Space Music: Stephen Hill talks Hearts of Space and Ambient DNA

Stephen Hill brings you "slow music for fast times."
Stephen Hill brings you "slow music for fast times."

I probably listened to "Hearts of Space" for the first time back in the early 90s during a family beach vacation. I was surfing the local radio stations late one night and suddenly found myself listening to music unlike anything I'd heard before. A couple of decades later, my musical tastes have caught up with that first taste of ethereal electronic goodness -- and "Hearts of Space" is still going strong.

The show first hit late-night San Francisco Bay-area airwaves back in 1973 -- a "labor of love" hosted and produced by former architect Stephen Hill. In 1983, the show went nationwide on 35 non-commercial public radio channels. Today, you can listen to "Hearts of Space" on 200 NPR affiliate stations -- plus worldwide from the show's thoroughly excellent website and mobile app. In fact, I'm using the iPhone version to stream January 2001's Sagan-themed "The Music of Cosmos" episode as I type this.

At any rate, I figured a Space Music post about HOS was long overdue, so I reached out to Stephen Hill for a brief chat and here's what he had to share with us.

Robert Lamb: What did the term "space music" mean to you back in the 1970s? Has the meaning evolved over the years?

Stephen Hill: In the 1970's the term was just one of several being used to describe the growing field of spatial and electronic imagery in sound. The now somewhat discredited term "new age" was also being used to describe similar-sounding genres of slow, contemplative audio experience, like bronze bowls, Tibetan bells, Indian instruments, wire strung harps, hammered dulcimers, pipe organs, and anything which could produce slowly changing continuous drone sounds.

Spatial processing and surround sound were in their infancy in the 1970s, and early electronic experimenters were not particularly concerned about it until Wendy Carlos, Tomita, and Malcolm Cecil and Bob Margouleff made popular recordings that used a lot of conventional reverberation in their mixes. After that most artists recognized that spatial processing was an essential component of electronic music.

Starting in the 1970s electronic "space music" was a natural fit in planetariums; there was a small group of musicians who were producing music specifically for planetarium soundtracks. In the U.S. it included Jonn Serrie, Tim Clark, Michael Stearns, Mark Petersen/Geodesium, Doug McKechnie and several others. As far as I know this was the original style of "space music" (I prefer to spell it as one word: spacemusic. Today we'd probably intercap it: SpaceMusic), although classical composers like Gustav Holst had written so-called "program music" like The Planets that created similar musical imagery, at least in some movements.

For me personally and for Hearts of Space as a music format, after working exclusively with electronic music and spacemusic for a few years, it gradually became clear that music that created a sense of psychological space or landscape was actually a very, very old thing - thousands of years. My then-partner Anna Turner and I began to expand our repertoire to include all kinds of contemplative and space-creating genres from American, European, oriental and other exotic cultures. By the time we published our first and only book in 1980 (the deftly titled "Hearts of Space Guide to Cosmic, Transcendent and Innerspace Music") we had identified over 30 sub-categories to organize the music we were working with.

If you want to be purist about it (I obviously don't...) you can limit "space music" to electronic or acoustic music intended to create or illustrate cosmic or astronomical themes. But if you do, you'll miss a huge amount of extraordinary music that doesn't depend on those associations. So I see space music as a subcategory of the long human tradition of contemplative and psychoactive sound experience.

This week on Hearts of Space... [audio]

"Hearts of Space" approaches its 40th year on the air if I'm not mistaken. In that time, electronic music and new age thinking have become increasingly mainstream. Space exploration has both surged and diminished in various ways. Has the music on "Hearts of Space" changed?

If these things have become mainstream, it must mean people find they have value. That said, there were then and still are no formally established standards of quality or barriers to entry to either electronic music or new age culture. New age music in particular suffered from this, and had a very wide spectrum of quality from the beginning, as well as embarrassingly overblown marketing claims.

So the quality of the art, the work, and the insight vary considerably. Along with opening up the repertoire to include all kinds of contemplative music, one of the main things I tried to do with Hearts of Space was to establish a consistent standard of quality for the music we programmed.

Linking electronic music with space exploration doesn't do justice to the scope of the electronic genre anymore. The expansion of electronic music has been fueled by many things, including the mass marketing of inexpensive instruments and music software, which is why Laurie Spiegel called the synthesizer a "folk instrument." It's become a virtually unlimited creative arena, especially in the area of electronic dance music where artists have both social interaction and performance opportunities. Moreover, the future of space exploration is dependent on the large government subsidies required, which has nothing at all to do with music.

