Music/Popular Culture

TunesDay: Spaced Out

In my 40+ years of life I’ve thoroughly enjoyed many genres of music, everything from ambient to thrash, bop to opera, bluegrass to prog. I like anything that moves me. Variety, spice, all that.

But in recent years I’ve become quite fixated on one particular kind of sound: space music.

I’m fortunate to live in such a beautiful state as Colorado. On a clear night, especially when camping high in the Rockies, you can see more stars than you might’ve even guessed were there, especially if you’re city folk. As you’re gazing into the night sky, it’s not out of the ordinary to see a multitude of shooting stars or even a satellite float slowly by, made visible by reflecting sunlight just as the moon does. Throw in a crackling fire, some grilled vittles, and a few ice-cold local microbrews, and what could possibly be missing?

Only one thing, for me anyway: cosmic tunage. (My five favorite space tracks are at the end of this post.)

I’m pretty certain my obsession with space music began with early listenings to the famous syndicated radio program Hearts of Space, which has been on the air since 1973. Throw in childhood memories of Carl Sagan tripping happily at the controls of spaceship Cosmos, Leonard Nimoy spooking the crap out of me with UFO tales on In Search Of, and repeated viewings of the movie masterpieces Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner–all with wonderful, elegant, electrical sound portraits in the background–and it’s not hard to understand that as forward-looking and futuristic as space music is, for me it’s also a heady nostalgic timeslide.

The genre is wide and even the definition rather broad; but suffice it to say that space music is generally keyboard-based (heavy on effects), loose in structure, and sans lyrics. It’s often categorized as a subset of new age music, though I’d argue it predates it. It can inspire a range of feelings: awe, dread, relaxation, melancholy, jubilation, nihilism.

Some artists feature guitar, percussion and even voice above the usual banks of keys. Other very talented virtuosos have even effectively brought unexpected instruments into the mix, such as violin and didgeridoo. (An excellent info source of space music, complete with links to artist bios, discographies and sound clips, is at allmusic.)

Elements of space feature prominently in many other families of music, from jazz to rock to avant-garde, but that discussion’s for another time.

Here are my five favorite pieces of space music from decades of listening, listed by artist, song title, album and year of release.

isaotomita5. Tomita: “The Hollow Vessel Called the Earth” (The Bermuda Triangle, 1978). You’ve heard Japanese artist Isao Tomita before, though you might not realize it. It’s his interpretation of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 that you hear as the theme of PBS’s longtime TV series Star Gazer. The man has a long, strange, wonderful catalog of electronica, and a recurring theme for him is extraterrestrial life. For me, this particular piece evokes being lost in the shadowy mazes of some enormous, drifting space colony (i.e., Earth).

jeanlucponty4. Jean-Luc Ponty: “Wandering on the Milky Way” (Imaginary Voyage, 1976). Ah, Monsieur Ponty… he’s one of my absolute favorite musicians of any genre. He’s improvised with Frank Zappa, jammed with John McLaughlin, and funked out with Stanley Clarke; not bad for a guy playing an electric violin. It was hard to just think of one gem of his, and in a longer list his works would appear many more times (such as “Cosmic Messenger,” “Solitude,” “Eulogy to Oscar Romero”) so I figured I’d start with one of his earliest and most memorable solo space flights.

vangelis3. Vangelis: “Blade Runner Blues” (Blade Runner, recorded 1982, released 1994). The greatest track in the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. Greece’s Evangelos Papathanassiou was never better than on this brilliant and memorable collection of song stories, and “Blues” is his masterpiece: a noirish, pensive, reflective moment in futuretime. There’s an extended version of it worth tracking down, as well as an interesting interpretation by the New American Orchestra. Vangelis released further music inspired by the movie in 1997.

steveroach2. Steve Roach: “The Return” (Dreamtime Return, 1988). Goodness, where to begin (or end) with Steve Roach? The indefatigable maestro of sweeping, ambient spacescapes has so many gems to choose from, I was lost while writing this in a deeply satisfying review of many of them. Although his ominous “The Grounding Place” and celebrated meditation “Structures from Silence” are fond favorites, I had to go with this hypnotic channeling of Aboriginal spirituality with its dramatic tonal change in the middle. It’s a powerful sonic exploration of space, time, and purpose.

gilesreaves11. Giles Reaves: “Suspended… On a Sea of Glass” (Sea of Glass, 1992). This miraculous composition is the pinnacle of Reaves‘ all-too brief catalog of works, which includes other acclaimed albums such as Wunjo and Sacred Space. There is nothing else I’ve ever listened to that better accompanied stargazing (or daydreaming) than this multi-layered, celestial, cerebral magnum opus, a cornucopia of sound that requires–and rewards–repeated listenings. It’s the electronic equivalent of Yes’ awe-inspiring “Awaken.” It’s music Sagan could smoke a bowl to.

I freely admit that I’ve not yet heard all the acknowledged milestones of space music, nor much of its latest and greatest, and I’ve missed plenty of episodes of HoS. But that just leaves me more to explore and that’s at the heart of this journey anyway: discovery. So I welcome suggestions and would love to read about your own favorites and related recollections.

16 replies »

  1. Oh, Mike. I hadn’t thought of this in years, but I used to listen to a CD of Vangelis film music to wind down – listen obsessively, really, since that’s what I do, and by the time the Blade Runner theme played I’d be almost in a trance, which was the goal. Vangelis in a slowly darkening room as the sun set and the evocative power of those Blues.

