June 29, 2005

Music For Airports (Bottom Up)

One of the earliest heads on the bottom up bandwagon was Brian Eno, the seminal music producer. In the late 1970's Eno produced a disc called Music For Airports, and set about pushing the idea of "ambient" music.

Last fall Eno rolled into NY and gave a talk about that album. The inspiration was John Conway's Game of Life. Conway is something of a patron saint to the bottom up evangelists, the Game of Life is a set of simple rules, that when run on a computer create an variety of patterns on a computer screen, patterns that display a degree of self organization. The idea of a simple rule creating complex results is bottom up nirvana, and quite a few people it seems are capable of reading a lot more into Conway's game then what it is, a bunch of pixels moving on a computer screen.

Eno's big thought, motivated, god bless him, by laziness, was to create a system for producing and endless variety of music. It worked via loops. Create a loop of sounds, play it. Create another one that is out of sync with the first, play it. The possible sounds multiply, the progressions evolve. More sounds equals more possibilities, its simple exponential math, pretty soon your out-of-sync loops will be capable of far more potential sequences then anyone could ever listen too.

On today's computerized sequencer and digital playback devices this is an extremely easy process. Eno played a new piece on a set of boomboxes with their cd players set on shuffle. He clearly took pleasure in the arrogance of the act. Back in the 70's though it took a bit more effort, and Eno's studio wizardry certainly calls into question his brags to extreme laziness. To make Music For Airports Eno spliced together reels of analogue tape. The loops where measured in yards or meters, he wave them through the studio furniture and across the room, a labyrinth of recording tape. Miles of it perhaps, woven together with extraordinary effort.

What Eno produced was a generative system a means of producing music a degree outside his control. But the operative word there is "degree", a generative system is still a system of control. In order to make his project work a huge amount of direction and control was necessary. The sounds on those tape loops where all carefully created, captured and curated by Eno. Beautiful sounds. The tape loops where carefully threaded through the studio, the machines turned on, adjusted and manipulated by professionals. The recording then EQed and mastered by more professionals. In order to make a record that sounds great, the way many thing Music For Airports does, Eno put in a lot of directed energy and controlled almost all of the process, or at least delegated control to a pro. Control was only surrendered on one prominent vector, that of the syncing of the various loops.

The system used to create Music For Airports is not bottom up at all. True bottom up music for airports gets made constantly by the travelers and airport workers themselves, random and generally unmusical. Music for Airports on the other hand is meticulously crafted for control to be given up over one particular aspect of the process. It is a system of control designed to allow a selective loss of control, a selective randomness. A generative system.

This is key to understanding what's really going on in "bottom up" phenomena, in the markets, in squatter villages, in ant colonies, in design, in filesharing, in the streets and in the news. The rhetoric of bottom up has little to do with the reality of action. What gets pitched as bottom up can often have its own top down, and maybe its necessary for it to function. What is really interesting is not the "bottom up", but rather the relationships and interactions between the "bottom up", the situations where control is let go, and the "top down", those situations were control is retained and directed. This is the process of generations, of creation, of interaction and progression. Not top down, not bottom up, but both and neither together, working.

Posted by Abe at June 29, 2005 01:28 AM


Great post. I'm giving up on democracy.