Imagine you are at the airport, your flight has just been announced and you join the channel of fellow travelers passing through security, a mixture of excitement, weariness and anxiety shared amongst you all. If you are at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport today you will hear birdsong as you traverse the walkways, playing back from speakers hidden in trees, but if you had been passing through Rijeka Airport in Croatia between 2015-2016 you might have heard something rather more unusual.

My own work, Water Drops, could be discreetly found on the staircase, just as passengers entered the departure lounge, in a kind of interim location, a kind of non-place. And if you had just passed through security you would be immersed within Interactive Sound Field for Istrian Scale by Håkan Lidbo, Matt Black of Coldcut and sound artist Jack James.

Interestingly both of our works were commissioned by the local Department for Culture, Sports and Technical Culture, who were looking for a musical sound environment for the airport, with an emphasis on the cultural and traditional characteristics of the Primorje-Gorski Kotar County.

Our works were reflective of the location and added design value by creating rich, evolving, self-adjusting sound environments in a space where ordinarily we are typically only listening for flight announcements, the occasional lost passenger and frequent reminders to take care of your baggage. As such, this meant careful negotiations with the director of the airport, the security team and strictly timetabled visits to the ‘other side’ – that’s to say past security, not quite as dramatic as the term might suggest.

Both of our works featured elements of the Istrian musical scale, which is protected by UNESCO World Heritage and sounds likes nothing you can imagine without Googling it. Usually played on a wind instrument, the sopele, it’s commonly played in harmony with another player. In Interactive Sound Field for Istrian Scale the public themselves could also trigger sounds by their movement so they inadvertently become players in the work, whilst mine took recordings of the original music and transformed it into thousands of musical shards that would spiral and spin across the space, echoing off the concrete walls and immersing passengers in this sense of place.

Who is the audience when no-one is really listening?

Notice here that I’ve not used the term audience as that suggests a group of people who have generally chosen to encounter a work of art and share this experience with others. Indeed, when one creates work there is usually some kind of feedback process. A magazine will review your album, an audience will clap and cheer at your performance (hopefully), and Tweets and Instagram pictures will capture the magical of the moment, but here in the airport it was something really rather more unique, that’s to say work that takes on the form of architecture in some sense, in that it becomes ignorable, yet listenable at the very same time.

Experiencing music in such an environment is not a new idea, but it got me thinking. When Brian Eno conceived of his very own Music for Airports in 1978 he spoke about music as background, ambient sound as a tint, a painterly term that many have subsequently used to describe music that exhibits calming and atmospheric moods. Legendary American composer and thinker John Cage famously never listened to recordings of music, especially of his work, so what is the value of recorded music in itself? Indeed, in the bigger picture has music ever needed to exist in recorded form?

Interestingly Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) became one of the best-known and most-celebrated classical pianists of the 20th century, but developed a love affair for the microphone, where he could control every single aspect of the recorded music. Live performance for him then became secondary to his needs. He felt that compiling different takes of music passages could create a performance that was far more authentic than its equivalent could be on the concert platform itself.

Speaking with Håkan again he thought that ‘music is not four-minute love songs with verse and chorus, but as a sound artist we can explore the outer limits of what music can be. Technology will make music dynamic and adaptive to the listeners mood, bio values, geo position and thoughts, so it can change the arrangement, duration and instrumentation on the situation. But I think that most of us will still be listening to fixed recordings of songs we’ve heard hundreds of times before.’

How do we listen to music today?

Certainly, the way in which we listen to and experience music has radically changed in the last one hundred years as we have seen. In 1890 when a group of musicians gathered in Russia to admire the latest modern technology in the shape of the Edison phonograph cylinder, they did what many do when faced with a lens pointed at them or recording device, they simply made silly noises and talked rubbish. Let’s not forget that these playful characters were celebrated composers Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the pianist Anton Rubinstein, radical figures of their day. Little did they appreciate at the time the influence this technology was to have on us all.

Taking this question to Twitter, responses were varied. People generally agreed that repeated listening and familiarization with a piece of music can be rewarding, but frequently the first listen was invaluable. Live and recorded music are different art forms, but how intangible is music – does a live recording of a show you attended really capture that energy and dynamic you experienced, or is that just your own memory and visualization of the show having an influence? Does the stale smell of sweat carry over onto a recording, or indeed would you even want it to? Most interestingly, I found that many people actually like the physical product more than the music itself, which reminds me of a recent BBC survey where it was found that the vinyl revival has meant sales increased by more than 60% in the last year but almost half the people never even listen to it, or perversely even own a record deck.

I’m of a generation where vinyl, CDs and objects have always carried memories, more so than photos at times. I treasure my music collection and would be lost without it. Indeed, back in 2018 I was interviewed on a website dedicated to people like me who treasure their archives. Check out Concrete Shelves for similar enthusiasts!

I would argue that music is one of the most powerful art forms we have and definitely the most social, and if an object such as a vinyl record offers a way to connect with others then all the better. Technology has already isolated many of us, so here’s hoping that the future does not take that away from us. In the meanwhile, please do not leave your luggage unattended.

Listen to a Podcast where I speak about my project
Talk at MTF Berlin 2016

A version of this first appeared in Electronic Sound Magazine Issue 22, 2016
Thanks for to Music Tech Fest for commissioning Water Drops