EPeak Daily

How the Voyager Golden Record Was Made

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We inhabit a small planet orbiting a medium-sized star about two-thirds
of the way out from the center of the Milky Way galaxy—around where
Track 2 on an LP record might begin. In cosmic terms, we are tiny: were
the galaxy the size of a typical LP, the sun and all its planets would
fit inside an atom’s width. Yet there is something in us so expansive
that, four decades ago, we made a time capsule full of music and
photographs from Earth and flung it out into the universe. Indeed, we
made two of them.

The time capsules, really a pair of phonograph records, were launched
aboard the twin Voyager space probes in August and September of 1977.
The craft spent thirteen years reconnoitering the sun’s outer planets,
beaming back valuable data and images of incomparable
beauty
.
In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to leave the solar
system, sailing through the doldrums where the stream of charged
particles from our sun stalls against those of interstellar space.
Today, the probes are so distant that their radio signals, travelling at
the speed of light, take more than fifteen hours to reach Earth. They
arrive with a strength of under a millionth of a billionth of a watt, so
weak that the three dish antennas of the Deep Space Network’s
interplanetary tracking system (in California, Spain, and Australia) had
to be enlarged to stay in touch with them.

If you perched on Voyager 1 now—which would be possible, if
uncomfortable; the spidery craft is about the size and mass of a
subcompact car—you’d have no sense of motion. The brightest star in
sight would be our sun, a glowing point of light below Orion’s foot,
with Earth a dim blue dot lost in its glare. Remain patiently onboard
for millions of years, and you’d notice that the positions of a few
relatively nearby stars were slowly changing, but that would be about
it. You’d find, in short, that you were not so much flying to the
stars as swimming among them.

The Voyagers’ scientific mission will end when their plutonium-238
thermoelectric power generators fail, around the year 2030. After that,
the two craft will drift endlessly among the stars of our galaxy—unless
someone or something encounters them someday. With this prospect in
mind, each was fitted with a copy of what has come to be called the
Golden Record. Etched in copper, plated with gold, and sealed in
aluminum cases, the records are expected to remain intelligible for more
than a billion years, making them the longest-lasting objects ever
crafted by human hands. We don’t know enough about extraterrestrial
life, if it even exists, to state with any confidence whether the
records will ever be found. They were a gift, proffered without hope of
return.

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.”

To our surprise, those nine words created a problem at NASA. An agency
compliance officer, charged with making sure each of the probes’
sixty-five thousand parts were up to spec, reported that while
everything else checked out—the records’ size, weight, composition, and
magnetic properties—there was nothing in the blueprints about an
inscription. The records were rejected, and NASA prepared to substitute
blank discs in their place. Only after Carl appealed to the NASAadministrator, arguing that the inscription would be the sole example of
human handwriting aboard, did we get a waiver permitting the records to
fly.

In those days, we had to obtain physical copies of every recording we
hoped to listen to or include. This wasn’t such a challenge for, say,
mainstream American music, but we aimed to cast a wide net,
incorporating selections from places as disparate as Australia,
Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, China, Congo, Japan, the Navajo Nation, Peru, and
the Solomon Islands. Ann found an LP containing the Indian raga “Jaat
Kahan Ho” in a carton under a card table in the back of an appliance
store. At one point, the folklorist Alan Lomax pulled a Russian
recording, said to be the sole copy of “Chakrulo” in North America, from
a stack of lacquer demos and sailed it across the room to me like a
Frisbee. We’d comb through all this music individually, then meet and go
over our nominees in long discussions stretching into the night. It was
exhausting, involving, utterly delightful work.

“Bhairavi: Jaat Kahan Ho,” by Kesarbai Kerkar

In selecting Western classical music, we sacrificed a measure of
diversity to include three compositions by J. S. Bach and two by Ludwig
van Beethoven. To understand why we did this, imagine that the record
were being studied by extraterrestrials who lacked what we would call
hearing, or whose hearing operated in a different frequency range than
ours, or who hadn’t any musical tradition at all. Even they could learn
from the music by applying mathematics, which really does seem to be the
universal language that music is sometimes said to be. They’d look for
symmetries—repetitions, inversions, mirror images, and other
self-similarities—within or between compositions. We sought to
facilitate the process by proffering Bach, whose works are full of
symmetry, and Beethoven, who championed Bach’s music and borrowed from
it.

