Composer/musician Steve Thompson and his band 1201_Alarm are about to make musical history. They will release a new album, Moonshot, on November 10 – and it was loaded onto the payload of NASA’s Peregrine Lander spacecraft, which will be launched later in 2023 on a mission to the Moon.
I spoke with Steve, who has written music for Sophie Ellis-Bextor, violinist/violist Nigel Kennedy, and Robert Smith (the Cure), about the inspiration for this landmark musical event.
Russ Welton: The album has a diverse range of instruments. What was your selection process in choosing them?
Steve Thompson: I have always been interested in sounds produced by electronic instruments, right from the early recordings made by Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire, Jean-Michel Jarre [and others], and have played around with various synths since I was about 11. At that age, I also started on the trombone, so naturally, I wanted to try to combine the two sounds of electronic and acoustic.
Recently I have thought that many electronic instruments have started to sound similar, so I started looking a little further outside the norm. For example, I commissioned a build of a 400,000-volt Tesla coil in the US. This machine manipulates huge arcs of electricity to produce sounds of specific pitches. I used this on the track, “Stuxnet” on [1201_Alarm’s first album] HelloWorld. I also looked to other interfaces to control electronic instruments to produce a greater range of expression. But it all depends on what the music is trying to say. Sometimes, I just need a solo piano, or a cello. To me, the timbre and texture of the music are just as important, if not, more so, than the notes.
RW: What were the seeds that sowed the development of your science-inspired project 1201_Alarm?
ST: About 12 or 13 years ago, I started working with the comedian Robin Ince on some of his shows [aimed at scientifically] curious people. These performances were kind of variety shows that included comedians, scientists, musicians and other acts. It really fed my passion for science and I decided that I wanted to create music that was inspired by science, as well as technology and endeavor. I really enjoyed a brief glimpse into the world of the scientist and a new perspective on the world that it gave me. The green room [for that show] was always an absolute delight and I found so much joy from trying to comprehend the universe and how it works.
1201_Alarm: Alastair “Titch” Walker, Tamar Osborn, Steve Thompson, Emma Bassett, Ben Handysides. Courtesy of Steve Thompson.
RW: Could you explain the significance of the album title as it relates to the Apollo 11 mission?
ST: The band name relates to an incident aboard Apollo 11, which carried the first humans to land on the Moon. Just before landing, the navigation computer crashed, returning a “1201 alarm.” Buzz Aldrin tried in vain to reboot the machine, but it continued to produce the same error message. So, Neil Armstrong just calmly decided to look out of the window and land that way.
Now, I have a panic attack when I can’t find my car keys, so this extreme coolness in such a precarious situation has always been something that has resonated with me. I have always wanted to be that calm and have that kind of control in difficult situations. Sadly, I am not even close! I really am in awe of those early pioneers.
A “Hello World” computer program is one of the first that a programmer learns. It is the first step that they take when entering a big new world of creating new technology. It seemed fitting that I was trying to do a similar thing by launching my first album with a brand-new group. It’s also a pretty nice greeting to the rest of the world!
RW: How does your working relationship with scientist Dr. Brian Cox, astronaut Chris Hadfield, and author Tim Peake translate into your music?
ST: I have been so fortunate to have worked with so many scientists. Each has a different way of getting across their enthusiasm of their subject. I find each one inspiring and absolutely fascinating in different ways. Brian is one of the most laid-back people I have ever worked with. Chris Hadfield is a fascinating guy. I’ve only met Tim twice, but he is incredibly modest and a very generous person. I had a long conversation with him and [British comedian and actor] Eddie Izzard – the two are good friends. I was listening to how Eddie was running 32 marathons, I think across Africa, while Tim was flying his spaceship above, trying to take photos of him. I think it was at that point that I realized that I might not be the most interesting person in the conversation!
1201_Alarm, Moonshot, album cover.
RW: How does this inform your approach to composition?
ST: The classic argument is that science is cold and passionless, so you can’t write a piece of music from the heart if it’s about science. I very much disagree and wanted to demonstrate this.
When I have written a piece of music after speaking to a scientist, I try to reflect on what makes them excited. In a practical sense, this helps me find the mood, tempo and general shape of the music. This tends to be why 1201_Alarm is multi-genre. I find it too limiting to say everything that I would like to say in just one style of music, and [it’s] also why I call upon different instruments outside of the band on occasion.
