30 March 2009

Music of the spheres

I remember learning about the two Voyager space craft when I was in junior high. Of course by that point they had been hurtling through the cosmos for nigh onto 17 years, but it was news to me. The best part of the earth press kit we put together in case some extraterrestrial intelligent life happened across our little craft was a golden record. The record contains greetings in 55 languages, various naturally occurring sounds from earth, several music tracks, and the recorded brain waves of Ann Druyan*, the last wife of Carl Sagan.

This is all really fascinating, but what caught my attention the most when I recently rediscovered all of this was the list of musical tracks that the world decided to put on the record to represent our people and cultures to the universe. Twenty-three different nations collaborated to choose the 90 minutes of music. Most countries selected various folk songs and classical pieces (Bach was a very popular choice--represented three times (Beethoven is on there twice--every other composer only once)). The United States also chose a classical piece for one of its selections--we collaborated with the U.S.S.R. and France to get "Sacrificial Dance" from Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" on the album. But the rest of our selections were more... unique:
  • "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry
  • "Melancholy Blues" by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven
  • "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" by Blind Willie Johnson
  • "Night Chant," a traditional Navajo chant
I love that we chose jazz, blues, and rock & roll to send out into space, along with a representation of America's aboriginal cultures. I think it's also noteworthy that all of the artists featured from our selections are minorities--blacks and Native Americans.

We're awesome.

As I was learning all of this, I came across this quotation from writer Darren Wershler-Henry:
Design a faster than light spacecraft and then overtake the Voyager II probe for the sole purpose of replacing the gold LP of the second Brandenburg concerto with a copy of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (from his poem The Tapeworm Foundry: andor the dangerous prevalence of imagination).
Also awesome. I mean, this is probably meant to be more clever or in jest, but it's an interesting idea, right? Like maybe we did earth a disservice by putting so much Bach on there instead of diversifying a bit. Maybe David Bowie's alter-ego is truly stellar, while you kind of have to be from here to get the Brandenburg concerto.

I'm curious to know what music other people would have picked to go on the golden record. Here's the track listing. Thoughts?

*Ann Druyan on recording her brainwaves:
Earlier I had asked Carl if those putative extraterrestrials of a billion years from now could conceivably interpret the brain waves of a meditator. Who knows? A billion years is a long, long time, was his reply. On the chance that it might be possible why don't we give it a try?

Two days after our life-changing phone call,
I entered a laboratory at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and was hooked up to a computer that turned all the data from my brain and heart into sound. I had a one-hour mental itinerary of the information I wished to convey. I began by thinking about the history of Earth and the life it sustains. To the best of my abilities I tried to think something of the history of ideas and human social organization. I thought about the predicament that our civilization finds itself in and about the violence and poverty that make this planet a hell for so many of its inhabitants. Toward the end I permitted myself a personal statement of what it was like to fall in love.