Music for the Weekend #014 — Space, the final frontier
Quick Introductory Note: I am very disturbed by everything that I have seen happening in the world in the last few days, some of the images that arrive from the USA could not be more indicative that after all we had so many reasons to think about leaving to another planet. As I write this preamble I am listening to Mozart’s Requiem and letting my angst cool and I promise that next week already in a calmer state I will be able to speak about, as Marvin Gaye sang, What’s Going On…
With the imminent re-opening of terrestrial borders and the recent mission of Space X, I thought it was appropriate this weekend to approach the human adventure in space and the music that we have done amazeded by such situation and as to “musically illustrate” that effort. I don’t think it is because I’m male, but I feel that when I grew up in the 60s, I lived in a world of adventure, a direct reference to the world that lived then in an adventurous will to conquer that last frontier: space. The Russians had managed to let the Americans seeing stars for a while, but NASA’s effort (with the help of a few German scientists) would pay dividends when they got to the Apollo missions. Wait, we’ll get to that story.
The cosmos “around us” has always been a source of musical inspiration. In ancient Greece Pythagoras defended something called the “harmony of the spheres”, believing that the celestial bodies moved according to mathematical rules, which could be translated into musical language. All these ideas are explored later in the Western world under the theories of Musica Universalis. But it is only in the 20th century that the cause overcomes the gravitational pull and countsdown to lift-off. The Planets were written by Gustav Holst in the middle of the First World War, between 1914 and 1916, since the composer had been refused to help in the war effort due to health issues. The suite was so radical for the time that the first time it was played in public Holst was not present and the conductor only presented five of the seven movements because he thought the audience was not “ready” for the complete piece. So maybe musical space age only started in the late 50s, with Sun Ra and his cosmic jazz (just see the titles of some of his works from that time: Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth, Interstellar Low Ways, Super-Sonic Jazz, We Travel the Space Ways and The Nubians of Plutonia) and with a particular opera entitled Aniara. Written by Karl-Birger Blomdahl with libretto by Erik Lindegren, this true space opera in two acts debuted in Stockholm in 1959 and using electronic tape, jazz and Serialism techniques defended by Shönberg reviewed the place of Man in Time and Space. I could also mention Fantastica, a 1958 album recorded by Russ Garcia, but I ended up mixing the theme Venus from that album.
We would have to wait another 10 years, so that in 1969, more specifically five days before Apollo 11 took off for the trip that would take Armstrong and Aldrin to stroll on the lunar surface of the Sea of Tranquility we heard for the first time Space Oddity by David Bowie. A true anthem of space music, this alone would make entitle the English musician as “the Yuri Gagarin of Rock” but Bowie returned to revisit the character Major Tom in Ashes to Ashes, Hallo Spaceboy and in his video for Blackstar. In the between he also wrote Life on Mars and Loving the Alien, invented Ziggy Stardust and was an actor in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth by Nicolas Roeg. However, this week I decided to pull another “spacey” song, I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship from the album Heathen. Like putting out fire… with rocket fuel. I also remember that a good visual accompaniment (without having to go to the Planetarium) for this week’s playlist is the movie Moon, stellar first feature film by Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie.
Cinema and television are full of spatial eye candy going hand in hand with incredible sounds. The theme of Space 1999, with its whaha-whaka guitars or the monumental Star Trek theme, descendant of the best inventions by Exotica composers. But, as the Alien poster says: In Space no one can ear you scream. Because where there is no air, there can be no sound. However, this scientific fact has never harassed anyone wanting to dream about space, lasers make “whuius”, spaceships are in a perpetual and noisy rumble and any supernova happens with pomp and a fair share of loud circumstance. If we wanted to be minimally credible the only thing that could be used would be John Cage’s 4’33”… However, I remember one afternoon going to a theatre in Campo Grande to see a double bill composed by 2001 by Kubrick and Solaris by Tarkovsky. It is effectively “in the dark of the cinema” (a reference to a song by Rita Lee that gets lost in translation) that we can appreciate the sounds that serve the futuristic images of these films, and in the case of the Russian film the soundtrack composed by Edward Artemiev is worthy of the disturbed relationship of Kris Kelvin, the main character, with his own conscience and its past.
Satellite’s gone way up to Mars
Soon it’ll be filled with parkin’ cars
I watched it for a little while
I love to watch things on TV
Of course, Lou Reed’s Satellite of Love stayed but due to the limitations I impose on these selections I had to put aside some fantastic things: Contact, the last track from Random Access Memories by Daft Punk; Welcome to Lunar Industries from the fantastic soundtrack created by Clint Mansell for the aforementioned film Moon; Space Junk by Devo, who in their first album were more concerned with what made us want to freakin’ depart from this planet of ours than properly fascinated with the conquest of space; SpaceLab, second track of the seminal Die Mensch-Maschine edited by Kraftwerk in 1978 or Belle & Sebastian’s Space Boy Dream where Stuart Murdoch reports that dream in his compact, almost otherworldly, Glaswegian accent. I was able to choose a track by Man or Astro-Man?, the grandchildren of Sun Ra and as surf-rock was so represented, I did not have to shed a tear by not including the galactic Telstar of Tornados. Beam me up Joe Meek, because I still managed to introduce another of your creations but with the Blue Men.
