by Mike G for Ambience Magazine, July 1996. Republished 2020.
Radio broadcaster, sound engineer and now record label supremo Stephen Hill has achieved the kind of success that would make him the envy of many a brave soul running an independent record company. I talked with him about the evolution of ambient music styles, and his own creation Hearts Of Space Records, arguably America’s most respected contemporary ambient music label.
So you’ve never heard of Stephen Hill? He probably doesn’t mind. The man who, along with with co-pilot Anna Turner, took the music that America carelessly dubbed new age and made it into a credible art form is far too busy these days to be bothered with spurious notions like fame.
Launched in 1983, Hearts Of Space Records now has numerous sub-labels as well as the main imprint, the former designed to keep abreast of new off-shoots like dark ambient, new flamenco and various hybrids of synthpop/rock and tribal music. And when he isn’t signing artists, engineering a new album or doing the hundred day-to day things involved in running a record company, you’ll likely find him putting together future editions of his nationally syndicated weekly radio show Music From The Hearts Of Space. This tightly structured, artfully edited experience is now the No.#1 contemporary music program on public radio in America, aired to nearly 300 stations. His wife, Leyla Hill, is kept similarly busy running the business side of the label and show.
But surely he finds at least some time to chill out?
“Hah!” he laughs. “Hearts of Space has been a sixteen hour a day obsession for most of the last twelve years. However, last year I was liberated by my friend Michael Stearns, who after several years effort managed to convince me to go get my open water scuba certification. I have now opened a second obsession-frontier for diving, which is not only the best sport I can imagine, but shares most of the important attributes of spacemusic. The only other thing I do to relax is read computer magazines, listen to music, and prowl around the web, usually all at once.”
Amazingly, a record label hadn’t been foremost on his mind when he and his fellow broadcaster Anna Turner launched Hearts Of Space Records back in 1984.
“The record label was started as an afterthought at a time when we were mainly concerned with our syndicated radio program and a retail mail-order business”, he explains. “It was relatively easy to do in 1984, and we didn’t specifically envision that within five years it would be the main thing we were doing. Our goals were, first and foremost, to release quality music that would stand apart from the increasing glut of generic instrumental titles. Secondly, our focus was to stay in business in an environment where over 90% of independent labels fail within five years. We still work very hard to achieve both these goals.”
The evolution of spacemusic
Stephen speaks with lucid authority about the music to which he has devoted a good part of three decades.
In the early 1970’s he abandoned his architectural training for a career in sound production, opening a recording studio and also working as a staff engineer at radio station KQED-FM in San Francisco. It was around this time that he became fascinated by the similarities he found between certain traditional musics and the synthesised sounds emerging from the first wave of experimental electronic composers in Europe like Tangerine Dream. Here was music that stimulated psychological experiences, creating a space for relaxation and mental expansion.
Exactly what were these similarities?
“I was thinking about drone-based musics such as practised in India and Asia, resonant percussion music from Asia and Tibet, Japanese classical and Javanese gamelan music…to put it simply I found that drone music is still drone music, whether produced by acoustic or electronic instruments. On the Western side there’s so-called ‘tone-colour’ music represented by composers like Wagner, Richard Strauss, Ravel and others, which gained new life and a new timbrel vocabulary when translated onto the synthesiser. Here again, tone colour music has the same psychological effect whether produced by acoustic or electronic instruments. What you lose in expressivity with the machines you get back in timbrel novelty and sound design options”.
When he and Anna Turner began their radio show in 1973, he dubbed the genre ‘spacemusic’. Think of it, he says, as a form of psycho-acoustic imagery which stimulates the spatial centers of the mind to create impressions of actual or psychological ‘spaces.’ So spacemusic can be about inner, outer, cosmic, terrestrial or emotional environments, to name a few. As for ambient, he thinks the word is rapidly becoming as meaningless as new age to describe eclectic, electronically produced music.
But it’s now over twenty years since he first conceived the spacemusic term – though he claims not to have invented it – and in that time contemporary instrumental music has undergone some major expansions and transformations. Is it still a good definition for the wealth of different releases now on his own label?
