How Did They Choose The Music That Went On The Record Made For Extra Terrestrial Ears?


“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” – U.S. President James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr.

What does it take to get a groove on the most important record of all time? Well… if you’re not fluent in Sumerian or Wu, and you didn’t pen “Johnny B. Goode,” and you aren’t then United Nations Secretary General Waldheim, then your chances of being heard on the most comprehensive LP of humanity’s pursuits ever pressed are rather slim.

One can only imagine the payola that must have tempted Carl Sagan back in Ithaca, 1977. Henpecked, by hand, to lead the curation of NASA’s Voyager Golden Record (which was, incidentally, gold-plated copper housed in an aluminum sleeve), exactly how Sagan and his Cornell cronies went about selecting the choice cuts will forever remain a topic of contention. And despite Sagan’s populist proclivities, we must certainly wonder if ivory-towered, ivory-haired men do indeed make the best intergalactic disc jockeys. After all, what’s a mix tape – diplomatic or otherwise – bereft of Mingus and Pavement? Or, apropos, without any Gil Scott-Heron? Not to mention sans a Feli Kuti or an Einstürzende Neubauten. At any rate, much effort was surely expended trying to lighten the multifaceted endeavors of civilized man to just 180 grams for the edification of extraterrestrial life – should such be happened upon by the Voyager spacecraft.

Alas, three decades, 20 billion miles and two reissues of Bitches Brew later, while Voyager 1 has in fact become the most distant man-made object in the universe, the Voyager Golden Record has apparently not been heard by any intelligent life other than ourselves. Like the Sermon on the Mount or a Dolby digital lathe of Buckingham Nicks, its sweeter melodies remain unheard. Certainly the record, itself, is not to blame. For the technology behind analogue phonographic recording is far too simple and intuitive for it to be a matter of mere noncompliance – especially for life forms supposedly smarter than our own. Just put the needle on the record, indeed.

In the end though, perhaps we’re not unlike the agnostic, haughtily assuming that extraterrestrials would even want to hear from us at all (much less suffer through “Gucci Gucci,” Stravinsky conducts Stravinsky or Nickelback). And who’s to say that little green ears would even be capable, physiologically, of listening to the VGR anyway. Our music, if not our entire auditory consciousness, is inextricably bound up in the physicality of our hearing – logarithmically, from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Thus, no matter how hard Sagan and Co. may have tried, perhaps any and all murmurs from Earth will ultimately become one of Douglas Hofstadter’s “alien-rejecting phonographs.” Nevertheless, should some being from a galaxy far, far away beat the interstellar odds and actually put needle to the Voyager Golden Record, his/her/its thoughts would probably echo those of Steve Martin’s in that old VGR gag from Saturday Night Live: “Send more Chuck Berry.”

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