I end up leaving space for some gems and a few other things that are more obvious but all for a good reason. One of them is the Portuguese classic prog 10.000 Anos Depois Entre Vénus e Marte by José Cid which gave me the right to drop in a reference to Capitães da Areia. Another essential choice is Fly me to the Moon, if only because it was already “played” on the Moon. It is not common knowledge but Sony had created the TC-50, a proto-Walkman (this portable cassette player would only be publicly available 11 years later) for astronauts on the Apollo missions to use as a “notepads” as well as to listen to music. It is known that Armstrong liked Exotica and that he had chosen Mist of the Moon, an album made by Les Baxter in 1947 with accompaniment by Dr. Samuel Hoffman playing that “alien instrument” the theremin and how the control in Houston sighed with relief when he stopped listening to Moon Moods, track that I also include. But what few remember is that right after Armstrong stepped on the moon Buzz Aldrin went down the ladder of the lunar module to the sound of Ol ‘Blue Eyes’ interpretation of the standard written by Bart Howard in 1954 (and which he penned with the original name of In Other Words).
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth!
I finally enter the final stretch of this Milky Way with a Portuguese tribute to Space is the Place by the great Sun Ra. This smallness that sees us as a little silly and obnoxious while yearning to make us big and adventurous takes us in this conquest of outer space and is portrayed spot on in the Galaxy Song by Monty Python in the movie The Meaning of Life, more specifically by Eric Idle , by far the best composer of this merry and lovely band of fools.
In case it’s not obvious, I remind all listeners of these selections to see on the Mixcloud page the complete list of songs for each M4we and check the stories behind each one of these choices. I assure you that each of them is included for a very good reason.
Just to complete this week’s narrative: what if, while we were shooting around the galaxy, some shameless ETs had already come to our planet and were walking among us, mixing and messing the gene pool? Because this is the premise of our fortieth and last song, responsability that once again ends up falling on the narrow boned shoulders of Donald Fagen, in an excerpt from his second post-Steely Dan album, Kamakiriad.
They’re mixing with the population
A virus wearing pumps and pearls
Lord help the lonely guys
Hooked by those hungry eyes
Here come Tomorrow’s Girls
From Sheila’s to the reefs of Kizmar
From Stargate and the Outer Worlds
They’re speeding towards our sun
They’re on a party run
Here come Tomorrow’s Girls
And with this “twilightzonian” twist, I bid farewell wishing you all a cosmic weekend.
Flying Lotus – Intro A Cosmic Drama
The Orb – Afros, Afghans and Angels (Helgö Treasure Chest)
Public Service Broadcasting – Gagarin
Hase Casar – Wir Fliegen Weiter (Mondsong)
Brian Eno – No One Receiving
Jeff Mills – Strange Plants and Other Botanical Wonders
Sun Ra And His Myth Science Orchestra – Interplanetary Music
Komputer – Valentina
Les Baxter & His Orchestra – Moon Moods
Capitães da Areia – Algures Entre Vénus e Marte
José Cid – 10.000 Anos Depois Entre Vénus e Marte
Russ Garcia And His Orchestra – Venus
Gil Scott-Heron – Whitey On the Moon
Sun Kil Moon – Space Travel Is Boring
Disco Re-Edit, Funk Re-Edit – Mysterious Planet
Brian Bennett – Solstice
George Benson – Here Comes The Sun
Rah Band – Clouds Across The Moon (12″ Version)
rank Sinatra with Count Basie and his Orchestra – Fly Me To The Moon
Hannah Peel – Archid Orange Dwarf
Lou Reed – Satellite of Love
Stevie Wonder – Saturn
Robert Hermel – Industrie Spatiale
The Tubes – Space Baby
Yellow Magic Orquestra – Cosmic Surfin’
Mood Mystics – The Winds of Mars
Suicide – Rocket USA
David Bowie – I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship
Tod Dockstader – Piece #1
Outer Space – Escape from Centaurus
Man Or Astro-Man? – As Estrelas Agora Elas Estão Mortas
DMX Krew – Galaxy Love (Brian Ellis Remix)
Chris Kenner – Rocket to the Moon
Flaming Lips – Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia)
Prodigy – Out of Space (Breakbeat Remix)
Joe Meek & The Blue Men – Orbit Around the Moon
Elton John – Rocket Man
Spaceboys – Space Is The Place 2003
Monty Python – Galaxy Song
Donald Fagen – Tomorrow’s Girls