A short history of music's obsession with space
The awe, the loneliness, and the isolation of space has fed the imagination of many musicians. From cheesy, theremin-led science fiction soundtracks, to David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, the concept of something impossibly distant and unknown has created a musical language all of its own.
Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister’s recent Planetarium album explores our solar system, from the sun to the planets and beyond.
It evokes the strangeness of these distant worlds through long, ponderous instrumental sections and occasional radio friendly moments, imagining these places about which we still know so little and exploring some of the mythology around them.
It’s a dizzying listen, and one of the most complete musical efforts to tackle our galactic neighbourhood. But it’s certainly not the first time mind altering music has been triggered by staring at the sky.
The first big work to be inspired by the planets was the orchestral suite of the same name by English composer Gustav Holst. In some ways, it’s a great book-end to Planetarium, at times harnessing the full power of the orchestra to take the listener to outer space, and at others floating through quiet mystical passages which perfectly match the void of the cosmos.
Written just over 100 years ago at a time when Pluto hadn’t been discovered and our knowledge of the solar system was decidedly sketchy, Holst used his interest in astrology and mythology to compose his most famous work. But, in the process, he managed to create an ethereal sound palette which has endured and influenced much of the music that’s since been produced about space.
In particular, the last movement of his suite, ‘Neptune’, uses a female choir who provide their wordless, mysterious contribution from another room, the door of which is slowly closed until they can’t be heard anymore. It’s about as otherworldly as you can get.
After Holst’s triumph, it seems musicians went a bit quiet about space until they heard the eerie beeping of Sputnik in 1957 as it ushered in the space age.
Rockabilly singer Jerry Engler wasted no time, recording the 12-bar blues ‘Sputnik (Satellite Girl)’. Five years later The Tornados followed the launch of the world’s first communications satellite Telstar with an adventurous sounding song of the same name.
In 1960, writer and producer of ‘Telstar’, Joe Meek, recorded what may well have been the first space-related concept album I Hear A New World which married reverb drenched lounge inspired music with chipmunk style vocals and a pub piano, because it’s probably impossible to keep a piano in tune in outer space.
The full album wasn’t actually released until 1991, but a four track EP did see the light of day in 1960.
Twenty-four years after ‘Telstar’ we were still getting excited enough about satellite launches to record songs about them. In 1986 the ABC released a curious single by Tony Ansell called ‘Uplink’ to mark the start of the ABC’s satellite services. It featured a slinky slap bass line and funky horn stabs and was the perfect 80s soundtrack for people wearing shoulder pads big enough to reach the ozone layer.
Other notable songs about space hardware include everything from Kraftwerk’s ‘Spacelab’ to Shonen Knife’s ‘Riding on the Rocket’. There’s been plenty of other music through the past 30 or 40 years seeking to explore ideas about space, from Brian Eno’s ‘Apollo Atmospheres & Soundtracks’ to The Orb’s many adventures starting with ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld’.
And let’s not forget Sun Ra – the jazz musician who claimed to actually be from Saturn and whose music often sounds like something from another world.
In more recent times, Vangelis has been composing music for NASA to go with their Mars mission, and we’ve even seen music recorded in space courtesy of astronaut Chris Hadfield who recorded an original tune called ‘Jewel In The Night’ a couple of days after arriving at the International Space Station in 2012. He went on to record a whole album, including his celebrated cover of ‘Space Oddity’, called Space Sessions: Songs From A Tin Can a couple of years ago.
And while these recordings have perhaps helped us to better understand our place within the solar system, consider the music we’ve sent out into space and how it might help alien life forms understand us.
Wouldn’t you love to be there if/when someone or something in a galaxy far away finds one of the golden records on board the two Voyager spacecraft currently somewhere in interstellar space? Presuming they work out how to play the records, they’ll hear all kinds of things including Bach, Chuck Berry, and a couple of Indigenous Australian songs. Who knows how this might fit into their narrative of what lies beyond their own solar system…