Jamie York is a producer for On the Media.
The Music of the Spheres
Thursday, March 21, 2013 - 12:09 PM
How a single LP sums up the music of earth.
According to some reports Voyager 1 just left our solar system. Launched in 1977 the spacecraft has been getting direction and sending findings back to us as the farthest man-made object from the earth. It’s now nearly 11.5 billion miles from the sun. It’s a remarkable scientific and engineering accomplishment, it’s sent back stunning images of Jupiter, Saturn and changed our understanding of the size of the solar system, but what I love about Voyager 1 is its golden record.
Carl Sagan and his colleagues at Cornell were tasked with planning the cultural payloads of the Voyager spacecraft (there are 2) that would represent ‘the diversity of life and culture on earth’. As mechanical ambassadors to the cosmos, NASA wanted both spacecraft to include a golden record full of audio, 116 images (some in black and white and some in color) and some simple diagrams.
It’s an enormous task and I’ve always found it fascinating. How do you decide what audio and visuals will best represent life on earth to extraterrestrials? What was on the short list that didn’t get chosen and how much grousing was there around the office when the final decisions were made? How can technology so sophisticated that it’s reached the ends of the solar system also contain what now seems like such quaint media – a golden LP (plated with uranium 238 so that its age can be determined eons from now) meant to be played with a stylus at 16 2/3rds revolutions per minute?
Below is the list of music, you’ll notice that of the 27 songs just four are from the U.S.; Louis Armstrong, Blind Willie Johnson, a traditional Navajo chant and Chuck Berry:
Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. First Movement, Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, conductor. 4:40
Java, court gamelan, "Kinds of Flowers," recorded by Robert Brown. 4:43
Senegal, percussion, recorded by Charles Duvelle. 2:08
Zaire, Pygmy girls' initiation song, recorded by Colin Turnbull. 0:56
Australia, Aborigine songs, "Morning Star" and "Devil Bird," recorded by Sandra LeBrun Holmes. 1:26
Mexico, "El Cascabel," performed by Lorenzo Barcelata and the Mariachi México. 3:14
"Johnny B. Goode," written and performed by Chuck Berry. 2:38
New Guinea, men's house song, recorded by Robert MacLennan. 1:20
Japan, shakuhachi, "Tsuru No Sugomori" ("Crane's Nest,") performed by Goro Yamaguchi. 4:51
Bach, "Gavotte en rondeaux" from the Partita No. 3 in E major for Violin, performed by Arthur Grumiaux. 2:55
Mozart, The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, no. 14. Edda Moser, soprano. Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor. 2:55
Georgian S.S.R., chorus, "Tchakrulo," collected by Radio Moscow. 2:18
Peru, panpipes and drum, collected by Casa de la Cultura, Lima. 0:52
"Melancholy Blues," performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. 3:05
Azerbaijan S.S.R., bagpipes, recorded by Radio Moscow. 2:30
Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor. 4:35
Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Glenn Gould, piano. 4:48
Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, First Movement, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor. 7:20
Bulgaria, "Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin," sung by Valya Balkanska. 4:59
Navajo Indians, Night Chant, recorded by Willard Rhodes. 0:57
Holborne, Paueans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs, "The Fairie Round," performed by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London. 1:17
Solomon Islands, panpipes, collected by the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service. 1:12
Peru, wedding song, recorded by John Cohen. 0:38
China, ch'in, "Flowing Streams," performed by Kuan P'ing-hu. 7:37
India, raga, "Jaat Kahan Ho," sung by Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar. 3:30
"Dark Was the Night," written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson. 3:15
Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina, performed by Budapest String Quartet. 6:37
Small glimpses into how the record got made are a tease. A few years ago Radiolab visited Carl Sagan’s widow to talk to her about the Voyager project. During its making she and Sagan fell in love. It’s a beautiful story, beautifully told, but still I want to know more about how the potential sounds and images were whittled away. Why did Chuck Berry make the cut and not Ike Turner? Who decided that illustrations of the nude human form were inappropriate?
And perhaps the most intriguing of all is the question that will likely never get answered – what would your impression of earth be if all you had were the sounds collected on this record?
I first learned about the voyager sounds when I saw an interview with John Cohen, a musician, filmmaker and musicologist, who mentioned that one of his recordings, and one of my favorite songs, had been included on the Voyager disc. It’s credited simply as a Peruvian Wedding Song. I wonder if the (unnamed) singer knows what happened to her voice?
I love the idea of this song floating through space, a kind of message in a bottle.
If you’ve got any insights into how the record was made, please, please leave a comment below. Thanks.