MUSIC ON MARS

NASA’s gold record for aliens is a fascinating insight into the worldview of 1970s America

It’s been available to super intelligent aliens, NASA, and Jimmy Carter for 39 years now—and the collection of three gold records sent out to space on Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 i n 1977, could hit your doorstep in 2017.

Previously, there were only 12 copies of the set in the world, but soon the records will be available to anyone with $98 to spend via a Kickstarter campaign. As cool and mesmerizingly beautiful as they are as objects, they’re also a fascinating historical document.

A quick read about the project—headed by Cornell University professor and TV scientist Carl Sagan, on NASA’s website plunges you into the world of the 1970s. After recordings of 55 languages and other sounds of Earth, the aliens are given an insight into human music—which NASA describes in cringe-worthy fashion: “There is an eclectic 90-minute selection of music, including both Eastern and Western classics and a variety of ethnic music,” the website reads.

We’re immediately placed into the pre-globalization division between East and West, with Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere relegated uncomfortably to “ethnic music.” The song list itself is a fascinating catalogue of 1970s American exceptionalism, and reflects its sense of dynamism at a point in the cold war when the USSR was stagnating under Leonid Brezhnev.

Almost every song on the record is either classical or folk music—except the three American ones (Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” Louis Armstrong’s “Melancholy Blues,” and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night”), which encompass rock, jazz, and blues. Old Europe is relegated largely to Germanic classical music, represented by Mozart, Beethoven and Bach (who, curiously, has three songs). The Soviet Union is presented as a land of folk songs with a brief hint of its classical tradition in Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

Meanwhile, the compilation of so-called “ethnic music” screams of the twilight of empires. Songs from Zaire, Senegal, Java, and New Guinea, are all conspicuously listed as “recorded by,” followed by a Western name, rather than “performed by” as with all the other songs.

Beyond the entanglements of the era’s geopolitics, it does, however, reflect extraordinary hope, excitement, and the best of human wonder and naivete. As Sagan put it at the time, “the spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

Plus, you can enjoy the the hilarious vision of aliens spending decades trying to decode these obscure instructions of how to actually play the record.

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