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Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, June 2009

Back in 1979, Brian Eno released a recording called Music for Airports. Annoyed by the “canned” music he heard in airports, Eno set out to create his own “ambient” music that could be used in those environments instead. Played continuously, it would blend into the surroundings, and would be as satisfying to hear as not hear. The music itself was comprised of overlapping elements on tape and tape loops, and was scored for acoustic and electric piano, synthesizer, and wordless vocals. Music for Airports ultimately was installed in one of LaGuardia Airport’s terminals. The LP became a small hit among new-music intellectuals, and remains appreciated today.

Almost two decades later, composers Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Evan Ziporyn—all associated with the New York-based new music collective Bang on a Can— arranged Music for Airports for acoustic instruments—one original LP track per composer—and recorded it for Philips’s Point Music label. The following year, Bang on a Can All-Stars performed the new arrangements live at the Holland Festival. On that occasion, the music was accompanied by a digitally shot video by filmmaker Frank Scheffer. Scheffer’s video, shot in and around Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, was comprised of intentionally out-of-focus images, and the result was ambient video to complement Eno’s ambient music.

The first part of this DVD replicates that Holland Festival concert, although I think that the musical portion returns to the Point Music CD. Eno commented that hearing Music for Airports live was “surprisingly emotional and moving,” and I agree. This performance is more interesting than the studio-based construction heard on Eno’s original recording. “Interesting” might be beside the point, however. The music and the video are truly ambient in the sense that it is equally valid whether you listen to and watch them or not. In fact, as I was playing the first part of this DVD (several times), I dozed off (more than once), which would be an insult if Heifetz were playing Beethoven, but which seems acceptable for the intersection between Eno and Scheffer. Don’t get me wrong; this is pretty music to hear and these are pretty images to watch, and I am quite happy with this DVD; but gripping it is not—nor do I think it was meant to be.

The second part of this DVD is a 52-minute documentary by Scheffer. Most of it is in focus, yet it has a “fuzzy” center in Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe. I wrote “fuzzy” not to describe the video quality, but to describe the vagueness of the subject matter. One might call this a documentary about Bang on a Can and its artistic creds, except there are many interviews with composers (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Elliott Carter, John Cage, Louis Andriessen, etc.) about American classical music at the end of the last century. Or one might turn it the other way around. Snippets of music abound, but these snippets are annoyingly short, and sometimes they are even stacked one on another. (Very Cage-like.) In the Ocean consequently feels like it has attention deficit disorder, although I won’t deny that it held my attention, and that visually Scheffer does many interesting things throughout its length. It did make me want to pull out CDs I have not heard in many years, though, and that’s a good thing too.

With or without Scheffer’s images, Bang on a Can’s retooling of Music for Airports is definitely worth experiencing if you like your music simultaneously gorgeous and uneventful. In the Ocean is entertaining, but not very nourishing. A full-screen format is used in both, and the quality of the audio and the video is just fine.

K. Fennessy
Video Librarian, May 2009

Music for Airports features a double-bill from Dutch filmmaker Frank Scheffer. In the title piece, which premiered at 1999’s Holland Festival, Scheffer’s abstract video imagery provides the visuals for New York’s six-piece Bang on a Can performance of Brian Eno’s 1978 ambient music album (this version was also released on CD in 1998). Divided into four parts, each section features an arrangement by a different member: Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Evan Ziporyn. Since the musicians themselves remain off-screen—viewers are instead treated to out-of-focus shots of passengers and airplanes arriving and departing from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport—the end result feels more like an art installation than a concert. As for the music itself, Eno explained in the liner notes to the original record that “it must be as ignorable as it is interesting,” which about sums it up. The second Scheffer film—2001’s In the Ocean—takes a wide-ranging look at contemporary avant-garde/minimalist music, focusing on the story of Bang on a Can, while offering commentary from peers and influences such as Eno, John Cage, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Elliot Carter, and Louis Andriessen. Music samples and scenes of bustling Big Apple street life are interspersed throughout. Modern music collections will want to consider—more for the informative documentary than the lackluster title piece—but this is optional elsewhere.

Michael Barrett
PopMatters, March 2009

Brian Eno coined the term “ambient music” for a certain kind of complex environmental music (his own) that rewarded any level of attention. His liner notes for the 1978 album Music for Airports says “it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”. He was claiming his own section of a musical canvas stretching from Erik Satie’s “furniture music” at the high end to, at the most reviled (and popular) end, the sort of easy-listening pop discussed in Joseph Lanza’s brilliant book Elevator Music.

Ambient, in a field somewhere off to the left of New Age and a mile from the intersection of Mulholland Drive and Tangerine Dream, is timbral, seemingly formless, and characterized by a sound that is hypnotic, lulling and mesmerizing. It’s a compliment to say it can put you to sleep.

