Music for Airport Furniture   CB0038

The music

Music for Airport Furniture is Cold Blue’s first release of Stephen Whittington’s refined, beautiful music. Whittington is something of a musical vagabond, traveling widely and writing music that is often multicultural in its inspiration. With this in mind, this compelling and subline string quartet could be heard as a strange homage to the act of traveling, airport to airport. The composer writes about the piece, “Music for Airport Furniture is a work for string quartet that alludes to Erik Satie’s ‘furniture music.’ I was interested in the airport departure lounge as an arena for human emotions—boredom, apprehension, hope, despair, loneliness, the tenderness of farewells—all taking place within a bland, often desolate space.” —Stephen Whittington

“Belying its Satie-esque title, this work unravels to reveal a music of sheer elegance and eloquence.” —Peter Garland

“Luxurious and comfortable. I could sit and listen to Music for Airport Furniture for hours.” —Richard Friedman, Music from Other Minds (KALW, San Francisco)

The composer

Stephen Whittington is an Australian composer and pianist who began performing contemporary music in Adelaide in the 1970s, giving the first Australian performances of music by Christian Wolff, Terry Riley, Cornelius Cardew, Howard Skempton, James Tenney, Alvin Curran, Terry Jennings, Peter Garland, Alan Hovhaness, George Crumb, Claude Vivier, Morton Feldman, many other composers. An extended stay in California in 1987, particularly his meeting with John Cage at CalArts, proved a powerful stimulus to his work. On returning to Australia, Whittington began composing in a new style that combined elements of minimalism, polystylism and chance procedures. Windmill, a work for string quartet from 1991 has been described as Australia’s “classic work of musical minimalism”

His keen interest in other art forms has led to his various one-man multimedia shows: The Last Meeting of the Satie Society (2000); Mad Dogs and Surrealists (2003), incorporating music, poetry, and film; and Interior Voice: Music and Rodin (2006). In June 2006 he appeared at the Sydney Opera House with Ensemble Offspring for the Sydney International Film Festival, presenting a program of live music for four classic silent movies. Whittington’s recent performances include Rhythmus 09 at the 2009 Adelaide International Film Festival and performances at the Vienna International Dance Festival 2009 (Austria) and at the Printemps Musical d’Annecy (France) in 2010. His string quartet …from a thatched hut, commissioned by and dedicated to furniture designer Khai Liew, was premiered in 2010, the year that also saw the release of the 4-CD set Journey to the Surface of the Earth, a collaboration with Domenico di Clario. In 2012 Whittington directed John Cage Day, a ten-hour performance that included his eight-hour performance of ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) and a Musicircus, incorporating many Cage works, including Concert for Piano and Orchestra. In 2012 Whittington traveled to Kyoto, Japan, to study the relationship between Japanese garden design and music. Later that year he appeared as pianist and composer at the Turbulences sonores festival in Montpellier, France and his Fallacies of Hope for string quartet and piano was premiered by the Australian String Quartet with the composer at the piano.

In 2007 The Wire magazine listed Whittington’s performance of Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories as one of “60 Performances that Shook the World” over the last forty years. (

The performers

Zephyr Quartet is an adventurous string quartet that, since its inception in 1999, has dedicated itself to expanding the boundaries of art music via many diverse collaborations, drawing inspiration from and working with artists from the worlds of theater, dance, literature, visual art, environmental art, design, film, and media art.

Based in Adelaide, Australia, Zephyr regularly performs in festivals across Australia and overseas and enjoys airplay on ABC Radio and TV. The quartet has an ongoing commitment to the development and promotion of contemporary classical music, often commissioning and performing new works by living composers. Described as “creatively adventurous and multi-talented” (The Australian), Zephyr proudly boasts several composer-players among its members and often works on commissioned pieces as a group. Recent projects include Hunting: Gathering, a collaboration with designer Khai Liew and composer Stephen Whittington (SALA festival 2010); Impulse with Leigh Warren & Dancers (Edinburgh International Arts Festival 2012 and Holland Dance Festival 2009); and MICROmacro, a live visual art and original music performance (Adelaide and Perth Fringe Festivals 2012). Zephyr received the prestigious Ruby Award for Innovation for its 2006 Electro-Acoustic Project and the 2012 State Award for “Performance of the Year” from the Australian Art Music Awards. Zephyr Quartet has released three CDs of the group’s original music. (

