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Alan Lomax and the Voyager Golden Records

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A gold-plated copper disc that contains sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. “ Sounds of the Earth includes 115 images, a variety of natural sounds, 90-minutes of musical selections from different cultures and eras (curated in part by folklorist Alan Lomax), and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages.

The following is a guest post from Bertram Lyons, the digital assets manager and a folklife specialist at the American Folklife Center’s archives at the Library of Congress. This post originally appeared on the Association for Cultural Equity site and is reposted with permission. Prior to his arrival at the Library, Lyons was the archivist at the Alan Lomax Archive (Association for Cultural Equity) in New York.

 We are including this post about folklorist Alan Lomax’s connection to scientist Carl Sagan to help celebrate the launch of the online collection, “Finding our Place in the Cosmos: From Galileo to Sagan and Beyond.” The site commemorates the acquisition of The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive at the Library of Congress.

In 1977, as preparations were being made for the launch of the two unmanned Voyager spacecraft, Alan Lomax was contacted by Carl Sagan. Sagan had been tapped by NASA to chair a committee to gather images, sounds, and songs that would represent Earth on a set of phonographic records — to be affixed to the outside of both spacecraft along with stylii and graphic instructions on playing them — and he hoped Lomax would help make the musical selections. Alan ultimately suggested fifteen of the twenty-seven performances that were launched with the probes on what are now popularly known as the “Voyager golden records.”

While their initial objective was to explore Jupiter and Saturn, Voyagers 2 (launched August 20, 1977) and Voyager 1 (launched September 5, 1977) have traveled farther from Earth than any other man-made object. As of their 36th anniversary, they’re in the “Heliosheath” — the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas — and, still transmitting data, their mission is now to extend humankind’s exploration to the furthest reaches of the solar system, and, if possible, beyond.

Carl Sagan’s letter to Alan Lomax asking for his help selecting songs for a disc to send into space.

The copper-plated discs were the equivalent of four sides of a 33.3 rpm 12″ LP. One of the sides was to hold digital scientific information – largely diagrams and pictures — as well as human voices in 55 languages, including greetings by then U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim and President Jimmy Carter, and a selection of natural sounds: the sea, wind, thunder, birds, whales, laughter. The other three sides were devoted to the diversity of Earth’s music. “Present[s] from a small, distant world,” as Jimmy Carter described the records therein, addressing the imagined recipients — be they extraterrestrials or future humans. “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.”

The golden record’s musical inclusions, however, were not initially so diverse, as the committee had drawn solely on the Western classical canon. Dr. Sagan thus asked Alan Lomax to participate in the selection process. Lomax had just finished compiling an anthology of world song,* in which he and his colleagues had chosen 700 pieces that they felt most effectively illustrated the breadth and depth of human musical style, and Alan ultimately contributed fifteen of the twenty seven final performances that were featured on the Voyager record. In Murmurs of Earth, a book recounting the Voyager experience, Sagan writes that it was Lomax “who was a persistent and vigorous advocate for including ethnic music even at the expense of Western classical music. He brought pieces so compelling and beautiful that we gave in to his suggestions more often than I would have thought possible. There was, for example, no room for Debussy among our selections, because Azerbaijanis play bagpipes and Peruvians play panpipes and such exquisite pieces had been recorded by ethnomusicologists known to Lomax.”

Here are the selections ultimately included on the Voyager record. Items in bold signify Lomax’s selections.

  • Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. First Movement, Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, conductor. 4:40
  • Java, court gamelan, “Kinds of Flowers,” recorded by Robert Brown. 4:43
  • Senegal, percussion, recorded by Charles Duvelle. 2:08
  • Zaire, Pygmy girls’ initiation song, recorded by Colin Turnbull. 0:56
  • Australia, Aborigine songs, “Morning Star” and “Devil Bird,” recorded by Sandra LeBrun Holmes. 1:26
  • Mexico, “El Cascabel,” performed by Lorenzo Barcelata and the Mariachi Mexico. 3:14
  • “Johnny B. Goode,” written and performed by Chuck Berry. 2:38
  • New Guinea, men’s house song, recorded by Robert MacLennan. 1:20
  • Japan, shakuhachi, “Tsuru No Sugomori” (“Crane’s Nest,”) performed by Goro Yamaguchi. 4:51
  • Bach, “Gavotte en rondeaux” from the Partita No. 3 in E major for Violin, performed by Arthur Grumiaux. 2:55
  • Mozart, The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, no. 14. Edda Moser, soprano. Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor. 2:55
  • Georgian S.S.R., chorus, “Tchakrulo,” collected by Radio Moscow. 2:18
  • Peru, panpipes and drum, collected by Casa de la Cultura, Lima. 0:52
  • “Melancholy Blues,” performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. 3:05
  • Azerbaijan S.S.R., bagpipes, recorded by Radio Moscow. 2:30
  • Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor. 4:35
  • Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Glenn Gould, piano. 4:48
  • Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, First Movement, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor. 7:20
  • Bulgaria, “Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin,” sung by Valya Balkanska. 4:59
  • Navajo Indians, Night Chant, recorded by Willard Rhodes. 0:57
  • Holborne, Paueans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs, “The Fairie Round,” performed by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London. 1:17
  • Solomon Islands, panpipes, collected by the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service. 1:12
  • Peru, wedding song, recorded by John Cohen. 0:38
  • China, ch’in, “Flowing Streams,” performed by Kuan P’ing-hu. 7:37
  • India, raga, “Jaat Kahan Ho,” sung by Surshri Kesarbai Kerkar. 3:30
  • “Dark Was the Night,” written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson. 3:15
  • Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina, performed by Budapest String Quartet. 6:37

In 1990, the Voyager probes moved beyond the orbit of Pluto (then, of course, still considered a planet), and entered empty space. It will be 40,000 years before they make a close approach to any other planetary system and, as Sagan frankly stated, “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.”

*The anthology appeared as a set of cassettes, with accompanying text, in Lomax’s Cantometrics: A Method In Musical Anthropology, EMC Press, University of California, Berkeley, California, 1977.

Comments (5)

  1. Fascinating. Thanks Bert for writing this.

  2. I see a growing appetite to listen to the sweet pieces of music handed over to me by some souvenir seller – and with nearly all senses adressed, with the sixth sense I’d like to enjoy the lesser known music titles. No kidding: Do you know where to possibly get the sounds from ?

  3. Many thanks to Alan Lomax for broadening the message we’re sending to the universe. Perhaps someday soon we will send another, because there is *so much* more music in the world. I hatw to use the phrase about a phonograph record, but we’ve barely scratched the surface…

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