Chris Hadfield takes Victoria on odyssey through sound and space

Culture Music
Commander Chris Hadfield, seen here in the International Space Station, is coming to Victoria for a series of performances with the Victoria Symphony starting March 24.
Commander Chris Hadfield, seen here in the International Space Station, is coming to Victoria for a series of performances with the Victoria Symphony starting March 24. Photo credit: NASA via Flickr/Creative Commons

There are few questions Chris Hadfield hasn’t been asked.

It’s been twenty-five years since Commander Hadfield was accepted into the astronaut program by the Canadian Space Agency, and his work — on the ground and in space — is embedded into Canada’s national consciousness, to the point when sharing that I was researching for this interview, not one person failed to summon their own Hadfieldism.

“He graduated from my RMC academy,” said one Canadian. “You know, he was the first dude to record a song space,” offered my Australian roommate. “He is a pretty interesting and amazing guy,” astronaut candidate Jay T. Cullen told me in an interview just a few weeks ago.

I spoke with Hadfield in the lead up to a series of performances at the Royal Theatre with the Victoria Symphony this weekend, where he will take the audience through a journey of sound and space, marrying music, storytelling, and imagery.

Hadfield’s credentials are lengthy — engineer, fighter pilot, astronaut, Twitter celebrity, musician — and his media presence wide. (Few could forget when he dropped the Leaf’s ceremonial puck. From space.) It truly feels that there’s nothing left to ask him.

So we began on the southern Ontario corn farm where Cmdr. Hadfield was raised.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

The Martlet: In the documentary Here I Stand, you spoke about farming being a good foundation for pursuing space travel. Can you elaborate on that?

Hadfield: Farming teaches self-reliance and an understanding of machinery and a sense of responsibility at a young age. And the necessity of being aware of how everything is working around you and being in tune with your environment so you can anticipate things happening. It also teaches you a work ethic, but also the pride that comes from work; how you can feel very satisfied with life as a result of having done demanding work. I think it set me up well. I was very lucky to have been raised on a farm.

Did you ever have a blueprint for your life? Did you ever say to yourself, “I want to be an astronaut,” or did it all just fall into place?

[Laughs] When I decided to be an astronaut it was impossible — they didn’t exist in Canada. We had no astronauts, no astronaut program, no space agency, and I made the conscious decision on July 20, 1969, the day the first two people walked on the moon, to try and turn myself into somebody that could be trusted to do something like that. And so, 26 years later, I had a chance to fly into space and I worked on it pretty much every day. And that’s true for all astronauts; no one is just sort of bumbling through life and then suddenly they fly a rocket ship. It is very much the result of changing who you are to gain the skills and experience necessary that you can be trusted to do something as dangerous and as high consequence as flying in space.

Ski instructor, pilot, astronaut, musician — you’ve worn many hats. What role do you enjoy most?

I like doing a complex thing that takes a lot of skills and preparation that has a definite clear purpose, and I like doing that well. And I think that applies to all four of those things you listed; being a ski instructor — actually, I was a downhill ski racer as well as a ski instructor — a pilot, then a fighter pilot, then a test pilot, which is the most demanding of all those things, and then an astronaut which is the rarest of the rare.

And a musician playing with the Victoria Symphony — it definitely requires a lot of preparation and real-time skill, and there’s pretty high consequences if you mess it up in front of everybody. I’m not a thrill seeker at all. I don’t like having adrenaline in my veins, I’m not trying to impress anybody, I don’t have a bucket list. To me, the most worthwhile and satisfactory things are the things that require the most skill, that took the longest preparation to get ready for, and are the most difficult to execute but come with a great sense of satisfaction when they are executed well. 

What is it about the process of making music, particularly in space, that brings you joy?

I think there’s a common perception that music just exists. And, of course, it doesn’t. Music is a creation. Music is a process of invention. Music is a personal or a group expression using a language that is somewhat universal. And to me, the greatest joy in music is in the creation of music; looking around inside a song when I’m playing it by myself, or better, when I’m playing with other people and seeing how we are making it this time, how we are creating it, how we are celebrating it, how we are changing it.

And I love that sense of creative, inventive, artistic discovery that comes from music. Just playing music by yourself in a quiet room is kind of limited. To play music standing on the edge of a cliff, or on the top of CN Tower, or on the front balcony of The Empress Hotel, or as a busker down on the harbour of Victoria, or wherever: location and surroundings feed the inspiration, and so playing in a spaceship with the world going by and you cross all of Canada in eight minutes or you go round the entire planet sixteen times a day—that’s sixteen sunrises a day. It’s a very inspiring place to write music and to record and play and celebrate life through music.

You’re joining the Victoria Symphony to play three concerts at the Royal Theatre. What can the audience expect?

I’m very much looking forward to the concert. It’s a real privilege to be able to play with a group of super skilled and accomplished musicians, to be able to play music that I wrote or wrote with other people. But also it will be a chance to really interact, talk, and tell stories about the where and why on each of the songs, and what lead up to them, and do a Q&A with the audience. There also will be imagery projecting up behind the symphony of the type of environment I was in when the music was being created. If you listen to the music that’s one thing, but if you could be where the composer was when they were inspired to write that, you could have that transport of not just the music but also the psychology and the imagery. I think it becomes more significant than just music. That’s why you seldom see a movie without a soundtrack, because they’re additives, they multiply on each other. I think it’s a lovely way and maybe as complete a way as I know how of sharing the almost surreal and extremely rare experience of space flight. 

ROCKET MAN with Chris Hadfield takes place this Friday, March 24, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, March 25 at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., at the Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton Street. Tickets are $32–82, and are available at the Victoria Symphony Box Office at 250-385-6815.