Performing with an orchestra is far from the final frontier for Chris Hadfield.
In fact, the former astronaut is a longtime musician who happened to have an out-of-this-world day job.
Just like in space, Hadfield’s training should help him handle the pressure of three concerts in two days with Symphony Nova Scotia.
“The first (orchestra performance) I did was with the Houston Symphony when I was an active astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency,” he said during a phone interview from Toronto.
“I lived in Houston for 21 years, and I was a musician there and played in local clubs and bars. I did a bunch of work with some local schools and got invited to play a song I’d written with the Houston Symphony.”
When he moved back to Canada after retiring from the space agency, he was asked by the Windsor Symphony Orchestra to perform some of his songs. More recently, he did a similar show in Vancouver.
In Halifax, Symphony in Space with Chris Hadfield will be performed three times at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets, which have sold well, range from $35 to $72; check the Dalhousie Arts Centre box office for availability.
The orchestra, to be conducted by music director Bernhard Gueller, will play interstellar selections from the scores of Apollo 13, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Star Wars. It will also accompany Hadfield on several of his own songs.
But it’s Hadfield’s popular version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity that many will want to hear.
Hadfield, 57, became an Internet sensation after releasing a video of his performance shot aboard the International Space Station.
While on his third space flight, he was playing guitar and writing and recording music, including a Christmas carol he wrote with his brother, Dave. Hadfield’s son, Evan, shared it on the Internet.
“When people saw and heard that there was a musician recording music and releasing it from the space station, there started to be sort of this groundswell of requests for me to do a cover of Space Oddity.
“I’ve covered lots of songs with the various bands I’ve been in, but covering Bowie is a little bit like covering Queen or Supertramp or something. You don’t cover that very well; they’re such original and stylistic musicians that you’re going to be a pale comparison no matter what you do. So I originally balked at the idea. ‘Why don’t I do some Mozart while I’m up here, too?’ It was just beyond me.
“But my son said, ‘Dad, it’s OK, you’re not doing it for you, you’re doing it for everybody else.’ And that sort of changed my thinking.”
Bowie imagined astronaut Major Tom contemplating the wonder and isolation of space travel, as well as dealing with the curiosity of celebrity culture.
“The lyrics were written in 1968 or ’69, before the first walk on the moon, when Bowie was just 19 or just turning 20, so the words were kind of dated (but) the feeling was right,” Hadfield said.
“I made a deal with my son; I said, ‘Let’s update the words.’ He rewrote the words for me to add the 40 years of progress that had happened since then and the understanding of space flight.”
Hadfield couldn’t just ignore his chores, though. He would work all day in the station, and when it was time to go to sleep he would retire to his tiny sleeping pod, pull the door closed and set up his iPad.
“Just before I’d go to sleep I’d try to find the energy to write and record a little bit of music or ideas.”
The first version of Space Oddity he tried was karaoke in Earth orbit, singing along to the Bowie original.
“When I just played back my own voice, I was kind of surprised. It sounded different than I had expected. It was as if the place had seeped into it somehow or affected the combination of Bowie’s writing and visualization and my being there where he imagined it. It somehow put more into it than I expected, and I was kind of pleasantly surprised.”
Musician friend Emm Gryner, who was in one of Bowie’s bands, added piano to the evolving Hadfield version.
“In order to release it or anything, we had to get permission from Bowie. Through Emm, I contacted Bowie, and he absolutely loved it, which was a delight.”
The apex of Hadfield’s career as an astronaut would be the 166 days he spent in space, including time as commander of the space station, two space shuttle missions and the first spacewalk by a Canadian. His son suggested he make a music video before returning to Earth for the final time in May 2013.
“I said, ‘I’m busy up here. I can’t put any time into this.’ One Saturday, I said OK. You don’t want to bother anybody else, because everyone has a million things to do, but I got ahead of schedule enough that I grabbed a camera.
"The beauty of weightlessness is you can sort of be a one-man TV station because you can float the camera. I played that soundtrack and played along with it in various places in the space station two or three times.
“Finally, everything got ready, and the day before I came home, my son released it. No big plan or anything, just how it evolved. And I’d already done 15 other songs, recorded and sent to the ground, but that one, the combination of the visuals and the history of the song and the poetry of Bowie, really became compelling, much beyond anything we had anticipated.
“Just what my son posted, it’s been seen 30 or 40 million times. But it’s been seen hundreds of millions of times around the world, in all the other places (it’s been posted).”
Just last month, Hadfield’s position in the Bowie galaxy was confirmed when he performed in New York City at a concert marking the one-year anniversary of the death of the rock star, who once declared on his website that Hadfield’s was the most poignant version of the song ever done.
Of course, millions of others were attracted to the imagery of the astronaut “sitting in a tin can far above the world.”
“I think people become aware of things in different ways,” Hadfield said.
“They value things for different reasons. Everyone’s got a million things going on in their life. But I think a lot of people became aware that a space station even exists as a result of music, as a result of that song, which is kind of intriguing. I’ve had people stop me all around the world, little small islands in the Caribbean and the United Arab Emirates and Australia, and they know about space travel or they feel it more completely or they get it more accurately just because of that one tune.”
Hadfield, an author and a professor at the University of Waterloo these days, grew up on a southern Ontario farm.
He said he’s been a musician his whole life, writing music and performing other people's for myriad reasons. Imagine a youngster who might have been just as fascinated with Neil Young as Neil Armstrong.
“I played in a Celtic band for years, I played in a sailboat bar where we played all sorts of that style of music, I played in a rock ’n’ roll cover sort of band, and those are all great stages and a great subset of music that exists. I think all of those just sort of join together to be the music of my life.”
And it’s making connections, whether it’s with his millions of followers on social media, in a classroom or through the universal language of music, that’s critical to Hadfield’s mission these days.
“It’s why I teach at university. It’s why I Skype with schools several times every week,” he said.
“I speak all over the world. It’s the exchange of ideas and awareness that is really important to me.”