2 “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not In Kansas anymore.”
3 “Wherever two or more are gathered…”
4 Life in the Gravity Well
5 As the Earth Kissed the Moon
6 “Something’s Moving”
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Echoes Radio CD of the Month, April 2022
Projekt Records inaugurates an ongoing CD/digital reissue series of 13 influential works from American electronic ambient composer Michael Stearns. Projekt’s remastered edition of Stearns’ groundbreaking and long out-of-print Planetary Unfolding (1981) features the sound of the Serge Modular Synthesizer in 6 movements. The slowly evolving atmospheric swirls of this early spacemusic classic are a journey within inner and outer space.
His essential masterpiece tells the story of the cosmos not with words but with mighty, emotional sonics. The pieces have aged gracefully, as powerful today as 41 years ago. From our subatomic origins to our intergalactic destiny, the universe is made of sound held together through resonance where atoms, cells, oceans, plants, animals and humans are all part of a complex orchestration.
Planetary Unfolding exhibits both a compositional immediacy and a studied grasp of synthesizer mechanics. Stearns is one of the first Americans to tune his synthesizers to the “key of space,” adding a Californian earth-sensitivity to the mix.
“In the Beginning” births the album within primordial ambience that brightens with a blossoming mix of electronic space rock and cinematic swells. The serene and graceful “As the Earth Kissed the Moon” opens with the song of a mockingbird, the first song of spring, and in musical waves leads us to a point in the celestial firmament. It builds rhythmically as if representing the orbits of planets with choreographed movements in a star-flung ballet.
Stearns reflects in the 1981 liner notes, “I imagined myself shot out of the Earth’s resonance. We were Earth sensors sent out to bounce off of other sound masses so that our planet could feel its place in the cosmic scheme of things. It was a feeling of utter ecstasy as we danced together through the universe. It wasn’t a dance through space but more like the movement of a melody with rhythms, tensions, and releases. This was space travel unlike anything I had imagined.”
“Michael Stearns’ Planetary Unfolding defines the word breathtaking. He doesn’t just take you somewhere, he makes you hear music differently, taking you deep into the vibration of sound. Planetary Unfolding transforms the space of your listening and your mind. It’s a monumental work of ambient music.” — John Diliberto (((Echoes)))
An absolute must-have album loved and long sought-after by fans of the finest electronic music has to offer.
Michael Stearns is a multi-genre composer, sound designer, and soundtrack producer. His credits include music for television, feature films, planetariums, twenty-two IMAX films and seventeen solo albums. As one of the pioneers of American electronic music from his earliest self-released cassette in 1977 up through his 2021 Beyond Earth & Sky collaboration with Steve Roach, Stearns creates engaging textures melding with soaring melodies. He has created music for NASA, Laserium, Disney Films, HBO, 20/20 and the Berkshire Ballet. His award-winning scores for Ron Fricke’s non-verbal global film masterpieces Chronos, Sacred Site, Baraka and Samsara have been heard by audiences around the world. Stearns creates at his The Guest House studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Projekt rerelease: April 1, 2022
Original release date: May 1, 1981
Music composed and performed by Michael Stearns
All material recorded live at Continuum Studio, L.A.
Synthesizers by Serge Modular, San Francisco
Re-mastered in the Fall of 2021 by Bob Olhsson
Reviews Editor –
From Audion #72
Well, what can one say about such an iconic album as this? In the days of the “new age” boom, Michael was the serious dark horse of the scene, his music was deep, evocative, and truly spellbinding, without any of the mush and slush that invaded most such music of the late 1970s and early 80s. As a kind of “son of” Tangerine Dream’s Zeit and Walter Carlos; Sonic Seasonings, but with a whole aura and style of its own Planetary Unfolding was a classic from the get go.