PGM 986 'EUROTRONIC' : july 27-august 3 [audio]

Has dance/DJ culture affected the nature of ambient music?

DJ culture is all about dancing and parties. It's obviously rhythm-driven music, but eventually people had to take a break so there was an opportunity to create a more laid-back environment just off the dance floor which came to be called the Chill room. Chill culture has definitely affected ambient music and in some cases is indistinguishable from previous forms of quiet electronic music. In fact as I said in one intro, "the architects of chill came to sound perilously close to New Age artists. Perish the thought..."

Many of the intros to DJ mixes make use of electronic drones and ambient sounds, but it's normally just a component of the overall production: the meat of the matter is the "drop," the baselines and the beats. I'd venture a guess that ambient intros to dance tracks have introduced many people to space-creating sound who would otherwise not have known that it exists, but that doesn't mean they will seek out ambient electronica as a primary focus. For that you need to have what I call "ambient DNA" -- a built-in sensitivity and preference for that kind of sound experience.

PGM 954R 'SUNSTRUCK' : july 13-20 [audio]

In your essay "New Age Music Made Simple," you mention the "audio-isolated" offspring of the Walkman/iPod era and their sonic/psychological displacement from the world around them - something I've read about elsewhere as the Walkman Effect, in which one's role in the world shifts from that of participant to spectator. Do you think this enhances or even diminishes the human experience?

Well, it can enhance the personal experience while clearly diminishing the social experience. So it was a win for introverts, not so much for extroverts. Most social interactions aren't that interesting, and good music might actually be a better place to put your "continuous partial attention." I don't see the point of making a value judgment about something which is ultimately a personal choice.

PGM 985 'BADLANDS' : july 20-27 [audio]

"Space music" is a rather loose term and "Hearts of Space" features a diverse selection of ambient sounds, but do you have any specific listening recommendations for those of us looking for a cosmically-aligned ambient listening experience?

At the risk of being self-promoting, I'd advise people to start by browsing the "Electronic Space" category in the PROGRAMS section of There are over three hundred programs there and you can study the playlists and find detailed information on thousands of artists, albums and tracks. You can do this for free; if you create a free account on our site you can stream our latest show free on Sundays, or anytime in our 99 cent mobile apps. If you want to listen to archived programs in the Electronic Space section, that requires a subscription to our streaming service.

Now that we have wide angle streaming services like Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio and Mog, you can also search them for titles with keywords like "space" and "cosmic" and assemble personal playlists. And you can build custom music channels on adaptive streaming services like Pandora starting with well-known ambient artists like Brian Eno, Harold Budd, or Steve Roach. Ultimately, you want to get into the online information flow around ambient music and become familiar with the names of artists who are dedicated to the genre. It's never been easier to search for specialized music and hear samples of it than now.

PGM 841R 'FLYING and FLOATING 2' : july 6-13 [audio]

You've referred to our "ambient DNA" before - one's seemingly in-born susceptibility to the power of ambient music. Why do you think these sounds resonate with us so?

OK, this is an unscientific personal theory, but here's what I think: Our spatial audio perceptual ability goes back to our deep evolutionary history. Being aware of the sounds in your environment and being able to locate their direction in three-dimensional space had survival value and became standard equipment on all mammals, birds and even insects. At the same time our nervous systems and brain evolved to react immediately to sounds that might indicate danger -- the famous "fight or flight" response. Even though we rarely have to fight or run away anymore, that whole system is still an integral part of our perceptual apparatus.

What happens with ambient music is that the continuous stream of sound, the lack of sudden sound events, the consonant harmonies and the slow pace all conspire to send us the message that "everything's cool here, you don't have to keep scanning the environment for danger." This is the "relaxation response" that is shared by Ambient, Chill, New Age, and some styles of folk, jazz and classical music (all of which form the repertoire for Hearts of Space.)

At that point your mind is freed to focus on other things: creative work or other concentrated cognitive activities like writing or computer programming. The benefits of doing this in an ambient music environment are intuitively understood. Compared to ordinary music -- especially music with lyrics you can understand -- ambient music is being decoded mostly by a different, older part of your brain, leaving the cerebral cortex free to focus on the things it's good at.

It's also helpful to tightly wound people with insomnia, hyper-vigilance and other stress-related psychological problems. So there are lots of benefits, as long as you are willing to immerse yourself in ambient sound and let it work its magic. This is probably a natural thing for 30-40 percent of the population and they have an immediate and positive response to ambient music: Ambient DNA. Everyone else finds it either unappealing or incomprehensible and sticks to rock, rap and pop. ;-)

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.