The Voyager, showing the container for the Golden Records.
Almost on a whim, more than 40 years ago, a bunch of scientists decided that seeing as we were launching two robotic probe vehicles which, once they left our solar system, would drift in space for about 40,000 years before getting close to another planetary system, we might as well send along a couple of phonograph records containing, among other things, a wide variety of pieces of music from Earth.
The amazing things about that are legion; but the two that stick out farthest for me are that (1) the aforementioned scientists actually convinced otherwise sane and sober bureaucrats to go for it; and (2) the aforementioned scientists were able, in a rather short time frame, to kludge together bits and pieces that, in theory at least, might, 40,000+ years from now, enable The Good Lord Knows Who? to play the aforementioned phonograph records. Which are known to that segment of humankind that cares about such things as “The Voyager Golden Records.” (And not all such persons have closets full of Star Trek Original Television Series uniforms. Or so I have been assured.)
Obviously, bundling up for long-distance shipment a state-of-the-art-for-1977 phonograph turntable, tone arm, cartridge, amplifier, and speakers or headphones was out of the question. How the Voyager Golden Records team attempted to finesse that difficulty, as well as information on the music tracks, comes after the jump.
Diagrams on the Golden Records Container Covers
Audio-engineering nerdery compels me to mention that the records themselves are not vinyl, but rather gold-plated copper. I assume that the concern was that the cold of interstellar space would be hostile to vinyl records. Also, the records were not cut at the usual 33+ 1/3rd RPMs of ordinary 12-inch vinyl discs. They were cut at half speed (16+ 2/3rds RPMs), in order to cram more information in. Each of the two Voyager space probes carried two Golden Records in a container fabricated from aluminum and itself plated with gold. The Golden Records carried not only audio in the form of statements of greetings from politicians and samples of the Earth’s languages and 27 music tracks; the records also carried analog-encoded photographic data that can be turned into more than 100 images of life on Earth.
The diagrams on the container covers, it was fervently hoped, would provide an extraterrestrial civilization with enough information on how to listen to the audio and extract the images. The upper left diagram on the above image is a plan view of a phono cartridge tracking a phonograph record, and the diagram below it is an elevation view. NASA sent along a phono cartridge with each set of records, the assumption apparently being that any civilization that has enough technology to lasso a speeding space probe probably can figure out how to spin a record. Other diagrams on the covers give information on the proper playback speed, etc., with reference to physical constants such as hydrogen atoms.
BTW, over the years I have poked here and there trying to find out which brand of phono cartridge it was that was sent into space, to no avail. If anyone knows, please leave a comment. It could be that NASA bought the cartridges anonymously and at retail, to keep the manufacturer from getting unearned bragging rights.
UPDATE: Loyal reader Jeff M. reports that the Shure company’s website’s Q&A section states that it is highly unlikely that a Shure phono cartridge went with the Voyager spacecraft, because the NASA documents mention that it was a ceramic cartridge. However, in thinking a lot about this, it suddenly occurred to me that I had never seen an reference to an inverse RIAA curve as part of the package, so, there’s something else that needs research!
A couple of years ago, Ozma Records issued a deluxe 3-LP (on vinyl, and at 33+ 1/3rd RPMs) set, which is still available, but their 2-CD-plus-book physical digital version is oop. The 40th anniversary brought a boomlet of publicity. The New Yorker published a piece by the Golden Records’ original producer Timothy Ferris, which is not required reading for my guest lectures, but it is a nice bit of cultural history, and it includes a couple of embedded tracks. Ferris recalls:
I became friends with Carl Sagan, the astronomer who oversaw the creation of the Golden Record, in 1972. He’d sometimes stop by my place in New York, a high-ceilinged West Side apartment perched up amid Norway maples like a tree house, and we’d listen to records. Lots of great music was being released in those days, and there was something fascinating about LP technology itself. A diamond danced along the undulations of a groove, vibrating an attached crystal, which generated a flow of electricity that was amplified and sent to the speakers. At no point in this process was it possible to say with assurance just how much information the record contained or how accurately a given stereo had translated it. The open-endedness of the medium seemed akin to the process of scientific exploration: there was always more to learn.
In the winter of 1976, Carl was visiting with me and my fiancée at the time, Ann Druyan, and asked whether we’d help him create a plaque or something of the sort for Voyager. We immediately agreed. Soon, he and one of his colleagues at Cornell, Frank Drake, had decided on a record. By the time NASA approved the idea, we had less than six months to put it together, so we had to move fast. Ann began gathering material for a sonic description of Earth’s history. Linda Salzman Sagan, Carl’s wife at the time, went to work recording samples of human voices speaking in many different languages. The space artist Jon Lomberg rounded up photographs, a method having been found to encode them into the record’s grooves. I produced the record, which meant overseeing the technical side of things. We all worked on selecting the music.
