This week’s blog turned out to be Plan B. I’d originally looked forward to sharing with you the results of a bit of research into music at airports. Naxos has offices all over the world, but it’s headquartered in Hong Kong. That’s where I work, so I frequently find myself in the city’s rather splendid airport and I’m often pleasantly taken by the background music that soothes and smooths the way from check-in to boarding gate. The three composers I particularly recall hearing are J.S. Bach, Mozart and Gluck. I wondered how the airport managers arrived at such a selection. There must surely be some psychological work at play here, I thought; and there must surely be an interesting comparison to be made between the muzak of different international airports, with different tones arising from different psyches.
So, I asked the managements of Hong Kong, Singapore, Munich, Dubai, Oslo, Chicago O’Hare and London Heathrow airports about their musical modus operandi. The result was a disappointing, deafening silence. On to Plan B as a result.
Aviation probably seems an unlikely subject to use as a basis for a composition, but there are some interesting pieces in which composers have done exactly that. Occasionally the mirror between art and life can be poignant, not least with the sad, sad events that have beset airlines in recent times. Written just over a century ago, who would have thought then that Leo Ornstein’s Suicide in an Airplane for solo piano (8.559104) would resonate so tragically today? Writing in 2002, the composer’s son Severo M. Ornstein wrote that the work “was inspired by a newspaper story of the time, but may evoke images of the World Trade Center in contemporary listeners.” To which one can add the images of more recent tragic headlines. Despite his father’s avowed distaste for representational music, Ornstein explained, “one hears a clear imitation of the drone of a plane’s engine and the inner turmoil of someone contemplating his own imminent destruction,” as this extract demonstrates.
A much more optimistic and energising atmosphere is to be found in Vaughan Williams’ A Vision of Aeroplanes (8.572465). If you’ve never heard the piece before, you may be wondering why, once you’ve listened to the audio clip. The reason that live performances are rare probably lies in its difficulty: it’s described as a virtuoso motet for mixed chorus and organ and is a tour-de-force for both organist and singers. The piece was composed for Harold Darke, a renowned organist and friend of Vaughan Williams, who had been organist of St Michael’s Church, Cornhill in London for forty years. A Vision of Aeroplanes was composed in celebration of that anniversary, and the commission relieved Vaughan Williams of any need to tailor his music to an amateur choir, knowing as he did the quality of the professional singers that Darke had at his disposal. The words are as vivid as the music, witness the opening lines:
I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.
“You are the man who writes tunes.” So said the British composer Dame Ethyl Smyth (1858–1944) to her compatriot and light music composer Eric Coates (1886–1957). One of Coates’ most famous tunes was the march that introduced the film The Dam Busters. It told the story of the development of a British bomb that could bounce on water after being dropped from fighter planes before unleashing its destructive force on Germany’s Ruhr dams during World War II. It’s ironic that this music was so successful. Coates never committed himself to the world of film scores because of the editorial interference that goes with the territory. Yet when he was asked to write the blockbuster melody for this particular film, he indulged in a bit of jiggery-pokery, agreeing to write to order, when in fact he had already just completed a piece that, by a huge stroke of good fortune, happened to be entirely suited to the brief. But it’s hard to exclude Coates from this sky-focused article on such a technicality, especially as someone who once said: “I should like to live … in a balloon suspended a thousand feet above Richmond Park.” Enjoy the close of his The Dam Busters March (8.223445).
Finally, a quick dip into Ferde Grofé’s Aviation Suite (9.80172). Written in 1944, it comprises four movements, the second of which gives a hint about how in-flight service might have changed in the intervening seven decades. Titled Hostess, it evokes memories of slinkier times, compared with the often bustling, regimented trolley-dollies to be found on a plane parade these days.
Coda: shortly before going to production with this blog, Hong Kong International Airport gave a belated response regarding their choice of background music, which I should share with you:
“To create superior passenger experience at HKIA, we have selected various types of background music, such as classical, contemporary (like Jazz, Pop, R&B and light instrumental, etc.) to be broadcast in terminals to welcome our passengers. Besides, festive music will be introduced in specific occasions to enhance the atmosphere and emphasize the cultural identity during Christmas and Chinese New Year.”