    And Close Encounters – those tones give me goosebumps just thinking about them. I first saw it at a drive-in when I was… eight, maybe? Most of it didn’t interest me, but when the ships started darting and the music talked and the mother ship appeared I started crying because it was all. So. Wonderful. I wanted to GO. I wanted it to be true. Now, at 39, that scene still makes me cry every damn time and the music is so much a part of the response.

    TMI, huh? What a great post. I’m downloading that Vangelis right now and checking out the rest of your suggestions.

  2. Chris: My pleasure.

    Ann: Spielberg’s made some great movies, but ‘Close Encounters’ is… well… closest to my heart. I’m soon going to be watching it with my own 7-year-old daughter, who seems to totally dig space and the music I associate it with. And as for ‘In Search Of’… weren’t the pre-Internet days a wonderful, spooky, mysterious mess? Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Ah…a glass or two of wine, staring off into innerspace. I’ve done it many times. 🙂

    I’ve played Dreamtime Return over and over and over and I still love it. Here are a few other names Robert Rich, Brian Eno and, more recently, a group called Biosphere. I think Roach and Rich did a lot of stuff together. I love how they toss in a lot of tribal stuff, too. There’s also a CD that Windham Hill put out called “Path” that included a lot of different ambient artists. I played it to death as a tape and then bought again on CD.

    I bet you’d like a band called Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Especially “F#A# (Infinity).” Slammy turned me on to them a few years ago. Not quite like Roach, but the eerie waves of noise kinda wash over you.

  4. I used to have a lot of Tomita, too. I think my favorite, though, has to be his interpretation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Unfortunately, those tapes didn’t survive my transition to CD. I should start looking those up again.

  5. Tangent alert – we had an LP of some orchestral arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition with several of the Hoffmann drawings and watercolors reproduced on the sleeve. Eight-year-old me was obsessed. I might have worn out the record.

  6. Ubertramp: Yes I do dig Godspeed. Also, it’s a bummer that a lot of Tomita’s work has been unavailable for so long; you still can only get some of his catalog (like ‘Bermuda Triangle’) on import CD.

  7. Ann, I was obsessed with Leonard Bernstein’s arrangement. I think it also had Night on Bald Mountain on it, too. Hell, I was obsessed with pretty much anything Bernstein did. I had the soundtrack to West Side Story memorized even though I didn’t actually see the movie until I was in grad school. 🙂

    When yer a jet, yer a jet all the way, from yer first cigarette to yer last dyin’ day…

    Back on the original topic. Michael Stearns’ “The Lost World,” is another CD I can’t play enough. As for Hearts of Space…I used to tape the show and play those tapes over and over. It wasn’t just space music, though. I remember a lot of ambient celtic, indian, various african and mid east influences. I think that was when I first got hooked on world music. It was also around the time I was exploring different religions. As a consequence, some genres of music just seem to go together with religion for me. I suspect that’s how Brian feels about early Enya or Clannad or Loreena McKennitt.

  8. I have Eno’s “Ambient 1: Music for Airports.” It’s good, but I think I like Roach and Rich a bit more. Probably because of the tribal influences. I just like the primal feel of the drums. Must be the pagan in me. Heh.

  9. I used to have a cassette. On one side was an episode of HoS that I captured one Saturday morning from WFDD, Wake Forest’s NPR station at the time. On the other was Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. I’d flip the tape every night and play it as I went to sleep.

    Conservatively, I listened to each side several hundred times….

  10. Brian Eno did a bunch. In fact, he kick-started the genre with the Music For AIrports series. “Music for Films” is good, as is Apollo. His tracks turn up in a lot of films. “Trainspotting” lifts a track from Apollo for an overdose scene.

    There was a resurgence in the early-mid 90’s with a dance-influenced feel: The Orb, Tetsuo Inoue, Phil Namlook are good starting points.

  11. Mike and commenters, we are monitoring your transmissions, thanks to the magic of Google Alerts. Thanks for the kind words about Hearts of Space, and the link to our site.

    Two comments:

    First, after working with this music for many years, it became clear that “spacemusic” itself was a subcategory of a much older, broader tradition of slow, space-creating, contemplative music.

    This realization broadened the scope of the program as Ubertramp says above. We actually list some 30 subgenres within the HOS Archive. Click PROGRAMS in our menu bar to see the whole list. The point is that under the electronic gloss, this is a really, really old kind of music.

    Second, the Internet makes it possible for us to deliver our entire 26 year archive of programs to anyone on earth on demand. Every show we’ve done since 1983 (the show was local only from ’73 to ’83) is there. You can now listen to them without the voiceovers for a completely uninterrupted musical/spatial experience.

    To support the show and the web service we charge for full access, but we’ve worked really hard to get the price as low as possible, and the quality is better than lots of FM stations. Advertising is not an option for us.

    So, no need to miss a Hearts of Space show ever again. They’re all waiting for you at

    Regards :: Stephen Hill

  12. Hi Tonsure. “There was a resurgence in the early-mid 90’s with a dance-influenced feel…”

    I would have included Boards of Canada in my short list, as I’ve become infatuated with them (thanks to my good friend Greg), but I think given their proclivity for bass beats, they fall outside the scope of my list. But they definitely have a brilliant spacey sound no doubt influenced by some of the things I mentioned in my post. (And I bet they watched a lot of Nova back in the day, heheh.)

  13. Stephen, thank you for your comment, I’m honored. Yes I’m aware of the HoS archive and I heartily recommend it to all. We’ve also added the HoS site to our linkroll. Regards and many, many thanks and green thoughts your way.