“These four musicians have collaborated with an extraordinarily wide range of other practicing artists and have significantly expanded listener notions of what the string quartet medium stands for.” —The Adelaide Review


“Given the title of this new Stephen Whittington piece, the classic 1978 Music for Airports by Brian Eno comes immediately to mind. Eno’s piece, incorporating phased loops and various groups of instruments, was an attempt to realize a more thoughtful ambient music for public airport terminals. Music for Airport Furniture, however, is concerned with the human emotions that play out within that space. Both works capture the essential lonely emptiness of the airport waiting lounge, but Music for Airport Furniture places its focus squarely on the human heart…. Whittington’s choice of the string quartet as the vehicle for this piece is inspired; the lush harmonies, intimate sound and wide range of emotional expression are a perfect match to his musical intentions. The familiar sound of the string quartet is reassuring even as the opening notes of Music for Airport Furniture evoke that distinctive feeling of emptiness and regret that we have all felt while waiting for an airline boarding call. The music proceeds in a series of long, warm phrases, offset by the occasional pizzicato arpeggio in the cello. The minimalist texture is both smooth and luxurious and the sustained chords deftly unpack all the many emotions that accompany an extended absence from home and loved ones. The playing of the Zephyr Quartet is outstanding, investing just the right of emotional content into each extended phrase and never letting the long tones stagnate throughout the 22-minute duration of the piece. We are carried gently and comfortably into a world of emotions we have all experienced…. I found that listening to Music for Airport Furniture also produced a distinct feeling of nostalgia. Here in the US, at least, airports have become so security conscious and the movements of people so controlled that there is no longer the emotional space for the sort of quiet introspection that this piece portrays so well. Sadly, the chaotic nature of air travel nowadays has left little room for the sort of lingering goodbyes that were possible in years past. Even so, Music for Airport Furniture is a masterful realization of the bittersweet sadness of farewell.”—Paul H, Muller, Sequenza21

“With a title like Music For Airport Furniture your (and my) thoughts probably go out to Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, but…Stephen Whittington is also inspired by Erik Satie’s “furniture music” (of course, how could I forget this), and for him the airport lounge is ‘an arena for human emotions—boredom, apprehension, hope, despair, loneliness, the tenderness of farewells—all taking place within a bland, often desolate space.’ Some of that desolation, I think, rings through in this music.… A sad and desolate song.… Sad but utterly beautiful. One to put on repeat.” —Frans de Waard, Vital Weekly

“Considering the wear and tear to which we subject them, don’t our public benches and tables deserve a little relaxing entertainment all their own? In a smile-inducing conflation of Brian Eno´s landmark ambient piece Music for Airports and Erik Satie´s unobtrusive but cerebral “furniture” music, Australian composer Stephen Whittington, who has in fact staged a multimedia show with Satie at its centre and dedicated music to a furniture designer, premieres his new, twenty-three-minute piece as a CD single for the stylish and discerning Cold Blue label.

“The airport departure lounge is a nonplace bustling, emptying and re-bustling with people weighed down with as much emotional baggage as physical. Whittington captures that ennui while reinstilling travel with the romance it used to imply. As played by the Zephyr Quartet, from Adelaide, just like the composer, Music for Airport Furniture is open and airy, contrails elegantly criss-crossing a sky-blue background. Ever elevating, the viola sighs, the cello is occasionally plucked, an impatient passenger shuffling his feet. A beautiful piece, far too attention-getting to be considered ambiently unobtrusive.”—Stephen Fruitman, Avant Music News

“This 23-minute work, performed by the Zephyr Quartet, has traits of Mahler, Ligeti, and Feldman—slow actions, melancholy topic, lyrical form.”— François Couture, Monsieur Délire’s Listening Diary

“A beautiful, sparse piece. Nice!”WRUV Reviews

“It is a long sustained meditation on a pivoting point of a series of alternating lush, close harmonic chordal blocks for the four strings, almost as if some portions of the adagio movement of a late romantic/impressionist string quartet were lingering in the mind, in a hypnagogic or dream state, stitched together imaginatively and stretched to endless sustains, melded together by the selective memory of them, like the afterimage of a bright light in the aftermath of its presence. Like that afterimage it is by no means static. There is recurrence but also development within the slow sequential unfolding.

