Musica Universalis

In 2013, I contributed a chapter to Beyond the Boundary, the first book published by the Initiative for Interstellar Studies. My contribution – here in full – explores the relationship between space travel and popular music culture, and its impact on several generations…

Musica Universalis

The interstellar relationship between space, music and popular culture

© Alex Storer, 2013


The glorious, awe-inspiring images of the planets in our solar system, distant stars and neighbouring galaxies, somehow do not feel complete without an accompanying soundtrack. The forms and colours seen in the increasingly brilliant pictures we receive from our telescopes, astronauts and rovers, evoke moods and emotions that are only heightened by the use of music.

Music is a soundtrack to the past, present and future – a means of reliving history but also bringing tomorrow into today. For decades, musicians have composed music inspired by the stars and planets – a theme with infinite creative possibilities.

Although everybody has their own musical tastes and definition of what kind of music is best suited to the visions of space and interstellar travel, instrumental music is often the obvious choice, being universal in language. When looking at NASA’s detailed photographs of the surface of Mars or astounding images of the cosmos, the atmosphere and mood of a piece of music can compliment and contrast with what we see, providing an immersive experience of space exploration, at a time when only the select, skilled and trained can actually blast off into outer space.

The first half of the twentieth century saw a plethora of science fiction masterworks and the emergence of many pioneering authors of the genre. The first science fiction films also appeared, and man’s ambitions to travel into space edged ever closer to reality. But until this point, any relationship between music and space travel was generally minimal, especially when it came to the records people bought. But all that was soon to change, as the 1970s proved to be a visionary decade, bookended by space travel and science fiction. It is often regarded a golden age for music, film and television as well as SF literature.

The Apollo 11 Moon landing in the summer of 1969 was the obvious catalyst for many artists who would emerge in the following years. Numerous space-influenced albums would appear from artists such as Hawkwind, Jefferson Starship, Gong, Rush and Pink Floyd, to name but a few. There was however, one artist whose music would change the relationship between space and popular music forever.

David Bowie was yet to become a household name when he originally released “Space Oddity” in June 1969.

This proved to be quite timely, as despite it not receiving any airplay, the BBC chose to use the song during their coverage of the Moon landing, which undoubtedly helped create Bowie’s first hit single. Thanks to Space Oddity – a song about a fictional astronaut called Major Tom getting stranded out in space – David Bowie had unintentionally raised awareness of interstellar travel through his music, which would go on to dominate music charts around the world for the next forty years.

But it was during the early years of Bowie’s career in which he would make a lasting impact, with his iconic album and alien persona of Ziggy Stardust. In 1972, very few people sung about the stars, space or aliens; this was generally left behind in popular music. The combination of Bowie’s unusual appearance, distinctive voice and ambitious musical vision caused ripples in popular culture in a country on the brink of recession. Songs such as Starman offered the listener escape from daily life and the glimpse of a possible future with proof of life on other worlds. Captivated by Bowie’s unconventional but innovative style, fans were sucked into his world, perhaps reconsidering any opinions about the possibility of an alien visiting Earth – somehow Bowie’s music at that time, made it all the more plausible.

The Brixton-born singer’s most famous album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, was a concept album roughly based on the singer’s character (and altar-ego) Ziggy Stardust, bringing a message of peace to the Earth during its final five years of existence. The impact of both his music and on-stage persona propelled Bowie to superstardom, and even after “killing” the character off during the final show of his 1973 tour, Ziggy’s ghost would continue to haunt Bowie.

In 1975, David Bowie was cast in his first starring role as Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’The Man Who Fell to Earth, a story about an extraterrestrial who crash lands on Earth while on a mission to find a means of transporting water to his home planet, which is suffering from a devastating drought. Bowie was also due to produce the film’s soundtrack, but contractual complications resulted in him withdrawing from that part of the project. However, aspects of this work would later be used on the album Low, in 1977.

Bowie’s fascination with space would continue throughout his career, with hit singles such as “Starman” and “Life On Mars?” becoming synonymous with space travel, even in instances where the lyrics themselves bear little relevance. Even “Ashes to Ashes”  – his first number one single of the 1980s – re-introduced the Major Tom character from Space Oddity. Such interstellar motifs, though minor, would be recurrent throughout his work, as recent as Dancing Out In Space from his 2013 album, The Next Day.