“Not 100%, but certainly for most of them. We’ve attempted to rationalise the label by splitting Hearts of Space and putting the darker, more serious ambient/electronic artists onto Fathom. There are still some artists like Constance Demby and Raphael for whom the new age tag is actually appropriate, due to their musical style and the concepts they work with. There is also a growing and popular group of Celtic releases which we have recently started identifying half-seriously as Hearts O’Space titles. We also have the World Class label for progressive work in established ethnic styles like Flamenco and Klezmer, and RGB for pop electronica. Neither of these are pure spacemusic, but they contain material which has common characteristics, like the use of synths, and considerable attention to sound design and stereo imagery in mixing.”
Understanding genres and tags
Certainly, spacemusic is a label he much prefers over new age. He describes the latter as referring more to the genre’s initial audience rather than the music itself. “I always thought this was a good name for a psycho-social movement but a bad name for a musical genre”, he says. “The term is almost meaningless today, although the alternative marketplace that has been built around it in this country is thriving and supports many independent stores and artists.”
While on the subject of labelling music, he doesn’t seem particularly fond of if term world music, either.
“I use the term world music fairly narrowly, to mean the pure ethnic styles. I put the modern hybrids of traditional ethnic music plus rock/rap/electronic/dance into a more general category of contemporary eclectic fusions. They’ve been a discernible presence on the American record scene since the late 50’s, but really took off after the success of new age in the 80’s. It was a reaction against the lack of earthiness of synthesised relaxation music, and also due to the fact that lots of new age included world music instruments and stylistic elements, and still does.”
So that’s spacemusic, ambient, new age, world and fusion music all present and accounted for. However, when quizzed about the current state of rock (“Still doing nicely, thanks!”) he declines to elaborate, signalling he is not the all-round music guru I naively imagined him to be. That makes an interesting contrast to Brian Eno, who these days seems willing to offer lengthy dissertations on just about anything.
I make the comparison because, although he is not musician, in terms of setting standards and directions Stephen Hill could be seen a Eno’s American counterpart. I ask him how he regards the good Professor E.
“I regard Brian as a refreshingly smart, amazingly open, liberal, non-doctrinaire musician and thinker in a world of conservative zealots”, declares Hill. “I don’t know where we would be today had not Eno thrown the reputation gained by his success with Roxy Music and mainstream pop behind ambient, experimental, avant garde, and unusual forms of traditional music. God bless Brian Eno!”
Dance: the new wave of ambient
Of more than passing interest is his relationship with the new wave of ambience that has recently emerged from within the techno and dance spheres.
On his radio program he has embraced this new generation as ‘the new ambient frontier’. But beyond that, given his background and the quasi-new age slant of his own label, you would think his affinity was minimal. Surprisingly, it goes a bit deeper. In fact, in terms of DJ’ing techniques, he could lay claim to have beaten ambient DJ’s to it by more than a decade.
How? Students of ambient trace the beginnings of ambient dance music to the late 80’s in the new chillout rooms of certain clubs and at raves – in particular in the UK, but also in Europe and soon afterwards across the Atlantic in cultural centres such as San Francisco. British DJ’s like Mixmaster Morris and Alex Paterson of The Orb were doing layered mixes that blurred the line between performance and merely playing recordings, using multiple sources in a free-collage style with turntables, drum machines, perhaps a CD player, and of course a mixer.
Guess who was doing something very similar, live over the airwaves, in the early 70’s?
“The radio station I did most of that work in had a great control room with 4 reel to reel tape machines, 3 turntables, 2 cassette decks and 2 telephone inputs to the mix. I would also bring in a reverb and delay box to add more ambience to the live mixes. The main similarity was working with synchronised layers of sound to create a continuously evolving ambience, something that stretches the mind in several directions at once.”
There are some differences. “The dance and techno artists often maintain a vestigial, low-level 4/4 pulse”, he says, “where I was working mostly with tone colour mixtures and trance music rhythms from third world cultures with odd time signatures based on five, seven, nine, and sixteen beat cycles. Odd numbered rhythms avoid the apathy of the endless shuffle.”
Still, differences aside, I found this quite a revelation. He was not alone in pre-empting ambient dance music’s techniques, but any discussion of its development now surely owes him a nod as one of the very first sound architects to build ambient performance in this way.
Our discussion moves onto matters spiritual. Does he believe listening to ambient-style music is basically a leisure and relaxation pursuit or, as some people believe, is it capable of actually enlightening us spiritually?
