Ask the pilot

Music for airplanes: From "Der Lindberghflug" to the latest in 21st century classical-influenced techno odes.


Patrick Smith
November 4, 2005 5:30PM (UTC)

There's a song out there -- some of you will know it right away -- that references both airplanes (a McDonnell Douglas model to be exact) and this old Andalusian town. The first e-mailer with the correct answer gets ... Heck, you don't get anything. It's too easy. Frankly it's a song I never much liked, but anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of late '70s Brit-punk should recall it without much effort. (A more challenging quiz appears at the end of this article, with a prize for the sleuth who solves it.)

The first time music was discussed in this space was back in 2002, when we featured a list of songs having lyrical connections to flight. "Give us some songs," a reader had asked, "that we can listen to through our annoying plastic headsets." The request provided the break I'd been waiting for -- an excuse to yammer on about some of my most beloved bands and albums. When it comes to music, the yearning to share one's obsessions is truly among the more pointless and bothersome aspects of human nature. The temptation is irresistible, even if we know full well that 90 percent of the people listening couldn't care less. And those who do care are bound to disagree with all or most of our preferences.

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As it happens, my formative years, musically speaking, hail from the underground rock scene covering a span from about 1981 through 1986. Here's a shot for the ages, taken in 1985. The troublemaker on the right is your future airline pilot, 18 years old and in screaming need of a black eye for opting to wear a Fear T-shirt in public. (Fear was a somewhat awful, tongue-in-cheek punk outfit that once made an appearance on "Saturday Night Live.") The kid in the orange hat was his best friend Mark, who went on to become the drummer in a hardcore group called Slapshot.

This might not seem a particularly rich genre from which to mine lyrical links to flight, but the task proved easier than you might expect. For instance, I was able to remind people (as I'm reminding them again) that Hüsker Dü's Grant Hart sang, "Airplanes are fallin' out of the sky " on a song from "Zen Arcade," and three albums later his colleague Bob Mould would shout of a man "sucked out of the first class window!" (Hüsker Dü's "Land Speed Record" featured a back cover graphic of a Douglas DC-8, and the Beastie Boys' 1986 album "Licensed to Ill" depicted an airbrushed American Airlines 727 as its cover art.)

Since then I've peppered any number of articles with references to this or that '80s band, much to the amusement (or consternation) of Ask the Pilot's readership. I even confessed to serenading passengers with in-flight selections from the Jazz Butcher, the Wedding Present and the Reivers. On the way to Argentina last winter, I championed forgotten pop acts like the English Beat and the Jam.

And so on. The point of dredging all this up is to introduce another music column. Only this time we're going highbrow, free of the indie-rock shackles: How and where do more "serious" forms of music -- classical, and even opera -- convey an air travel theme? (Special thanks are owed to Julia Petipas for assistance in compiling and researching the following.)

Airplanes transcend ordinary boundaries both literally and symbolically, and have, since their invention, supplied provocative fodder for composers and songwriters. Many of the early ragtime hits, inspired by the Wright brothers and other pioneers, were celebrations of 20th century progress and derring-do. But as we'll see, that sense of transcendence encompasses not only wonder and exhilaration but also dread, fear and uneasiness.

The first classical meditation on powered flight appears to be Leo Ornstein's 1913 piece for piano, "Suicide in an Airplane." Written just a decade after the Wright brothers' feat at Kitty Hawk, "Suicide" paints a brilliant sonic picture both of a biplane's buzzing propeller and the turbulent state of mind of its pilot. It ends not with the fireball and explosion that modern listeners might expect, but with a gentle, fading diminuendo. Was it a painless death? (Flying was still mysterious enough in 1913 that perhaps the thought of a pilot flying too high and disintegrating in the stratosphere seemed reasonable.) However you interpret it, the piece introduces themes of danger and ambiguity that will crop up again and again.

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George Antheil's 1922 sonata, "The Airplane," is more of a direct meditation on technology than on flying per se -- the aircraft as a grand symbol of the machine age. The first movement is pure jazz -- dissonant, stormy -- while the second explores the relationship between man and his mechanized prowess. It turns gentle and meditative, giving a sense of poignant human fragility. Said Antheil in his 1945 autobiography, "I had no idea of copying a machine directly down into music, so to speak. My idea, rather, was to warn the age in which I was living of the simultaneous beauty and danger of its own unconscious mechanistic philosophy."

In 1929, we find a salute to Charles Lindbergh in a cantata called "Der Lindberghflug." Composed initially for the radio by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, the cantata was later the subject of some controversy in light of the hero airman's publicized outspokenness on race and eugenics. It was rewritten several times. Not surprisingly, Lindbergh's crossing of the North Atlantic also inspired hundreds of examples of celebratory popular music, including George M. Cohan's "When Lindy Comes Home" and Woody Guthrie's "Lindbergh." Lindbergh even inspired a dance craze, the Lindy.

Military aviation developed its own musical subgenre. World War I brought at least one tribute to flying, "A Hymn for Aviators," and World War II inspired several aviation-flavored hits and movie scores. The most famous of the era, debuting in 1939, just before the outbreak of battle, is the "Air Force Song" or "Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder." Marc Blitzstein, a little known composer and Air Force corpsman in the 1940s, wrote a patriotic work for male chorus called the "Airborne Symphony," a musical history of flight with a focus on military aviation. (A homosexual and admitted Communist Party member, Blitzstein was subpoenaed to appear before Joseph McCarthy's infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1958. He was later murdered while on holiday in the Caribbean.)

Also in the 1940s, another serviceman-composer, Samuel Barber, wrote his Symphony No. 2, including a movement titled "Night Flight." Barber later renounced the symphony, destroying every copy he could locate, but reworked the romantic "Night Flight" portion as a stand-alone piece. Evocative of a lonely journey aloft, it's said to be based on Antoine Saint-Exupery's "Vol de nuit."