Bang on a Can All-Stars, consisting of musicians associated with New York’s Bang on a Can music festival, issued their own cover album of Music for Airports in 1998, in which they recreated or interpreted Eno’s work acoustically, and the following year they performed it live at the Holland Festival accompanied by a video projected overhead. Frank Scheffer made that video, a 50-minute work in four parts, and here it is. (I’m not sure if the soundtrack we’re hearing is the live performance or the album.)

Shot at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, it’s a work of avant-garde minimalism consisting entirely of slow, out-of-focus shots. Aside from the abstract aesthetic quality of the results, to which Scheffer ascribes a certain philosophical methodology that embraces the writings of Vassily Kandinsky and the chance-effects of John Cage, I can’t help observing that this choice also obviates the need for anyone at the airport to sign a release or sue the filmmakers.

Part One consists of people entering the sliding doors, with the unfocused aura making it all look like its shot through bevelled glass or under water. The camera goes up and down in a glass elevator. Some longshots of walking ectoplasmic elongated figures are run backward.

Part Two focuses on the planes as they taxi the runway. Part Three renders passers-by so abstractly that they no longer appear human but resemble walking raincoats, unless everyone has taken the veil.
Part Four may be the most beautiful musically and visually, though that’s an arbitrary judgment. The images of waiting crowds are especially dense in color and texture. Those who wear glasses may not have considered that their “alternative vision” could be a source of gnostic beauty.

I’ve often thought that if some of Andy Warhol’s minimalist epics, such as Sleep or Empire, were available on video, they would be ideal to project on a wall at a party as a background movie in the same way you have background music: something going on that one might or might not pay attention to or cast a glance at now and again, something restful to draw the eye as ambient music draws the ear. This Scheffer video fills that bill. It’s in no way necessary to sit down and watch it, although one might; having it on is good enough.

Of course, name any type of music and there are people who don’t like it, and many people don’t like this stuff. They don’t “get it”. Those who don’t recognize Eno’s album as a beautiful milestone will find this video counterpart a must avoid.

Next on the program: In the Ocean, an hour-length video documentary from 2000 that interviews the three founders of Bang on a Can (Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, David Lang) plus a festival of all-star talking heads: Eno, Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Elliott Carter, Louis Andriessen. The intellectual content of at least half the video can be summed us “blah blah postmodern, blah blah eclectic” as everyone talks about breaking down barriers. The heads are best when discussing the specifics of various works, such as when Carter says his string quartet tries to balance cooperation and individualism, or when Cage is praised for the discovery of sounds as music (not to mention silence), or when Andriessen’s work is praised for its hybrid of American and European patterns (he discusses how jazz influenced him), or when Reich describes certain works by the Bang-ers that he admires.

The real joy of the video is that it’s a kind of contemporary That’s Entertainment, anthologizing moments of over 25 works accompanied by more or less stylized shots of New York streets. Thus it fulfills what Eno calls the art of curatorship, grouping certain interesting things together to call attention to them. Some excerpts from the Music for Airports video are shown, and Eno declares that because they’re played by real people, they have a beauty he didn’t find in his own version. That’s a significant statement.

It’s exhilarating to be reminded (or informed for the first time) of Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain”, “Music for 18 Musicians” and the piercingly beautiful “Proverb”; Glass’ “Dance 3” and “Music with Changing Parts”; and Andriessen’s “De Staat”, all of which give this film and contemporary music a nervous urban propulsion extended by Wolfe’s “Lick”, Lang’s “Lying, Cheating, Stealing” and Gordon’s “Yo Shakespeare”. Nor are postwar masters of American “difficult music” neglected, which is why we hear Carter’s endearingly wiggy and mysterious “Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord” and Milton Babbitt’s “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra”. Despite all the talk of eradicating barriers between genres, it’s fair to say, without disrespect, that the music sampled here is much of a piece.

The back of the box mentions the legacy of Charles Ives but no one in the video mentions him. Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen are mentioned in passing, but not sampled, as examples of Euro-modernists (though I think of Stockhausen as a Texan!) that some misguided and unnamed Americans tried to imitate when they should have been finding a native voice. (I’m sure a whole discussion could be opened up there, as every real or imagined movement must be defined against something else.)

Other superstars, like Edgard Varèse and John Adams, aren’t mentioned either, but that’s no demerit, since this isn’t trying to be comprehensive. It functions best as an overview of a certain nexus of people who influenced the Bang-ers, and as such is sure to encourage some trips to the listening station.

I don’t know if these are proper extras, but there’s a weird little segment called “Ring”, an experimental collage anchored on a production of Wagner’s cycle, and 13 samples of other performance documentaries in the Allegri Film/Medici Arts catalogue, including works of Pärt, Stravinsky, Berio, Mahler, Carter, Tan Dun, Messiaen and Stockhausen.