I sought to recruit John Lennon, of the Beatles, for the project, but tax considerations obliged him to leave the country. Lennon did help us, though, in two ways. First, he recommended that we use his engineer, Jimmy Iovine, who brought energy and expertise to the studio. (Jimmy later became famous as a rock and hip-hop producer and record-company executive.) Second, Lennon’s trick of etching little messages into the blank spaces between the takeout grooves at the ends of his records inspired me to do the same on Voyager. I wrote a dedication: “To the makers of music—all worlds, all times.”
(I do think that Ferris’ recollection is faulty in one audio-nerd respect: By 1977, most respectable phonograph players used magnetic phono cartridges and not crystal cartridges, which would have been found on the “suitcase” record players of the 1950s and 1960s).
To the Music, Then!
Digital files of the 27 Golden Record music tracks are in the Digital Course Reserves of the Canvas portal for this course. I append below a list of tracks annotated with the place of origin of the music. My personal opinion on the Golden Record project is that while it is easy to second-guess (and in the linked-to New Yorker article quoted from above, producer Ferris does recognize a need to defend some choices), I think the Golden Record was an amazing achievement (especially for a government program during the Cold War).
If there was a “political” agenda, it was diversity and inclusiveness, and not just picking music beloved of the residents of the country that was paying for the voyage. Indeed, the book that accompanies the Ozma deluxe LP boxed set relates an anecdote that some politico criticized the lack of Irish music—didn’t anyone at NASA realize that the Speaker of the US House of Representatives was “Tip” O’Neill, and that Representative O’Neill was Irish?
I also say, praise and honors to them for No Elvis and No Beatles; the Beatles aspect at least is dealt with in Mr. Ferris’ New Yorker memoir. Regrets, I do have a few. I think that W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” should have been included, as well as the Ella Fitzgerald “I Loves You Porgy” (from Porgy & Bess.) I think that the sad ballad “Kathleen Mavourneen,” which by the way, is not a folk song but rather a composed piece of music, and composed by a Britisher, no less, should have been included for its currency during the American Civil War.
The Voyager Golden Record Tracks with Locale of Composition of the Music
(Tracks 1 through 4 are non-musical.)
5. Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047:
I. Allegro (Johann Sebastian Bach) –
Munich Bach Orchestra/Karl Richter
6. Ketawang: Puspåwårnå (Kinds of Flowers) –
Pura Paku Alaman Palace Orchestra/K.R.T. Wasitodipuro
7. Cengunmé – Mahi musicians of Benin
8. Alima Song – Mbuti of the Ituri Rainforest
9. Barnumbirr (Morning Star) and Moikoi Song –
Tom Djawa, Mudpo, and Waliparu
ISLAND OFF NORTHERN TERRITORY, AUSTRALIA
10. El Cascabel (Lorenzo Barcelata) –
Antonio Maciel and Los Aguilillas with Mariachi México de Pepe Villa/Rafael Carrión
11. Johnny B. Goode –
12. Mariuamangɨ –
Pranis Pandang and Kumbui of the Nyaura Clan
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
13. Sokaku-Reibo (Depicting the Cranes in Their Nest) –
14. Partita for Violin Solo No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006:
III. Gavotte en Rondeau (Johann Sebastian Bach) –
15. The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), K. 620,
Act II: Hell’s Vengeance Boils in My Heart (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) –
Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Wolfgang Sawallisch
16. Chakrulo –
Georgian State Merited Ensemble of Folk Song and Dance/Anzor Kavsadze
17. Roncadoras and Drums –
Musicians from Ancash
18. Melancholy Blues (Marty Bloom/Walter Melrose) –
Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven
19. Muğam – Kamil Jalilov
20. The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps),
Part II—The Sacrifice: VI. Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One)
(Igor Stravinsky) – Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky
21. The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II:
Prelude & Fugue No. 1 in C Major, BWV 870
(Johann Sebastian Bach) – Glenn Gould
22. Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67:
I. Allegro Con Brio (Ludwig van Beethoven) –
Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
23. Izlel e Delyu Haydutin –
24. Navajo Night Chant, Yeibichai Dance –
Ambrose Roan Horse, Chester Roan, and Tom Roan
25. The Fairie Round (Anthony Holborne) –
Early Music Consort of London/David Munrow
26. Naranaratana Kookokoo (The Cry of the Megapode Bird) –
Maniasinimae and Taumaetarau Chieftain Tribe of Oloha and Palasu’u Village Community in Small Malaita
27. Wedding Song –
Young girl of Huancavelica
28. Liu Shui (Flowing Streams) –
29. Bhairavi: Jaat Kahan Ho –
30. Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground –
Blind Willie Johnson
31. String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Opus 130:
V. Cavatina (Ludwig van Beethoven) –
Budapest String Quartet
Here’s a sampler:
And here is a link to an audio YouTube playlist.
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