From every aspect of his career, Bowie’s work continues to inspire; his music has both a timeless quality and something to make you stop, think and ask questions, rather than your run-of-the-mill, disposable pop. Through his ever-changing appearance and musical styles, David Bowie has made himself musically and artistically relevant in each coming decade – but despite his vast and varied back catalogue, Space Oddity still continues to prove its lasting appeal, as recently as May 2013, when astronaut Chris Hadfield performed the track in zero gravity on the International Space Station. Hadfield’s performance soon became an Internet sensation as well as the world’s first music video shot in space.

David Bowie probably never even dreamed of this old tune actually being performed live from space, but out of all the classic 20thcentury pop songs surely Space Oddity is an obvious choice. While an experienced astronaut, Canadian Chris Hadfield’s interstellar performance also served as a reminder that he was still an ordinary guy with a love of music. This was Chris simply showing us that it can be done, and that one day, we’ll be able to do the same.

After Bowie had left Ziggy behind, and the flurryof space-themed rock albumsin the mid-1970s waned, musical visions of the future soon felt like a passing trend as disco and punk arrived. But in a decade of shifting musical styles, things were about to change yet again, as a new wave of musicians emerged, armed with synthesisers!

German artists Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream had already been producing electronic music for some time in their home country. Towards the end of the decade, their influence would make its way across Europs, with the emergence of cutting edge artists such as John Foxx, Gary Numan and The Human League, each fashioning their own futuristic sound and style through the use of synthesisers.

Pioneering French artist Jean-Michel Jarre would lead the new synth revolution, with the first commercially successful all-electronic album, Oxygène.

Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygèneis one of many classic 20thCentury albums often associated with space and interstellar travel, thanks to its other worldly sounds and atmospheres. Yet, the underlying theme of the album is actually a serious message of pollution and climate change, evident in both its title and the haunting cover painting by French artist, Michel Granger, which was part of Jarre’s original inspiration for the album.

Released in France in 1976, and internationally the following year, Oxygène presents a musical soundscape like no other – ahead of its time back then and just as relevant today. Oxygène was certainly a unique album at the time – entirely instrumental, purely electronic and structured like a classical movement with no song titles, simply parts I–VI. This, combined with the fact the album contained no lyrics or vocals, was a problem Jarre faced when his original demos were rejected by record labels who were too scared to even attempt marketing such music. French publisher Francis Dreyfus eventually saw potential in Jarre’s experimental work and tentatively pressed 50,000 copies. However, Oxygène would go on to sell in excess of 15 million copies, with the success of the album propelling Jarre from being a relatively unknown musician from his home in Paris to being one of the genre’s most successful and celebrated artists on a global scale.

Oxygène dispels any theory that electronic music might be devoid of soul or emotion. It is laden with catchy riffs and memorable hooks, alongside bubbling analogue sequences and effects that bounce playfully from speaker to speaker. Yet despite being entirely electronic, the music has an organic quality to it, somehow making at one with the environment. The almost alien nature of the evolving atmospheres and textures of the album make it ideally suited to accompany interstellar visions. Our brilliant senses and imaginations are naturally inclined make associations with particular sounds and images. With that in mind, Oxygène really is a feast for the imagination – every sound that shimmers and glitters, evoke images of the stars; every icy blast of white noise could be a meteor in passing, each sonic swirl, the formation of a new galaxy and every gliding string, the drifting of spacecraft in orbit. Maybe this explains why the album still remains frequently associated with space today, and one of the reasons why future generations will be playing this album and making similar connections for decades to come.

Jean-Michel Jarre re-visited familiar territory in 1997 with Oxygène 7-13, picking up where the original had left off, sounding as if two decades hadn’t passed. As the album’s title suggests, this is a continuation of the theme, rather than a sequel or attempt to create a modern day version. While the album fuses modern digital synths with vintage analogue, the soundscape it creates instantly transports you back to the vivid musical landscape of the groundbreaking original.

A UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Jarre would actually go on to have several associations with space, including a collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke for a concert staged in 2001, and most notably, a spectacular outdoor concert illuminating the Houston skyline in January 1986, in collaboration with NASA and launching Jarre’s album, Rendez-Vous.

Rendez-Vousis a dramatic electronic overture with all the power of a symphony orchestra. Space travel is one of the themes driving the album, making the Houston concert the perfect setting for its first live outing. Jarre composed the album’s final track, “Dernier Rendez-Vous” for musician and astronaut Ronald McNair, who was due to make history by performing his moving saxophone solo live from space, aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger during the concert. Sadly, this was never to be.

