Music: Flying away on Muzak

Bang On A Can are touring Brian Eno's seminal album 'Music For Airports' in its sites of inspiration. John L Walters is highly impressed
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Bang On A Can

Music For Airports/Brian Eno (with Robert Wyatt and Rhett Davies)

The New York-based Bang on a Can, All Stars, or BOAC for short, is one of the most visceral performing groups around, always prepared to grab contemporary compositions by the scruff of the neck and give them a good shaking.

Their last album, Cheating, Lying, Stealing was full of intense performances of music by the likes of Nick Didkovsky, Hermeto Pascoal and Frederic Rzewski. The latest recording project shows a completely different approach - reproducing a 1970s ambient classic in site-specific authenticity.

The only British date in a current tour that takes in Chicago, Milan and Vienna was Stansted, the Norman Foster-designed airport just north of London. The reason for this choice of bizarre venue was the release of their lovingly transcribed and arranged 'chamber ensemble' version of Brian Eno's Music For Airports (on Point, the label created by Philip Glass). The performance began at 2.30pm, and one presumed they wouldn't have had the least bit of trouble in reaching their next date - Pesaro - by plane.

The original Music for Airports is now seen as the first deliberately 'ambient' recording, but it was a logical progression from the work of the experimental and systems-based 'serious' musicians (John White, Gavin Bryars, Christopher Hobbs, Michael Parsons, Michael Nyman) that Eno recorded and championed for his label Obscure.

The work of Eno (whose musical output has been prolific ever since his early days in Roxy Music) was also informed by his interest in cybernetics and visual arts, and an understanding of the function and business of making records. Now the Band on a Can players and arrangers (unintentionally perhaps) have completed a historical loop, linking the more eccentric English experimentalists with their intense down town New York counterparts. Somewhat ingenuously, BOAC's co-artistic director David Lang has written: "This piece is composed in as sophisticated a way as any classical composer could compose it... there's no difference between how this piece is made and how Bach works."

Though Eno is not a 'trained' composer, he has paid close attention to experimental gurus Cornelius Cardew and John White, whose slow-looping 'machine' pieces had a huge influence at the time (his "Cello and Tuba Machine" was recorded for but never actually released on Obscure).

The diagrams on the sleeve of the original Music for Airports look like a young person's guide to Treatise, the monumental graphic score completed by Cardew in the late 1960s. Through White, Cardew, Nyman and others such as Tom Phillips, Eno had somehow 'inhaled' a classical tradition, but his pop sensibilities drew him to make more sensual and attractive records at a time when his contemporaries were often more interested in the process than the result. BOAC's painstaking and reverent transcription/performance both freezes and liberates the work. The score can be played and 'interpreted' by classical musicians, making it a kind of museum piece, yet bestowing upon it a live existence in concert halls and performance spaces... even airports.