A Manual for Spaceship Earth


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Spaceship Earth is Nonsemble’s latest release: a set of five songs that reflect on the relationship between human rationality and the chaos of nature. The songs touch on the effects of technology on our worldview, our unwillingness to believe we might be wrong, our habit of drawing arbitrary boundaries on the world and then accepting those boundaries as sacred, and finally, how we can still find some beauty in the whole mess.

Read on to find out how the EP came together, what it’s about, and why. The full lyrics are also below so you can sing along with your friends on Spaceship Earth’s annual road-trip around the sun.

New EP, New Direction

The EP is a new direction for Nonsemble – unlike our previous instrumental releases, the tracks are essentially constructed as adventurous pop songs, underpinned (or occasionally overtaken) by typically Nonsemble-esque detailed chamber arrangements.

Counter-balancing the sprawling compositions of Practical Mechanics and Go Seigen, Nonsemble composer Chris Perren set out to write some simple songs. At this task he arguably failed – somehow the odd time-signatures, polyrhythms, intricate layering and long instrumental interludes managed to creep in – but the result was something new and unique. The meticulous piano and string arrangements are not peppered on top, but built deeply into the structure of these songs, in a symbiotic unity with the catchy pop hooks which occasionally break the surface.

It was a wonderful chance for us to enlist some of our favourite Australian vocalists. The voices you hear on the EP are owned by artists whose work we’ve admired for a long time, but in the instrumental indie-classical world we’ve had little chance to cross paths. Spaceship Earth opened up a space for deep and rewarding collaboration. As both friends and fans of Amela, Mel, Cam, Shem, and Dean, it’s been so exciting for us to see them own these songs, and take them to a level that we could never achieved by ourselves.

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Recording strings for Spaceship Earth in early 2015

The EP has been in production for a long time with the first drum tracks going down in January 2015, and the final vocal tracking wrapped up by Christmas of the same year. We had a strong vision for the EP from the start, and this led us to do as much of the process ourselves as we could, so that we could realise it in exactly the way we’d imagined. Aside from some recording with our long-time collaborator Tom Green, some timely mix advice from our old buddy and super-producer Steve Bartlett, and other bits of help along the way, we recorded, mixed, and produced this EP ourselves.

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Shaun Moriarty’s exquisitely minimal cover artwork

Once again we’re honoured to be working with the fantastic London-based indie-classical/electronic/ambient label bigo & twigetti to get this thing out to the world. As usual, Jim and the b&t team have worked really hard, and continue to work hard to champion our music and the music of the other exceptional artists on their roster.

The artwork was created by Shaun Moriarty (aka rumoko), another long-time collaborator of ours. I’m not sure we could have found someone with a better understanding of the concept and aesthetic we were looking for, and Shaun’s work so perfectly encapsulates the nostalgia of a failed modernism that pervades the lyrics and ideas of the EP.

Spaceship Earth

In 1969, Buckminster Fuller published a book entitled Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. The term “Spaceship Earth” caught on as an idyllic metaphor of how we, as rational world citizens, could co-operate to care for and maintain our delicate world as it hurtles through space. The image is a beautiful one — all of humankind recognising our shared interest in caring for our home — and was picked up enthusiastically by environmentalists, politicians, and the media of the time.

However, there was a flaw in Fuller’s seemingly simple answer: it was based on a conception of nature as a predictable and simple system — a metaphor with its roots in 20th century society’s love affair with the machine. Unfortunately, the reality of nature is dynamic, characterised by chaos, complexity and constant change. All of human science is crude and simple in comparison. It turns out we cannot set ourselves apart as pilots; we are as much a part of the chaos as storms and butterflies.

In the 21st century we find ourselves on the dizzying pedestal of our ancestor’s enlightenment, but able to glimpse, as the industrial dust clears, the limitations of our powers of reasoning. The machines didn’t save us, and we have no idol to replace them. But we’ve rationalised and mechanised our world so effectively that is now very difficult for us to opt out of the situation.

The clock and tape measure look at the sun and they say, “this is a war”
You can’t talk about leaving – they start laying bricks, the Monsters.
(Lyrics from Bricks)

Despite past discoveries which turn our worldview upside down, we seem to hang on so tightly to our current models, as if these are not also subject to change. It seems we are willing to accept that we were wrong, but find it more difficult to entertain the idea that we are wrong right now.