Both the album and concert remain tainted with the tragedy of Challenger. Yet despite this devastating loss, NASA urged Jarre to continue with the concert, which had an estimated live audience of around 1.3 million people. The concert was dedicated to Challenger and her crew. Even to those discovering Rendez-Vousand its history over twenty-five years later, the sombre saxophone of the album’s closing track never fails to bring a lump to the throat.

The main-belt asteroid, 4422 Jarre(1942 UA discovered on October 17, 1942 by Louis Boyer), is named after both Jarre and his musician father, Maurice.

Towards the dawn of the 1980s, more and more artists were experimenting with electronic music, although one album would prove there’s still a place for rock music and science fiction.

Released in 1978, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds remains a best seller around the world with timeless appeal. This prog rock and narrative extravaganza is also the closest adaptation of War of the Worlds to date, with a cast including David Essex, Justin Hayward and Richard Burton, whose instantly recognisable voice never fails to send a shiver down the spine as he opens the LP with that famous introduction.

War of the Worlds still sounds surprisingly modern today thanks to brilliant song writing, production and instrumentation from Jeff Wayne, blending solid, catchy rock music with electronic sound effects and exciting narrative. It’s a dynamic listen that instantly sweeps you away with the frenetic pace of the story, told in such a way you can almost see what’s going on.

Even if the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worldsis told with such brilliant conviction, if you heard this on the radio or booming out of the stereo as a child, you might just for a moment, think it was actually happening.

In recent years, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds has been adapted into an all-star, high-tech arena concert tour, reinforcing its longevity, as if any proof were needed. A new version of the album recorded with a modern-day cast has introduced it to a new generation, although you simply cannot replicate or better the unique sound and atmosphere of the original. Very few SF novels could have been adapted this way so successfully – perhaps because the basic premise represents a believable threat that could seem possible in any generation. Despite the fact that we now know the surface of Mars is not populated with roaming Tripod machines, H.G. Wells’ original 1898 novel still reads like a contemporary work, proving that this is simply one masterwork that in all its forms, will continue to go on exciting, scaring and inspiring.

Another artist who shot to fame in the 1970s, whose work has been widely used in relation with all things interstellar, is British multi-instrumentalist, Mike Oldfield.

 1973 saw the release of Mike Oldfield’s groundbreaking album Tubular Bells, the first instrumental rock album and famously used as the title music to the horror film, The Exorcist. Oldfield’s influences ranged from rock to classical and folk, and all of this and more would go into his music – epic movements of diverse styles, with Oldfield usually playing every instrument himself.

However Oldfield’s music would not be directly directly linked with space travel until 1979, when NASA commissioned director Tony Palmer to make a film celebrating the 10thanniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. The Space Movie used music from most of Mike Oldfield’s discography to that point – Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge, Ommadawn and Incantations, alongside orchestrated versions.

In 1994, Mike Oldfield – a self-confessed Trekkie– released a concept album, The Songs of Distant Earth, which was both named after and inspired by the Arthur C. Clarke novel. Oldfield took the themes of Clarke’s novel and transformed them into a beautiful and evocative collection of interlinked tracks, following the basics of the book but also playing out like a musical evolution of the Earth, opening with the voice of an astronaut reading the opening lines of the Book of Genesis.

The Songs of Distant Earth is a rich and textured album, with Oldfield’s signature guitar taking centre stage, alongside an arsenal of synthesisers and worldly instruments, forming a truly global soundscape. Cleverly structured transitions guide you through space and time, culminating in the birth – or discovery – of a new civilisation. The Songs of Distant Earth makes a perfect companion piece to the book, which itself ends with a musical concert.

In addition to the futuristic nature of the music (and indeed Clarke’s novel), the original CD version of The Songs of Distant Earth was one the first albums to include enhanced interactive content. When the disc was inserted into an Apple Macintosh computer, you entered an interactive three-dimensional world, set to the music of the album. This short but impressive audiovisual experience was rendered on Silicon Graphics computers, (which back then, were known as computer workstations; high end image manipulation, state-of-the-art technology). After navigating your way into the Hibernaculum, you were greeted with a message from Oldfield himself, having emerged from a stasis pod. The album’s liner notes contained an introduction written by Arthur C. Clarke, which neatly ties the album and book together.

The work of Arthur C. Clarke’s had previously inspired Oldfield’s music, one such example being the opening track on his 1992 album, Tubular Bells II, entitled Sentinel. Like his musical contemporaries Jean Michel Jarre and Vangelis, Mike Oldfield also has an asteroid named after him – 5656 Oldfield (A920 TA), originally discovered in October 1920).