“That is what you get on first impression. Repeated listens open up the long structures underpinning the mesmerizing alternations. Parts remind me of Hovhannes’s string writing, minus the Armenian roots, but that mostly has to do with the pizzicato punctuations and long sustains common to this work and a few of Alan H’s.

“The music is a kind of lament, gorgeous, reflecting, very gradually revealing itself in a state of profound quiescence. It has great beauty and expressiveness…. There’s nothing quite comparable to it. It succeeds in slow movement advanced tonal quasi-minimalist territory much more readily than some more well known composer’s attempts have. And it does it in a way that delights and moves the musical emotional-cognitive listening apparatus—or mine anyway. Yours too, I would suspect. Recommended!”—Grego Edwards, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

“The title alone invites specific associations, with both Satie’s Furniture Music and Eno’s Music for Airports naturally invoked by Whittington’s choice. The composer himself writes, ‘I was interested in the airport departure lounge as an arena for human emotions—boredom, apprehension, hope, despair, loneliness, the tenderness of farewells—all taking place within a bland, often desolate space.’ Certainly the setting offers an ideal spur for musical exploration, given the multitude of emotions that emerge each day within such an enclosed and concentrated space. As performed by the Zephyr Quartet, the 2011 work eschews the anxiety associated with the late traveler rushing to catch a flight to instead emphasize the tenderness associated with farewells and the sadness that follows, an effect intensified by the quivering of the quartet’s strings. The Zephyr Quartet delivers a nuanced and heartfelt reading that, in its wistful tone, calls to mind Schoenberg’s own single-movement piece, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), with both characterized by dramatic peaks and valleys. Twenty-two minutes long, Whittington’s pensive piece registers as a powerfully romantic and plaintive work whose emotional directness is both startling and refreshing. Interestingly, the title proves to be a tad misleading in suggesting a static quality that’s never evident in this constantly evolving work.”—Textura

“Consider the airport, the fact that it’s essentially a lonely place animated by your inward thoughts…a place of goodbyes and contemplation, where one is always leaving something behind, saying goodbye and pondering the unknown ahead…. Australian composer Stephen Whittington has captured this state of emotion and pensive reflection perfectly in this 23-minute piece played by the Zephyr Quartet…a gentle piece of wandering musical thoughts and ruminations, and melodies that never seem to resolve.” —Peter Thelan, Exposé

“[Whittington’s] sleeve comments about Music for Airport Furniture are a useful orientation to the musical content: “I was interested in the airport departure lounge as an arena for human emotions—boredom, apprehension, hope, despair, loneliness, the tenderness of farewells—all taking place within a bland, often desolate space.” This is expressed in slow moving and sustained chords, with close harmonies leaning towards gentle dissonances which are usually resolved through single melodic shifts—often a descent of a major or minor second. These are not static events, but a connected sequence which has its own logic and direction, engaging an empathetic response through a mood of quiet melancholy—moments of Janácek-like beauty extended and expanded into a work with considerable introspective strength. By way of ‘if you like this, you may also like’ hints, I was reminded a little of works such as Michael Nyman’s Third String Quartet or Howard Skempton’s Lento. The more open central melodic section has moments which have a more overtly romantic feel, and the sense of organic development in the work and feel of a ‘Golden Section’ climactic structure ensures that it maintains interest throughout. The Zephyr Quartet performs with magnificent restraint and the recording is excellent. Yes, you will almost certainly come away from this feeling more ‘blue’ than when you started, but we all need pieces which can express these kinds of emotions, and Stephen Whittington has them nailed.” —Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International

“The title of Stephen Whittington’s new string quartet, Music for Airport Furniture, is a double homage to Eno and to Erik Satie, who in 1917 composed the first of the pieces he called Musique d’ameublement (Furniture Music). In fact, it was more a Dadaist pose than truly ambient music: when spectators at an art gallery fell quiet so as to listen, Satie implored them to keep talking. Whittington’s piece isn’t necessarily ambient either, though I suppose it depends where and when you play it. Its slow tempo and repetitious nature lends itself to ambience, but the Zephyr Quartet’s performance certainly held my attention.

