A BRIEF HISTORY OF SPACE MUSIC
Over the course of the 20th century a music concerned with various aspects of space and spatialization began to take shape. It was a music with its roots in both the aether and the living room, this latter because of the influence of Erik Satie. Satie was to have many influences on musical developments after him. One stream was the noisy yet minimalist vein that came from the influence of his piece Vexations. The other was as the spiritual god father of ambient, descending from his conceptions of Furniture Music. This latter is what concerns us here.
In French the term is musique d’ameublement a phrase he coined in 1917 and is generally taken to mean background music. It’s literal translation is furnishing music, though in English it has been standard to call it furniture music. It was a breakthrough idea in western music as it the music itself was to be a part of the room, a sonic background to furnish the space and not intended as something that needed to be directly focused on. Many of Satie’s pieces can be experienced as furniture music, but he only gave the name to five short pieces. The names are often indicative of how the music relates to a specific space.
Satie had a notion of music that could "mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner." His first set of furniture pieces gave that notion a form.
The first set of furniture music he wrote has names like “Tapisserie en fer forgé – pour l'arrivée des invités (grande réception) – À jouer dans un vestibule – Mouvement: Très riche (Tapestry in forged iron – for the arrival of the guests (grand reception) – to be played in a vestibule – Movement: Very rich)” and “Carrelage phonique – Peut se jouer à un lunch ou à un contrat de mariage – Mouvement: Ordinaire (Phonic tiling – Can be played during a lunch or civil marriage – Movement: Ordinary)”
The second set was composed as intermission music for a comedy by Max Jacob that has since been lost. As intermission music the idea of background ambience to fill the space is again asserted. Not much else was done with the furniture music and it remained largely unknown to the public except for being mentioned in a few biographies of the composer. In the 1960s some facsimiles of his scores appeared in the then new biographies coming out on Satie, with publication of the scores following in the 70s.
In America Satie’s ideas and music found a champion in John Cage. Cage was stimulated by the idea of furniture music and it inspired his own experiments and theories for a minimalist background music. Furniture music became a nucleus around which the minimalist and avant-garde composers rallied around with its emphasis on being played not as the centerpiece, but as something to create a space which people lived and moved inside of. Atmosphere, timbre, texture, long durations, repetition, and drone a part of the milieu.
These tendencies towards texture and drone were picked up by Brian Eno who built upon the idea of furniture music on his album Discreet Music (discussed in terms of its relation to cybernetics and information theory in Chapter 3). Eno thought of Discreet Music, as just what one of the definitions of the word discreet means: unobtrusive and unnoticeable.
''The ambient records are similar to paintings,'' Eno says. ''You don't gaze at a painting for hours each day. But you're aware of its presence, and occasionally you choose to go into it deeply - at a time when you're receptive and want it to affect your mood.''
The minimalist and ambient aspects of furniture music built on by Cage and Eno became major strands of what was to become Space Music. Another major strand came again from that great force of nature, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the German electronic musicians who followed his lead starting in the 1960s and 70s.
The Spatialization of Space
At the WDR Stockhausen became a colleague of Robert Beyer in 1953 (see Chapter 5). In a 1928 paper Beyer wrote about “Raummusik” or spatial music. It wasn’t about music from the stars, or music to create an atmosphere in a specific space as Satie had done with his furniture pieces, but was focused on the possibilities of having different sound elements localized at specific points within a concert hall or listening space. With the advent of electroacoustic music the spatialization of sound also became about certain sounds being in specific loudspeakers and moving sounds from one loudspeaker to another within a system. Stockhausen took the idea of spatial music, and the term, and ran with it, with composed spatial elements running throughout many of his works.
And while this spatial element was very dear to Stockhausen, he was also interested in creating music inspired by outer space and the greater cosmos. Following a performance of Hymnen in 1967 he said, “Many listeners have projected that strange new music which they experienced—especially in the realm of electronic music—into extraterrestrial space. Even though they are not familiar with it through human experience, they identify it with the fantastic dream world. Several have commented that my electronic music sounds ‘like on a different star,’ or ‘like in outer space.’ Many have said that when hearing this music, they have sensations as if flying at an infinitely high speed, and then again, as if immobile in an immense space. Thus, extreme words are employed to describe such experience, which are not ‘objectively’ communicable in the sense of an object description, but rather which exist in the subjective fantasy and which are projected into the extraterrestrial space."
Many of Stockhausen’s pieces of music are concerned with outer space, the constellations, and stars. It was a recurrent theme throughout the compositions he wrote in the 1970s, and he spiraled back to space and the stars again and again throughout his creative life. As such a few of the relevant pieces will be explored here and others will be examined in more depth in their own sections of this chapter.