Mike Oldfield’s high profile relationship with space continues to this day. In April 2014, the European Space Agency used Oldfield’s track Sentinel as the official soundtrack to the launch of Sentinel-1A, the first satellite for Europe’s environmental monitoring programme, Copernicus. Arguably one of the artist’s most evocative tracks, Sentinel was a perfect choice of music for the event, and Oldfield was filmed watching the live launch, alongside his young sons.

In 2008, Oldfield released his first classical recording, Music of the Spheres. The title was translated from “Musica Universalis” – an ancient philosophical concept proposing that vibrations caused by the movements of celestial bodies produce a form of music.

Greek philosopher Pythagoras had identified that the pitch of a musical note is proportional to the length of the string that produces it, with simple numerical ratios formed by the intervals between sound frequencies. In comparison, Pythagoras proposed in his “Harmony of the Spheres” theory, that stars and planets each move according to mathematical equations and each emit their own unique orbital resonance – or hum – although this celestial concerto is inaudible to the human ear.

Such theories reinforce the possibility that there is an age-old connection between our creative minds and the rhythms of the stars and planets. It could be that these celestial harmonics have been providing subconscious inspiration for centuries, a psychic resonance driving our ongoing musical compulsions.

Perhaps even the electronic soundwaves of synthesised music somehow connect with our synapses and the electrical impulses in the human brain, forming part of an enormous, invisible creative network. This topic poses a great number of questions, which go beyond whether music is simply something pleasant on the ears and good for the soul. Scientists and musicologists are continually investigating the reason why we all like different kinds of music. Maybe the answer to this doesn’t entirely lie within the human mind, but somewhere out among the stars, and this in turn, results in our inbuilt desire to travel into space and be at one with the music of the spheres.


Prior to the frequent use of synthesisers in film and television, most science fiction film scores were orchestral, with Holst’s The Planets,being a benchmark in the genre. However, the first signs of a change in direction appeared back in 1956, when Louis and Bebe Barron composed the all-electronic soundtrack to Forbidden Planet.

Electronic music was still very much in its infancy when the Barrons wrote their innovative soundtrack and it was perhaps not until 1963 when the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop scored the haunting title music to fledgling science fiction show Doctor Who, that electronic music really made its mark. Delia Derbyshire’s arrangement of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme remains one of the most timeless, unique and distinctive television and SF theme tunes to date. It sounded unlike anything else at the time, compared to other shows, which had fairly standard chirpy music by the BBC orchestra.

Although the title music sounded as mysterious and alien as the show itself, the incidental music in Doctor Whowas equally important in creating the right atmosphere. But one particular example where the clever use of sounds had more impact, is the 1964 story The Dalek Invasion of Earth. The ghostly soundtrack by Francis Chagrin generally comprised low drones and ominous throbs. Filmed around London’s famous landmarks as well as derelict industrial backstreets and war-torn parts of the city that were yet to be rebuilt, this unsettling sonic climate gave the story a tense and disturbing ambience as Terry Nations iconic Daleks dominated the landscape.

The following years would also give us interstellar programmes such as Star Trek,Space: 1999, UFO, Battlestar Galactica and Blake’s Seven. Previously, the exploration of space was reserved for the big screen, but by the mid-1970s onwards, science fiction was commonplace on television, and each series would have music as memorable as the shows themselves. One particularly chilling theme tune was Ken Freeman’s music to the BBC’s 1984 adaptation of The Tripods – a tense and haunting electro-symphonic piece, carrying all the suspense and adventure of John Christopher’s original trilogy of books.

Famous existing compositions were often adopted as signature tunes, with which they would become forever associated, such as Sibelius’ At the Castle Gate, which featured as the title music to every episode of the BBC’s Sky At Nightfrom 1957 to the present day. This choice of music was actually Sir Patrick Moore’s after he was unhappy with the BBC’s original proposal – and it was undoubtedly down to the late Sir Patrick, that this title music was never changed. This particular piece evokes a certain academic mood, encompassing the science, technology and ambition involved in astronomy, and above all taking the subject very seriously at the same time as bringing it to a wider audience.

It’s impossible to talk about music and space without mentioning Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra has become forever linked to the film, thanks to its use in three distinctive scenes, in particular the opening titles, in which the camera gradually overlooks the Earth, the sun and the Moon, and the classic scene where apes discover the monolith (or Sentinel, should you wish to follow Arthur C. Clarke’s original description of the mysterious black object). The slow and gradual build of the music culminating in the thunderous timpani, never fails to make the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end. The sound and vision go together perfectly – yet listen to the piece in isolation, and while there’s no denying it’s impact, it doesn’t quite have the same effect – it is almost as if it needs Kubrick’s stunning visuals to be complete.