On top of the above, what can I add to what wasn’t said before in Audion 2 (way back in 1986) apart from this issue is the first CD version with the original LP artwork. I think they say it’s remastered, but it sounds identical to the old Sonic Atmospheres CD. And we wouldn’t want it any other way, would we! -Alan Freeman
Reviews Editor –
From John Pemble, Iowa Public Radio
Planetary Unfolding is among the early 1980s collections serving as a launch pad for listeners eager to find music allowing their minds to travel to destinations selected by their imaginations. Using carefully configured synthesizers and chains of processing, beautiful atmospheres of chords and drones elevate a music traveler to a special place.
Often this music gets the title “space music” and rightly so. It is open to much interpretation as to whether this is what you would envision a soundtrack for a journey through the stars to be or an exploration of one’s inner space. Or really, whatever you want.
Having heard this for the first time in a decade, I’m reminded how this period of music from artists like Stearns took “ambient music” to a new place. In part it’s due to technology and in part it’s these musicians showing and acknowledging the influence of some of the 1970s pioneering synthesizer artists.
Either way, it doesn’t matter how this music came to be but where this music takes you.
Open your ears to this 1981 classic album and take a far out sonic journey.
Reviews Editor –
Echoes CD of the Month, April 2022
This is a first in the annals of Echoes CD of the Month picks: a reissue of an album that was released 41 years ago. But Planetary Unfolding by Michael Stearns isn’t your normal album. It shook the electronic music world in 1981, especially the scene in Southern California, which at the time was a mecca of new electronic music from the likes of Steve Roach, Kevin Braheny and Richard Burmer. Along with Michael Stearns, those musicians formed something of a circular mentoring squad, influencing and helping each other in creating a wholly new musical sound.
Michael Stearns creates music that, to lift a phrase from Laurie Spiegel, is like the universe expanding. It is epic on a painting-the-sky level. That’s why he’s been picked to score IMAX movies like Chronos, Baraka and Samsara. These were films that, like Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi, needed no narration because the music told the story.
Stearns had been a working musician for years, first playing psychedelic music on guitar, and then moving into a more meditative sound, heard on early albums like Ancient Leaves, Morning Jewel and Sustaining Cylinders. Although aspects of these albums were pretty avant-garde, they found their initial audience in the nascent New Age scene, providing low intensity scores to explorations of the mind. But these dawn-of-the-new-age recordings didn’t quite prepare us for the grandeur of Planetary Unfolding.
As a child of the sixties, artists like Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd were heavy influences for Stearns. But he also worked with renowned film composer Maurice Jarre, and former child actor and prodigy musician Craig Hundley, AKA Huxley, both of whom had a broad sense of dynamics and melody. You can hear those experiences in subtle ways on Planetary Unfolding.
But the biggest influence was his time spent at the Continuum Studio in Los Angeles. This was a workshop and meditation center where Emily Conrad taught her concept of meditation movement. It involved acolytes dancing free-form through the workshop space, eyes closed, tripping out to the movements of their own bodies and those of fellow seekers. Stearns performed live for people who were moving in trance-like meditations. This interaction with physical movement wasn’t dance, wasn’t tribal and wasn’t choreographed. Stearns orchestrated the flow of his music, yielding a feel on Planetary Unfolding music that exists in a state of always becoming. Even across epic crescendos, the music gives an impression of continual evolution. Continuum was also where he discovered the Serge Synthesizer through Kevin Braheny Fortune. It all comes together on Planetary Unfolding.
The opening track of Planetary Unfolding, takes the biblical title, “In the beginning. . . ” And indeed it is the creation of something magnificent as it emerges in a slow birth out of silence, gradually ascending, slowly intensifying synth chords propelled on a sample and hold pattern that gurgles beneath it. That track sets the table for a work that originally was one continuous piece, only split up for the sides of vinyl records and cassette tapes at the time.