Bradley Bambarger, February 2009

For a self-professed “non-musician,” Brian Eno has created a world of inspiring music. The Englishman, now 60, helped found “avant-glam” rockers Roxy Music and produced seminal albums by the likes of Talking Heads and U2. As a studio experimentalist, he invented “ambient” music in the ’70s (taking an early 20th-century cue from Erik Satie), using tape loops to create pieces that, as he said, “accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular.”

One of Eno’s ambient classics is 1978’s “Music for Airports,” a sequence of floating, abstract melancholy. For a 1998 Point/Philips CD, the Bang on a Can All-Stars recorded custom arrangements of the LP’s four sections for cello, clarinet, electric guitar, tuned percussion, keyboards, double-bass and synthesized voices. It was the ideal realization, the synthetic made organic; the undulating waves of sound pulsed with an emotion that even surprised Eno, who found it “quite touching.”

In 1999, the Bang on a Can All-Stars performed “Music for Airports” in Holland, with Dutch filmmaker Frank Scheffer’s atmospherically out-of-focus images from the Amsterdam airport projected overhead. This DVD showcases those images, with the 50-minute performance as a soundtrack (the players never shown). For those who want ambient images to go along with the ambient music, the DVD will fit the bill, although it doesn’t come in surround sound, a missed opportunity.

Also on the DVD is “In the Ocean,” Scheffer’s 1999 portrait of New York’s contemporary music scene, with Bang on a Can’s founding composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe as end-of-century exemplars. Their key influences, minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass, are featured at length, with John Cage as spiritual godfather, Dutch minimalist Louis Andriessen as Old World uncle and Elliott Carter as acceptable uptown influence. Eno and Frank Zappa figure as non-classical inspirations. The film is a bit of a hodgepodge, but the musical excerpts are tied together by Scheffer’s gorgeous images of New York.

The Buffalo News, February 2009

Director Frank Scheffer’s meditative soft-focus shots form more than able counterpoint to this performance of Brian Eno’s ambient music masterwork “Music for Airports” (Medici Arts) as offered by “In the Ocean,” which is ostensibly the story of Bang On A Can, but, with insight from the likes of John Cage, Eno and Steve Reich, becomes much more than that. Really, it’s an examination of the transformative nature of the artistic process, as it applies to music. This is far less hoity-toity than it sounds. Beautiful, and touching.

James McQuiston
NeuFutur Magazine, January 2009

This DVD set has a high value for fans of ambient or new takes on classical music. This is due to the fact that Brian Eno’s (and Bang on a Can All-Stars) “Music for Airports” is present, while Frank Scheffer’s “In the Ocean” operates as the B-side to “Music for Airports”. Together, these pieces hover at about 105 minutes, allowing viewers to get deep into the heads of everyone associated with “Music for Airports”. Instead of going forth with a concert type of documentary that splices in interviews and discussions about the band with parts of the live performance, the divided nature of this DVD allows individuals to take the plunge with the music first and then get a roper explanation and debriefing about what one just heard.

“In the Ocean” has a little bit larger of a focus, and gives viewers some education about modern experimental musicians that aren’t Brian Eno. This list includes Louis Andriessen, Steve Riech, and goes into a little bit more detail about the Bang on a Can All-Stars (David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon). The DVD is important because both the musical and documentary side of the disc showcase the past, present, and future of cutting-edge music. This linking of the three distinct time periods has been already explained for “In the Ocean”, but “Music for Airports” showcases the past (the album “Music for Airports” was originally released thirty years ago), the present (Brian Eno) and the future (the Bang on a Can) of experimental music.

The cheap price of the DVD should make this DVD accessible to everyone; hopefully this package is what is necessary to get a whole generation of new listeners to the style, and that some of these listeners ultimately decide to create music of their own. Congratulations have to go out to Medici Arts for putting together such a tidy package.

Robert Benson, January 2009

Music for Airports is not new; it was composed by Brian Eno 1978. Scored for voices and instruments including acoustic piano and synthesizer, it was conceived "to defuse the irritating atmosphere of an airport terminal." In 1999 a new version arranged by Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Evan Ziporynl was performed by Bang on a Can All-Stars at the Holland Festival. The 50 minute work was accompanied by Frank Scheffer's varied images of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, and the result is seen on this DVD. The four sections are quite similar, all subdued in mood, with quiet, moving textures that could easily remind one of New Age Music. And while we listen to this, we see slow-moving images from the airport: passengers, planes and masses of color, all very much out of focus. Scheffer's 53-minute documentary In the Ocean "endeavors to explain the complex contemporary-music picture of the past thirty years, as well as showing how ideas move back and forth between continents." It features the ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars as well as interviews with major composers including Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Brian Eno…Contemporary music afficionados will welcome this release.

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6:19:25 PM, 29 August 2015
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