I’m often asked whether we quarrelled over the selections. We didn’t,
really; it was all quite civil. With a world full of music to choose
from, there was little reason to protest if one wonderful track was
replaced by another wonderful track. I recall championing Blind Willie
Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night,” which, if memory serves, everyone liked
from the outset. Ann stumped for Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B.
Goode
,”
a somewhat harder sell, in that Carl, at first listening, called it
“awful.” But Carl soon came around on that one, going so far as to
politely remind Lomax, who derided Berry’s music as “adolescent,” that
Earth is home to many adolescents. Rumors to the contrary, we did not
strive to include the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” only to be
disappointed when we couldn’t clear the rights. It’s not the Beatles’
strongest work, and the witticism of the title, if charming in the short
run, seemed unlikely to remain funny for a billion years.

“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” by Blind Willie Johnson

Ann’s sequence of natural sounds was organized chronologically, as an
audio history of our planet, and compressed logarithmically so that the
human story wouldn’t be limited to a little beep at the end. We mixed it
on a thirty-two-track analog tape recorder the size of a steamer trunk,
a process so involved that Jimmy jokingly accused me of being “one of
those guys who has to use every piece of equipment in the studio.” With
computerized boards still in the offing, the sequence’s dozens of tracks
had to be mixed manually. Four of us huddled over the board like
battlefield surgeons, struggling to keep our arms from getting tangled
as we rode the faders by hand and got it done on the fly.

The sequence begins with an audio realization of the “music of the
spheres,” in which the constantly changing orbital velocities of
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Jupiter are translated into sound,
using equations derived by the astronomer Johannes Kepler in the
sixteenth century. We then hear the volcanoes, earthquakes,
thunderstorms, and bubbling mud of the early Earth. Wind, rain, and surf
announce the advent of oceans, followed by living creatures—crickets,
frogs, birds, chimpanzees, wolves—and the footsteps, heartbeats, and
laughter of early humans. Sounds of fire, speech, tools, and the calls
of wild dogs mark important steps in our species’ advancement, and Morse
code announces the dawn of modern communications. (The message being
transmitted is Ad astra per aspera, “To the stars through hard work.”)
A brief sequence on modes of transportation runs from ships to jet
airplanes to the launch of a Saturn V rocket. The final sounds begin
with a kiss, then a mother and child, then an EEG recording of (Ann’s)
brainwaves, and, finally, a pulsar—a rapidly spinning neutron star
giving off radio noise—in a tip of the hat to the pulsar map etched into
the records’ protective cases.

“The Sounds of Earth”

Ann had obtained beautiful recordings of whale songs, made with trailing
hydrophones by the biologist Roger Payne, which didn’t fit into our
rather anthropocentric sounds sequence. We also had a collection of
loquacious greetings from United Nations representatives, edited down
and cross-faded to make them more listenable. Rather than pass up the
whales, I mixed them in with the diplomats. I’ll leave it to the
extraterrestrials to decide which species they prefer.

“United Nations Greetings/Whale Songs”

Those of us who were involved in making the Golden Record assumed that
it would soon be commercially released, but that didn’t happen. Carl
repeatedly tried to get labels interested in the project, only to run
afoul of what he termed, in a letter to me dated September 6, 1990,
“internecine warfare in the record industry.” As a result, nobody heard
the thing properly for nearly four decades. (Much of what was heard,
on Internet snippets and in a short-lived commercial CD release made in
1992 without my participation, came from a set of analog tape dubs that
I’d distributed to our team as keepsakes.) Then, in 2016, a former
student of mine, David Pescovitz, and one of his colleagues, Tim Daly,
approached me about putting together a reissue. They secured funding on
Kickstarter
,
raising more than a million dollars in less than a month, and by that
December we were back in the studio, ready to press play on the master
tape for the first time since 1977.

Pescovitz and Daly took the trouble to contact artists who were
represented on the record and send them what amounted to letters of
authenticity—something we never had time to accomplish with the original
project. (We disbanded soon after I delivered the metal master to Los
Angeles, making ours a proud example of a federal project that
evaporated once its mission was accomplished.) They also identified and
corrected errors and omissions in the information that was provided to
us by recordists and record companies. Track 3, for instance, which was
listed by Lomax as “Senegal Percussion,” turns out instead to have been
recorded in Benin and titled “Cengunmé”; and Track 24, the Navajo night
chant, now carries the performers’ names. Forty years after launch, the
Golden Record is finally being made available here on Earth. Were Carl
alive today—he died in 1996 at the age of sixty-two—I think he’d be
delighted.

This essay was adapted from the liner notes for the new edition of the
Voyager Golden Record, recently released as a vinyl boxed set by Ozma
Records
.



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