Space music  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Space music, also spelled spacemusic, is an umbrella term that has been applied to music from a broad range of genres. The term often refers to recordings or compositions found within the genres of ambient, new age and electronic music; and sometimes to works found within the western classical, world, Celtic, and experimental idioms. It generally refers to music that evokes a feeling of contemplative spaciousness.



Space music as a genre exists because of a kind of meta composition which evolved during program assembly by radio producers Stephen Hill and Anna Turner, who also coined the name. In 1973 on KPFA in Berkeley, California, Hill and Turner discovered that segue assembly of matching "spacey" instrumental pieces by various artists, emphasized otherwise fleeting space music sensations and sustained them for hours. This multipurpose music has since been used in planetariums and for movie soundtracks, to stimulate and explore the imagination. Space music and related genre recordings are also used for relaxation, the healing of mind and body, and more.

The public is familiar with space music used commercially as background music, including films scored by Mark Isham. However, with such artists as Peter Baumann and Tangerine Dream, the compositions are more than mere relaxation pieces, so they invite active listening. Space music recordings are sometimes very intense and dissonant with close listening, so good producers will limit use of such pieces for inclusion in radio programs like public radio's Hearts of Space and Echoes.

Formerly associated as a sub-category of other music genres from which it emerged — Jazz Fusion music, Electronic music, New Age music, and Ambient music — space music itself offers new interpretations of popular genres, among them: Celtic, New Piano, Native American Indian music, Sacred/Choral, Buddhist chant, Aboriginal tribal, Trance, World Fusion, and Arctic.

Understanding space music with words

Space music is subtly distinguished on multidimensional gradients, shading toward adjacent genres of new age, ambient, and electronic. Ultimately, these subtle distinctions can only be appreciated by listening, though a word guide can shorten the time to appreciation mastery.

Of any popularly published music genre, space music is the most difficult to describe in words. Hopefully, familiar words can convey unfamiliar concepts rooted in almost ineffable sensations. It helps greatly to tell what space music is not, but describing what it is remains a rhetorical challenge like the blind committee describing an elephant. Overall, an analogy to wine tasting provides a sense of the subtle characters that distinguish space music from related genres.

What space music is not

Space music is subtly not new age, ambient, or electronic, though it shares some characteristics and is routinely confused with all three. Space music is mostly not the traditional genres of Celtic, Aboriginal tribal, Buddhist chant, classical, or religious choral music, etc., yet all of these have some occasional space music pieces, sections, or arrangements.

  • Space music is not new age genre. However, space music is usually found in the music store sales rack marked "new age". New age uses identical repetitive music figures, and superficially sounds similar to the non-fan, but space music has at least one or two characteristics that new age does not. First, space music is highly evocative, while new age is typically less so or not evocative at all. Second, space music has a more complex texture than new age, also described as having greater "texture depth", while new age is "texturally flat" or has distinctly less depth. David Parsons' Sounds of the Mothership (Fortuna, 1982) is a perfect example of evocative space music. The albums of Steve Roach are examples of space music with complex textural depth, and prolifically, he may well be the best known space music artist.
  • Space music is not ambient genre. Space music is typically composed as music to listen to with attention, whereas ambient is composed to stay in the background of doing other tasks. In practice the difference is often a question of volume and attention. Much ambient can also be listened to, and when ambient is evocative and complexly textured it becomes space music. Brian Eno is the best known ambient space music composer.
  • Space music is not electronic genre. In stereotype it's difficult to imagine space music without the synthesized drone figures of Michael Stearns and David Parsons, but acoustic flutes play prominent roles in the space music of Deuter and Carlos Nakai, and astonishingly, even acoustic snare drums are made spacey by Mark Isham during Vapor Drawings: "On the Threshold of Liberty" (Windham Hill, 1983).

What space music is

Space music exists in two broad and somewhat overlapping forms: fusion and fusion-interpreted. The seminal Cicada (Kuckuck, 1982) and other albums by Chatanya Hari Deuter fall precisely in the center between these two forms. Cicada is highly recommended as an entry album for space music interested listeners who don't have access to the Hearts of Space radio show.

  • Fusion space music is characterized by "unearthly" yet pleasant sounds and musical figures that acoustic instruments normally can't make. Fusion includes the sound stereotype of synthesizer drones and sustained pitch bends. Heard under the synth, multiple counterpoints of melody and other sounds (e.g., birds) are more common than harmony. The countpoints and sounds collectively form a typically open weave texture which requires full listener attention to follow. The best fusion artists compose more texture than can be followed in a single listening, but not so much as to produce a cacophony. Open weave means there are periods of low volume or staccatos of silence through which any audio reproduction system noise can be heard and be very annoying while using headphones.

Fusion-interpreted space music takes two subforms: new fusion interpretation and retro discovery. Carlos Nakai is an example of new fusion interpretation of Native American Indian music.

  • New fusion interpretation emerges from artists who at least seem to listen to space music or related genres, and then record Celtic, Native American Indian, choral, chant, tribal, or New Piano, with their evoked impression of the fusion form. The artists themselves don't necessarily agree with this neat schema. New Piano (George Winston, Liz Story, etc) is particularly difficult to classify this way since, unlike staccato piano, fusion space music is almost exclusively glissando. However, New Piano does fit with the primary evocative space music concept. Examples of New Piano space music are George Winston's four seasons albums, beginning with Winter Into Spring (Windom Hill, 1982, 2002 with bonus track).
  • Retro discovery is a searching for non-space-music recordings which have pieces that are found-art fusion interpretations. Retro discovery is mostly practiced by guest radio producer Ellen Holmes who periodically presents her Classical Adagios on Hearts of Space. One of her greatest productions is Music from a Russian Cathedral (HOS #147, 1987), which essentially defines retro discovery Sacred/Choral space music. (Constance Demby's legendary Novus Magnificat, (HOS, 1986) was newly composed.)

Notable artists

Alphabetized by last name including single name

Notable pioneers

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Space music" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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