For example, I wanted to write a piece of music about when science goes wrong or lets us down. At the time, scientists were getting a lot of flak. A prominent politician had just said that we had all had enough of experts, and I thought about the incredible weight that is on the shoulders of scientists. I composed a piece called “Pripyat,” named after the ghost city just outside Chernobyl. I read Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, a most harrowing, but brilliant book. This gave me the tempo, the mood and the style that I wanted, but I couldn’t find the sound. I ended up using a Hang drum which I found had an eerie quality yet the solid, metal, percussive tone that I needed.
RW: What is the laser harp that you invented, and how does it work?
ST: The laser harp is really just a bit of fun. It’s is infamously unreliable, lacking in expression, and possibly the most cumbersome way of producing a note that I can think of, yet it looks really cool on stage and sets a mood of “futuristic” music. I do love playing it.
It has gone through many incarnations. The first could only play a limited number of notes. I pushed this as far as I could in a silly video I did for YouTube. Someone had set a challenge to play a rock version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D on guitar, cramming as many notes into this 400-year-old piece as possible. I took up the challenge and made it a duel between the two instruments. I had never played the guitar before so I took a lesson and practiced solidly for three weeks. I had no idea how brutal it was on your fingers! It really hurt! But guitarists around the world have commented (not always positively) on my playing, and the video was a ton of fun to make, and I think received around 350,000 views.
For the latest incarnation, I have called on the programming skills of Dr. Niall Moroney, who is actually a quantum physicist. He has made the harp much easier to play and [given it the] potential for more expression, and I’m really looking forward to taking this version out to a gig.
The laser harp in action. Courtesy of Heather Thompson.
RW: What music project have you been working on with [British astronaut] Helen Sharman CMG OBE, and how did this come about?
ST: I only met Helen once, backstage at a gig at the Hammersmith Apollo a few years ago. She is an absolutely charming lady and so interesting to speak with. I e-mailed her to let her know that the music was going to the Moon and I was really surprised to get a reply from her and her manager, Diana. Diana mentioned that Helen was a pianist and that she had played a gig a few years ago that she was a little reluctant to do at first, but absolutely loved it. So, I asked if I could write a piece of music for her to play for this album and thankfully, Helen was really enthusiastic about the idea.
We started talking and I read her book. Again, I needed to go multi-genre to get the mood that I wanted for this track. I thought about a calm, tranquil piece as I imagined Helen looking down on the Earth from the MIR space station. Every astronaut that I have ever met has been utterly unflappable, and Helen was no exception. But of course, travelling in space is extremely dangerous, so I also wanted a hint of danger in the background. To represent the majesty of the view of Earth from 250 miles above, I needed a symphony orchestra, so I contacted the Cape Town Philharmonic that I had been working with on a separate project. They agreed and recorded the strings for me the day before Helen came to our floating studio on the Thames in London to record her part. Alastair “Titch” Walker, our band’s trumpeter, did an incredible job of improvising a fluid flugelhorn solo a few days after that to bring the whole thing together. I called the track “Ozone 3” as that was Helen’s call sign in her 1991 mission to the MIR space station.
RW: How did you come to work with [British physicist and oceanographer} Helen Czerski?
ST: Helen has a fierce curiosity, which is infectious. Where I am always attracted to the fireworks of cutting-edge science like quantum [physics] and theoretical stuff, she always brings me back down to Earth explaining how things that are happening right here, right now, are way more important. She is a great environmentalist and always speaks and writes so beautifully on her subject.
We met on a gig years and years ago. I wanted to ask a ridiculous schoolboy science question that I was a little embarrassed about, but she was glad to answer it for me. She is equally comfortable with “home” science and questions about everyday phenomena as well as cutting edge physics.
She is a superb general scientist, able to explain pretty much any difficult branch of science to anyone, including a complete amateur like me, but her specialist subject is actually bubbles, which are really important in explaining how the ocean works, and an incredibly important part of our ecosystem.
I wrote a fun piece inspired by her called “Bubbles.” It features a rare Japanese electronic instrument called a tenori-on.
We are currently exploring a new musical instrument that she has discovered in the US. It is kind of like a harmonica but has no reeds or moving parts. I believe that only two exist in the world. I can’t wait to dig deeper and find out more.
