by Luke Hopping
For most of human history, celestial inspiration has flowed one-way: downward from the heavens. Pythagoras developed a theory known as the “harmony of spheres,” which posited the mathematical equations dictating planets’ travels could be notated to create brilliant music. The birth of the modern space program in 1958 spawned a renewed interest in capturing the sounds of the cosmos. Outerspace became a common muse among musicians, inspiring some of pop’s most memorable anthems. A very abridged list includes Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun,” and pretty much anything by David Bowie that still gets rotation on classic rock stations. Other times, the guidance of the stars made for less memorable material. In 1967, Dot Records released Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space, a fourth-wall bending compilation that received some surprisingly positive reviews. By the time of Neil Armstrong’s legendary broadcast from the moon, outerspace had already spent the better part of a decade being distilled through Earthlings’ stereos.
In 1977, the relationship between Earth’s musicians and the rest of the universe finally evolved into a dialogue. That year, NASA launched the Voyager Golden Records, a catalogue of mankind’s greatest musical achievements, into deep space. Still high on the same optimism that had put their guy on the moon a couple years earlier, the folks at NASA thought it would be a neat idea to dispatch a sonic emissary to anyone out there listening.
Compiled by Carl Sagan (so you know it’s good), the disc carries a handful of classics from across several cultures, an endearingly naïve message from President Carter, a creepy, hour-long recording of the future Mrs. Sagan’s brainwaves, a selection of nature sounds and some multilingual pleasantries (just in case aliens speak Esperanto). Depending how you look at it, the Voyager Golden Records’ mission is either charmingly antiquated or eerily at home among a Gingrich administration’s day one priorities. But the records do contain some legitimately important music. Many of these songs should be a staple of everyone’s iTunes, even if they are the kinds of vanity tracks that typically have zero plays.
Here, for your listening pleasure, we have recreated the late, great Carl Sagan’s overview of humanity’s most indispensable experiments in sound. Tempting though it may be to merely revisit the Western classics, we strongly encourage you to explore the lesser-known material. There are some beautiful pieces floating out in space with only a few thousand YouTube views here at home to back them up. They need your support!
Puspawarna — Mangkunegara IV (Indonesia)
Senegalese Percussion (Senegal)
Pygmy Girls Initiation Song (Zaire)
Morning Star and Devil Bird (Australia)
El Cascabel — Lorenzo Barcelata (Mexico)
Johnny B. Goode — Chuck Berry (United States)
In a 1978 SNL skit, Steve Martin predicted aliens’ response to the records would be four words: “Send More Chuck Berry.”
Men’s House Song (New Guinea)
El Cóndor Pasa — Daniel Alomía Robles (Peru)
If you’re like us and thought the Simon & Garfunkel version was the original, that accent might come as a shock.
Melancholy Blues — Louis Armstrong (United States)
Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance — Igor Stravinsky (Russia/U.S.S.R.)
Izlel je Delyo Hajdutin — Valya Balkanska (Bulgaria)
Navajo Night Chant (United States)
The Faerie Round — Anthony Holborne (United Kingdom)
Worth clicking through, if only for the bizarre CGI-on-woodcut accompaniment.
Wedding Song (Peru)
Flowing Streams — Kuan P’ing Hu (China)
Jaat Kahan Ho — Kesarbai Kerkar (India)
Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground — Blind Willie Johnson (United States)
While music-lovers may relish the notion of some alien life form happening upon Earth’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, Mr. Sagan was motivated by a different purpose. Knowing full well the odds of another space-faring race actually encountering the Voyager Golden Records were near zilch, he decided to view the project more as a meditation than an excursion. In his own words, “the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” In honor of Mr. Sagan’s memory, we’ve included a 28th track that he was unable to blast off into eternity due to some very temporal licensing issues here on Earth.
Here Comes the Sun — The Beatles (United Kingdom)