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Atmospheres and Soudtracks (1983)Life is full of acquired tastes. Not the least of which are ambient music and an interest in space travel. If neither of these is your cup of tea, and you’re pretty sure they never will be, don’t be afraid. Life is also full of strange coherences, times when two disparate concepts intersect and expand your understanding of both. Most people don’t give a crap about the moon, or that two dozen people have traveled the quarter million miles and returned to tell their story. I would guess that roughly the same number of people don’t consider “Ambient Music” to be music in any real sense, rating it about on par with muzak. As remote concepts alien to every day experience, both represent foreign environments. When people cannot relate to an environment in some way, even a seemingly incongruous or inconsequential way, there is little reason for them to dig any deeper – no motivation to incorporate uncertain and uninviting terrain into their field of view. Just for a moment, try and imagine the introduction of a single unifying human element into both of these alien constructs, what would happen? I don’t mean to claim that Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks is either perfect or transcendent, but I would point to it as the only serious effort made by a musician to explore the implications of our voyage to the moon, and in doing so create a construct used to humanize the endeavor and make it accessible to casual observers.

Originally recorded as the soundtrack to the 1989 documentary, For All Mankind, the album was released in 1983 despite the film’s delay. Apollo was a mix between fairly standard ambient compositions, in line with Eno’s series of early ambient records, and an experimental foray into the inclusion of melodic instrument tracks on top of that standard frame. For Eno, as stated in the liner notes for Ambient 1: Music for Airports, “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” I would argue that while several of the songs on Apollo fit into this category, the album in aggregate transcends Eno’s own mold. With it’s sweeping sonic builds [An Ending (Ascent)], melodic piano lines [Always Returning] and Daniel Lanois’ country-western guitar melodies [Deep Blue Day], the album makes a deliberate attempt to expand the mold. Of particular importance in this case are Lanois’ guitar lines.

In interviews given about the album’s inspirations and composition, Eno explains that Country-Western music was the listening material of choice for astronauts in the trans-lunar gulf. This simple piece of information carried tremendous significance for the artist. Country and Western music is instantly recognizable and almost universally associated with the American frontier, manifest destiny, cowboys, and the intrepid men and woman who ventured into an uncertain wilderness. For Eno, astronauts listening to music built on those themes made perfect sense. Space, to use a decidedly nerdy phrase, truly was the final frontier. It was only natural then that the men charged with exploring this new frontier would choose to bring along music whose soundscape was built on the previous one.

For most people the usual sounds closely associated with space are a palate of incredibly irritating “futuristic” noises. (Imagine the classic laser beam sound effect being used to play an equally tinny sounding melody). Ever since someone came up with an easy option for “spacey” music, there has been little to no effort made by musicians or songwriters to define this frontier any further. The closest mainstream music has come to delving into the subject matter are Elton John’s Rocket Man and David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Both of these songs deal with the human aspects inherent to space travel – alienation, detachment from humanity, and a pervading sense of dread that they will be stranded in space – but they do little to define the broader experience.

Most soundtracks to films set in space suffer from the same drawback, using a standard mix of classical compositions original or otherwise. Granted, this technique has been used to great effect in films like 2001, with its orbital ballet sequences, and Star Wars‘ sweeping orchestral score filled with operatic leitmotifs. However, in both cases there is no attempt to create an original musical framework for understanding and engaging a new avenue of human undertaking.

The genius of Apollo lies in providing the listener with a contextual sonic background. Without the vaguely familiar country-western guitar riffs and piano melodies, it would be just another ambient record. Like the astronauts themselves, Eno uses the familiarity of a common sonic construct to impose an element of humanity into the cold vastness of space. Suddenly, the void is revealed not as a forbidding alien environment, but rather as a frontier beckoning us to probe its depths and test the limits of our imagination.

Music has a transportive quality, a quality that few other mediums, if any, possess. Sure a picture or video can give us insight into what something looks like, but there is always a framework. No matter how engrossing, or realistic, we know that it’s a picture, or movie. By their very nature photographic representations connote the viewer’s removal from the subject. Music, however, lacks this experiential buffer. While there is a contextual difference between seeing music performed live and listening to a recording of that live performance, aurally there is no way to distinguish between the two. This gives music, and indeed sound in general, a verisimilitude that other art forms cannot mimic or recreate. With Apollo, Brian Eno capitalized on this unique quality of music to propel listeners into a new musical environment. A place where old rules need not apply but needed to be defined in human terms.

Perhaps the reason why few others have made a serious attempt to define the experience of space through music lies somewhere in our paradoxical view of the exploration itself. Conventional wisdom places space-travel firmly into the world of the “future.” What the conventional thinking fails to recognize, however, is that man’s ultimate achievement of technology and exploration happened close to 40 years ago. And, more importantly, we cannot go back anytime soon. Somehow, humanity’s grip on the heavens loosened and we let it slip away. The Moon, in many ways, is even more remote now than it was when Jack Kennedy stood up in front of Congress in 1961 and laid down his historical challenge. All that remains are the haunting, ethereal images captured by the men who made the journey, and a collection of songs that transport us back to a time when humanity’s future lay not inside a circuit board, but in the stars.

– roswell

Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks – Wikipedia

For All Mankind – Criterion Collection

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Written by roswellmueller

April 3, 2008 at 9:26 pm

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