RW: How did the album find its way to the Peregrine Lander?
ST: Purely by chance really. Somebody reached out on social media saying that they had purchased space onboard the Peregrine Lander’s payload and had some spare capacity. They were looking for Moon-themed items and various other things, and one thing led to another. Astrobotic Technology, the company that built the lander, confirmed that is had been loaded on board and seems very excited by the idea of having the Moon’s first album [on board]. The team seem absolutely lovely people and I really hope that this mission, I believe the company’s first for NASA, will be a great success. The mission is slated for December 2023, but it turns out that space travel is a tough nut to crack! There have already been quite a few delays, so it is possible that it may be pushed back again. The CEO of Astrobotic, the company that built the Peregrine Lander, is very keen to do it right, rather than rush it and [have] the mission end in failure. Hopefully, if it’s not December, we should see it blast off soon in 2024.
RW: What instruments do you aspire to learn in the future and why so?
Acoustic instruments are really fascinating me at the moment. I would really like to learn the hurdy gurdy if I could find one at a reasonable price. Strings have always fascinated me, but are notoriously difficult to master, particularly if you start later in life. The hurdy gurdy has such a wonderfully unique sound and given its rather unusual way that you play it, I think I could achieve some interesting results even at my time of life!
RW: How do you incorporate a 400,000-volt Tesla coil in your music?
ST: I have to say, it’s an excruciating sound, so it doesn’t feature much. My wife absolutely hates it! It has also tried to kill me on more than one occasion.
I wrote a track about the Stuxnet virus, which demonstrated how deadly these things could be, and I wanted to represent total chaos. For this, I decided to include about 30 seconds of dubstep, in an otherwise mainly dance track with a repeating hook. I rigged up the coil in a local hall, as I can’t use traditional recording studios for this machine as it can wipe hard drives, affect anyone with biological implants like a pacemaker, and cause all sorts of chaos. The risk assessment terrifies most regular venues.
RW: What is your newest project and what can we expect from you in the coming months?
ST: I became interested in theatre after working at the Globe Theatre back in 2019. At the end of the run, I realized how much I didn’t know about literature and did a course about medieval poetry with Oxford University. There, I discovered the first poems in the English language, including “Beowulf.”
I enlisted the help of an award-winning dramaturge, Dr Emma Whipday, to coach me, and created a five-act audio play based on the poem. I have written and recorded the music with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and am currently looking for funding to record the play.
I also have a solo trombone project, Wild Swans, featuring the music of Soviet-Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin, and several audio documentaries with my production company Gullwing Arts. (The name comes from the doors of my DeLorean!).
I’m also keen to explore my chamber group, Flow, which is an acoustic quartet featuring piano, trombone, harmonica and percussion. It’s a really odd combination, so I hope can produce some interesting results. We have only had a single test rehearsal and I’d like to do more.
There will be a third, and final 1201_Alarm album, but I haven’t got a date for that yet.
A room with a view: Helen Sharman shares her perspectives as the UK’s first astronaut.
Astronaut Helen Sharman noted: “I still appreciate not having the sound of fans behind music I listen to. In orbit, fans circulate the air around the spacecraft because there is no convection (you could suffocate in your own breath were it not for the fans), so unless something goes wrong, there is no chance to listen to music or even chat to a crewmate without hearing the fans as well. You don't want to block out all the cabin noise because you wouldn't hear alarms, so noise-cancelling headphones are not always ideal!”
Ollie Weston, Steve Thompson, Helen Sharman and Luke Christie. Courtesy of Steve Thompson.
“Music attracts me most when there is a wide range of pitch, so if I am listening to recorded music, I like speakers that are capable of good-quality sound from deep bass to the high notes. But I think the combination of music and where it is heard can pull at the emotions more than good-quality sound can on its own. I took some pop, jazz and classical music into space, selected with my crewmates in mind. When it came time to leave the [International] Space Station, the commander played a couple of the tracks over the radio to us in the departing spacecraft. Although he didn't understand the words, he liked the sound, and the last I heard from the Station was Tanita Tikaram's track “World Outside Your Window.” I am thrilled to think that 1201-Alarm's Moonshot will be on the Moon; maybe even a future astronaut will hear it while pondering their view of the Earth from that different perspective."
Header image: Steve Thompson and the Tesla coil. Courtesy of Steve Thompson.