We don’t learn from these stark copernicus frights
And answers run away from our search lights
(Lyrics from Unkind)

We are still tied to the idea that which side of an arbitrary boundary you happen to born on should determine your rights to basic human needs. So much so that this issue decides who should bask in lavish wealth, and who should wither in poverty. The song title, “Sovereign Murders” is taken from a media gaffe in 2014 committed by then-immigration minister of Australia, Scott Morrison. He had meant to say “Operation Sovereign Borders” — the name of his hardline asylum seeker policy — but the slip suggested that perhaps even he was a little disturbed by the recent deaths in custody of refugees, prohibited from entering a land which was unlawfully stolen in the first place.

Managers of spaceship earth
The great divide
We decide who climbs
(Lyrics from Sovereign Murders)

If there is a way for 8 billion humans to selflessly co-operate as crew of a giant, chaotic and completely unpredictable spacecraft, there are no signs that we will find it soon.

Sometimes I have to wonder if we’re really on the same team
(Lyrics from Trucksea)

The hardest thing to reconcile despite all this is the inherent good of the very individuals that perpetrate this large-scale destruction. Our planet is abuzz with human activity, and much of it is driven by things like love, creativity, compassion, curiosity, or simply trying to fix what we have broken. And yet on a global scale, most of this well-intentioned, frenzied pushing and pulling amounts to as much featureless noise and smoke. But perhaps that’s not a reason to stop trying. The closing track, Somnambulists, ruminates on this idea.

Dust that cakes city windows
Comes from tyres of you & me
Floats up from the highways
As we both chase some dream
(Lyrics from Somnambulists)

So an answer as simple as a manual for Spaceship Earth doesn’t stack up against the true complexity of reality. As beautiful a dream as it is, it is just a little too arrogant to set ourselves apart from nature as some kind of superior leaders, armed with infallible reason and unlimited science. But this isn’t a reason to despair — to see ourselves as inextricably intertwined with all of nature and the universe is in many ways a more peaceful and satisfying outlook. We are not controlling levers in a great machine, but maybe more like leaves on a giant tree. We’re not in charge here, and we probably won’t be around forever. But if love can cause traffic jams, does it make it any less beautiful? If our existence on this Earth is fleeting, does it make it any less remarkable that we are here at all?

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Nonsemble consider these deep philosophical questions around a large hardwood table piled with books.

Spaceship Earth EP Lyrics (in condensed no-repeat format):

Trucksea

I tried, I did
Thought I could break this pattern
Of your friends just giving up
On these arguments and running off

And it feels like driving
Trucks into the sea

Sometimes I have to wonder if we’re really on the same team

Unkind

The unkind is kind miles wide
and we’re looking up at a ball of fire
we don’t learn from these stark copernicus frights
and answers run away from our search lights
they take flight

scales of planetary size
don’t reach our halos like electron paths
frames and charts are our language and
we can’t speak in fluent universe

What a mess

Looking up the sun remembers our names
We walk invisible through this spaceship earth
Looking out into the restless crowds
they’re all galaxies I will never find
I leave behind

Bricks

The clock and tape measure look at the sun and they say,
“this is a war”
You can’t talk about leaving – they start laying bricks,
the Monsters.

Sovereign Murders

Lines
Drawn on a golden beach
Keep us safe
Keep us safe from what

Tongues
Opaque Intent
Listing mast
Hull sinks deep with weight of threat

Managers of spaceship earth
The great divide
We decide who climbs

Ever noticed how the things we know
Are just enough
We need no more until we have more

I never found my myths down here
Went fossicking around the world

Horizon gates
Keep us numb
Keep our breaths so shallow

Keeps our commonwealth so uncommon
Great British ships
Reeling in the shadow of a theft

Lines in the sand
keep us safe
keep us safe from what

Somnambulists

Come with me to the city’s edge
Let’s look back at the mess we came from
Let’s see something breathtaking
In the ugliness of this town

Dust that cakes city windows
Comes from tyres of you & me
Floats up from the highways
As we drive towards some dream

We are a broken wheel
We are a sign of life
We are museum pieces
Bottled before we’re done here

We are somnambulists
Walking towards the light
We are a million parts of an obsolete machine
Incredible that we’re here at all

All this is just seen from one side
When we all run around trying to set it right,
Trying to set it right
Are we just adding noise when even now,
We can’t hear ourselves think

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