The film still looks fantastic even by today’s standards (proof that a good model shot still has more conviction than today’s overused CGI visuals), but one of the key factors in its maintained appeal is the use of music. Johann Strauss II’s best-known waltz, The Blue Danube is the other piece of music used frequently throughout the film – a classical piece juxtaposed with the futuristic images of space stations and a crew in zero gravity; their floating movements almost as poetic as the waltz when performed by dancers gliding silently across the stage. It is a combination that shouldn’t work – yet it’s just perfect.

An orchestral score has the power and grandeur required to portray the astounding visions of interstellar travel. It serves as a glorious fanfare to the splendour of space cruisers in the same way it had been to majestic battleships in times past. Symphonic music doesn’t date easily, giving timeless appeal across generations.

Electronic music is perhaps more subjective and easier to date in certain instances. Yet due to the ever-increasing technology behind it, whatever period you choose, it still remains incredibly futuristic. You only have to listen to soundtracks such as Wendy Carlos’ A Clockwork Orange or Vangelis’ epic music for Blade Runner to realise that you wouldn’t want it any other way. Much of Vangelis’ music was also used in Carl Sagan’s television documentary series Cosmos, with his ‘Movement 3’ from Heaven and Hell featuring as the title theme.

In recent years, a common approach has been the combining of symphonic and electronic sounds or the distortion and treatment acoustic instruments, evident on Clint Mansell’s soundtrack to the 2009 film Moon (directed by David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones), or Cliff Martinez’s haunting music to the 2002 remake of Solaris. Electronic music in all its forms automatically lends itself as an ideal style to depict visions of a technologically driven future, both on Earth and in space.


Music is one of mankind’s greatest art forms, and whether it is something unique to us on Earth, or if indeed our musical abilities have a celestial connection, it remains one of our key means of communicating with life outside of our own planet.

 On several occasions, we have put our music into time capsules or sent it on a journey into outer space. The Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977 contained the “Golden Record” which comprised a wide range of traditional music from around the world, and artists ranging from Beethoven to Chuck Berry. In 1997, original compositions by French artists Julien Civange and Louis Haéri were placed on board the European Space Agency’s Cassini-Huygens probe – its mission was to travel to Saturn and Titan with the aim of leaving traces of humanity on these unexplored worlds. The music did indeed reach Titan, in January 2005, after traveling seven years and four billion kilometres!

Our music will continue into the approaching centuries. Music of all trends and genres will still be out there in various forms, ready for discovery by the coming generations or launched into space, delivering a message to other civilisations, and even returning to a very different Earth in the future. Another example, although its content is our messages rather than music, is the KEO project, a time capsule satellite, conceived in 1994 by the late French artist/scientist, Jean-Marc Philippe. This ambitious project has sadly seen several false starts, although at present, KEO has a tentative launch date of 2014.

 What does the future of music hold? In the last decade we’ve seen an alarming transition from physical product to virtual (although our natural want for something tangible will never disappear). The Internet age has seen music become a fast market product; immediate and disposable. On the other hand, technology has advanced to the point that musicians don’t necessarily need to spend a fortune in studio time and face rejection by record labels – it is now possible to record a professional sounding album from a home studio and distribute it via the net, and that in turn, has allowed greater freedom of speech and expression as an artist.

Music will undoubtedly accompany the progress of our interstellar endeavours, though creative application and at events that bring together visionary thinkers and pioneers. Music creates a vital unity between people, becoming a soundtrack to success. Where in the past, concerts and events have drawn attention to environmental or humanitarian issues, why can we not harness that same musical energy to raise the profile or funding of interstellar projects, looking to the day when we take our music and musicians with us, beyond the stars.

Music remains the great communicator, bridging times, cultures and languages. Where words on a page or images on a screen help us to visualise and inform, there’s something about the sonic experience that cuts right through to the core of our imaginations. Music works in ways other mediums cannot – it reaches a part of our emotions in a unique way, stimulating the senses and transporting you to that other place. An epic and thrilling piece of music can leave us feeling aspirational and inspired – you want to be part of it, and go with the music on its journey.

Music triggers our creativity and with it, our ambitions – while even the best painting or photograph remains an image, with music, you’re surrounded by and immersed in it. With this in mind, interesting and creative music remains a crucial companion to the interstellar vision, providing that drive to keep us moving towards our galactic goals.