When NASA’s Voyager probes were launched into the outer solar system in 1977, they famously carried with them the most ambitious mixtape ever created. The two golden phonograph records, which featured music ranging from Bach to Chuck Berry, have yet to spin on an alien turntable, but at least our planet is keeping up the jam session. Space Project, a new compilation out this month on Portland’s Lefse Records, features 14 indie rock and electronica artists contributing songs based on sounds recorded by the Voyager probes during their travels.
“These recordings sound a lot like electronic drone music,” describes Lefse co-founder Matt Halverson. “It’s really eerie and bizarre how much they sound like music.”
The Voyager recordings, which are actually translations of electromagnetic emissions into sound, were released on their own in 1992 as a five-volume set called Symphonies of the Planets. Halverson discovered them on Thanksgiving, 2012 while talking with his brother-in-law, Exogenesis president and chief scientist Sean Anklam. The conversation sparked Halverson’s long-held desire to initiate a project pairing musicians with unusual sounds—inspired, he says, by the rap-meets-rock soundtrack to the 1993 film Judgment Night. “I read about that soundtrack when I was in high school,” he recalls, “and that’s what sent me into the music biz—the fact that you could just come up with an idea and run with it.”
The artists that Halverson approached took widely divergent approaches to incorporating the Voyager recordings into their own music. In some cases, the space sounds provide the atmospheric bed upon which the song is built; in others they become a surrogate guitar solo or rhythm track. The results will be released on Record Store Day, April 19, on vinyl, CD, and as a 7” box set.
Songwriter Trevor Powers, aka Youth Lagoon, sampled Voyager’s Uranus recordings and repurposed them as percussive elements. “I wanted the planetary atmosphere to be really flexible, to be both a rhythmic aspect as well as creating sporadic blasts of noise,” Powers says. “In whatever I create, every piece has to have a reason for being there. So when trying to express a sort of obsession-based, surrealistic love song with samples from space, everything needed to have a feeling of complete loss of control, just this sort of drifting through blackness.”
Listen to “Worms” by Youth Lagoon:
A similar idea drove Mauro Remiddi, the Italian-born singer-songwriter known as Porcelain Raft, to create his airy piece “Giove,” which approximates the feeling of being the Voyager itself. “What really attracted me was how lonely it would be to be this little mechanical creature traveling the whole solar system,” Remiddi says. “I imagined how it would feel to be so close to something of that magnitude.”
Halverson laid down no ground rules for the contributions, hoping that the artists would respond in their own individual ways. The range of responses is fascinating, from Spiritualized’s languorous doo-wop to Blues Control’s psychedelic haze to Beach House’s ethereal pop.
Listen to “Always Forgetting With You” by Spiritualized:
The members of Absolutely Free were inspired to compose “EARTH I” by their concurrent reading about technological determinism. “It ascertains that essentially if/when humanity possesses the technological ability to blow up the Earth, then it inevitably must be done,” the band wrote in an email. “The theory aligned pretty organically with our structural approach; we built upon the Earth’s voice until it was this barely audible, vulnerable shrill.”
The artists took their own approaches to incorporating the original Voyager sounds, but all responded enthusiastically to the opportunity. “Artists coming together and implementing space recordings into music helps bend the boundaries of what we can create,” says Youth Lagoon’s Powers. “The more that our minds are open to blending science with art, the more expressive of a world we will become.”
Shaun Brady @ShaunDBrady is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer covering film, music, and all manner of arts and culture.