“What is interesting is how one begins to hear things in the music as it repeats. A particular sequence of chords gradually begins to seem darkly suspenseful—it helps that one or two of them might have come from the pen of Bernard Herrmann; a descending phrase comes to resemble the main theme from the slow movement of Beethoven’s first “Razumovsky” quartet. Perhaps this is deliberate; perhaps my mind is playing tricks. But, crucially, when the music stopped after a mere twenty-two minutes, I very much wished it would continue. I suspect that may be a clue to its ambient nature. The piece didn’t seem over; no argument had been clinched because none had ever been advanced. It was just that the sounds had ceased to exist and now it felt as though something was missing. With a non-ambient piece—for example, the aforementioned Beethoven quartet—you don’t regret its passing, because the music had made its point. But when there’s no point being made, and the music might easily go for another hour, the arbitrariness of its stopping seems almost violent.”—Andrew Ford, Inside Story magazine (Canberra Times)

“If the chairs and lounges in the airports of the world could be given voices, they may as well be these. Whimsy is Stephen Whittington’s middle name. He has many passions, among which Eric Satie ranks high…. He sees the departure lounge as ‘an arena for human emotions—boredom, apprehension, hope, despair, loneliness, the tenderness of farewells.’ How to approach this flight of fancy?… Take it and your portable CD player with you next time you fly….” —Elizabeth Silsbury, The Music Trust (Australia)

Music for Airport Furniture is a gorgeous minimalist work in which a string quartet broods on limited harmonic material; occasionally, a hint of melody ruffles its slow-moving and placid (but is it really?) surface. It doesn’t take much imagination to hear Whittington’s description of the emotions associated with airports mirrored in this work, which is nearly monotonous but never boring, given the sensuousness of the harmonies. Imagine Bernard Herrmann crossed with Morton Feldman (Bernard Feldman? Morton Herrmann? Burton Mannfeld?), and you’ll get the general idea. The Zephyr Quartet (violinists Belinda Gehlert and Emily Tulloch, violist Jason Thomas, and cellist Hilary Kleinig) plays it with appropriate and paradoxical frozen passion. It’s a beautifully creepy way to spend 23 minutes. This is Whittington’s first Cold Blue Music CD. I would like to hear more from him…”—Raymond Tuttle, Fanfare magazine

“Stephen Whittington’s title must refer to Satie’s musique d’ameublement (Furniture Music, coined in 1917) and Eno’s Music for Airports (1978), but he turns them inside out—an exploration of inner states…. Unhurried chords disclose the foundation, then the haze slowly and subtly clears as each voice finds itself. (Special praise to Jason Thomas’ viola.) Melancholy gains force—until a break at 12:50 resets focus. What follows is only briefly energetic. Isolated figures take over (15:40); the soaring violin is reduced to a squeak. After that, the group’s unison has a resigned aspect. The ending isn’t abrupt—no drama…. The Zephyr Quartet (Adelaide-based, like the composer) boasts the required impeccable surfaces and rock-solid intonation.” — Walt Mundkowsky, La Folia

“Here’s a fresh take on ‘furniture music,’ Satie’s designation for background music meant to be played live but not actively focused upon as one might in a concert setting. Imagine the stories airport furniture could tell: recollections of expectation or farewell, perhaps even anxiety, but most likely boredom and loneliness. Whittington’s 23-minute quartet is tonal, rich with triads and unhurried appoggiaturas suggesting longing and leisurely resolutions.” — Grant Chu Covall, La Folia

Music for Airport Fumiture…a taut, refined, barely evolving piece that any devotee of Feldman or Scelsi would appreciate.”—Roger Thomas, Int’l Record Review