The Art of the Airport
A thousand beautiful airports have fallen silent. Something has happened to the world outside. The familiar flying signs, the expansive terminals, and elegant concourses, the aprons and the majestic runways, once all strangely familiar, have somehow become impossibly silent, alien spaces. Large, graceful airliners have descended from their homes in the sky – with their landing gear extended, rolling to a stop, patiently poised on tarmacs. The footfalls of hundreds of millions of flyers have all but evaporated from the boarding gates and the arrival halls.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has brought airports, airlines and flying to a deathly standstill. The online world is replete with stories and images of how runways have become the new hangars of multitudes of flying machines. One sees beautiful, polished aircraft sitting like obedient schoolchildren on parallel runways and taxiways, waiting, nay yearning, for that one chance to fly again.
The most iconic of all modern spaces, airports are complex environments – replete with the sounds of people and machines and the inescapable roar of hundreds of aircraft taking-off (and landing). One can’t be faulted for thinking that airports are like works of art, giant sculptures of glass, steel and concrete that inspire a religious-like veneration in the scale of their construction and in the reach of the human imagination.
The Fantasy of Futurism
Among all modern objects, flying first found expression in the work of Italian Futurismo. Futurism was an artistic and social movement that originated in the early 20th century with the work of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in his ‘Manifesto of Futurism’. With a fascination for machines, speed, technology, youth, violence, it glorified the automobile, the airplane, and the industrial city.
Futurism worked itself into several mediums – most notably, painting, architecture, design and music. Futurist music rejected tradition and introduced experimental sounds, and would influence several 20th-century musicians including Igor Stravinsky, Arthur Honegger, Edgar Varèse and especially the American composer George Antheil, in whose work Futurism is most evident – his Airplane Sonata, Death of the Machines, and the 30-minute Ballet Mécanique are all masterpieces of the new machine-driven music.
Ambient 1: Music for Airports
Years ago, while playing an old iPod, I chanced upon a singularly interesting piece of music. Another glorious device of the past, the iPod I had was the sixth generation classic with the signature rotating click wheel. I had it on shuffle, and didn’t immediately see which track was on. I just let the music play. An amazing spaced out airy synthesizer sequence took hold of my senses. The tactile rotation aided in modulating the volume, and as the tune developed it seemed to me as if a giant airplane was taking-off gracefully into blue skies. I closed my eyes, and imagined I was controlling the speed and timbre of large whirring propellers. I fancied it was the Hercules H-4 airplane ascending. The H-4, owned by Howard Hughes, the American business magnate, was a massive eight-engine flying boat that had just one flight, and was built almost entirely from birchwood because of wartime restrictions. Irreverent critics had funnily nicknamed it the Spruce Goose.
The piece came from an album called Ambient 1: Music for Airports by the English electronic musician Brian Eno (born 1948). Think trippy piano notes and sustained synthesizer chords, and immerse yourself in a multi-dimensional mood-space. Released by Polydor Records in 1978, it is Eno’s sixth studio album. The concept album was created by layering tape loops of differing lengths. Eno is co-credited with coining the term “Ambient” for music, and he is believed to have done that to distinguish his experimental and minimalistic compositions from what he called “the products of the various purveyors of canned music”.
The music is best heard looped, as an installation, and as a thing in the background, and it has achieved cult status. Appealing to a subconscious desire for peace and calm, Music for Airports is designed to defuse the tense, anxious atmosphere of an airport terminal. Eno had decidedly set out to create music “as ignorable as it is interesting” and helped introduce unique conceptual approaches and recording techniques to contemporary music.
Brian Eno’s aero-centered album brings to mind both Futurism and the artistic architecture of Eero Saarinen. Saarinen brought the expansiveness of the sky, the airiness and bulk of clouds to his airport designs. The column-less overhanging domes, the polished chrome and the massive steel and glass structures stretching far and wide, mimic flight, the exhilarating power of wings and long, graceful fuselages.
Decades later, the Sheffield based electronic music ensemble The Black Dog would produce the seminal Music for Real Airports, in respectful contrast to Eno, an attempt to musically unravel the fear associated with flying and the tense environment of airports. A pioneering album in the realms of alternative / underground techno music, it extends the project of Futurism deep into the 21st century. Scary images of masked travellers flash before our eyes, as airports shockingly become disease centres – novel sites of transmission, beyond transportation.
Soaring on wings and tripping on sounds, I skim across the concourse of an airport in the Golden Age of Flying – only to find myself caught in a subterranean tonal factory of beeps, clicks and glitches. I’m forced to pause for a moment. But only to cheerily imagine, in a line from a poem by Nigel Jenkins, the late Welsh writer, that “I find myself insufficiently afraid”!
Author: Adil Hasan
Adil Hasan was born in 1971 in Shillong, north-east India where he lived for close to 30 years before moving to Bangalore. Having previously worked in the banking industry, Adil is now a visual artist and a freelance writer. His poems have been published in Kitaab and The Thumb Print magazine. ‘MAD, Attock, Attandi” a short story, was longlisted for the Half and One Prize, 2018. An exhibition of Adil’s industrial-themed art titled Escape The Dark – A Digital Fantasy was held in 2014 in Bangalore. He is presently working on a collection of prose poems juxtaposed with his artwork.