The music of outer space

When dealing with "astroculture" – cultural and historical aspects of, for example, astronomy, spaceflight and space exploration – it is common to use media such as films, books and comics as source material. However, there is also another kind of source material that one can study: music.

Music and historical studies

Especially when instrumental, music is not something often incorporated in historical studies that are not of a decidedly musicological nature. Also, within the history of religions, which is what I am most familiar with, the musical aspects of religion are rarely dealt with.

Within the last few years this has begun to change, see for example Jakob Moesgaard’s Dhrupad: En analyse af en nordindisk musikkultur som en religiøs tradition (Eng. Dhrupad: An analysis of a North Indian music culture as a religious tradition) (unpublished MA thesis, University of Copenhagen). But despite the fact that music is an integral part of most societies and cultures, and often figures centrally in religion, it is rarely included in religious studies. The same applies to the study of astroculture.

The sound of outer space music

For a long time, I have been pondering a phenomenon that most readers are probably familiar with: that there are certain types of music which one associates with outer space. Obvious examples are Gustav Holst's The Planets (1918), or film music created for famous science fiction films, such as the scores for Star Wars, or Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

From the latter it is especially the opening theme from Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896), which has become synonymous with outer space. Just as the movie 2001 became closely linked to the U.S. Apollo program, so did the film score. The opening theme of Zarathustra is still played today when the surviving Apollo astronauts take part in public events.

Also, the theme is often quoted in other science fiction films; last time I noticed it was in the Pixar movie Wall-E (2008), where it is played while the overweight human spaceship captain takes the first steps to liberate his spaceship from the tyranny of the robot captain.

But there are also forms of music that I think most people intuitively perceive as space music even though they are not necessarily explicitly labelled as such, or has originated in an explicit outer space context. It is typically the kind of electronic music that is used as soundtracks for documentary films about astronomy and outer space (and sometimes the sea).

“Space music” as a genre

Given these speculations, I was naturally excited when recently I discovered that Wikipedia has an entry titled "Space Music" and through this learned that it is in fact recognized as an independent musical genre.

A typical example is the French composer Jean Michel Jarre's electronic music. That it is space music we are dealing with here is to some extent made explicit by the cover of the breakthrough album Oxygene (1976), in the form of a half-pealed skull-globe of the Earth (see the illustration accompanying this post). Likewise, Jarre’s album Rendez-Vous (1986) also bears an image of Earth seen from space and was, in addition, a tribute to NASA. (Actually the astronaut Ronald McNair should have played the saxophone live from space as part of a Jarre concert in Houston, but he died prematurely in the Challenger explosion).

Examples of other classic space musicians or groups are Klaus Schulze, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. More recent examples of space music is Norwegian Biosphere, which has repeatedly referred to astrocultural phenomena through album covers and spoken words incorporated into the music (and incidently has also created the album Substrata, which many considers to be probably the best ambient album ever). Also Carbon Based Lifeforms, Higher Intelligence Agency, SETI, Murcof and Loscil are names that should be mentioned in this connection. These artists are often determined as belonging to the “ambient” genre, but it is obvious that they (also) belong to the category of space music.

Historical roots and auditory metaphors

The electronic space music has some of its historical roots in Karlheinz Stockhausen's pioneering work with electronic compositions from the 1950s. This is not surprising when one considers the following quote by Stockhausen: "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."

In the Wikipedia entry on space music it says that electronic music often is used in soundtracks for film and TV as an "auditory metaphor for non-ordinary consciousness" and often space music is categorized as a subset of New Age music. This puts into relief the fact that space music both points inwards, towards an inner contemplative and mystical space, as well as outwards, towards an exterior, cosmic space.

Space music and cosmic consciousness

Perhaps one can summarise by saying that space music has the potential to activate a cosmic consciousness in the listener – both in a psychological, psychedelic sense and in an astronomical, cosmological sense. This again indicates the degree to which people on an intuitive level connect outer space to an inner, psychological space.

In many ways 2001: A Space Odyssey is a focal point for Western astrocultural ideas and beliefs. In the film's last section, "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite", in which the astronaut Bowman travels through the mysterious monolith’s stargate, it is made visually clear that the journey into outer space is equally an inner trip.

Outer and inner space – both seem to feed the human desire for mystery and adventure. Between them the music of space soughs like a sluice.

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The information about the Apollo astronauts' public performances and Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra:
Andrew Smith. (2006 [2005]). Moondust: In Search Of The But Who Fell to Earth. London: Bloomsbury.

A short essay on "space music": http://www.hos.com/aboutmusic.html

This post is based on a previous Danish version published January 20, 2012 on www.videnskab.dk; cf. http://videnskab.dk/blog/rummets-musik.