Sternklang is a piece of music that pulls together Stockhausen’s interest in combinatorial systems (Glass Bead Games), spatial music, and intuitive music, among other things.
"park music", to be performed outdoors at night by 21 singers and/or instrumentalists divided into five groups, at widely separated locations. In a park at night the sky is open to all who want to receive the light and blessing of the stars, of those things coming into being. In the score Stockhausen says simply that the music is sacred and that it is best performed on in the warmth of summer on when the moon is full.
Stockhausen says of the piece, “STERNKLANG is music for concentrated listening in meditation, for the sinking of the individual into the cosmic whole”.
The music itself bears many similarities to Stimmung, in that overtone singing is done by the vocalists based on various combinations of vowel phonetics. The instrumentalists are also required to create overtones and also use synthesizers, sometimes processing their sound through the synth to create the required overtones. The groups are spaced approximately 60 meters apart from each other, creating the spatial effects for listeners who are wondering around the park, stopping here and there to listen to the different ways the music sounds in separate but overlapping spaces. Loudspeakers amplify the different groups, and each group is supposed to be situated that they can hear at least one or two other groups.
These separate groups of players perform independently of one another, but they also synchronize together at ten different times during the performance. The synchronization is done through the work of the torch-bearers and sound-runners. They run from one group to another, the torch bearer lighting the way, the sound runner, giving a musical “model” to the other groups. In the center of the park a percussionist synchronizes the musicians to a common tempo.
This complex work has an equally complex score, made up of a text illustrating the concept, a Formscheme, five pages each with six of the Models to be played in a variety of combinations, ten pages with ten Special Models, and a page of Constellations. All this material is given to the different groups of musicians who use parts of it for the structure according to the instructions. From this material many completely different performances of Sternklang could be given, due to the combinatorial aspect. Yet they would all sound consistent as Sternklang. The score is a vessel into which the musical energies are poured, and though the contents may differ between performances, the vessel itself lends its form.
The Special Models are the only times when the five groups are synchronized via the tam-tam, yet even within these there are part-patterns that may differ. Mixed in at different points of the music are the Constellations. These points are based on the actual constellation shapes interpreted as relative pitch and loudness. Meanwhile, the thirty different Models give instruction for how to sing the pitch material using the phonetic vowels from the constellation names so as to accentuate the overtones. Just as in Stimmung, the names are considered to be ones full of magical power. In all the overtones played there is a unique oscillation, created by the mouth by the vocalists, while the synthesizer players use timbre filters, and the trombone players use mutes.
The five different groups can be conceived as their own constellations, at times vibrating with their own rhythms, songs, tones. At other times they come into synchronized harmony. Drifting about these constellations are the human listeners, being exposed at different points to the intense and pure musical light of the star sounds.
He followed up Sternklang with Ylem, Tierkreis and Sirius. When Licht took over his compositional life starting in 1977 he managed to continue to work in themes of space, and worked dizzying amounts of spatialization and sound projection techniques into the various pieces that make up his magnum opus. Of these the pieces Weltraum (Outer Space, 1991–92/1994), Komet (Comet, 1994/1999), Lichter—Wasser (Lights—Waters, 1998–99) are especially significant. Michaelion (1997) is likewise discussed (at the end of the chapter or in the section on shortwave radio). In the Klang cycle his final series of works, he continued to be inspired by the stars. The electronic chamber piece Cosmic Pulses sees him completely leave the orbit of previous Earth music’s in his spatial exploration of space.
Stockhausen’s influence fed more or less directly into the Kosmiche genre of music in Germany starting in the late 1960s.
Other Planes of There
If you’ve ever listened to the music of Sun Ra you know that space is the place. To say that Sun Ra was interested in space music from a cosmic perspective is an understatement.
The man from Saturn himself said "When I say space music, I'm dealing with the void, because that is of space too... So I leave the word space open, like space is supposed to be."
In the 1930s when Herman Blount was taking a training course to become a teacher in Huntsville, Alabama, he received some visitors who established his true calling. He was to be a teacher, but not a school teacher. These visitors, Blount said, were aliens, who had antennas that grew above their eyes and on their ears, perhaps attuned to the wavelengths of cosmic music. They transported Sonny Blount, and this transportation caused him to metamorphosize into Sun Ra, after his visit to the planet Saturn. There he was given a set of metaphysical equations that surpassed the trivial knowledge of Earth. At the proper time, these beings told him, when life on Earth was filled with despair, he could set out to teach humanity. The vehicle for his teaching was music, and his message was one of discipline.
