Music for Airports

musicforairports

For several years I’ve been teaching film and science-fiction and feeling vaguely guilty about abandoning “real” literature. I realize that my standard explanation—that I’m exploiting rare exceptions to the rule of student literary disinterest—are false, and that in truth I’m drawn to this material because it lets me consider the historical disruption of the Internet and related technologies. This is not a disruption of gadgets but of everything—morality, politics, cognition, and even more basic stuff that barely has a name—sense of self, sense of world, metaphysical contour, logic and meaning of connection, rhythm, pattern. I’m gathering clues as to what’s going on, more or less for my own purposes, though also in the practical hope of complicating students’ relationships with their own cell phones. Unfortunately, the logic of our technologies (lateral, dissociative, disintegrative) militates against the sort of comprehensive philosophic statements we seek and find in modernist Bibles like The Waste Land, Ulysses, The Magic Mountain, and The Trial. One of the things that needs explaining, but ironically can’t be explained, is why this sort of explaining is no longer possible. In any case, we must make do with intermittent accidents of insight. My post-human primer includes:

J.G. Ballard, inclusive
Michel Houellebecq, inclusive
Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Andre Tarkovsky, Stalker (1979)
Godfrey Reggio, Koyannisqatsi  (1982)
Laurie Anderson, “O Superman” (1982)
Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror (2011-2016)
Don Herzfeldt, The World of Tomorrow (not to be confused with Disney’s Tomorrowland)

But my instinct returns always—obsessively—to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (1978). It epitomizes for me the post-human tristesse, beauty in quotation marks, the conundrum of a hugely complex banality, the increasingly indistinct divide between algorithm and emotion, the affect of the loss of affect, transcendental impersonality. In his documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World, Werner Herzog asks whether the Internet dreams. Music for Airports is an imaginable score to the dreams of the Internet, whatever they might be; it intimates what must be the ghostly formal emptiness of such dreams.

Herzog’s film borrows the prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Wanting to intimate imminence—the dawn of a new world—Herzog succumbs to romantic misassumption, as to an even greater extent does Kubrick, whose 2001 relies so famously on Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

Eno does not give us romantic imminence, but postmodern presence: the eternal circuitry of a machine melancholically aware of its own eternal circuitry. This is the digital echo of the last man, the endless loop of a final signal, truly a music for the end of the world. Some deep-space probe, having taught itself to think, will formulate something like this music as it glides through the darkness long after we’re gone.

“O Superman”:

The prelude to Das Rheingold:

Music for Airports:

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David Ross

Dr. David A. Ross is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is senior lecturer in English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of A Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats (2009) and the co-editor/co-translator of The Search for the Avant-Garde, 1946­–1969 (2012), the descriptive catalogue of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. He edits the Southeast Review of Asian Studies and has served as president of the Southeast Conference of the Association for Asian Studies. His enthusiasms include high modernism, modal jazz, Chinese ink-brush painting, and really well-made pizza.