The next piece evolves out of “In the beginning’s” cosmic dust with the title, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” It’s an appropriation from The Wizard of Oz that is also fitting for the foreign landscape that Stearns drops you into. There are few anchors among the sustained synth pads and oscillating effects. It leaves you in wind-swept whispers before launching into the next piece. “Wherever two or more are gathered” is a kaleidoscopic tapestry of cascading synthesizers, doors-of-heaven chords and a tribal chant that sounds like it’s being transmitted from Alpha Centauri, transformed through the vapors of space and synthesizers,
“Life in the Gravity Well” opens what was originally side two, with an appearance of The Beam. It’s kind of a cosmic lyre; a 12-foot long resonant beam of extruded aluminum, strung with 24 piano strings. The Beam creates the warp drive slide that leads into the “Gravity Well.” (The Beam was actually used in different Star Trek soundtracks, but not for the warp drive sound). Then a voice from the heavens appears, a ghostly choir emerging out of an electronic swirl. The synth chords become grander as they accelerate through the stars, joined again by the voice, a siren call from the abyss.
Planetary Unfolding is full of small sonic details, odd sounds that may be electronic or acoustic in origin, and even birdsong. After the storm of “Life in the Gravity Well,” Stearns brings us back to a home we now experience differently, on “As the Earth Kissed the Moon.” Birds tweet and crickets chirp. Or are they actually the Serge synthesizer? A mockingbird, a real one, begins piping its song above the electronic fray. In another slow motion climax, spinning sequencers and church-like chords evolve into long synthesizer sustains and the heaviest pulse of the album so far, accelerating into an ecstatic release. Is this a gentle, quiet earth that Stearns has brought us to, or an altered state of consciousness?
The crescendo propels us into the next piece, “Something’s Moving.” The Beam once again sends us spinning into folded space, a rhythmic sequencer pattern powering a set of suspended synth chords against an electronic swirl that rushes though like mutant tumbleweed, before ascending into the heavens once again on a synth rocket, leaving silence behind.
Planetary Unfolding has been effectively out-of-print since the mid-1980s, although it was available in digital formats. This new reissue from the Projekt label finds the album remastered and in physical form for the first time in nearly four decades. It remains as timeless and breathtaking of a journey as it was in 1981.
reviews editor –
A review from Expose
Originally released in 1981 on LP and cassette, Planetary Unfolding — a six-part ambient-electronic masterpiece performed on the Serge Modular Synthesizer — has long been recognized as one of Stearns’ finest works, and as old as it is, it has aged well over the years and still sounds as fresh and powerful today as it did way back then. The album was reissued on CD around 1985, and besides some CDR issues and mp3 and FLAC downloads, it hasn’t been available in any physical format in decades. But now, after a very long wait, it’s available again, and the real story here is that Planetary Unfolding is the first release of a forthcoming Michael Stearns reissue campaign on the esteemed Projekt label, with a dozen more reissues of his other early classic titles to come after this one. At this point I’m not sure of the timeline of the reissue series will be, or exactly which titles will be reissued, but as they appear you will certainly hear about them here. The six tracks, beginning with “In the Beginning…” brings forth the composer’s vision of the cosmos, building slowly and purposefully with swirling swells of sparkling electronics and floating ambient bliss. One won’t know when one track morphs into the next, as the end of every movement is adeptly crossfaded with the beginning of the next, the sole exception being the end of “Wherever Two or More Are Gathered…,” which was the split-point between the two sides of the original LP and cassette. The second half commences with “Life in the Gravity Well” amid some shimmering and stunning synth sounds with a mysterious female voice scaling the heights, in what may well be the high point of the entire endeavor. Approaching near silence at the end, the next movement, “As the Earth Kissed the Moon,” begins with the subtle sound of birds intermingled with synth pulses and textures as the piece grows and evolves, commanding the listener’s full attention, making way for another celestial voice near the end as we move to the closing section, “Something’s Moving,” beginning with some sequenced synthetic percussives in a seemingly farflung galactic swell. Looking back on the impact of Planetary Unfolding on the evolution of ambient electronic music, its importance cannot be overstated.
