NASA’s mixtape for extraterrestrial civilizations – Harvard Gazette

In 1977, NASA created two LP records with pieces of world music, greetings in different languages, sounds of the planet and sonic images, and then attached them to the two robotic probes launched that year as part of the Voyager space mission to the outer solar system and beyond. This gold record, said Alexander Rehding, music teacher Fanny Peabody, is “actually a mixtape for alien civilizations, a sign that we exist and a glimpse into what human culture is.”

In his new book, “Alien Listening: Voyager’s Golden Record and Music from Earth”, Rehding and his co-author, Daniel KL Chua, professor of music at the University of Hong Kong, examine the place of the Golden Record in history. music and the lessons it teaches us about new ways of listening to and understanding music. Rehding told The Gazette about his longtime love for this artifact. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

GAZETTE: Where does your interest in the Golden Disc come from?

Red : About 10 years ago I taught a class called The Art of Listening. I had a lecture on the Golden Record, an extreme and interesting form of listening. I kept thinking that there was actually much more than this one hour lecture. The Golden Record was created in 1977 – during the Cold War, during the oil crisis, after the Vietnam War, so it was not a happy time. It was a pretty big gesture when NASA sent a message into space, especially one that projected happiness and tried to be welcoming to one another.

Even though the creators of the Golden Record strove to minimize assumptions about human bodies and the human ways of doing things, the Golden Record was created with very specific ideas about the types of aliens that would be able to choose it. and listen to it. First, it would help if our aliens had ears or some sort of hearing. Second, they would need something like hands to pick up and handle the discs. And third, they should have a reasonably developed sense of technology. Carl Sagan, the main spokesperson for the Golden Record, explained that anyone interested in communicating with humans is likely to be interested in science and likely have an understanding of the numbers. I tend to think of Sagan’s supposed alien as a “human-plus”. They can do anything a human can do, and then several things that we are not yet capable of. Of course, the record is as much for humans as it is for aliens, but it is rare to find other examples where music and listening have been given such an important task.

What I find fascinating about the Golden Record is that when it was created we had no evidence of exoplanets, and this whole idea of ​​alien life was a pipe dream, science fiction. Since then, astrophysicists have discovered exoplanets and believe there are several billion of them. With these numbers, it now seems statistically quite unlikely that Earth is the only planet in our galaxy to have life. Certainly, extraterrestrial life could take microbial life forms and not the technologically advanced civilizations we know from science fiction. But there is a non-zero chance that someone is listening to the record on the other end. And it’s pretty exciting.

Gazette: You and Professor Chua used cartoons, activities and graphics to illustrate your points. What prompted the decision to make the book more interactive than a typical academic volume?

Red : I come from the field of music theory, which is a bit like engineering the musical world. We want to see how the pieces of music fit together, and there has been this predisposition towards visuals to explain examples from the field. But music theory can be really off-putting, and there is a lot of technical language that deters people from reading it.

In writing this book, we wanted to work against this impression. On the one hand, we kept some of the imagery of traditional music theory, but on the other hand we also wanted to make it fun and inviting. We had this idea of ​​including cartoons quite early on. We’ve added a cutout to make your own Greek urn in a section on Penelope in Homer’s “The Odyssey” – she weaves and unrays a burial shroud for her stepfather to fend off suitors while Odysseus is away – and the penelopic alternative to Pythagoras a musical theory that is not so dominated by men. Pythagoras is often considered the father of music theory and he made a connection between music and numbers. Our music theory is much more interested in repetition and difference in music, a bit like Penelope’s shuttle which comes and goes along the chain of her loom. In this image, the music is like a woven time.

There is also a page in the book where you can hand in your membership card, as an intergalactic musicologist, because we believe everyone is a music theorist. You may not be trained in it, but by actively listening you are practicing music theory. Hopefully, these are effective features that will invite people to read this text who otherwise wouldn’t read music theory. The editor deserves a big thumbs up, because it’s been a huge job for the designers. It really is a labor of love and a lot of people have worked really hard to make this happen.

Gazette: This semester you are teaching a Gen Ed course titled “Music from Earth” on the Golden Record. What do you hope your students will take away from the course?

Red : It’s a music class, but we’re also literally talking about everything else under the sun. We are talking about the creation of the Golden Record, and we are talking about what was put on the Golden Record. The creators wisely decided to try to include as many different musical traditions from all over the world, including a raga from India, a wedding song from Peru, and a percussion recording from Senegal. It’s not a perfect compilation, but it’s pretty good, especially considering how difficult it was to record non-Western music in the 1970s.

We talk about representation and music, identity and national identity, because there are historical, geographical and stylistic differences that are observed on the record. But of course, as soon as you leave Earth’s orbit, all these differences disappear, because there is no indication of the origin of the different types of music, their function or their historical period. It just blends into the music of Earth – the music of Earth – as opposed to any other music that might be out there. It’s the fact that we, as a planet, make music that makes the Golden Record special.

The important message is that the people who made the Gold Record really believed in the power of music to communicate, and I love that ambition, that height, and a little bit of craziness that comes with it. I think that’s a question we should also be asking ourselves: how can we use music to communicate, especially to communicate with someone we don’t know at all? Music has a lot to offer. We’ve known this for a long time, but we’re still grappling with what exactly it means. I think the Golden Record has a lot to show us in this regard.

About Cecil Cobb

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