“If you survey the material that is presently being released, you would have to conclude that 99.9% of it is the former,” he says. “I consider it naive and wishful thinking in the extreme to claim that any music has the capacity to provide spiritual enlightenment and am very sceptical of recordings which make this representation on the jackets, notes or promotional materials.”
“Nevertheless”, he smiles, “if even one recording could do this, it would remain a uniquely desirable possibility, and I would pay full retail to experience it!”
But he remains pragmatic. “Ambient music can provide a potentially therapeutic flow of relaxing sound, possible emotional comfort and, under certain rare conditions, can stimulate consciousness to higher states of energy. But let’s face it: people are very vague about their spirituality. I was humbled to realise years ago that all music is addressed to the human spirit. So why make it into a marketing point? One thing you can depend on is that people who are spiritually enlightened don’t use that fact to promote their music.”
Survival in the music business
Indeed, such dodgy marketing conceits have never been part of the Hearts Of Space Records agenda. Some of the most respected names in modern instrumental music grace its catalogue: Robert Rich, Michael Stearns, Kevin Braheny, Tim Clark, Mychael Danna, plus a host of lesser known but still formidable talents. The label maintains a presence in alternative charts and its catalogue continues to garner respectable sales and often excellent reviews. Which brings us to the business. How long before the label was able to turn a profit?
“The label has always been profitable or it would not exist,” he says. “We never had any outside money to invest in it and it always had to grow on its own income. We made a joke out of it: ‘Survival is Company Policy’. We follow the strategy articulated by Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records who said they had always tried to achieve a balance between ‘artistically significant and commercially successful music.’ Thus some decisions originate from an understanding of the requirements of the marketplace while others are made purely out of respect for the quality of the artists and their music. The Celtic Twilight albums are an example of the first, and pretty much the entire Fathom label is an example of the second.”
How does he feel about media response of Hearts Of Space releases?
“We have to accept our position with the audience, which is still somewhat specialised and outside the popular mainstream. I don’t think that this music is all that hard to understand, certainly not from a technical or analytical position, but it does require a certain emotional empathy to be ‘felt’ properly, and some musically literate commentators don’t appear to be sensitive to it in the necessary way. If they don’t get it, they usually don’t write about it, unless their editor forces them to.”
No matter. It seems he’s doing just fine regardless. The label’s forays into technopop and dark ambient should attract a new generation of listeners to the label, and the continued success of Music From The Hearts Of Space is truly a triumph of people-power over the blandness and fickleness of modern FM radio programming. Where does he see the label in another ten years?
“We just signed a 7 year lease with a 3 year option on our new offices and studios, so we obviously believe we’ll be around in ten years. We’ve always had a long term strategy. Of all the companies currently active, I’d say Ryko would be the closest model to what I expect for us in ten years: financially solid, sizeable catalogue, stable professional staff, and a consistent stream of really good records.”
Since this article was published, Hearts of Space Records was sold to the New York-based Valley Entertainment in 2001. To date, the entire album catalogue remains available.
The radio show continues, now with a global audience and a substantial online presence.
Hearts of Space co-producer Anna Turner left the HOS fold in the late 80’s. She died of cancer in August 1996, aged 53.
5 Hearts of Space Essentials
Much better than its new agey title might suggest, the HOS Records debut from Californian composer Robert Rich features ethnic percussion, synthesisers and immaculately recorded sound effects channelled through an alternative tuning system known as ‘just intonation’. The results are truly captivating.
Electronic spacemusic doesn’t get any more cosmic than this; audio theatre of matchless assurance and remarkable transportive power from one of America’s premier synthesists. Eerie, beautiful and profound.
Music To Disappear In volumes I & II (HS11005/23)
Raphael’s electro-acoustic mix comes in two distinct styles. The first: slow, mesmerising tribal dream dances that nod towards a number of ethnic traditions. The second: grandiose passages of ethereal strings and grand piano, richly textured and unashamedly romantic. Both these albums contain generous amounts of each and are frequently sublime.
Eric Satie for the 1990’s. Tim Story’s chamber compositions for piano, synthesisers and occasional cello are a wonder to behold…mood music that’s never resolved, always fresh, and deeply mysterious.
Sensual, bewitching and eerily beautiful, Canadian Mychael Danna’s career masterpiece explores the female psyche and its portrayal through myth and history. Lush electro-orchestral textures, grand piano and some silky-smooth electric guitar make for a listening experience of real intensity.