This experience informed Ra's work for the rest of his life. It changed him on a fundamental level, and from it he continued his quest into music and metaphysics. Sun Ra steeped himself in mystic lore. His birth name came from Black Herman, the stage name of stage magician, hoodoo practitioner, and seller of patent medicines. His act was mixed the illusions of being "buried alive" and other escapes and that of a traveling medicine show catering to African-Americans. Black Herman was the author of Secrets of Magic, Mystery, and Legerdemain, that contained a mythologized biography, and a selection of material on sleight of hand, hoodoo folk magic, astrology, lucky numbers, dreams and more. The name Herman itself calls to mind that trickster and communicator Hermes, though it's etymology is actually German from the words harja- "army" and mann- "man".
Though Herman Blount changed his name, in many ways he followed in the footsteps of his namesake, and lived a life of magic and mystery. Like Black Herman he created a mythology around his life that became part of his teaching vehicle, just as his music became a vehicle for space travel.
Ra's band was not a band. They were a group of "tone scientists". They weren’t an orchestra, they were an arkestra, and their music was a way to travel the outerspace ways, and to bring the sounds of the cosmos down hear onto Earth. The way Ra’s compositions swing, showed that they weren’t tied to the gravity well of our planet, but orbited around vast interplanetary spheres.
For all the free-wheeling moments of parts of the Sun Ra's ouvre, it came from his total discipline. His music sounds wild, out there, but it came from his total devotion to music. He abstained from alcohol, and encouraged his band members to do the same. He abstained from sex, drugs, and even sleep. The rock and roll ethos was his antithesis. For him there was sanctity to his calling as a musician, tied up as it was with also being a messenger from another world. His band practiced for hours and hours, in the middle of the night when Ra couldn’t sleep, late in the afternoon when he was jolted out of a brief catnap, in the morning when they no longer remembered what day it was, they were playing music. It was always in their mind and they were ready to swing.
Sun Ran and his Arkestra were so prolific it is beyond the scope of this section to go into the vast penumbra that is his legacy and work. The theme of space reverberates throughout his records. So were the sounds of the space age.
Sun Ra was one of the first jazz musicians, if not the first, to get into the synthesizer game, bringing the sound of the Minimoog into his already swirling cosmic pallette. Sun Ra believed it was important for black musicians to get into the world of electronic music, to start exploring the experimental sounds of the space age made possible by technology. For the makers of synthesizers, Jazz was a genre where they had yet to have a presence. All that changed between 1969 and 1970 when Sun Ra was invited to visit the Moog workshop in Trumansburg, NY.
As one of the great jazz pianists Sun Ra had already availed himself of the electric sounds that became available in the 50s and 60s. These included electric piano, electric Celeste, Hammond organ, and the Clavioline. The Clavioline was memorably used on Joe Meek's production of Telstar by the Tornadoes. It was a vacuum tube based monophonic keyboard that gave an otherworldly vibe to many songs. Sun Ra loved the expanded timbre palette these keyboard instruments gave his voracious appetite for sound and he was always looking for what else might come down the line, and the Moog was his ticket into the seventies.
Sun Ra had met Robert Moog when a journalist at the jazz rag Downbeat arranged for Sun Ra to visit the Moog factory. Sun Ra got a chance to got his expert hands on the Minimoog which was still in pre-production. The great synthesizer maker even gave the great Ra a prototype to take back with him.
At the time the portable synthesizer was just an idea. The synths at the time were messy affairs taking up rooms and patched with huge amounts of cables. While the results of these instruments switched on many to their well-tempered sounds, as a touring instrument the Moog was untested, and its little brother the Minimoog was still in infancy. Sun Ra not only tested it's possibilities but took it out into the greater solar system on a scouting mission that brought space sounds into Sun Ra's live and recorded sessions. His track Space Probe, for example, was an extended solo with the Minimoog.
As new keyboards found their way into the market they would often find their way to Sun Ra who continued to include such stalwarts as the Yamaha DX7 into his interplanetary musical concepts.
From Kosmiche to Hearts of Space
Kosmiche can be considered a synonym for Krautrock. The term was in use in Germany before the Krautrock label got thrown onto bands like Can (whose members Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt were students of Stockhausen), Ash Ra Temple, Faust and Guru Guru by the music press in England. Krautrock itself can be seen as a highly psychedelic vision of rock music with a heavy emphasis on synthesizers and propulsive motorik rhythms dressed with jazz improvisations and avant-garde tape editing techniques. It owed less to blues music, than rocks American and English counterparts, yet was indebted to the scenes of free improvisation happening in art music and jazz circles. A lot of it can be cosmic and spacey, but the extended synthesizer escapades of Popul Vuh, Amon Duul II, and especially Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze all went on to put their stamp on the emergent genre of ambient space music that would be epitomized in the set lists of the of the radio show Hearts of Space.
