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People & Culture

Music from on high

Canada’s favourite astronaut, Chris Hadfield, connects space and Earth with music

  • Mar 31, 2013
  • 457 words
  • 2 minutes
Chris Hadfield performs a song he co-wrote with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies Expand Image
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Look out, Ziggy Stardust — you’ve got some serious competition.

Although his days aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are filled with tending to the more than 200 experiments aboard the orbiting laboratory and operating the Canadarm2, the 17-metrelong robotic arm that helped assemble the space station, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield still manages to squeeze in a bit of time for music.

But Hadfield isn’t just idly strumming his Larrivée Parlor acoustic guitar and singing folk songs as he sits in his bay window on the world watching continents and oceans roll by. He’s recording the first album of original music in space. “The idea,” he says, “is to use music to artistically capture the experience of leaving Earth.”

The biggest technical challenge of recording some 400 kilometres above the Earth is the noise from the ISS’s essential equipment — the generators for life support, for instance, or the ventilation systems — but those aural distractions can be mostly eliminated later. Playing, however, is trickier. “The sound is fundamentally the same because the strings are not gravity-dependent,” says Hadfield. “But you’re used to the weight of your arm, so in weightlessness, you need to pay more attention to your fretting at first.”

The seeds of Hadfield’s musical career were sown early, while he was growing up on a farm near Milton, Ont., in a family that had a tradition of singalongs. When he was nine, Hadfield resolved to become an astronaut, and around the same time he and his older brother Dave started learning how to play the guitar. “For both of us, music is just something we have to do,” says Dave Hadfield. “It’s an itch that has to be scratched.” The elder Hadfield has contributed songs to his brother’s space album, and Hadfield recorded the first of these — “Jewel in the Night” — on Dec. 23, two days after arriving on the ISS.

Chris Hadfield has also co-written a song — “I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing)” — with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies. The tune debuted Feb. 8 on CBC’s television, radio and online music platforms, with Hadfield performing aboard the ISS as Robertson sang along, accompanied by a youth choir. The song is part of the Coalition for Music Education’s Music Monday (musicmakesus. ca/musicmonday), an annual event that celebrates the importance of music in people’s lives and in schools. Students across Canada will perform the song on May 6 at 1 p.m., EST, about one week before Hadfield is scheduled to return to Earth.

“If we’re going to take the whole human experience with us into space,” says Dave Hadfield, “then we must create art that is new, from a new perspective, and that is what Chris is doing.”

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