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In 1953 Vaughan Williams' motet "A Vision of Aeroplanes" provided a sound portrait of airplanes as ominous and awesome. It's based on a passage in the biblical book of Ezekiel, in which the prophet recounts a terrifying vision of cherubim in otherworldly airborne vehicles. Williams interprets Ezekiel's vision as a premonition of airplanes. His flying machine is a metaphor for the scariest aspects of the transcendent: that which is utterly unfamiliar, majestic and terrifying.

Today, a century after the Wrights lifted off from the Carolina dunes in a contraption of wood and muslin, the experience of flight has become codified and mundane. With its familiar rituals and conventions, modern commercial air travel is so technologized, homogenized and sterilized that we've grown oblivious to the wonder of flight itself. As in many other areas of contemporary life, it's as though we've become uncomfortable with awe, choosing to insulate ourselves from occasions where we might feel it. And yet, beneath all of the trappings and obscuration, there remains a raw sense of beauty, amazement and fear. A few bold musicians have incorporated both the banality of modern air travel and its underlying exhilarations.

Brian Eno's "Music for Airports," released in 1979 and one of the granddaddies of what can loosely be defined as ambient music, does this indirectly. At first listen, it appears to present a sonic re-creation of the blandness of the modern terminal. But actually, rather than imposing a theme, Eno has created background music that's reflective and evocative -- not of the composer's emotions but of the listener's. Through a calm, meditative soundscape, it generates an atmosphere in which the listener can opt whether or not to listen; a space in which he can notice, if he chooses to, his surroundings, ideas and feelings.

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The 1990s bring us Jonathan Dove's aforementioned opera "Flight" and New Zealand composer John Psathas' 1990 piano composition "Waiting for the Aeroplane." As recordings of the latter are not available in the U.S., we can only go with what Psathas says of it: "The emotion of farewells, the distance between the two countries, the power of aircraft and the frenetic activity of airports all managed to find their way into the piece."

"Flight" takes place entirely inside an airport waiting lounge and the control tower overlooking it. Of this unusual setting, Dove writes, "We're very used to the banal interiors of airports, and maybe we forget what extraordinary places they are, portals between the everyday world and the magical world of flying."

While "Flight" is the only opera set in an airport, it's not the first to include an airplane in key scenes. That honor goes to John Adams' 1987 "Nixon in China," the original staging of which included an immense replica of a 747. The plane had the role of the presidential Air Force One, named "The Spirit of '76," that Nixon rode to Peking on his historic visit in 1972. (The real Air Force One at the time was a much smaller 707; the set designers were apparently going for impact, not authenticity.) Though just one scene in a long opera, the plane is integral to the story line. Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai sings to Nixon, "Your flight was smooth, I presume?"

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Going beyond either of these will be "Airline Icarus," a still unfinished chamber opera by Canadian composer Brian Current and librettist Anton Piatogorsky, commissioned by Opera Breve Vancouver. This opera takes place aboard a commercial jet and presents an ambiguous story line exploring the themes of "hubris mixed with technology, forced intimacy of strangers, and flying too close to the sun."

Elsewhere, the 21st century is represented by two very different, and differently skilled, artists. There's Yoyoman, aka Bruno Misonne, a Belgian composer of classical-influenced techno odes to airplanes and airports. Yoyoman manages to be simultaneously clichéd -- most of his beats and melodies are standard techno/trance -- and pleasingly ambitious. His incorporation of actual jet and propeller noises, air-to-ground communications and in-flight mechanical sounds helps lift his music beyond its own stylistic limitations.

Misonne happens to be an "Ask the Pilot" aficionado -- something I learned only after researching his material. Another fan is Bay Area musician Polly Moller. Moller was commissioned to write a flute quartet by the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, Calif. Earlier this fall she performed the piece, "Remove Before Flight," at the Hiller's annual fundraising gala. (The title is a play on the orange-flagged probe protectors worn by aircraft during extended layovers.) "Airplanes and flying have been a consistent source of musical inspiration for me for the past 10 years," explains Moller. Her upcoming fourth album will have a song called "Test Pilot's Lament."

Evan Ziporyn's marvelous 2004 "War Chant" (not yet available on CD, but expected next year from Cantaloupe Records) takes the listener on a journey by plane. Alongside snippets of brassy fanfare and high-hat, the orchestration ingeniously evokes the acceleration of engines during takeoff, while a taut and threatening energy builds beneath. There's a mounting internal and external tension -- that of the traveler and the airplane, until immediately upon liftoff we're swept away with a twinkling exhilaration and a strutting burst of brass. The tension is quelled and calmed, but never gone. On landing it flourishes again, until the turbines at last come to a halt. The cabin doors open as passengers unbuckle and rummage into the overhead compartments, switching on cellphones and assembling their belongings -- the quotidian noise of everyday stress sending us on our way.

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[Cue finale music]

To finish off, here's that promised quiz, with a gratis copy of my book and a rousing round of applause in the balance:

My Macintosh tells me that the band Hüsker Dü -- the Minneapolis threesome that was, for many years, a musical infatuation of mine -- has been referred to in no fewer than 10 separate "Ask the Pilot" installments. To some that's more than enough proof of the author's dementedly allegiant psyche, but it also sets up a good contest question: Two indie-rock songs of the 1980s -- to the best of my knowledge there were only two -- pay tribute to Hüsker Dü with a direct mention of the band in their lyrics. What are these songs, and who performed them?

Next week: Do I smell curry? Nonstops to India, limos to London and Letters to the Pilot.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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