How one would describe life on Earth to aliens is one of the ultimate thought experiments. Carl Sagan headed up a committee to do just that in the mid-1970s, when NASA placed copies of the so-called Golden Record on Voyagers 1 and 2, now on their way out of the solar system. If extraterrestrials find it and and figure out how to play it, they’ll be greeted with a few hundred images and audio recordings of animals, nature, and people speaking in 55 languages, as well as music. This Earthling mixtape features Bach, Chuck Berry, more Bach, Mexican Mariachi music, a Pygmy girl’s initiation song, and some more Bach.
Representing all of human culture, of course, is an impossible task no matter how big the record. In his new book, The Voyager Record: A Transmission, Anthony Michael Morena takes an artful, stream-of-conscious look back at the record’s unavoidable limitations, considering the era in which it was created. And he wonders what he might have included had he been in Sagan’s shoes.
“Creating an updated tracklist for Voyager is always a risk,” writes Morena. “It’s presumptuous, it’s biased, it’s seductive and self-centered. It is also something that a lot of people have tried to do before. And yet it still feels necessary.” Below are some of his choices (we’ve put them in a list here, not in order).
I still have to consider exactly what my revised Golden Record might sound like, but I know that I don’t listen to enough world music to make it fair. I don’t think I listen to enough music to make any decision about what represents planet Earth. I’d probably only choose the kind of stuff I like to listen to. Which is to say that I can admit to myself what all the Bach fans couldn’t admit to themselves. It’s hard not to be biased, especially when the music sounds so good.
- Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.” Definitely.
- Mongolian long song. A style of music where almost every syllable of the song is performed as a sustained note. Meaning it could take three minutes to sing just 10 words. A form of singing that originated as a way to communicate over vast, empty distances of grass.
- Maybe something from the Norwegian black metal community. Highlighting the distinctive style of power chord that Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth invented in the 90s.
- When I listen to the songs from the Golden Record I do this type of revision, where I remove two of the Bach compositions from the playlist. I leave “Gavotte en Rondeaux from the Partita No. 3 in E Major for Violin.” I take out the Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Mozart, too.
- Serapis Bey’s “Paranauê.” Otherwise known as That Capoeira Song. Because if a martial arts dance music exists, I think the aliens should know about it.
- Tibetan throat singing. Seems kind of obvious.
- Maybe some of the music we’ve imagined aliens would enjoy: the Mos Eisley Cantina Band, traditional Klingon Opera, the Diva Plavalaguna.
If you’re in the Washington, D.C. area, you can attend a book reading with the author at Upshur Street Books this Sunday, April 17, 6 p.m.
If you could hit “record” on your own Golden Record, what would you include?