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Ron’s Piece

by Brian Dunning, Aug 05 2010
Dr. Ron McNair

Dr. Ron McNair

Today I was in the mood for just a short post (OK, the real reason is that I’m currently vacationing in Oregon). I was relaxing and listening to music and thinking about the space program, as it’s a topic I’m currently researching. For me this is something of a convergence. I’m an old-school analog subtractive synthesis guy, as some of you may know, and enjoy the musical stylings of early synthesizer artists like Wendy Carlos and Jean-Michel Jarre. Any discussion of electronic music and the space program leads, inevitably, to Dr. Ron McNair, who, as one of the astronauts who died on the Challenger, is automatically one of my heroes.

Dr. McNair was also handy with a saxophone, and happened to be friends with Jean-Michel Jarre. Together they reasoned that Ron’s upcoming flight on STS-51 might be an ideal opportunity to accomplish a neat first: Ron would play saxophone on board the Challenger while Jarre recorded it live in session, and Jarre’s upcoming album Rendez-Vous would include the first original musical recording performed live in space.

Ron’s saxophone was duly packed on board Challenger. Sadly, as we know all too well, he never got the chance to record the music.

Jarre proceeded with his album, retitling the track Ron’s Piece, with the saxophone played in tribute by Pierre Gossez (ironically, the track’s original title was to be Last Rendez-Vous). If you can get ahold of a copy of the album, give it a listen. Close your eyes and enjoy the way it should have been.

12 Responses to “Ron’s Piece”

  1. Interesting I’ll have to take a listen. It’s weird how science and art somehow seem to but heads when there is obviously such an overlap. Lots of artists love science, and almost all scientists have an appreciation for some art. I don’t care what you all say about auto-tuning Carl Sagan, the man was bang-on with both the mind and the emotions, and no one has more imagination than a physicist. Here’s a clip I’ve been nerding out over from Jonathan Coulton. and maybe someday
    Another great post Brian.

    • Oops, bad edit. The last sentence should have read “and maybe someday the rest of the world will see the art inherent in science.” I’ve got an itchy “posting-finger” after a few glasses of wine.

  2. That’s touching.
    “I’m an old-school analog subtractive synthesis guy, as some of you may know, and enjoy the musical stylings of early synthesizer artists like Wendy Carlos and Jean-Michel Jarre.”

    Me too. Wendy’s work on the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange and The Shining are seminal parts of my introduction to synthesizer work. Of course I finally traced it all back to Cosmos but didn’t realize the impact of the soundtrack until in my 30’s I realized that much of my music collection was “space music” – and where was space music ever more aptly used?

    I’m going to say Vangelis too. Nothing in particular about him except to not say his name in this context seems silly.

  3. David Orr says:

    Mr. Dunning, my already high opinion of you has increased tenfold with the knowledge that you’re an analog synth guy. One of the worst moments of my life was when I dropped my Arp AXXE… I’m stopping there. Too painful.

  4. Nigel says:

    You can’t talk about ‘space music’ and atmospheric synthesisor music without recognising the grand-daddy of them all Tangerine Dream!

    Oh and Brian Eno kinda lost the point…

  5. Ryan Johnson says:

    WOW! just saw this and it literally gave me chills. I haven’t hear reference to Ron’s piece since the 80’s I’m really familiar with this piece because I tried playing it a long time ago. I was a HUGE Jean-Michel Jarre fan back then and even used some of his music in a movie that I did back in High School. I remember the days with my Ross 4×4 multitrack hooked up to my Casio CZ-101 ( I know I’m gonna find that again someday) and an old DX-7. Ahh. memories.

    This really takes me back.

    I was very much into the shuttle program. (I live in Santa Maria, adjacent to Vandenberg AFB) because the shuttle was due for West Coast launches. I was even enrolled in the Young Astronaut program at the time, and with the demise of the Challenger, went my dreams of being an astronaut as well as many of my friends, as their parents all moved away to Denver after the program here wadded up.

    Meeting Astronauts Young and Crippen literally “under” Columbia many years later was as close as I got.

    Two years ago I bought a Saxophone (I’m a drummer/ keyboard player mostly) and Ron’s piece was one of the things that I tried playing while getting my chops back.

    I didn’t realize how many of you guys were all closet electronic music junkies. — Don’t get me started!

    Nice pull my friend. And enjoy the rest of your vacation.

    OK, I’m back to work.

  6. Dustin K says:

    Definitely cool and sad as hell… I was fairly young when the Challenger exploded…though I can remember it like it was yesterday. Unfortunately, I’ve never really taken the time to learn more about the brave people we lost that day. Thank you for giving me a great reason to do some more reading on my own, Brian!

  7. Myk says:

    I know I heard the tale back in the day, but I forgot all the details. Good to be reminded. Gotta love that J-M Jarre. My favourite album of his is Zoolook, but they’re all good.

  8. Letodan says:

    It’s not often that I get to read about people who love my kind of music. I got almost everything that Jarre, Vangelis or Tangerine Dream have done in their career (and I’m still following them although, they are not as productive as they once were!

    I listened many times to Ron’s piece when I was younger, laying in my bed, with the light turned off. It is just a wonderful piece of music! Very soothing…

  9. Alphaman says:

    Rendez-Vous is a great album. JMJ did a tribute to the Challenger crew at a concert in Houston a couple months after the accident in early ’86, and released a music video of the Fourth Rendez-Vous, which included several references to the space program, and specifically the Challenger crew. It got a lot of airplay on MTV at the time; to this day, I can’t listen to that song without getting a lump in my throat.

    I worked on the space program at the time of the accident, and personally will never forget that day, and I strive to ensure others don’t either. I did a blog entry about another astronaut lost on Challenger, posted this past Ada Lovelace day.

    Mike, Dick, Judy, El, Ron, Christa, and Greg — we should never forget them. Thanks, Brian.

  10. Erwin says:

    I saw JMJ in Paris when he set La Defense alight on July 14th, 1989 or 1990. He played Ron’s Piece and if there’s one way to get a crowd of 1 million people silent, that’s the one. The inclusion of ‘The Eagle has landed’ recording in the live album still gives me goosebumps, the same way it did when I heard the it in KSC in 1995.

    When I got my first CD player I had money for 6 CDs. One of those, and the only I remember buying of that set, was Rendez-Vous.

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