When the innovative classical ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars released its version of Ambient music forefather Brian Eno's seminal Music for Airports (Virgin/Astralwerks, 1978) on POINT Music in 1998, it demonstrated how a composition seemingly far removed from the classical sphere could be absorbed into the legitimate canon. And although the studio version is already ten years old, the suite has remained an active part of the group's repertoire, performed as recently as last year at the Bang on a Can Marathon in New York City. With Music for Airports (Live) this unconventional chamber group has delivered a concert rendition of Eno's masterwork to pair with their studio performance; in doing so, clarinetist Evan Ziporyn and BoaC artistic directors Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe have turned Eno's premeditated artistry into something more interpretive and interactive, albeit in decidedly subtle ways. That Eno created much of this experimental music with loops of varying lengthsthe end result being a happy blend of coincidence and confluencemake BoaC's live arrangements all the more intriguing.
Eno's original intent with Music for Airportsand subsequent ambient recordingswas to create music of an almost subliminal nature. It offered listeners a relaxing sonic backdrop, a serene alternative to the stimulating music often played in airports, where stress levels already run high and stimulation is the last thing people need. It was music to be felt, more than heard.
While it's easy to lay back and get lost in BoaC's live performance of the piece's four sections, the group has made the listening experience more actively engaging, especially on Ziporyn's arrangement of "2/2," where there's an improvisational component and a gradual, dramatic build-up that's in understated contrast to Eno's less invasive original. Gordon's painstaking arrangement of the suite's most well-known section, "1/1," combines the ensemble's unorthodox instrumentationcello, clarinet, guitar, percussion, piano/keyboards and basswith sampled voices, creating a more expansive (but equally calming) soundscape.
Sampled voices also drive "1/2," but Lang's arrangement introduces the other instruments so gradually that its unhurried unfolding and slowly shifting textures offer surprises without losing the piece's inherently tranquil stasis. Wolfe's reworking of "2/1" make guitar and a variety of chime-like sounds behave in an almost call-and-response fashion.
The differences between BoaC's studio version and this live recording are certainly unobtrusive. With the exception of the improvisatory "2/2," it's more about nuance and delicate interpretation of phrase than vivid, definitive re-creation. But if the studio album proved that Eno's ambient music can could be scored as contemporary chamber music, then Music for Airports (Live) reveals it to be no different than any classical piece that receives multiple readings. The differences in interpretation across the versions may be rarified, but they're genuine differences nonetheless, and make Music for Airports (Live) a worthwhile adjunct to Bang on a Can's fine studio recording.
Music for Airports (Live) is a digital download-only release.
Personnel: Maya Beiser: cello; Evan Ziporyn: clarinets, keyboards/samplers (1); Mark Stewart: guitar; Steven Schick: percussion; Lisa Moore: piano, keyboards; Robert Black: bass.