Album Review: Peter Gregson – Terminal

[Society of Sound; 2010]

Music inspired by airports is hardly an original idea and a plentiful amount of artists seem to get frustrated or stirred by them at some point in their career. And even though it’s been more than three decades (!) since the essential Ambient 1: Music For Airports by Brian Eno, there’s a sense of careful treading for any artist wishing to use the departure lounge as a prime source of inspiration. Even though it serves most as ambient music as the title suggests, it also hauntingly catches the strange and amazing kind of movement you see when you look at an airplane take off from a huge glass window somewhere at Gate 3.

As typical as it is to shoot straight to a Brian Eno reference when reviewing an album “with inspiration drawn from paintings, buildings, air travel and the human voice,” it seems necessary to address the elephant in the room. And it’s likely cellist Peter Gregson will be prepared for comparisons with Eno’s 1978 opus. But if Gregson proves anything with his album Terminal it’s that Music For Airports shouldn’t be the only stopping point for, well, music about airports (the music for Terminal was written in airport lounges).

Gregson’s vision may well be the same but his output is a great deal more different to Eno’s wispy piano, vocal and synth landscapes. With the help of producer Milton Mermikides, Gregson layers cello to create his own little worlds. But what’s quite captivating about Terminal is that despite the fact that all the music was created with the one instrument, it can very often sound like something very different.

Take opening track “Minus (-)” which begins on a hazy but gently pulsating loop, like slipping in and out of consciousness while you try to sleep on an airport lounge chair. Streaks of distinctive cello come into play before more tracks are played and the effect of the whole thing becomes warming and reassuring. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you’re still sleeping or waking to the morning sun through the window of a flying plane. But as the track progresses and you reconnect with the starting pulse, it sounds almost alien now. “Dark Light” hits a hauntingly beautiful moment after the ninety second mark where everything fades away for a few seconds and a thump and the pluck of a single string follow. In the background a high pitch shriek akin to a plane flying overhead is heard. There’s a good few of these strangely engrossing moments, rich with your own potential imagery, that keep the already intriguing surroundings interesting.

What’s strange, though, is the tone present for the majority of the record, considering the relatively auspicious inspiration. There seems to be a recurring sense of dread and tension from the notes played implying something almost sinister. The opening rhythm of “Flight Path” has an impending sort of alert sound to it that comes across even more striking when it takes the listener out of the hazy middle section. “Spin” works in a similar fashion, keeping the track together with the initial rhythms but even though the tone might be lighter, sounds keep creeping up, adding to the nervous feel. The only noticeably different sounding moment is closing track “Plus (+)” which again seems to channel that image of warming sunlight through a window, perhaps over some serene landscape. Its warming glow help lift any dark and ominous coats that might have fell.

While researching this record and reading of multi-tracked cello, my mind instantly went to Daníel Bjarnason whose record, Processions, from earlier this year seemed to offer the most impressionable use of such a technique (in a classical domain at the very least). Gregson’s compositions aren’t quite as striking but still interesting. At the very least it can be assumed that Gregson did take some inspiration from Bjarnason as he now plays “Bow To String I” in some of his live shows. Also included on his setlist are versions of Max Richter’s work whose imprint can definitely be seen here too with the way certain notes linger and have that ambiguous yet beautifully evocative sound when hit the right way.

But with comparisons I oddly find myself wanting to come back to Brain Eno. Even though Terminal and Music For Airports share no common ground instrumentally, they seem to have a similar quality in the ambience they exude. The only real fault one can put to the work on Terminal is that it can seem to pass by aimlessly at points. I’m generally engrossed when it’s playing but moments like the middle section of “Flight Path” are times when my attention slips only to be brought back by the strange sound highlights described above. But because I’m able to drift in and out of focus like this, it makes the album feel like an ambient one, albeit one that is near pristinely complex and interesting when you put your full attention to it.

Thinking of Terminal as an ambient album makes me wonder how it might be received if it were actually played in an airport. I recall a study from years back where they played Music For Airports at Philadelphia airport and after about twenty minutes or so the staff had received multiple requests to turn the music off as it made the waiting passengers feel nervous and unsure. And that’s only logical – no one wants to feel apprehensive when they’re about to go flying in a big metal tube thousands of feet up in the air. Thus I can’t say Terminal would fare much better with waiting passengers at the airport despite its sometimes regal sound (passengers much prefer upbeat and sure-sounding music during their airport experience – just listen to the likely horn fanfare playing in the background of a safety video, reassuring listeners subconsciously that the staff are professional and know what they are doing). Still, everyone has different views and perceptions of airports and air travel. I myself have only flown a couple of times and still find the prospect of going to the airport strangely beguiling and exciting. Regular flyers on the other hand may well find the experience vapid and emotionless. Even after listening to Terminal it’s hard to figure out whether Gregson’s attitude to air travel is a positive one or not but at the very least it’s greatly interesting just to see how it can inspire someone artistically.