by Peter Thelen,
Reviews Editor –
From Synth & Sequences
“This is the cradle of great Space Music that will generate the best albums in the field”
Originally released in 1981 on the Continuum Montage label, then Sonic Atmospheres in 1984-85 and the Bandcamp Earth Turtle Music site since 2015, it was with amazement that I discovered Planetary Unfolding! Let’s start this review by highlighting the great initiative of the label Projekt Music which launches a series of reissues in manufactured CDs and digital downloads of some of the most influential works of Michael Stearns. The American label will offer 13 albums from the catalog of the Tucson, Arizona-born ambient sculptor. These titles are mostly discontinued and unavailable on CD, while some are available in a sound quality that meets the requirements of various online listening platforms and then on Stearns’ Bandcamp. It is therefore an excellent initiative with new remasters that do justice to the music of this influential artist in the spheres of contemporary cosmic music. I wrote astonishment, since it is the first time that I listen to Planetary Unfolding thus discovering the essences and the colors which were diluted in what I always considered as classics of electronic music (EM) from the United States, that is to say his albums M’Ocean and Chronos which however appeared 3 years later. And if you liked these two albums, you’ll find the main lines, as much in ambiences, as in melodies and rhythms in this 5th album of the American synth wizard.
A buzzing wind takes over our ears from the first seconds of In the Beginning…. Rising with intensity, this synth wave hooks multiple cosmic sound parcels to its graceful movement that undulates like the slow procession of a crawling reptile. The musicality of this ambient texture can be heard from its undulating loops in a dramatic accentuation that lets filter harmonies prisms that we will hear in a more elaborated way in Chronos. Except that Planetary Unfolding does not have the identity of Chronos, it is its cradle. And a track like Toto, I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore! proves it by 10. The whistling winds are born from the finale of In the Beginning…. And not even 10 seconds in, you can hear a slight mechanical flutter amplify as the moods take on a more austere, dramatic edge. The voices here are more solemn than on the previous track and combined with those buzzing winds that sound to our ears like the slow movements of a drifting space shuttle, they add a Dark Ambient Music dimension to this fascinating procession of cosmic winds. The metallic clicks also mutate into felts as discreet as two atoms caressing each other in a cosmic jelly as they transform into percussive elements with changing personalities. The first sounds of intergalactic exploration video games are probably originated from this fascinating tonal setting that Michael Stearns offers to our ears. The winds of Toto, I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore! are migrating to Wherever Two or More Are Gathered. There where the Modular Serge synth displays a sonic dimension of an extreme intensity and where a first rhythmic life beats in Planetary Unfolding. The melodious winds of Chronos are drawn from here and they shimmer over a bass layer that makes crawling its spells under a bed of prisms displaying its contrasts on a rainbow-colored cosmic river.
This short moment of noisy rhythm disappears into the darkness of a finale that flows into the muted vibrations of Life in the Gravity Well. The cosmic mermaids and their bewitching chants nestle to this address, just after an UFO falls into this well. We are close to the melodious oceanic ambiences of M’Ocean here and a dull pulse beats in this seraphic setting that recalls the turbulence of Angels, Bells and Pastorale in this Stearns’ album that has served as the sound reference for Ron Fricke’s film. The pulsations are more secret in As the Earth Kissed the Moon and these synth lines which dissociate to regroup at once in a melodious atmosphere where the waves sing as much as the birds chirp on a title which unites the two melodious poles of M’Ocean and Chronos. This seraphic opening leads to a second part where the intensity makes us raise the hairs on the arms, as on the soul, in a magnificent pastoral procession which progresses towards the rhythmic explosion of Planetary Unfolding. This first rhythmic phase is set on frenetic beats that are muffled by a cloud of synth layers whose bluish colors sway like a flag waved by violent winds. These layers undulate like a herd of waves trying to escape the oceans in an atmospheric tumult of an intensity as fierce as ephemeral. If the rhythm hasn’t exploded, its imprint vibrates in our ears while the finale of As the Earth Kissed the Moon exploits its musical bipolarity to pours out its restrained fury in a dance of electronic hooves whose slams borrow the vertiginous intergalactic path of Something’s Moving. The rhythm is without appeal with a swarm of various clapping in a random dance whereas the synth layers marry this flight of a space shuttle in the unknown of Cosmos that Stearns seems to have cleared with the accuracy and the nobility of his art. One cannot avoid the parallels with Chronos, even if it is its genesis.
