Essential albums: Michael Stearns

Cosmic is a word that's inescapable - in the most profound sense - when you listen to the peak 80's and 90's recordings of American musician Michael Stearns. Another word that comes to mind is humanity. If humanity is the ingredient that was sometimes lacking in the work of the 70's electronic pioneers, Stearns’ recorded legacy could be seen as one of the next logical steps in electronic music’s evolution.

Michael Stearns

country of origin:

Spacemusic, environmental, new age, soundtrack, ethno-ambient

decades active:
70's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Planetary Unfolding (1981, Sonic Atmospheres)
  • Chronos soundtrack (1985, Sonic Atmopsheres)
  • Encounter (1988, Hearts Of Space)
  • Sacred Site (1993, Hearts Of Space)
  • Thematic Works 1977-87 (1996, Hearts Of Space)
  • Ambient & Textural Works 1977-87 (1996, Hearts Of Space)

Reviewed by Mike G

Use the word "cosmic" when trying to describe music and you'll encounter instant skepticism among some people who otherwise might be quite receptive to it. Connotations of hippie indulgence and new age psychobabble can be a real turn-off. But I've always believed that cosmic can be a profound word in music, and especially in ambient music. Some of the music of late German musician Pete Namlook has this special quality, for example. So does classic Pink Floyd and many of the pioneering Berlin-school acts of the 70's like Tangerine Dream. U.S. radio broadcaster Stephen Hill built an entire brand on his broad concept of spacemusic with his Hearts Of Space radio show and record label.

And cosmic is a word that's inescapable - in the most profound sense - when you listen to the peak 80's and 90's recordings of American musician Michael Stearns. Another word that comes to mind is humanity. If humanity is the ingredient that was sometimes lacking in the work of the 70's electronic pioneers, Stearns’ recorded legacy could be seen as one of the next logical steps in electronic music’s evolution. That's despite the fact that for decades his music was largely ignored and unknown in Europe and the UK - birthplace of much of the pioneering electronic music covered in these pages - because of the new age tag. People outside the United States often assumed that any ambient music coming from the U.S. West Coast in the 80's must have been new age earwash. How wrong they were.

Stearns best music is a perfect marriage of emotion, technology and the psychedelic qualities of spacemusic. His melange of sophisticated electronics, acoustic sounds and original instruments can possess of a dynamic range as wide as any classical music; indeed, the key to a full appreciation of Stearns' sonic theatre is subtlety. A good hi-fi system is pretty well essential and this is music which demands to be heard in a noiseless environment. Give it the space that it asks and it can be quietly, exhilaratingly powerful.

The first 10 years

The two compilation albums Thematic Works: 1977-87 (1996) and Ambient & Textural Works: 1977-87 (1996) collect music from the many releases that preceded Stearns move in the late 1980’s to the Hearts Of Space label where he recorded most of his classic albums. By capturing many of the highlights, these lovingly curated compilations serve as a fantastic summaries of his first ten years as a recording artist.

Thematic Works brings together the shorter and more melodic pieces. Tracks like “Spanish Twilight”, “Floating Whispers” and the stunning juxtaposition of feathery synth chords and thunderous bass eruptions on “Her Way” serve notice that Stearns is a talent to be reckoned with. At times the albums is shadowy and haunting, at others it's like one big warm cosmic hug. A couple of more pop-inflected pieces (notably the superb Vangelis pastiche "Dark Passage") sit comfortably alongside the quieter tracks and show Stearns considerable versatility with electronics. The huge soundstage and distinctive tonal quality present in much of the music comes from the Serge synthesiser, an analogue wonder he has used extensively since the early 80’s. The Serge’s huge, expansive tones unavoidably suggest words like cosmic and spacey, even on tracks where his themes (“The Reflecting Heart”) are decidedly more earthbound.

