Aug 1, 2012–A significant milestone happened in the music world this month. You might have missed it, because it took place down a ways from Fredericksburg–10 billion miles down the Milky Way, to be exact.
A recording from the 1970s left the solar system.
It was the Golden Record attached to the spacecraft Voyager 1. This represents the first man-made object to go beyond our system. Many of you–well, fewer of you each day–may remember when this was launched back in 1977.
Mankind was aware of the significance of this endeavor, that an earth-made object about the size of an AMC Gremlin might someday be collected by intelligent life. The challenge was determining what information was worthy to be placed in this true time capsule.
In the 1990s–when Voyager 1 was still just nosing around Uranus–I got to know a gentleman who used to work at Capitol Records in New York City. I only remember his first name–Russ. I was fascinated with his tales of recording jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra in the 1950s and 60s, using giant reels of recording tape, which they were still hand-splicing and taping together. This was before digital recording, before cassettes, heck, before stereo. Sound was recorded by passing magnetized tape under a recording head. In order to punch in with overdubs, technicians actually had to stop the tape at the exact point, then slice the tape with a razor blade, and tape the new recorded bit back into the gap. It took a great ear, a sharp blade, a steady hand, and a lot of luck.
One day Russ casually mentioned that he was the guy who recorded the sounds that went onto the gold record affixed to the Voyager 1 spacecraft. I was in thrall. I made him tell me how he worked for months with Carl Sagan and his team of scientists and artists, selecting, taping, then splicing together and finally pressing into a record the bits of sound that had the burden of representing the heart and soul of the entire human race to an alien culture that might not even exist yet.
Voyager 1 was launched in 1977, with the mission to study the large outer planets. But it was known it would continue traveling away from the Sun, perhaps forever. This month it will officially pass the heliopause–the outer edge of our solar system. (If it were part of the Gillespie County 911 addressing system, the sign would be a “1” followed by 13 zeroes.)
In addition to images of the male and female body, a pulsar map, DNA model, and diagram of a hydrogen molecule (pretty much all the information an alien race would need to conquer humankind), the spaceship carries a gold phonograph record. Actually it is a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk. It contains a variety of natural sounds, greetings in 55 languages, and musical selections from different eras. The sounds include the wind, the surf, thunder, and songs of birds and whales.
Among international samples of music, they chose Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky, some blues by Blind Willie Johnson, and some rock and roll by Chuck Berry.
Now, odds are that the Borg unit that someday assimilates this errant spacecraft won’t have a Pioneer turntable on hand to play the record. So–showing amazing foresight–the Sagan team etched a drawing of the record and instructions on how to play it. These include the rotation rate (16 revolutions per minute–expressed in time units of the fundamental transition of a hydrogen atom), the fact that the record should be played from the outside in, and the correct orientation of the stylus. Believe it or not, they even attached a spare needle to play it with. (I just realized you would probably need to include the same instructions for today’s teenagers encountering their first vinyl record.)
Apparently Sagan et al released a CD entitled Murmurs of Earth, but not sure if you can get it without a daunting commute.
What a profound challenge it must have been, to select the sights, sounds, and science to represent our entire civilization. It is remarkable and comforting to realize they recognized music was a fundamental part of the human race’s consciousness. That outlook is summed up in a simple phrase etched at the last minute onto the record:
“To the makers of music — all worlds, all times.”
Roll over Beethoven, indeed.