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Review by Seth Rogovoy

[MUSIC REVIEW] Avalon Quartet in Close Encounters at Mahaiwe
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[FILM REVIEW] Bill Cunningham New York
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(Concert Review) Bang on a Can plays Brian Eno

Bang on a Can All-Stars
BRIAN ENO: Music for Airports
Saturday, July 23, 2005

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have somehow stumbled upon Brian Eno's seminal ambient work, MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS (along with his MUSIC FOR FILMS) in the late-1970s, shortly after its initial release.

I literally stumbled upon it. I was telling a friend the other day how I bought the LP knowing little or nothing about it, about the composer or the music. I think that I was attracted to the simplicity of the cover, and no doubt, being a poor student at university at the time, by the fact that it was in the cutout bin, and probably ran me about, oh, all of $3, at a time when full-priced, new records were something like $7 or $8.

Although I'm sure I did not fully grasp the music's or project's import at the time, I loved it from the beginning, and, as I think Eno would have wanted it, it was a piece of music that accompanied me everywhere I went over the next quarter-century. I have vivid sense memories of listening to this quiet, chilling, environmental piece in campus dorm rooms, in off-campus apartments, in a Manhattan studio, in a postmodern rural retreat in the mountains, at my desk in my office, and, most recently, aboard an airplane, where its programmatically soothing qualities -- Eno has been quoted as saying it was directly intended to ease fear of flying -- worked wonders on my pre- and during-flight anxieties.

That Eno would go on to become, to my mind, one of the single most important and influential musical figures of the last quarter-century is a whole other topic to be addressed at another time (I make the claim based on his influential work with David Bowie, Talking Heads, and U2, each at the creative height of their careers, each of whom were incredibly influential on their own afterwards, credit thus ensuing to Eno, who also mentored producer Daniel Lanois, whose own groundbreaking work extends widely to a range of artists including Bob Dylan, U2, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, and the Neville Brothers, among many others).

But back to MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS. This quiet, obscure piece of instrumental music, composed and recorded, I think, entirely by Eno on electronic keyboards, apparently dug itself into the musical unconsciousnesses of a small few influential composers and musicians, who were listening to Eno at the same time they were listening to Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and other minimalists. If Eno had one foot firmly planted in the rock world via his work with Bowie, U2, and Roxy Music, of which he was an early member, he also had a separate but equal existence as a musical theorist and apparently an avatar.

This I pick up from conversation with members of Bang on a Can -- most notably composer David Lang -- and also through the fact that Bang on a Can, through its performance arm, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, have recorded a version of MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS (performed by real musicians, get it?), and over the years have performed parts of it live in various settings, most recently last night as the centerpiece of a brilliant concert at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass.

I have to confess to mixed feelings about Bang on a Can's take on Eno's MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS. As originally conceived and recorded, the piece has to be taken as perfect and complete. As far as we know, Eno did not compose the piece to be performed by musicians; rather, he recorded it to be used functionally, as environmental music -- what we now call 'ambient music' (his term originally). There really is no more need for someone to re-record Eno's MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS, much less to perform it live on a concert stage, than there is, say, for someone to re-create your bedroom down to every last detail in a public shopping center, and to have you go there to observe yourself, or a replica of yourself at home.

Eno's original recording is incredibly powerful, boasting the ability to color or even transform one's environment and to affect one's mood in the way that lighting, ventilation, and color affects one. I have many pieces of favorite music for different times of the day, for different situations. But if I had to choose only one piece of music to take to that proverbial desert island -- or rather, even more important, if I had to choose just one piece of music that would be the soundtrack to my entire life, it would be MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS, as much for its elasticity and its ability to blend in with its surroundings as for any other quality.

So why then a concert version of this piece? Why then the need to violate its very raison d'etre and to put it on the stage at a concert hall and treat it as a work of art, rather than as the very effective piece of aural furniture that Brian Eno intended it to be?

Well, as Bang on a Can clarinetist/keyboardist Evan Ziporyn said by way of introduction, it's because Eno made it just a little too good. On his way toward constructing this piece of musical architecture, he actually composed a work of great beauty, and one that could be approached by sympathetic, living, breathing musicians as a text that presents to the musician some challenges and some material for personal expression.

So as performed at MASS MoCA last night, MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS was indeed a work of glistening clarity, mournful stasis, and a surprising breathlike quality.

The challenge for the All-Stars was not inconsiderable. Eno's work was written for keyboards, and by its nature, the All-Stars is an oddly configured ensemble boasting keyboards, clarinet, cello, bass, guitar, and percussion. That the musicians, along with the arrangers, were able to translate Eno's work for this specific instrumental lineup without changing the fundamental nature of the piece was just one of many things to their credit, in a concert that also included Julia Wolfe's BELIEVING, Louis Andriessen's WORKERS UNION, and Somei Satoh's SHU (Spells) -- 4th Movement. The programming was terrific, giving first-timers in particular a great flavor of Bang on a Can's world, its depth, breadth, style, and influences. Wolfe, of course, is one of the group's founders, and her BELIEVING takes off from The Beatles song, "Tomorrow Never Knows," taking it deep into a frenzy of noisy Asian exoticism. Satoh's piece was very reminiscent of Philip Glass's work, given a Japanese tint. And the Andriessen piece is a BOAC standby, a challenging exercise that gets played most years in the annual marathon, in which the musicians are, to paraphrase Ziporyn, told exactly what to play but allowed to play it however they want. In some ways, this could be seen as a motto for Bang on a Can, although the vast majority of the works they play are very precisely composed.

Those of us who have incorporated Eno's MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS into our musical or other environments can now make room or adjust for the piece to be part of the contemporary repertoire. The All-Stars did the piece justice and uncovered revealing nuances of humanity among the notes on the page. As the audience filed out of the concert hall, most everyone's eyes were glowing. Now, more than ever, we need a MUSIC FOR SUBWAYS -- a functional piece of music composed by Eno that can tame the murderous rage and violence that threatens our civilization. Maybe we should just rename MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS as MUSIC FOR SUBWAYS, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority should immediately begin piping it through all subway and platform loudspeakers.

We could do a lot worse.--Seth Rogovoy

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