Rethinking Music for Airports

Ugh, I hate getting up so early. But for a mini-escape from the city that never sleeps (insomnia, perhaps?), rolling out of bed at 5 a.m. is a small price to pay. As I type this en route to Santa Fe, I realize that I haven’t yet spoken to a single soul today. Thanks to e-tickets, online check-in, and predictable protocol at the security checkpoint (note to self: wear better socks, they’re still doing the stupid shoe-thing at Terminal 8), not a single utterance has passed my lips, and I’ve spent the past four waking hours simply listening.

Greeting the soft light of daybreak, the wispy pink clouds and dispersing vapor trails of jet engines had only the clacking of my rolling carry-on as underscore. The subway ride was also unaccompanied. Surely I’d hear some Muzak® in the terminal, but as it turned out the anticipation of travel was also experienced in radio silence.

The last time I was at this particular airport I was awaiting the arrival of a delayed plane from Ireland. As the hours passed, scenes of couples and families reuniting played out ad nauseum. These little dramas passed into cliché the longer I watched, waiting for my own turn to participate in the same scenario. When you think about it, there’s much more drama and passion per square foot in airports than in the megaplexes. No wonder Brian Eno felt this fantastical space deserved a soundtrack. In my silence, I imagined the sound of his tapeloops in my head.

After the flight attendant scanned the barcode on the inkjet printout of my boarding pass, we exchanged polite smiles, then an ambient music of a different sort welcomed me onboard the plane. As James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” hit my ears, I thought, what is this music saying to me in this particular context? Take your seat. Let others by as you stow your bag in the overhead bin. Tracy Chapman crooned “You’re the One” and a particularly annoying Rod Stewart belted out “You’re in My Heart” as the plane taxied into line on the tarmac, and I can only surmise that we’re to ignore these messages. That’s right, just let the music wash over you. Sure, you’re in a cramped steel and aluminum tube-shaped vehicle that will soon be whizzing through the air at 38,000 feet, so here, listen to something comfortable. Sounds like another opportunity for a tailor-made sonic experience to me (though I would prefer if was not Taylor-made).

Mind you, I don’t expect a John Williams-like fanfare when the plane safely lands. I prefer more subtlety. Why not tap composers to specifically create these aural pacifiers, rather than compromise music not designed to be presented in such a context? What about a sonic environment designed to gently transition the ears from the constant din of whirring engines to the comparative peace and quiet of the terminal? Eh, just a thought.

Here’s a departing head-scratcher: American Airlines seems to value classical music so much, they’ve even made it channel 1 on the in-flight entertainment system. However, they completely ignore composers in the program brochure, listing titles (Sonata III in F, Violin Concerto in E, Op.64, Adagio and Fugue in C, K. 546), performers (John Holloway, Nikolaj Znaider, soloist, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta, conductor, Andrew Manze, leader, The English Concert), and even record labels (ECM Records New Series, RCA, Harmonia Mundi), but not a hint at who composed the music. I’m feeling somewhat snubbed somewhere over Kentucky.

One thought on “Rethinking Music for Airports

  1. danielgilliam

    I was surprised to run across new music on a Northwest flight. In the back of an in-flight magazine, with all the beverages offered, airport maps, and movie selections for international flights, were the music selections for certain routes. To my amazement, one of the “classical” selections was a piece by William Bolcom played by the Louisville Orchestra!

    I scrambled for headphones, but alas, no music on my short, domestic journey.

    Reply

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