The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Remember the Voyager Gold Record?

It's Sunday and we've been getting some much needed rain for most of the morning. So, here at the CP, we're feeling a bit of a melancholy, reminiscing vibe.

In my teaching days, one of my favorite classes was a Composition III class that featured readings from Science Fiction. SF (true fans always use this designation rather than Sci Fi, which is more of a movie sort of term) had been one of my first reading passions since my early teens, so the course was a natural fit. We had a great text book chock full of fantastic and thoughtful stories; these stories and other class materials provoked discussions on all sorts of topics. Over the years I received more positive comments about that class than any other.

Around 1979 or 1980, some of our discussions focused on the two Voyagers which had been launched in 1977. If you remember...

Voyager 1 and 2 both carry with them a golden record that contains pictures and sounds of Earth, along with symbolic directions for playing the record and data detailing the location of Earth. The record is intended as a combination time capsule and interstellar message to any civilization, alien or far-future human, that recovers either of the Voyager craft. The contents of this record were selected by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan. (FROM WIKIPEDIA)

I made a cassette tape of some of the music on this record which we played in class. One of the selections on the tape was Beethoven's String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, Cavatina...

The Cavatina ... was chosen as the last piece to be played on the "golden record", a phonograph record containing a broad sample of Earth's common sounds, languages, and music sent into outer space with the twoVoyager probes.[2]  (FROM WIKIPEDIA)

Another piece on my cassette was Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night."

In addition to the music, there are other things as well on the record, including greetings from the earth in 55 different languages. (But note that the language on the label is English.) My guess is that the committee putting together the material on the record went to an LA High School and interviewed the first 55 people they met. I'm joking. But the lack of forethought here is also a joke. PC diversity triumphed any desire for clarity. Can you imagine an interested alien listening to this cacophony? It would probably sound like the tower of Babel. As early as 1977 (sigh), PC was in full bloom in academia. I know because I lived in that ivory tower and wore the rose colored glasses myself back in the day. 

If you want to read an interesting commentary on what's on the Gold Record and how this material differs from two earlier "time capsules," read this article at the david szondy site. Here's a paragraph from the article which I found to be particularly refreshing. The beginning of the quotation refers to some earlier American "time capsules," one from 1939 and another from 1964 in which the confidence and pride of the people preparing them were quite evident.  

The Voyager records, on the other hand, lack any real confidence.  The committee that put together the records weren't even certain what their civilisation was beyond a massy dough of humanity that was indescribably insignificant when measured against the Cosmos or any beings that might find that Voyager doohicky.  The contents were carefully chosen not to be American or even Western, nor to reflect any ideology; at least, not any ideology that didn't sit comfortably with the Berkeley faculty lounge (sexism was a big no no).  The images and sounds turned their backs on the culture that created them. They are in the Western tradition, but they are not Western. They are certainly not American. They are Internationalist; not of the confident FDR or JFK type meant to civilise the world, but of an insecure, Carteresque, "What do you guys think," UN sort. The committee's message was more along the lines of “Hello. We’re here. We look like this, except some of us look like that, and here’s some kids, trees, leaves, and things, and the UN General Secretary will be along in a moment to say ‘hi’.  Sorry to bother you.” 

Finally, here's the complete list of music included on the Gold Record.

1 comment:

  1. The thing I remember most about "the record" was the bit SNL did on it, wherein Earth received a message from aliens stating simply "Send more Chuck Berry."

    Heh. I kinda-sorta agree, too.