An interview with Stephen Hill in 1993

How has the musical direction of the program changed over the last ten years?

The basic concerns are the same. Stylistically it's a little more wide ranging. The programs are better crafted and better integrated — we have better equipment to work with. I haven't tried to make major changes because listeners keep telling us they like it the way it is. It's settled into a mature groove.

We do occasionally do something unexpected. For example, we ran the first Enigma recording, which was an unusual programming decision at the time for public radio. We got a very good response to it, so we'll do some more of that kind of dance-influenced spacemusic.

Can you say more about this wider range of styles?

If you look back over the first three years' shows covering mainly mainstream spacemusic and new age artists, there were also a bunch of odd things — Indian classical, Arabic classical, North African trance rhythms — that seemed strange at the time, but sonically they worked.

Then and now, the organizing concept is the contemplative sound environment. Within that we range far and wide. Another departure was "The Man Who Planted Trees" — a charming and inspiring literary story set to music by Paul Winter. Even though it broke every convention for both the program and public radio, it was very popular, and we've had many requests for reruns. That's another example of a departure that somehow worked.

Are there trends, directions in which the program is going?

If there are darker sounds, lighter sounds — more electronic, or more acoustic, or whatever — if there are, it's because it's what the artists are doing, not a trend or direction of the program.

Is spacemusic or new age music changing? Do you think it might change in the future, in the next decade?

I'm confident that contemplative music as a genre has a long lifespan. It's a very old kind of music, centuries old. Contemporary spacemusic is only the latest restatement of the basic truths of eons of contemplative sound experiences.

The only thing that's come along in recent years is a newer generation of ambient artists who come out of dance mixing and are derivative of Techno. These artists have a different concept of the source material. I refer to them as "the Ambient frontier."

These people are doing layered mixes with many sound sources, both electronic and acoustic samples in a free collage style. It's actually something I was doing in the early 70s at KPFA, just the same way these people are mixing in clubs and in chillrooms — the quieter environments which are part of the rave scene. At the time, I had to do it in a radio station. These people go out and buy inexpensive DJ equipment — old turntables, drum machines, cheap CD machines, and a little mixer. They've got the equipment at their disposal that I had in a radio station in 1973. But now they can do it live in a social setting where they actually see their audience and can respond to them more directly than I could on the radio.

So this music developed out of the edges of the rave/dance/techno scene — actually the chillroom scene, public places where people would go to be quiet and relax rather than dance to loud music. The artists coming up out of that chillroom scene are still working with very similar principles — space-creating and trance-inducing sounds, repetitive rhythms, natural sound ambiences, concrete sounds, things like that. They're working with new technologies, combined with new ways of mixing and different attitudes about it. They freely intermix multiple genres, acoustic and electronic instruments, to give a different definition to Ambient music. Hearts of Space as a program is embracing these new artists.

The best of the old and the best of the new? The new these days means something a little different, but does the term spacemusic still apply?

Yes. The genre and the program are now moving at an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary pace. If there was a revolution, it happened in the 70s when electronic instruments and cheap recording equipment became available, and artists could take control of the production process. Along with melody, harmony, and rhythm, artists could manipulate imagery as a creative variable. This was significant: imagery is the main thing in spacemusic. As audio virtual reality develops, the possibility of creating imagery continues to grow, and the evolutionary process will continue.

How do you see your role over the next decade?

I'm trying to serve people's need for contemplative sound experiences, be creative, and have a long run in the music business. I have a long term commitment to this material: this is the work I've chosen to do.

I function essentially like an editor at a book company, reviewing music, deciding what to select out of a mass of possibilities. On both the radio program and the record label I want to work with more accomplished, more professional, more commited, and better musicians all the time — evolved, developed artists with a tradition, style, and standard of communication that is very inspired, refined, and consistent.

I hope in the next few years that the Hearts of Space family of record labels will provide a reliable publishing venue for an increasingly skilled and respected group of artists, some perhaps who are refugees from larger or major labels, who want to do serious electronic music and can't do it in that context.

What about the future of the radio program?

The consistent message from our listeners is, "Please don't change it and do it for as long as possible" — and that's exactly what I intend to do.


Stephen Hill on radio, music and the Internet (2005)