire Aube catalog, however, and that's thirteen albums on my shelf, which represent enough hours of pure noise to relieve you of your sense of smell and most of your ligaments, might as well be an elaborate build up with no other purpose than to make Pages From the Book possible. Album after album Akifumi takes some mundane material object, peers into its soul, and extracts the agony of the universe. It's not hard to assign allegorical import to the noise, but unless you or somebody you love happens to be a glow-lamp, it's difficult to find anything overtly political, or even explicitly meaningful, in any Aube album before this one, and so the topical twist, when it comes, is completely unexpected. Pages From the Book's title is only slightly coy: the book in question is the Bible. The credits do not reveal exactly what Akifumi did to his Bible to coax noises out of it, but you don't need night-vision goggles to spot the implicit "Tearing" at the beginning of the title, and when "Hymn" opens with just that noise, page after page being methodically torn from the binding, a tiny tap in between each rip as if he's tallying the pages as he removes them, this album becomes the musical equivalent of Andres Serrano's Piss Christ. Pages From the Book will probably neither suffer from the same level of outrage, nor benefit from the same level of notoriety as Piss Christ, since the blasphemy, in this case, has to be explained to the listener, but the meta-messages of the two works are, I think, the same. Serrano's great philosophical victory is that nobody ever discusses Piss Christ on purely aesthetic grounds. The contention of the work is that the subject provokes such strong conditioned reactions that rational discourse about the execution is impossible, and every offended denunciation, every self-righteous defense and every tedious journalistic summary of the progress of the fight proves its point. Extracting yourself from the implications of the title is simply impossible, and so the discussion of Piss Christ as visual art never begins. Was urine really the best choice, or would light have refracted more intriguingly through apple juice, or light beer, or safflower oil? Should the container have been bigger, or some other shape? The crucifix smaller, more buoyant, made of some other material, painted differently? The questions are pointless. For all we know Serrano did use apple juice, because real urine didn't look urine-y enough. The single word "Piss" changes the world. Similarly, trying to discuss the sonic details of Pages From the Book is inane. Maybe the pages would have torn more evocatively if the tome had been soaked in heavy cream for a week and then dried out in a Tandoori oven. Perhaps the sound of Akifumi using a bent paper clip to punch three tiny holes in every instance of Jesus Christ's name would have added some percussive counterpoint to the serrated ripping noises, and the low rasp of running unfiled fingernails over the pebbled leather cover would have supplied a bass line. It doesn't matter. Likewise, it's even beyond us to be sure what the work, itself, conveys. What does submerging Christ in urine mean? That God is in everything, even our fluids? That Christ was forced to live his life amidst filth? That if faith is as powerful as people claim, it ought to show up in drug tests? And the noises Aube makes out of a Bible, are they a dream about the consequences of heresy, or a gesture of defiance, or an attempt to apprehend the word of God directly, without the intermediary confusion of human language? Is he really tearing the pages out, or are we hearing the sound, massively amplified, of a finger, scarred from a lifetime of homelessness and periodic incarceration, tracing words, a dyslexic new believer laboriously memorizing the entirety of the gospel according to Matthew? It could be anything. Only our launch velocity, as we leap towards conclusions, determines where we land.