|Carl Sagan proudly exhibits the Golden Record.|
Currently Voyager 2 is somewhere near the edges of the solar magnetic field whereas Voyager 1 has left the solar system for galaxies far, far away. In its uncertain fate, the Golden Record has been referred to as a “message in a bottle.” Even calling it that is wildly optimistic: its conception makes several leaps of faith—above all, that extraterrestrials have auditory perception. Carl Sagan, who chaired the committee in charge of this project, and his team were apparently aware of the symbolic nature of the Golden Record, when they etched in English—in breach of the guideline not to rely on written texts—“To the makers of music, all worlds, all times” onto the center of the record.
The Golden Record presents a canon of world music. To be sure, it’s a reified canon, and far from a perfect one, reflecting the context of its inception (and Sagan’s favorites). Especially the inclusion of music popular in the American charts in the mid-70s has been the butt of jokes. (Steve Martin quipped that a message from outer space would be decoded as “Send more Chuck Berry!”) Nonetheless, it is an honest attempt to represent a diverse sampling of musical cultures from across the world. What is more, when the earth will inevitably be destroyed, hit by an asteroid or swallowed by the expanding sun, the Golden Record will likely still continue its journey into the unknown. As Evander Price points out, this piece of space trash is destined to be the longest-lasting testimony of human culture on earth—a future monument.
The Golden Record presents some exciting challenges for music scholars, which impels us to boldly go where no musicologist has gone before. What would extraterrestrials (with ears) make of the Golden Record? How would they approach the music devoid of any cultural background? What does a non-human music theory look like?
Imagine, if you will, a scenario in which extraterrestrials find the Golden Record and try to make sense of the music they perceive. Stefan Helmreich has offered some useful pointers. There is no historical or cultural context; the only information available is the recording itself. In this thought experiment we cannot take much for granted: no historical frameworks, no generic expectations, no scores or notation. We can’t even rely on sound – at least, not as we know it – since the music has been delivered by NASA as an object, a thing, a kind of dis-located frequency machine. The golden testament to humanity is strangely (and one day will literally be) post-human. The challenge of such an alien musicology is to grapple with this radical estrangement. Any context, any analytical methodology needs to be built from scratch. As soon as we break through the confines of our planet’s atmosphere, the culturally differentiated parameters of world music turn into an a-contextual “Earth Music.” A Pygmy girl’s initiation song from Zaire will be presented in exactly the same way as the Cavatina from Beethoven’s op. 130 and Javanese court gamelan—everything becomes absolute music, writ large.
What remains are mere vibrations. By sending a frequency machine, NASA has inadvertently divined the one constant that would connect our music across galaxies: frequency. Everything in time vibrates, from the looping membranes of quantum string theory to the massive shudder of gravitational waves; the universe repeats itself endlessly which is why music—the quintessential art of repetition—is embedded in the space-time fabric that ripples out from the Big Bang. In one sense, this returns music to the first “string theory” of the universe formulated by Pythagoras some 2500 years ago. Although this was a timeless cosmology of harmonic ratios that is no longer in tune with a universe ordered by the laws of general relativity and quantum mechanics, there is still something about this ancient theory that resonates with the ear-opening vision of the Voyager project. Such intergalactic projects puncture the constricted world of musicology with a potential to venture beyond our current epistemological horizons and embrace … possibly everything! Of course, the idea is not to conflate music and the cosmos into some reductive totality that we can master. In fact, quite the opposite.
|The surface of the Golden Record.|
What would a closer kind of listening look like? Even though the possibilities of hearing seem virtually endless, the mechanisms of analyzing music in outer space are relatively limited, at least to begin with. As NASA astrophysicists point out, the most likely means of communication will be based on mathematics, as the fundamental laws of physics must apply even in outer space. Any closer consideration of the music will start, by necessity, with very basic concepts: sameness and difference, repetition and contrast or, using more mathematical terms, = and ≠. It seems that the tools of classic Saussurian structuralism will serve to build up a rudimentary analytical language that will allow us to compare and contrasts the vibrations emanating from the Golden Record. Given that the only context we have is created by the canon presented on the record, the connections drawn will be radically cross-cultural—though, of course, this category becomes meaningless in this context. In outer space, Japanese shakuhachi music may reveal a surreptitious kinship to Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto, and Azerbaijani mugam to Blind Willy Johnson.
This is not to suggest that all Earth Music sounds the same, but rather that from a sufficiently remote perspective new kinds of similarities and differences may arise. (The growing analytical literature on world music is of central importance here.) Whether this Earth Music constitutes a flattening of musical features or a liberation is a matter of perspective. Either way, thinking through the Golden Record challenges us to refashion what we, as musicologists, do. Ultimately, the chief point of this interstellar exploration is firmly focused on the question of communication, starting with our communication here on Planet Earth. This musical anniversary affords us a great opportunity to raise some important questions about the reach of musicology. It asks us to consider our work in its capacity to communicate across the barriers of languages, cultures—indeed across whole worlds and planets—and to examine the very basis and purpose of our work. If we set the most ambitious goals, communicating across species, across exoplanetary systems, and renegotiate the very foundational terms with which we operate, perhaps the rest of our work will seem less daunting as a consequence. Space, it turns out, really is the final frontier.
|Voyager 2, in a galaxy far, far away.|