The music of Ambient & Textural Works is less obvious. Longer, more abstract tracks such as “Elysian E” and “Ancient Leaves” suggest the influence of Tangerine Dream and avant-garde composers like Gyorgy Ligetti. “Morning” and “Jewel” are minimal, trance-inducing excursions in drone music, coloured with wordless vocals and environmental sound effects. His career-long interest in unusual and self-invented instruments is also apparent in these early pieces. "Jewel" features the Eikosany vibes, a set of metal tubes with which he produces sustained ethereal tones by editing out the sounds of the tubes being struck, leaving only the reverberations. And the ominous rumbles and shimmering bell-like tones of "Subterranean Ambience" and "Rivers Of Rhythm" come from a unique instrument created by sculptor George Landry, consisting of 156 wires stretched from floor to ceiling in a resonant indoor space.

80's & 90's classics

The first of Stearns' classic albums are Planetary Unfolding (1981) and Chronos (1985). The sonic foundation of both is the mighty Serge synthesiser, making its unmistakable mark in a sequence of blended movements, from exquisitely delicate tonal shifts to powerful crescendos. Harmonically rich and texturally seductive, these are ambitious, powerful spacemusic symphonies with a depth and subtlety that rewards repeated listening. Chronos is the soundtrack to a startling timelapse Imax film and up to that point (1985) it was his most mature, cohesive statement to date. As well as the Serge synth, it features the awe-inspiring rumblings The Beam, a twelve-foot high acoustic instrument made with airplane struts and piano wires.

In 1988 Stearns signed to Californian label Hearts of Space - a more natural home is hard to imagine - and released what is arguably his masterpiece. Encounter (1988) is spacemusic in the most literal sense, expressing the composer’s deep fascination with the links between humanity and the cosmos in the form of ten electronic vignettes. The dynamic range is extraordinary: from deep, droning chords and feathery, floating chorales to thunderous, speaker-shaking crashes. Again, subtlety is the key, with the music that suggests but never makes too explicit the notion of extra-terrestrial contact. The result? Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey gave us the visuals, here Stearns has created the ultimate imaginary soundtrack. Turn up the volume, turn out the lights, and allow yourself to fall into this beautiful, strange, scary, wondrous three-dimensional world. Encounter is brilliant sonic theatre.

Five years separates Encounter and his next album Sacred Site (1983) which collects his film and TV soundtrack music from the previous ten years. It's one of his finest releases, a rich and varied collection of mostly unreleased material in his trademark celestial style. Outstanding is “Paha Sapa”, a deeply affecting meditation on which Stearns wraps gorgeous, billowing synth chords around a chant by native American singer Lessert Moore, while the slowly unfolding strains of “Twin Flame” captures the composer at his most achingly, sense-smoochingly beautiful. Also featured is the best of six pieces he wrote for the soundtrack for Ron Fricke's wordless documentary Baraka (1993).

Sacred Site marks the end of a particularly fertile period in Stearns' output. Since that time, some of his releases have favoured rather less compelling explorations of native American music and dark, atonal ambience. I say less compelling because in those already crowded sub-genres the music of Singing Stones (1993) and Sorcerer (2000) sounds a lot less distinctive, even though both are decent albums. More recognisable is the music of Within: The Nine Dimensions (1998) and the soundtrack collection The Storm (2001), both worth a listen if you're already familiar with Stearns' classics. Since 2001 there have been no new album releases at all, save his contributions to the soundtrack album for another Ron Fricke film, Samara (2011).


Michael Stearns' body of recorded work stands worthy on more than just its own terms. It is also one of the most compelling examples of electronic music’s evolution from chilly, avant-garde experiments to something more soulful and altogether more accessible. It challenges without alienating, uplifts without trivialising, a shining example of technology appropriate in the hands of a gifted musician.

Indeed, Stearns best music is capable of all the emotion, sensuality and intensity of music created through any other medium. Long before electronic dance music and its downtempo/chillout offshoots put electronica in the middle of everyday life, you could say the electronic taboo ended with Stearns' magnificent contributions.

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