Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Sounds of Earth: Interstellar Freeform (revised)

(photo: NASA)

This is The Sounds of Earth, a gold-plated copper record album which has been fastened to the identical Voyager I & II spacecrafts. One side includes images, depicting Earth, some as diagrams, but many as color photographs.

The images are encoded in a way that is both analog and digital, a less high-tech version of what would later become the RCA VideoDisc. A binary signal is encoded, physically, to the disc. It is read in exactly the same physical way as an ordinary vinyl record: a stylus runs over a groove. But there is another process involved in encoding and decoding the information: a binary, and therefore digital, process. The end result would be a kind of phonographic slideshow.

At a rotation speed of 16 2/3 rpm, Frank Drake figured out how long the record would have to spin to encode and decode a color picture. A small video company called Colorado Video, Inc. was selected by Valentin Boriakoff to encode the images. This was in 1977; in 1971, Jon Clemens at RCA filed a patent for an "information record" which was the first step in a consumer line of VideoDiscs. These didn't go public until 1981, so it's likely that CVI's was developed independently. I am looking for the patent used by CVI. In the meantime, the principle is diagrammed here, in Jon Clemens' 1971 patent on the "information record":

What images were included?

The sound portion begins with a welcome from the United Nations secretary general, Kurt Waldheim. Then come greetings in 55 languages, representing a greeting from the entire world. Whether this will mean anything to any potential alien listeners is questionable, but if they are as curious as humans, there is no doubt that they will pore over these words, as our archaeologists furiously hypothesize about Stonehenge.

What follows is a sound collage called "Scenes from Earth", a narrative which begins with a selection from Willie Ruff and John Rodgers' realization of Johannes Kepler's Harmonia Mundi, a sonic representation of our Solar System. The collage ends with sounds of human consciousness and a few seconds of a distant pulsar. In between, we hear sounds of earth's storms, volcanoes, and sounds of human activity and invention, all brilliantly mixed to give the collage a binaural quality.

The musical selections are drawn from all around the world. Admirable attempts are made at representing as many cultures as possible, although Western music is a little over-represented in my opinion. The entire record, can be listened to here:

From an extraterrestrial's (or future human's) perspective, our music may be no different than human speech: simply a manipulation of sound waves by which we communicate ideas. With language, we communicate ideas more concretely: specific requests, questions, etc; with music, more abstractly: through manipulation of bamboo pipes and boxes with strings in them. From this perspective, what we call "music" is the simple and predictable result of natural phenomena, expressible as mathematical equations, just as are the sounds of volcanoes, the weather, and other animals. Similar sentiments have been stated by John Cage and Pauline Oliveros, among others: music is just sound, and nothing more. It is simply our psychological projections and theoretical analyses that make it seem like more than this.

The separation between human and primate, technology and object, music and sound is not real, it is only imaginary. The limitations of the sound recording medium allow incidental machine sounds, speech in 50 languages, and "music" alongside each other as if to demonstrate this fundamental equivalency. (Incidentally, an excerpt of the impulses in Ann Druyan's brain was included in the aforementioned sound collage.)

The media's response to the Sounds of Earth was largely positive. One negative review could be found in The Wilson Quarterly, in which the critic asks what "some future cosmic junk collector" would make of the record's various features. The cynicism of this point of view is matched only by the hastiness with which this review was obviously written; it can be dismissed. I know of no other attempt to criticize of the Sounds of Earth, other than perhaps that it was a waste of money. This is just a question of priorities, and priorities are simple to rearrange.

For Sagan, the Voyager spacecraft were not mere scientific tools. They were expressions of mankind's creativity, curiosity and hope. In their era, Voyager I & II represented the pinnacle of jet propulsion, aerodynamic, computer, and nuclear science. This knowledge was applied to exploration and discovery, rather than to petty intimidation and violence. The Sounds of Earth is no different: Sagan viewed it as more than sound, more than music. It is a beautiful artifact to behold, and if we had any sense, CD's of it would be in every library in the country.

Project Director: Carl Sagan
Image Director: Frank Drake
Image Conversion: Valentin Boriakoff & Colorado Video, Inc.
Music Directors: Tim Ferris, Carl Sagan
The Sounds of Earth: Ann Druyan
Greetings: Linda Sagan

Revised June 2nd, 2011