Michael Stearns is without doubt the pioneer of the Pacific School. His first albums, Ancient Leaves and Sustaining Cylinders, are clearly inspired by the initial albums of Tangerine Dream, pre-Virgin period, as well as the dark and ambient works of Klaus Schulze, like Irricht and Cyborg. Planetary Unfolding follows the curve undertaken by the influential Morning Jewel, to whom the New Age label was clumsily, and unfairly, attached. It’s a beautiful album and the beginning of an impressive collection of works unique in both style and vision. It seems to be the beginning of a cosmic trilogy that would end with Encounter, an album I still haven’t heard and which, according to the specialized critics, is a reference in the field. A very nice initiative from Sam Rosenthal and his precious label Projekt Music. Rating: 5/5 -Sylvain Lupari (March 29th, 2022)
Reviews Editor –
From Mutant Sounds
This is pure head-swim synth pulse euphoria. Much like the title suggests, this is a galaxy sized affair – the imaginary soundtrack to some mind-blowing IMAX outer space documentary screened only at a planetarium, circa 1980. There’s something very womb-like about its sparkling, percolating analog sequencer rhythms and melodic sense hiding under all the dense layers. That little recurring two-note hook is so infectious.Like a more lush and romantic Klaus Schulze, and without much ego, actually. Yes, it’s all very simplistic (no grandiose Berlin school theatrics here!). There is repetitive rhythm, but the period of the rhythm varies very much, from one extreme to another! So it can be very slow and it can be very fast too. The keyboards depth is unbelievable! The keyboards sounds reach a maximum intensity through a fast backgroud beat, until it progressively decreases and give room to a more relaxing keyboards background.. Then is starts again… It is APOCALYPTIC! The power released is unbelievable! This music can hardly be zapped: listening it creates a trip that must take all its time to happen. When you are in the music, you’re out of reality!! Tune in and wave planet Earth good-bye.
Reviews Editor –
If Morning Jewel was about the slow album-side rise from silence to peak, Planetary Unfolding worked a similar magic with smaller compositions. Like a lot of his early albums, the move from the original LPs came with the loss of the great original covers, which is why the original is pictured here. Morning Jewel had an almost meditative concept to it with its tribute to the sunrise, while Planetary Unfolding, like his later release Encounter, had that interest in the great infinity of space and the unknown. Much of the synthesizer work for this was done on a Serge modular synth and just like Morning Jewel, this has to be one of the earliest works of ambient electronic music, its sound clouds shimmering with sequencers and effects from crystalline to foghorn. Planetary Unfolding is really a perfect description for its compositions, so much of the sounds spiraling up from the simple and the quiet to expand and unfold into huge breathtaking vistas. -Mike McLatchey
Reviews Editor –
From New Age Voice
The 25 Most Influential Ambient Albums Of All Time
No. 5 Michael Stearns: Planetary Unfolding
As suggested by the title, this album, first released in 1980, is often thought of as a classic of spacemusic, portraying the sound of the cosmos itself. But the slowly-evolving swirls of electronic arpeggiations serve equally well as an enveloping atmosphere, setting the tone for journeys in internal space. Stearns’s earlier works Ancient Leaves and Sustaining Cylinders were even more ambient, but as some of the first independent spacemusic releases, they were not easily found. In addition to releasing several more CDs that incorporate electronic, acoustic and ambient sound, Stearns has gone on to create many soundtracks for IMAX films and other large-scale cinematic presentations. That same sense of grandeur is heard here, as is the music’s ability to amplify images, either on the screen or in the mind. -Jeff Towne & Peter Manzi
Reviews Editor –
From All Music
A masterful electronic symphony, Planetary Unfolding is based on the idea that the universe is made of sound rather than solid matter (a notion that has its roots in oriental philosophy as well as in some modern theoretical physics circles). Stearns’s performances on the Serge synthesizer actually give the feeling that atoms, cells, planets, and other celestial bodies are creating a complex orchestration that is unfolding on itself and expanding into deep space. -Linda Kohanov