On Tangerine Dream’s 1971 album Alpha Centauri the music was described in the liner notes as “kosmiche musik”. Julian Cope noted that the album was like Pink Floyd’s Saucer Full of Secrets, but minus the rock. It spread further, when their record label, OHR, put out a compilation with the name as a title. These Germans had found inspiration in the range of sounds now available to them with the Moog Modular, and with the EMS VCS3. They were also eager to separate their sound from their troubled nations past, and focusing on outer space, at the height of the space race and optimism about humanities exploration of the cosmos, was one solution. Space rock continued as one vein of this music, and another more ambient strain continued to emerge from others who found inspiration from the star sounds of Alpha Centauri.
Klaus Schulze was another heavy influence on this emergent sound. Before he began his prolific solo career he’d already been playing with Tangerine Dream on their first album Electronic Meditations, after which he left to form Ash Ra Temple, made one album with them and departed. He also played sessions with the acid soaked Cosmic Jokers. Once he went solo he truly flourished as an artist. His first solo album Irrlicht came out in 1972 and featured a modified electrical organ as the main sound source and samples of classical symphonic music played backwards and run through a messed up amplifier to transform the sounds, which he mixed to tape for a three-movement symphony. Cyborg was his next album, and featured a similar set up, while Timewind from 1975 saw his first use of a sequencer which became a staple of his process. The pieces here are sidelong masterpieces easy to lose a sense of time while listening to.
It was in these same years that Stephen Hill founded his radio show Music from the Hearts of Space, originally on KPFA. He used the pseudonym Timmotheo, and when his co-host Ann Turner joined him, she used the on air alias Annamystic. In its original incarnation it was a three-hour long late night excursion into all things “space music”. Hill had been an architect by training, and he was interested in all kinds of contemplative music, and also music that could fill up a space. The kosmiche sounds coming out of Germany certainly fit the bill. The program grew to fill its own niche and encompassed a mix of a wide range of ambient, electronic, world, new age, classical and experimental music.
Space music can act as an isolation chamber when skillfully constructed, and excels over an expanded range of time. Steve Roach and Robert Rich both got started in the late seventies with albums coming out in the early eighties. There complimentary styles were perfect for the further growth of ambient space music and the two artists became closely associated with the milieu of music presented on Hearts of Space.
At the age of twenty when Steve Roach wasn't practicing to up his game as a Motocross racer, he was listening to the sounds of Vangelis, Klaus Schulze, and Tangerine Dream. After he suffered from a bike crash that led him into a near-death experience, where he heard "the most intensely beautiful music you could ever imagine" he reorganized his life and dedicated it to recreating the music he had heard. Out of this experience came his landmark and timeless album called "Structures from Silence." Roach has said that others who have had near-death experiences tell him that they heard similar music. He had acquired his first synthesizer about six years before the accident, in 1978 and taught himself to play, inspired by the music he'd been listening to. In 1982 his first album, Now, came out. Then the bike crash. From that time on his life has been devoted to bringing people music that communicates a spiritual perception of space and time, flow, at once in touch with the landscapes of the earth, as with the vast expanse of silence within the void.
The three long tracks on Structures from Silence encapsulate the listener within a web of harmonic waves. From that release onwards Roach has been relentless in his mission to bring a music of space, stillness, and quiet noise into the hearts and heads of his many listeners. The music of Roach became a staple on Hearts of Space, and a bridge between the adjacent worlds of ambient and new age. Tribal soundworlds were also explored when Roach visited Australia. He fell in love with the desert outback and the didgeridoo. He learned to play the instrument, and started incorporating into his music. Roach was also studying the Aboriginal Dreamtime, and going on walkabouts in the desert of his of California. These influences came to the fore on his 1988 classic Dreamtime Return. The desert became a spiritual home for Roach, and he eventually moved to Arizona where the wide open landscape continues to be a source of inspiration. Out of these experiences, and collaborations with many artists, Roach helped to create the tribal ambient and tribal techno subgenres.
