IT WAS ONCE SAID that all of our billionaires, our giants of art and commerce and industry, the world’s beautiful movie stars and supreme athletes of the last two centuries – all the names of everyone who ever lived in our lifetime would be forgotten except for one: Neil Armstrong. People from the Age of Apollo may have believed that mankind stepping on the Moon would be eclipsed by excursions to other planets and other worlds. As time went on, and despite the promises of nearly every sitting president since Jimmy Carter, it became clear that the Moon, not the stars, may be our furthest destination – the furthest flung world we’ll be able to explore with human bodies before we destroy the one we came from.
The 50th anniversary of the Moon landing in July was celebrated with an audio/visual flourish that was actually quite moving. It brought to mind the great works of music – electronic music – that had been inspired by or devoted to NASA’s mission to the Moon, even aside from the great popular films and science documentaries.
Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno: Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks / Virgin/EMI/Astralwerks/UMC, probably a few others (1983)
The first that comes to mind for me – and this feels like cheating – is Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. The ninth studio album for Eno is the most popular and profound “soundtrack” for the Moon landing. It was a soundtrack by design that has escaped from its context and become the most ubiquitous soundtrack music of its time.
Eno created a soundtrack for the void: a fantasy of what music resounding through the vacuum of space ought to sound like, though it doesn’t.
Originally scoring a silent movie of 35mm footage from the Apollo missions, Atmospheres and Soundtracks illustrated both Eno’s mastery of arcane equipment (he is possibly the only man to successfully program the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer in a way both pleasing to the ear and without feeling dated to the ’80s) and of the genre he launched with Music for Airports. It wound up being, to my mind at least, the epitome of Eno’s ambient “wallpaper” – music that appears and dominates when it has your attention and retreats into the background when it does not. We say “nobody can hear you scream in space,” but Eno created a soundtrack for the void: a fantasy of what music resounding through the vacuum of space ought to sound like, though it doesn’t.
The tracks on Atmospheres and Soundtracks have been almost constantly re-licensed for other soundtracks, all the way up to the present day. It also contains one of the most beautiful pieces of music of our or perhaps any age: “An Ending (Ascent)” is to some souls as beautiful as the words of 23rd Psalm is to devout Christians, and provides a similar succor and sense of peace.
Tranquility Bass: They Came In Peace / Exist Dance (1991)
The film for which Eno scored that celestial music was originally called Apollo; it later was changed to For All Mankind. This itself was a somewhat doctored adaptation from President John F. Kennedy’s “We Choose The Moon” speech delivered at Rice University in 1962 which most mark as the launch of the Space Race. Kennedy had originally said that “we set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for all people…” The editors of the film actually altered Kennedy’s speech, dubbing the word “mankind” over “people,” so to this day many people believe they’ve heard Kennedy say “for all mankind.” And they did.
The polished/doctored phrase eventually found its way into the lunar plaques left by the first and last Apollo missions; the first was read aloud upon the first plaque’s unveiling from the Sea of Tranquility by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Those words would form the chorus of a second composition commemorating the Moon, from a project named after the site of the landing, Tranquility Base (or, in this case, Bass).
It’s now hailed as a classic – of ambient house, of the West Coast rave scene and after it appeared on the Mo’ Wax Headz compilation a milestone of the new Trip Hop scene. But for a long time Michael Kandel had so many copies of “They Came In Peace” that he was using the blue vinyl as gel lights to soften the mood around the place. It was released in 1991; and I wrote after Michael’s death in 2015 that it was:
“They Came In Peace” is a very strange ode to the Moon, especially when compared to Eno’s Atmospheres and Soundtracks. It’s almost entirely – and consciously – rooted in the sounds of Earth. The atmospheric hum and buzz suggests sutras and chants, the sounds of inner rather than outer space. The track is built around the voice of Neil Armstrong as it’s heard on Earth – a brutal sample intruding on a delicate orchestra of winged insects and stringed instruments. A locked groove at the end of the record captures the stylus needle and what it repeats are not the words of the astronauts but the indifferent chant of crickets and cicadas.
Jeff Mills: Moon: The Area of Influence / Axis (2019)
Eno made music for a place where there could be no music. Kandel serenaded the Moon in the songs of the natural and spiritual realm of Earth. Jeff Mills addresses the Moon landing of the Apollo 11 mission in a different, more ambiguous manner on Moon: The Area of Influence. The new album was livestreamed from his site at the precise time and date of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing – this particular moment of mankind touching, for the first time, the object that had in many ways nurtured life on Earth is clearly of prime importance to Mills. And “influence” is the keyword. This is the Moon that controls the oceans, that flooded the rivers that replenished the soil which the first civilizations were built around.
There is no Moon on the cover of Jeff Mills’ album – only its apparent reflection scattered across the surface of a body of water, a rare visible capture of the influence rather than the influencer. The conquerors in St.-John Perse’s Anabasis wrote that “The Sun is unmentioned but his power is amongst us.” In Jeff Mills’ vision of the world, the Moon is unseen but its power is everything.
In Moon: The Area of Influence, the voices of the astronauts are more than a seven word sample; the running dialog between with mission control hides, emerges, dominates and is dominated by a machine-like hum in “Control, Sattva & Rama.” Again, this is not about Apollo, but what Apollo influenced – the manner in which an entire society, or even an entire species strove, sacrificed, suffered for a few of their kind to be unmoored from the planet’s gravity and willingly captured in another. The opening track references mythology, but the others address the science that reveals the dominant influence of the Moon over our lives: “Stabilizing the Spin,” “The Tides,” “Sleep-Wake Cycles,” “Erratic Human Behavior,” “Lunar Power” and “Electromagnetic.”
“The Tides” has a rolling rhythm that is upbeat and celebratory and truthfully quite danceable; “Sleep-Wake Cycles” is an short electronic pop symphony of glittering glass and shimmering bells. It’s a lovely piece of music aside from its historical context and what it’s devoted to. I find it hard to say this sort of thing with Jeff Mills’ music – it takes days, weeks, even years to sink in properly – but my initial impression is Moon is his best album in the last five years.
In some ways Moon – Jeff Mills’ Moon that is – may address the common thread of these three pieces. Each of them, inspired (or “influenced”) by this effort to grasp the stars, produced beautiful music that approached a state of transcendence. Anything – even landing on the Moon – can seem banal by repetition across 50 years of TV specials, parodies and special effects that make us feel as if we’ve traveled to other galaxies from the comfort of our home – that we have progressed no further than Neil Armstrong’s small steps. With these sounds we restore a sense mystery and awe to the words from Tranquility Base and the words of Kennedy that launched this bold endeavor to get them there.