LISTS Ambient in Outer Space: Seven Artists Exploring the Final Frontier By Samuel Tornow · Illustration by Andrew Khosravani · April 08, 2019
Animation by Andrew Khosravani

Space has always inspired contemplation. In his legendary work The Republic—published in 380 BC, over a millennium before Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first person to travel to space—the Greek philosopher Plato wrote, “Astronomy compels the soul to look upward, and leads us from this world to another.” For at least a century now, humans have sought not only to explore the great beyond, but soundtrack it: Gustav Holst wrote the seven-movement orchestral suite The Planets in 1916; Stanley Kubrick employed the works of grandiose composers such as Richard Strauss to signify the epicness of space; and Sun Ra and David Bowie employed transcendental jazz and art rock, respectively, to bring cosmic sounds to the forefront. But in terms of output, and scale, few genres can match the longstanding partnership of ambient music with space. 

It all began, big-bang-like, with the synthesizer. The animated pops, filtered swells, and twinkling arpeggios proved to be a worthy companion to the flickering lights of space shuttle dashboards, juxtaposed with the lightyears of darkness that lie beyond the ship’s hull. Mort Garson, a composer and early pioneering user of the Moog, solidified the bond between synthesizers and space after soundtracking the CBS footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 with the help of the faithful instrument.

As the space age roared on, more and more ambient musicians came forth with their own, wild, astronomical-inspired experiments. The ‘70s introduced us to the otherworldly, droning universes of Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, and Jean-Michel Jarre; combining sci-fi elements with the growing interest in New Age music, these artists began to cement the foundation of what many consider to be modern space music. In 1973, American producer Stephen Hill created Hearts of Space, a beloved weekly public radio show specializing in contemplative New Age, ambient, and electronic music; the program would later go on to become an independent record label in 1984, providing scene upstarts with a much-needed commercial platform—run by space music’s most influential cheerleader, no less.

With these developments, a casual partnership became a proper marriage, written, well, in the stars, built to last into modernity and beyond. From the epic film soundtracks of Vangelis’s Blade Runner and Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks to the lost cassette tapes that cluttered new age bookstore shelves and thrift store donation bins, a deep-rooted curiosity of what lies in the final frontier is at the heart of each release. To help sort through the asteroid belt of releases, we present seven albums that push the definitions of space music to the outer limits.

Steve Roach
Bloodmoon Rising 2014-15

Steve Roach ranks among space music’s earliest, most beloved explorers. His 1984 album Structures From Silence (which Roach treated to an impressive reissue for its 30th anniversary), in particular, holds a special place in many ambient fans’ hearts. Since that landmark release, Roach’s amassed an extensive body of astrally-inspired, ultra-dynamic works. His most monolithic venture, though, is Bloodmoon Rising 2014-15: a five-hour, four-part project recorded after a series of Bloodmoon Lunar eclipses which unfolded earlier this decade. It’s a record as expansive as the galaxy itself. Here, Roach hews mostly to introspective drone compositions that incessantly drift this way and that—hopelessly adrift in the void, and all the more blissful for it.

Cold Womb Descent
Ldaovh Trilogy

Cold Womb Descent is the duo of astronomers Eija Risen and Tabique Malevolo, and the Ldaovh Trilogy is their opus. This trilogy, which was recorded between 2011 and 2013 and remastered in 2017, is based on a fictional journey to Ldaovh, a planet where humans discover the lost secrets of the universe. Over the course of two and a half hours, Cold Womb Descent craft a sonic, futuristic universe in which failed industrialized planets, old shipyards, and civilized lifeforms inhabit the far-reaching corners of space. Sizzling electronics mixed with twinkling sound effects that mimic the sonics of vacant spacecraft fill the massive project.

Stellardrone
Between the Rings

Between the Rings is the sixth album by Lithuanian composer Stellardrone. Released under the Creative Commons license on Energostatic Records in 2013, Between the Rings is full of angelic, slow-moving swells, slow-orbit arpeggios, and minimal, trance-inducing percussion that lures the listener further into its endless expanses. Stellardrone’s mastery of the genre is on full display here: he toes the line between intrigue and introspection with ease as well as conviction, again and again.

outerspace-by-andy-khosravani-1244William Basinski
On Time Out of Time

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Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

William Basinski is one of the most prolific artists in ambient/drone. Typically mentioned in the same breath as Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, and The Orb, the sound artist has been pushing the boundaries of tape music to unimaginable heights for years. Now in 2019, he’s exploring the sonics of nature’s greatest mystery: black holes. On On Time Out Of Time, Basinski samples the sounds of the merging of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago, which were originally recorded by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. A dense, cold work, On Time Out of Time reveals the unrelenting reality of what lies at the center of our galaxy.

Melanohelios
Steps

Steps is the sonic retelling of STS-51-A, the second space flight of Discovery. Melanohelios pair official NASA recordings with their synthetic strings and brass-filled dark ambient music to commemorate the successful mission, 33 years after the fact. The voices of crew members Frederick H. Hauck, David M. Walker, Joseph P. Allen, Anna L. Fisher, and Dale A. Gardner (plus then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, dialing in from Earth) appear intermittently out of the darkness, tiny specks in an otherwise unmeasurably-large cosmic sea.

Robert Scott Thompson
Pale Blue Dot

Named for a famous photo of earth from six billion kilometers away—taken by the Voyager 1 Space Probe in 1990 at the request of popular scientist Carl SaganPale Blue Dot, by Robert Scott Thompson, is a meticulously crafted album by one of electronic music’s most prolific musicians. Across these songs, the Atlanta-based composer does a phenomenal job of translating the weightlessness of zero-gravity into musical form. The meditative rhythms loll slightly, but remain relatively consistent over seemingly endless soundscapes which reveal their depths at their own paces. For a record titled in homage to our humble little corner of the universe, Thompson’s world feels nothing short of infinite.

Ascendant
Particle Horizon

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Compact Disc (CD)

When they’re not co-running the space-music label Synphaera, the duo of producer Chris Bryant (S1gns of L1fe) and Grammy-nominated mastering engineer Don Tyler record and perform as the electronic duo Ascendant. The third and final installment of their glistening album trilogy, Particle Horizon, gets its gravitas from laser-sharp modular-synth arpeggiations that instantly grip the listener. Beautifully engineered sounds weave together to form a galactic tapestry that you’ll want to keep getting lost in. Slow-releasing electronic pads make up the background, gently crashing over one another like waves.

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