Another artist in a similar vein, who has also collaborated with Roach, is Robert Rich, whose music is another frequent touchstone on Hearts of Space playlists. They also began their careers around the same time, with Rich releasing his first album Sunyata in 1982. Like Roach his signature soundworlds have helped to further define an organic and at times tribal strain of ambient. Rich also goes in for explorations into propulsive beat centered trance rhythms, with extensive explorations of alternate tuning systems, recalling the works of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, abetted with the help of a sequencer. Robert Rich also has a penchant for all night concerts, just as Riley did with his longform raga inspired minimalism, but Rich took his performances in a different direction, with quieter sounds. He used his sleep concerts as a vehicle for exploring the nature of sleep, consciousness and dreams.
Hearts of Space founder Stephen Hill notes, “What's now being called Ambient music is the latest chapter in the contemplative music experience. Electronic instruments have created new expressive possibilities, but the coordinates of that expression remain the same. Space-creating sound is the medium. Moving, significant music is the goal.”
Radio remains a perfect medium for presenting this type of music and Hill and Turner would do long hour long blocks with no voice interruptions as DJs until the end of each hour, when they would announce what they heard. This allowed the listeners to sink into the experience with being brought out of their contemplative reverie.
In 1983 after ten years on KPFA Hearts of Space started to be syndicated on 35 National Public Radio stations around the United States via the Public Radio Satellite System. It continued into the era of net streaming and in 2009 it was still on two hundred public radio stations. It moved into orbit with Sirius XM for a time. On November 12, 2021, it reached its latest milestone, 1,300 installments.
Earth Station One: John Shepherd Beamforms to Space
Other shows mining the same vein have also achieved great success on the public radio circuit, with one of the most popular being Echoes created in 1989 and hosted by John Diliberto. Earth Station One, created by John Shepherd, was the most innovative, as Shepherd not only played classic space music, but attempted to broadcast it to the extraterrestrial lifeforms he believes live in outer space.
Something must have been in the air in the early seventies, if not in the acid, as John Shepherd embarked on his own quest to transmit space music into space beginning age 21 in 1971. He’s been listening to radio shows about the UFO phenomenon, and was an avid electronics hobbyist, who had begun tinkering in his teens, building equipment on his own out of surplus and whatever parts he could scrounge. He was also a Science Fiction buff, and wanted to be able to build the kind of machines he saw in TV and film.
As he played around with parts the idea of building something that could communicate with aliens came to him. Between some ARRL manuals and an electronics 101 course he took in highschool, and what the he taught himself, he started putting together a station at his grandparents home in Michigan. He had a friend in Transverse City who was as into music as he was into electronics and SF films. They would listen to his friends collection of over 4,000 albums for eight and ten hour shifts.
In his first attempts at communicating with extraterrestrials he used binary tone pulses on 150-watt transmitter. Then he upped his game as Project STRAT (Special Telemetry Research and Tracking) was born out of the stew of influences affecting him and his destiny. Why not transmit music? He put together other set ups, and in time had a 60,000 volt transmitter to beam shows that featured Can, Kraftwerk, Cluster, Neu! And other bands from the German kosmiche scene into outer space, outside of earth and lunar orbit, out into the void. His shows also featured different world music, minimalist composers, and sometimes jazz.
“I felt that music was a sort of universal language and would best suit the open form of communication. It doesn’t need much in the way of translating and most of the music I selected was of the instrumental variety. I felt the more genuine forms of music offered something meaningful. It has to be something that inspires the mind and imagination. That's when it's special,” he said.
His eccentric passion was entirely funded by odd jobs, and he kept at his quest to communicate with higher intelligences using technology and art for twenty-seven years. Without much in the way of financial help for his pet project, he finally had to shut down the station in 1998. It’s legacy however lives on, and with synthesis of electromagnetic communications, and music, perhaps others will step in to bring the space music of Earth to those ear perked aliens, listening, out there, somewhere in orbit.
Ambient remains a popular genre for listeners and musicians, and it is my belief that these related forms of contemplative sounds will have spaces on the spectrum for decades to come, that the music of the spheres will continues to reverberate across airwaves and ionosphere, and even out into the solar system and beyond.
.:. .:. .:.
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory: Telecommunications, Electronic Music, and the Voice of the Ether.
References / RE/Sources:
Notes for A Brief History of Space Music
The 'furniture music' of rock star Brian Eno
by David Sterritt, The Christian Science Monitor, May 3, 1984
Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition, Thomas B. Holmes, Routledge Music/Songbooks, 2002
Sun Ra sources:
Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra by John F. Szwed
Kosmiche-Musik and Its Techno-Social Context, Alexander C. Harden, IASPM Journal, ISSN 2079-3871.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.